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Monday, April 24, 2017

How the Wild West Remade Teddy Roosevelt

In 1890, the superintendent of the U.S. Census Bureau declared the American frontier finally closed. Frederick Jackson Turner affirmed this and claimed that the frontier experience, more than any other, had shaped America’s character; it had given the pioneer “a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past.” Teddy Roosevelt went to the Badlands of the Dakotas at the tail end of the Wild West in 1883 to recover from the death of his wife and his mother.  The asthmatic with thick spectacles who stepped off the train in the town of Little Missouri bore little resemblance to the man who would return years later thick of chest and ready to tackle the world. He came back as the Teddy Roosevelt we now recognize.

The West remade Roosevelt, just as it had remade the country. Basically lawless and churchless, the West offered freedom unbounded if you were tough enough to take it. As he later wrote, “For cowboy work there is no need of special traits and special training, and young Easterners should be sure of themselves before trying it: the struggle for existence is very keen in the far West, and it is no place for men who lack the ruder, coarser virtues and physical qualities. . . . ”This held great appeal for young Roosevelt, who would find the essence of America in the frozen and baking terrain of the Badlands. Here the character of America presented itself to Roosevelt, and he essentially became that character. The West delivered this one-hundred-and-twenty-five-pound man, this “dude,” a great adventure: he faced down gunmen, grizzly bears, thieves, rustlers, unscrupulous ranchers, ruthless outlaws, and Indians. He had the breath knocked out of him by overturned horses, cracked a
rib, dislocated a shoulder, and nearly froze to death more than once, getting lost in the hell that is the Badlands—all while fighting chronic asthma and ignoring a physician’s admonition to protect his weak heart and lead the sedentary life of a recluse.

To recover from the twin blows of losing both his mother and his wife on the same day, and in his quest to find his way again, Theodore Roosevelt would push himself to the point where his broken heart would either heal or stop forever. The West was just the place for such a contest.

Forging A President How the Wild West Created Teddy Roosevelt

Books by William Hazelgrove