An Adoptive Westerner Becomes President of the United States
On this day in 1901, the 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt is suddenly elevated to the White House when President McKinley dies from an assassin’s bullet. But while McKinley’s untimely death brought Roosevelt the presidency, 17 years earlier two other deaths had sent the young Roosevelt fleeing to the far West where his political ambitions were almost forgotten.
In February 1884, Roosevelt’s young wife died after giving birth to their daughter; a mere 12 hours later his much-beloved mother also died. Devastated by this cruel double blow, Roosevelt sought solace in the wide open spaces of the West, establishing himself on two ranches in the Badlands of Dakota Territory and writing to friends that he had given up politics and planned to make ranching “my regular business.” Despite this, three years later he returned to New York City and resumed the political career that would eventually take him to the White House. Even after he had returned to the civilized East, Roosevelt always credited his western interlude with restoring his mental and physical vitality.
From an early age, Roosevelt had been convinced of the benefits of living the “strenuous life,” arguing that too many American males had succumbed to the ease and safety of modern industrialized society and become soft and effeminate. Roosevelt thought more men should follow his example and embrace the hard, virile, pioneer life of the West, a place where “the qualities of hardihood, self-reliance, and resolution” were essential for survival.
Roosevelt’s own western experience was hardly as harsh and challenging as he liked to claim, yet the eastern tenderfoot did adapt quickly to the rougher ways of ranch life. He earned the respect of Dakotans by tracking down a gang of bandits who had stolen a riverboat and once knocked out a barroom bully who had taunted him. Though he spent the vast majority of his life in the East, Roosevelt thereafter always thought of himself as a westerner at heart, and he did more than any president before him to conserve the wild western lands he loved.