Theodore Roosevelt Looks Back Nostalgically on His Days of Riding and Hunting in the American West

He writes his old hunting guide, saying “If I get a chance I want to get out to your ranch; and if you will lend an elderly man a good, gentle horse, I will try to keep somewhere in sight of you while the stag hounds follow a wolf.”

On February 14, 1884, TR’s wife Alice and his mother Mittie died, a personal catastrophe that devastated him. He had not run for reelection to the New York State Assembly, and his term there also ended. So in June 1884, he went West to escape the tragic memories and begin a new...

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Theodore Roosevelt Looks Back Nostalgically on His Days of Riding and Hunting in the American West

He writes his old hunting guide, saying “If I get a chance I want to get out to your ranch; and if you will lend an elderly man a good, gentle horse, I will try to keep somewhere in sight of you while the stag hounds follow a wolf.”

On February 14, 1884, TR’s wife Alice and his mother Mittie died, a personal catastrophe that devastated him. He had not run for reelection to the New York State Assembly, and his term there also ended. So in June 1884, he went West to escape the tragic memories and begin a new life as a cattle rancher. He spent nearly $40,000 on cattle and established his new home, Elkhorn Ranch, which was situated on the Little Missouri River in Dakota Territory, twelve miles away from the nearest house. In August and September, TR took a hunting trip in Montana’s Big Horn Mountains. Meanwhile he was really living the Western life he had dreamt about, organizing cattlemen in the Little Missouri River Stockmen’s Association and almost getting challenged to a duel by a gunslinger. In one famous incident, Roosevelt had been riding through the Badlands and the prairies of eastern Montana when he arrived at Mingusville. There, in a saloon, he encountered a bully who teased him about his eyeglasses; TR knew how to use his fists and beat the fellow unconscious. In another, he pursued and captured boat thieves in the Badlands.

John Willis had worked on the plains as a cowhand, mule-skinner, buffalo hunter, horse breaker, and butcher. He had also owned a saloon in Denver, mined in the Black Hills, and run whiskey to Canada. He finally settled in Thompson Falls, Montana, in 1882, where he ran a general store. Willis had a reputation as a skilled hunter and guide, and he came to the attention of TR. In 1886, Roosevelt wrote Willis inquiring about hunting mountain goats, and asking Willis to be his guide. After puzzling over Roosevelt’s handwriting, Willis scribbled across the letter, “If you can’t shoot any better than you can write, NO.” However, the two men met and hit it off, and in July 1886 Willis guided TR on a hunt in the mountains around Thompson Falls. In a notable moment from that hunt, the not-very-careful Roosevelt slipped on loose slate and plunged head-first over a 50 foot high precipice. When Willis saw he was not hurt, he said “Then come on!”, and TR scrambled to resume the hunt as if nothing had happened. Willis would take TR out on a number of hunts, and remain in correspondence with him for decades.

On their first hunt, very early indeed for anyone to even consider wildlife conservation, Roosevelt showed that he already appreciated the need for conservation, and that he was an active advocate for it. He talked to Willis, who had made his living by slaughtering game for their hides, about the necessity for conserving wildlife. He persuaded Willis, who became a staunch believer in conservation and a strong worker for wildlife preservation. Willis was likely the first person TR convinced to support conservation, and conservation was one of the major contributions of President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration not so long after.

In 1907 Willis wrote the President with a prospectus for a ranch he had acquired, and sought to set up as a profitable venture, asking TR to accept a share, perhaps to encourage potential investors. Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, May 23, 1907, to Willis, being the latest date letter to Willis we can find, so perhaps his last, saying a President cannot promote private interests, so declining. “I was mighty pleased to receive your letter and the prospectus of your ranch. By the way, the fat stock whose pictures are at the head of your prospectus look very different what the ranch stock in my day! Indeed, you have done infinitely better than if you had accepted an office. I do not know any of those whom I have appointed to office who now stand as well as you do in point of this world’s goods. Now, John, you must not misunderstand me when I say I cannot accept a share in your ranch at present. I would gladly do it for old time’s sake if I were not President, but while I am President it is not possible. If I get a chance I want to get out to your ranch; and if you will lend an elderly man a good, gentle horse, I will try to keep somewhere in sight of you while the stag hounds follow a wolf.”

Apparently the ranch failed, as a periodical dated August 1907 reports that Willis had sold the ranch for $75,000 and bought a furniture store in Moberly, Missouri.

TR is well known as a hunter in the American West. However, letters of his alluding to his hunting are quite uncommon. This language shows him – amidst the burdens of the presidency – looking nostalgically back on those days. It also indicates his feeling that a president ought not promote private interests while serving in office.

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