In 1883, then 25-year old Theodore Roosevelt went out to the western edge of North Dakota to fulfill his dream of shooting a trophy buffalo and bringing the mounted head back to his home in New York. Roosevelt had been interested in nature and natural environments since he was a little boy and his affinity for the outdoors was eagerly encouraged by his father, Theodore Sr., who was one of the founders of the New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1869. By the time he was a teenager, Roosevelt had trecked through much of the Adirondacks and journeyed through Europe and Egypt collecting specimens of all kinds, but the trip to the West in 1883 marked the first time that Roosevelt actually immersed himself in what was still wilderness lands.
Actually, the wilderness that Roosevelt hunted through in 1883 was, in reality, almost gone. The transcontinental railroad linked both coasts since 1869, the Plains Indians were more or less pacified by 1877 (and slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890), and the U.S. Census announced that there were between 6 and 20 people living on every square mile of land in at least half the land mass of the lower 48. Which meant that the wilderness, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, was gone.
TR was keenly aware of these changes, partly because he knew that it wouldn’t be much longer until animals like the American bison would be gone for evermore; but he was also a man of his times who believed that the frontier represented a remarkable resource for nation-building, both in economic and cultural terms. In many respects, his comments sprinkled through his writings about the virtues of living on the frontier, presaged the single, most important essay ever written about the development of America, namely, Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis,” published in 1894. In this essay, the author described America as being uniquely different from Europe insofar as the social, economic and legal institutions brought over from the Old World were not the same institutions that were developing as the country moved West. In this latter space, basically the land between the Missouri River and the western coast, America was developing a new brand of institutions, a new culture, a new organizational ethos that reflected the egalitarianism and independence of the frontier.
Not only did Turner and Roosevelt know each other’s works, but Roosevelt used Turner’s ideas to sell his notions about conservation and nature to skeptical politicians whose support he needed to promote and develop what later became our present-day system of natural monuments, including national historic sites, national preserves and reservations and, the greatest treasure of all, the national parks. The law that TR signed in 1906 gave the President the right to designate “historical landmarks, historic preservation structures and other objects of scientific interest,” which today represents 12% of the protected landscape in the entire world. That’s not bad considering that the U.S. occupies 6% of the globe’s land mass.
The reason I find TR so fascinating is that all of this interest and concern about preserving nature grew out of his desire to go into natural places in order to hunt big game. Which is something which a visitor can still feel by visiting what remains of TR’s Elkhorn ranch. The property lies midway between the two branches of the national park named after our 26th President, and while the ranch house itself has not been preserved, you can stand where TR stood in front of the house and look over the Badlands the same way that Sean Palfrey looked over the Badlands when he took the photo which adorns this page. And then bed down for the evening, watch the stars come out, and wait for the first slivers of daylight to brighten the sky behind the buttes overlooking the ranch. And maybe if you are quiet enough, a few of the bison who once again claim this area as their home will amble by. It may not be wilderness in the technical sense, but it’s as good as you’ll ever get.