It was only two years of Theodore Roosevelt’s life. “He stopped to take a piss” joke the actors in The Medora Musical. They then quickly backpedal, reciting chapter and verse the accepted legend of TR’s transformation in Dakota, which follows as thus:
Teddy Roosevelt began his adult life a whiny, flamboyant rich boy, left sickly from a hothouse childhood battling asthma. His intelligence, however, combined with his family’s wealth to ensure a promising future. By the age of 26 he had published an authoritative naval history, and hacked his way into the New York State Senate, where he distinguished himself with his extensive connections, aggressive opinions, dandy dress, pretentious vocabulary and shrill voice.
Tragedy struck this charmed life. Teddy’s young wife Alice gave birth to their first child; and two days later, on February 14th—the fourth anniversary of their engagement—both she and Roosevelt’s mother died within hours of each other in the same house. That night, Roosevelt drew a large cross in his diary, writing beneath it: “the light has gone out of my life.”
Their deaths left Roosevelt unable to continue fighting political machinations. He returned to the last place he had been happy—the frontier town of Medora. During Alice’s pregnancy, Teddy had pursued a long-standing dream—bagging buffalo in the Dakota territories. After two weeks of mud, cold and rain, he was sufficiently enchanted to buy a ranch. This ranch would now become his home for two years.
Medora was not a glamorous place. It had one church (Catholic, built by the Marquis), but several saloons, and was rough and dirty and difficult and struggling as any other settler town.
An odd place for a man of destiny. But now, he was man of ability with nothing left in his life to lose. During the two years that followed, Teddy underwent an almost unimaginable change. The “Bully” TR of American legend was born from a man who wrote his sister, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” He avoided his own pain and rode fast, building a ranch house, raising cattle, hunting, beating up drunken louts in saloons, serving a stint as deputy sheriff. He helped ranchers organize the Little Missouri Stockmen’s association. He famously chased thieves through a blizzard and brought them to justice at gunpoint.
During his frequent visits back East, people began to see a new Teddy; he had physically transformed from a skinny weakling into “one hundred and fifty pounds [of] clear bone, muscle and grit,” was tanned and bright-eyed, gaining his bull neck and broad shoulders, a barrel chest and a louder, stronger voice. He performed his new persona to the hilt, and began to give this character words to match, writing a trilogy of wildly successful Western narratives that combined equal quantities of humorous encounters with quirky characters, macho celebrations of hunting and the active life, and acute descriptions of the Dakota terrain and nature.
Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota set him up for the rest of his life (and the rest of American history) in terms of his mystique, his aura. He had possessed the stubbornness and self-righteousness, but not the masculine, arrogant form—it is possibly true his statement that:
“If I had not spent time in North Dakota, I would not have become President.”