Roosevelt in the Northern Plains

By Beacon Staff

Nolan Hotel, Mingusville (later Wibaux), Montana, autumn, 1884. Young, bespectacled Theodore Roosevelt was tired and hungry. He had been searching for stray horses since dawn. As he entered the inn TR described what happened.

“A shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. As soon as he saw me, he hailed me as ‘Four Eyes,’ in reference to my spectacles, and said, ‘Four Eyes is going to treat.’ I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down. He followed me, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive. In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I rose, and struck him quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and again with my right. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head and was senseless.” The ruffian survived the pummeling by the future president, and apparently slunk out of town the following morning on a freight train.

I was reminded of this incident as I passed through Wibaux, recently, on my way to the 92nd annual meeting of the Theodore Roosevelt Association held at both Dickinson State University, and at Medora where Roosevelt owned a ranch.

TR later said his experiences on the northern plains, shaping his endurance, courage and character, were the most valuable of his life. The story about the “Four Eyes” incident got around cowboy country. It was reinforced in the multi-ranch round up the following spring as one of the foremen observed, “We forgot about his glasses when we saw he played the game with no favors.”

Born to a wealthy family in an upscale neighborhood near Park Avenue in New York City, TR spoke and looked like the Easterner he was. He once barked to one of his cowboys, “hasten quickly there, now!” The ranch hands who heard this understandably found it hilarious, and it too made the rounds on the range. Until decades later a stiff drink in cowboy country around Medora, Wibaux and Miles City was known as a “Hasten Quickly.”

Roosevelt’s identification with common people in his later political life probably originated in his experience with them in North Dakota and Montana. Almost without question, his attitude toward conservation and the wise use of natural resources was influenced by his time in the West. When he became president in 1901, the United States contained 43 million acres reserved for the public. When he left office in 1909 he had expanded that figure to 194 million acres. Because of TR, Montana has the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Kootenai, Custer, Lolo, Helena and Kaniksu National Forests. His imprint is huge on Montana.

It was not accomplished without controversy. “Montanans don’t need any more federal land grabs,” protested Montana Gov. Edwin Norris in 1905. Montana U.S. Sen. and copper baron W.A. Clark was similarly critical.

Roosevelt stood his ground and used the power of his office to fight for what he believed was right. As a man of action, his approach to leadership was uncomplicated. He made his goals clear, and he fought hard for them. Reminiscent of his Wibaux encounter, TR observed, “Don’t hit if it is honorably possible not to, but never hit soft.”

And, richly reminiscent of his mixed Western spirit and Eastern culture, “Get action. Seize the moment. Man was never intended to behave as an oyster.”

Bob Brown is a former Republican Montana secretary of state and state Senate president. He lives in Whitefish.