Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 13 2014
Did you know that: ND friends shaped life of Theodore Roosevelt
Those “experiences” not only enabled him to become president, they also helped shape his philosophy and actions “throughout his life.”
If it had not been for the three young men Roosevelt met and trusted during his initial excursion into North Dakota, his experiences may have been far less frequent and eventful.
Joe and Sylvane Ferris and William Merrifield were Canadian-born ranchers who became three of Roosevelt’s closest companions in southwest North Dakota.
When Roosevelt arrived in Dakota Territory to hunt bison Sept. 7, 1883, Medora was a new town, having been founded less than six months earlier. He expected great things because he had read that “over 10,000 bison were taken during one hunt in Dakota Territory in September,” one year earlier.
However, as reported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “by mid-year (1883) nearly all the bison in the United States were gone.”
Joe Ferris was to serve as Roosevelt’s guide during the hunt, but he was dubious that this “dude” with large round glasses would be up for what could turn out to be a very strenuous challenge.
On Sept. 8, Roosevelt purchased a “buckskin mare” from the ranch owned by Sylvane Ferris and William Merrifield, and he was ready for the hunt.
When Roosevelt and Joe awoke on the morning of Sept. 9 to begin their quest to locate bison, it was raining, and Joe recommended that they wait until the weather cleared. Roosevelt said he came to the Dakotas to hunt and, “by Godfrey,” he was going to do just that.
The two men hunted all day in the downpour and did not spot any bison.
September is often a month of steady rain in the Dakotas, and this was the case during the first few days Roosevelt was in the Badlands. Each day was the same, with Joe suggesting they wait, and Roosevelt insisting they go.
Finally, after about five days, the weather cleared, and the two hunters spotted a few buffalo late in the afternoon. Roosevelt got off a shot, wounding one of the animals.
Joe and Roosevelt spent the night camped on the open prairie. They were awakened early the next morning when their horses dashed off, having been spooked by a wolf that wandered into their camp. After spending much of the day tracking down their mounts, they returned to their cabin empty-handed.
After spending countless hours on horseback, Roosevelt was able to study the area first-hand. He made up his mind to raise cattle in this area. A local rancher recommended Merrifield and Sylvane to help him run his cattle operation.
It was written, “Roosevelt, for a year or more, had felt the itch to be a monarch of acres.” With Merrifield and Sylvane, he believed he now had that opportunity. The two men listened to Roosevelt’s proposal and were very interested, but they let Roosevelt know they were under contract with Minnesota-based ranchers.
Roosevelt said he was willing to purchase the 150 head of cattle the Minnesotans owned if they released Merrifield and Sylvane from the contract. He then handed the two men a check for $14,000 to help make that happen.
The next day, Roosevelt and Joe resumed their hunt and, on Sept. 20, Roosevelt killed a bison. Elated with what he had accomplished, the future president boarded a train the next day to return to his position in the New York State Assembly.
On Valentine’s Day 1884, tragedy struck the Roosevelt household. Within the span of eleven hours, the two dearest women in his life died – his mother and his young wife.
Though “shattered,” Roosevelt knew that he had another place to go to once his term in the Legislature was over in June. He could immerse himself into being a cowboy in the Badlands of North Dakota.
(We will conclude our story about William Merrifield and the two Ferris brothers next week.)