30-Year-Old Theodore Roosevelt Declares His Affinity for the West, and His Identification with its Heroes

February 25, 1888

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30-Year-Old Theodore Roosevelt Declares His Affinity for the West, and His Identification with its Heroes
Autograph Letter Signed
3 pages | SMC 464

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      Background

      "Now that damn cowboy is president." - Political kingmaker Mark Hanna, on learning that Vice-President Roosevelt had, upon the death of McKinley, ascended to the presidency.

      How the scion of the Van Rosenvelts, who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1649, bought a farm in the middle of Manhattan Island six years later, and thrived there ever after, became in his own eyes and everyone else's, a Westerner, was owing to a single bad day at the family's five-story mansion on the corner of 57th and 5th. On February 14th, Valentine's Day, 1884, young Theodore Roosevelt's adored bride, having two days before given birth to their first child, died; even as his beloved mother, a floor below, died also. Two deaths within 11 hours: in his diary for that day he wrote a large “X” at the top, and below it, a single sentence. "The light has gone out of my life." Heartsick, and believing that "black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough," he bolted for the Dakota Badlands, where he would live and work as a rancher, hunter, and deputy sheriff, for the next three years. It was there, he recounted later, campaigning for the vice-presidency, "that the romance of my life began."

      Some four years later, writing this letter, the buck-skinned Westerner was back home in his native New York. Robust, re-married, father of a 2nd baby, and having resumed the political career he left behind in 1884 and failing to become mayor of New York City, he now intended to make his mark (and his living) as a writer and historian. He had, already, written about his life in the Badlands (Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail) but envisioned a "book that will really rank as in the very first class." The book was to be a multi-volume history of the conquest of the West, and here, with this letter, he begins the work on that epic, The Winning of the West.

      Researching his history about the conquest of the North American frontier, Roosevelt writes to the President of the Tennessee Historical Society, declaring his affinity for, and identification with, such great Tennesseans as John Sevier, Isaac Shelby, William Clark, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Sam Houston. “I am very nearly as much of a Dakota man as New Yorker; I like pioneer life; and the part of our history for which I most care is that dealing with the expansion of our frontier and the building up of the nation,” he says. “Sevier, Shelby, Clarke [sic], Boone, Crockett, Houston, are all figures that excite my interest and sympathy far more than do the Eastern leaders of the same time - proud though I am of some of the latter.” He hopes that he might be allowed to have access to the archives of the Historical Society if he comes to Nashville.

      The Winning of the West was an enormous literary and financial success for Roosevelt. Indeed, no less a Western historian than Frederick Jackson Turner said Roosevelt, with his Dakota Bad Lands experience stamped on every page, wrote about America’s westward expansion “as probably no other man of his time could have done.”

      It wasn't just the The Winning of the West that Roosevelt's formative years in the Badlands made possible, however. The ardent conservationism that, as both Governor of New York and President, he so championed (and indeed, politically pioneered), had its roots in his ranching and hunting out West. His concern for wildlife and wilderness were conceived and born, between 1884 and 1888, in the Dakota and Montana Territories. Just as significantly, he also came to appreciate the egalitarian nature of the West. The democratic leveling he experienced, working alongside cowhands, pursuing outlaws, and just living with people far, far removed from Manhattan's Silk Stocking aristocracy, made him the national leader he became. They may well, in fact, have made him, period: for his picturesque Rough Rider "cowboy" regiment, drawn from the western territories, capitulated him from the Spanish-American War straight into the governorship of New York and two years later, into the vice-presidency. 194 days later McKinley died, assassinated, and "that damn cowboy" was president.

      In 1903, President Roosevelt, in the company of the great naturalist John Burroughs, visited Yellowstone National Park, to drum up support for his conservation agenda. The two men, accompanied only by a small party of guides, spent two weeks in the park together, traversing in part through snow up to six feet deep. Burroughs said that Roosevelt "craved once more to be alone with nature... hungry for the wild and aboriginal." He would, for the rest of his life, all across the globe, keep seeking to, essentially, re-experience his days in the wild West which made him. Roosevelt, it needs be noted, tried to preserve that formative West wherever he could. During his presidency, his conservation efforts resulted in the setting more than 230 million acres as national forests, parks and monuments.

      Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pages, octavo, 689 Madison Avenue, New York [City], February 25, 1888. To Hon. John M. Lea
       
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      689 Madison Avenue. New York
      Feb 25th 1888

      Hon. John M. Lea

      Dear Sir,

      I have just received your kind answer to my first letter,

      Your supposition as to who I am is correct.

      I am very nearly as much of a Dakota man as New Yorker; I like pioneer life; and the part of our history for which I most care is that

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      Page 2 transcript
      dealing with the extension of our frontier and the building up of the nation. Sevier [John Sevier], Shelby [Isaac Shelby], Clarke [sic] [William Clark], Boone [Daniel Boone], Crockett [David Crockett], Houston [Sam Houston], are all figures that excite my interest and sympathy far more than do the Eastern leaders of the same time - proud though I am of some of the latter.

      I presume the best thing for me to do is to come on to Nashville to examine the records; is it not?

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      Page 3 transcript
      Thanking you sincerely for your courtesy
      I have the honor to be
      Very respectfully

      Theodore Roosevelt

      P.S. Would I be permitted to have access to the archives of the Hist. Soc. if I came on to Nashville? I have not yet been able to get Putnam's book.