8 Things You Might Not Know About James A. Garfield

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Owing to his untimely demise at the hands of assassin Charles Guiteau in 1881, 20th U.S. president James Garfield served only seven months in office, the second-shortest tenure after William Henry Harrison. (The equally unfortunate Harrison famously succumbed to pneumonia—though it might have been typhoid—one month into his term.) Not quite 50 at the time of his passing, Garfield nonetheless managed to pack a lot of experience into his short but eventful life. Read on for some facts about his childhood, his election non-campaign, and why Alexander Graham Bell thought he could help save Garfield's life. (Spoiler: He couldn't.)

1. He originally wanted to sail the open seas.

Garfield was born in Orange, Ohio on November 19, 1831. He never had a chance to know his father, Abram, who died before James turned 2 years old. As a child, Garfield was enamored with adventure novels and imagined a career as a sailor. "Nautical novels did it," he once said. "My mother tried to turn my attention in other directions, but the books were considered bad and from that very fact were fascinating." As a teenager, he got a job towing barges, but that was about as far as his seafaring would get. He attended the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now called Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio and Williams College in Massachusetts before settling in as a Greek and Latin teacher at Hiram, where he would later become president.

2. He was a Civil War veteran.

James Garfield in his military uniform
Mathew Brady/Hulton Archive, Getty Images

If Garfield longed for adventure, he eventually found it, though perhaps not quite in the way he anticipated as a child. After being elected to the Ohio senate in 1859, Garfield joined the Union army at age 29 during the outbreak of war against the Confederates in 1861. Garfield saw combat in several skirmishes, including the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Chickamauga, before then-president Abraham Lincoln convinced him to resign his military post so he could devote his time to advocating for Ohio in the House of Representatives in 1863. He became the leading Republican in the House before being elected to the Senate for the 1881 term.

3. He never pursued presidential office.

Garfield thought he was attending the 1880 Republican National Convention to stump for Treasury Secretary John Sherman as the party's presidential candidate. Instead, the convention came to an impasse over Sherman, James Blaine, and Ulysses S. Grant. To help unclog the stalemate, Wisconsin's delegation threw Garfield's name into the hat as a compromise candidate. Not only did he win the election (opposing Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock), but he became the only sitting House member elected president. The whole process took Garfield by surprise, as he once told friends that "this honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the presidential fever, not even for a day."

4. He got caught up in an immigration scandal.

Just weeks before the general presidential election in November 1880, Garfield's political opponents tried to deal a fatal blow to his campaign by circulating a letter Garfield had written to an associate named H.L. Morey addressing the matter of foreign workers. In it, Garfield supported the idea of Chinese laborers, a controversial point of view at a time the country was nervous about immigration affecting employment. Democrats handed out hundreds of thousands of copies of the letter in an effort to sour voters on his candidacy. In Denver, the prospect of foreign workers prompted a riot. At first, Garfield remained silent, but not because he was ashamed of the letter. He simply couldn't recall writing or signing it—it was dated just after he was elected to the Senate, and he had signed lots of letters that he and his friends wrote in reply to the congratulatory messages he had received. But after consulting with his friends he issued a denial, and after seeing a reproduction in a newspaper, Garfield announced it was a phony. Furthermore, "H.L. Morey" didn't seem to exist. Turns out, the letter was planted by the opposition to discredit Garfield's name. Journalist Kenward Philp, who published the letter, was put on trial for libel and forgery but acquitted. One witness who claimed they met Morey was jailed for eight years for perjury.

5. He defended civil rights.

Several presidents in or near Garfield's era—Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson—had less than flattering views on Reconstruction and civil rights. But Garfield made his opinion abundantly clear. Speaking during his inauguration, Garfield celebrated the dissolution of slavery and called it "the most important political change" since the Constitution. Garfield also appointed four black men to his administration, including activist Frederick Douglass as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia.

6. He didn't get particularly great medical care after being shot.

Illustration of Garfield's assassination.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

A former Garfield supporter, Charles Guiteau, was erroneously convinced that Garfield owed him a European ambassadorship. After his letters and drop-ins were ignored by the administration for months, he shot Garfield twice at a train station in Washington, D.C. The president was quickly tended to by a number of physicians in the hopes he could survive the bullet stuck in his abdomen, but the doctors didn't bother washing their hands before sticking their fingers in his wound. (At the time, the idea of an antiseptic medical environment was being promoted but not widely used.) For two weeks, Garfield languished in bed as his caregivers attempted to remove the projectile but succeeded only in worsening both the incision in his stomach and the accompanying infection. A heart attack, blood infection, and splenic artery rupture followed. He hung on for roughly 80 days before dying on September 19, 1881. Guiteau was hanged for the crime in 1882.

7. Alexander Graham Bell tried to save his life.

During Garfield's bedridden final days, the public at large tried their best to lend sympathies and possible solutions. One letter writer suggested that doctors simply turn him upside-down so the bullet would fall out. A slightly more reasonable—but no more effective—tactic was offered by Alexander Graham Bell. Inviting a large measure of respect for his invention of the telephone, Bell was allowed to use a makeshift metal detector over Garfield's body to see if the electromagnetic fields would be disrupted by the presence of the bullet, revealing its location in Garfield's abdomen. Bell was unsuccessful, though he reportedly did manage to detect the metal in the president's mattress.

8. A classical statue was erected in his honor soon after his death.

Despite his short and somewhat uneventful tenure, Garfield quickly (as in, within six years) received an honor equal to more renowned American presidents. Sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward, who is probably best known for his oversized bronze of George Washington that stands on the grounds of his inauguration at Federal Hall in New York, unveiled his Garfield monument in 1887 at the foot of the Capitol building. The statue, which depicts Garfield giving a speech, also sports three figures along its granite pedestal base: a student (representing Garfield's stint as a teacher), a warrior (for his military service), and a toga-sporting elder statesman (to signify his political career).

9 Myths About Theodore Roosevelt

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Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Our 26th president was a man larger than life—and is forever much larger than life, thanks to the fact that he's on the side of a mountain. But as with any such figure, myths and legends arise. So we’re here to explain the truth behind some popular stories about Theodore Roosevelt.

  1. Myth: Theodore Roosevelt pronounced his name differently than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

There has long been disagreement about how to pronounce "Roosevelt." A 1902 New York Times article listed 14 different possibilities, from “ROSA-FELT” to “ROOZE-VELT,” “RUZY-VELL” to “RUZA-FELT.” The next year, Richard Mayne of the Department on Reading and Speech Culture, New York State Teachers’ Association, wrote to the Sun that the name was subject to 200 different pronunciations, but that most people pronounced the first syllable like "room." And legend has it that the two Roosevelt presidents pronounced their names differently. According to a 1984 article in the Washington Post, “Theodore Roosevelt's name rhymed with ‘goose.’ It was, to switch spellings a bit, ‘Ruse-a-velt.’ Franklin Roosevelt, a distant cousin, pronounced his name to rhyme with ‘rose’—‘Rose-a-velt.’ Since FDR served later and longer, his version has been generally adopted.”

Not so fast: We know that's not true, from TR's own pen. “As for my name, it is pronounced as if it was spelled ‘Rosavelt.’ That is in three syllables. The first syllable as if it was ‘Rose,’” he wrote in 1898. (He was used to the confusion, though; he wrote to his parents during his freshman year at Harvard that one of his teachers called him Rusee-felt, and that "hardly any one can get my name correctly, except as Rosy.") Later, FDR would confirm the same: In 1932, the Chicago Tribune verified with FDR's office—he was governor of New York at the time—that it was pronounced “Rose-a-velt.”

They weren't the only Roosevelts to weigh in: When Mayne wrote that most people pronounced the first syllable like "room," Theodore's uncle, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, submitted a rebuttal. “It is rather a dangerous proceeding to assume that a man does not know how to pronounce his own name,” he wrote to the Sun, explaining that the family pronounced it “Rose-(uh)-velt.”

The two presidents may have agreed on the first part of their name, but maybe not the -velt part. Traditionally, Roosevelt is pronounced -velt, but in recordings of his many inaugurations, FDR pronounces his last name more like "rose-a-vult." So if a pronunciation difference does exist, it might be nearer the end of the name.

  1. Myth: Theodore Roosevelt rode a moose.

It’s a dramatic picture to be sure—Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose through a lake. It’s so ridiculously manly that it’s sometimes featured on lists of photographs you won’t believe aren’t photoshopped. But while this image wasn’t created using the popular image editing software, it’s still just as fake. It was part of a collage created for the 1912 presidential election, featuring Taft riding an elephant, Roosevelt riding a moose, and Wilson riding a donkey. In 2013, Houghton Library published a blog post detailing the story, with author Heather Cole explaining that it appears to have been an image of Roosevelt riding a horse where Roosevelt was cut out and pasted onto a separate picture of a moose. This also explains why focus, shadows, and most other features don’t match up between man and steed.

  1. Myth: Theodore Roosevelt created the modern image of piranhas.

It’s a story that has featured in countless adventure novels—a member of an expedition goes to the shore of the Amazon with just his mule. The mule returns to camp alone, causing a frantic search for the missing person. They come to the water’s edge and see a devoured skeleton. The culprit? Piranhas. Except that’s not from any dime novel, it’s a story related to Roosevelt by his companions that appears in Through the Brazilian Wilderness, published in 1914 and written by Roosevelt, which details his adventures in South America.

The book features several stories about piranhas: that they’ll “snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water” and can devour a cow alive. "The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity," he wrote.

Roosevelt's book is also commonly cited as being the origin of the reputation of piranhas as ferocious carnivores. But he wasn't the first to make that claim.

In 1880, Scientific American declared, “They make nothing of biting an ounce or so of flesh from a man’s leg. People are sometimes killed by them. Hence Brazilians are shy of going into these lakes and streams if they suspect the presence of these fish. The fishermen claim that piranhas will gather in schools against the larger fish and attack them.” And an account from around 30 years before Roosevelt was born notes that “The horses and cattle sip only from the [water’s] surface, and hardly dip their nose below it; notwithstanding which it is often bitten off. Even the cayman flies before this fierce enemy, and turns its belly, which is not provided with scales, to the surface of the water: only the otter, whose thick fur resists the effect of the bite, is secure against its attacks.”

But even if Roosevelt wasn't the origin of the myth, he likely did much to cement the idea in the minds of the public that piranhas are blood-thirsty creatures. In reality, the fish are typically pretty relaxed ... until they're spooked. And they more typically scavenge for their dinner. Some species are even vegetarians.

  1. Myth: Theodore Roosevelt cured his asthma with exercise.

In 2015, two researchers examined Theodore Roosevelt’s asthma, including the story that he cured it through exercise when he was around 12 years old. They found multiple references to asthma attacks when Roosevelt was an adult, such as after his first wife died and during a pillow fight with his children in the White House. Once, when his second wife was in labor, he took a train to get there, and his daughter remarked, “Both the engine and my father arrived in Oyster Bay wheezing.”

The researchers ultimately concluded that “in hindsight, it seems more likely that the improvement was coincident with the quiescence of asthma often seen in adolescence,” so Roosevelt himself may not have been completely responsible for his improved condition.

As for how the myth was perpetuated? Well, Roosevelt biographer Kathleen Dalton has an answer for that. "He ... encouraged his friends and authorized biographers to tell an upbeat, socially acceptable, stiff-upper-lipped version of his life," she writes. "He began, and they perpetuated, the myth that by force of will he cured himself of asthma." As his sister Corinne would write to a biographer, "he never did recover in a definite way—and indeed suffered from it all his life, though in later years only separated at long intervals."

  1. Myth: Theodore Roosevelt was inspired to be a conservationist thanks to a camping trip with John Muir.

In 1903, Roosevelt and John Muir—co-founder of the Sierra Club, and also its first president—went on a three-night camping trip that has been described as “the most significant camping trip in conservation history.” In the years that followed, Roosevelt would become known as an ardent conservationist—which is often implied as the legacy of this trip.

The only problem with that story is that, by 1903, Roosevelt had been fighting for conservation for years.

In the late 1880s, alongside George Bird Grinnell (editor-in-chief of Forest and Stream) and a few other sportsmen, Roosevelt co-founded and was the first president of the Boone and Crockett Club. According to historian John F. Reiger, “it, and not the Sierra Club, was the first private organization to deal effectively with conservation issues of national scope.”

As Roosevelt himself explained in March 1893, the club was a group of men “interested in big-game hunting, in big-game and forestry preservation, and generally in manly out-door sports, and in travel and exploration in little known regions.” One clause of its constitution was “To work for the preservation of the large game of this country, and, so far as possible, to further legislation for that purpose, and to assist in enforcing the existing laws.”

As president of the Boone and Crockett Club (a position he’d hold until 1894), Roosevelt worked to pass the Forest Reserve Act, which as President of the United States he’d use to preserve millions of acres of land. Historian Edmund Morris writes, “Thanks to the [Boone and Crockett Club’s] determined lobbying on Capitol Hill, in concert with other environmental groups, the Forest Reserve Act became law in March 1891 ... One wonders if [Roosevelt] ever paused, while signing millions of green acres into perpetuity, to acknowledge his debt to the youthful president of the Boone and Crockett Club.” The Boone and Crockett Club would also be instrumental in the protection of Yellowstone in 1894.

Then where does the story that the “the conservation president” began thanks to a hiking trip with Muir come from? Something definitely happened. In 1902, there were 26 establishments or modifications of national forest boundaries, according to the USDA [PDF]. In 1903, it was 17 (though this was still more than previous presidents—in 1900, there were three modifications). In 1905, it was 60.

Historian Anthony Godfrey has a theory—that it was because of Roosevelt’s role as an “accidental president” filling out McKinley’s term. Over his partial first term, he attracted to the Republican Party like-minded progressives, so, when he won in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt was in a position to change the nation’s forestry policy. No matter what the reason for the change in conservation tactics, though, Roosevelt had been drawn to the cause for years before the camping trip with Muir.

  1. Myth: Theodore Roosevelt invented the term Lunatic Fringe.

Roosevelt may lay claim to beginning its modern meaning—he wrote in 1913, “we have to face the fact that there is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement”—but he was seemingly adapting an existing phrase: a literal lunatic fringe, which an 1875 newspaper described as “the fashion which our girls have got up of cropping the hair and letting the ends hang over the forehead. They used to call it ‘banging,’ but ‘lunatic fringe’ is the most appropriate.”

Indeed, Roosevelt's 1913 quote itself isn’t from a great political treatise; it’s in an article entitled “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition.” In the same article he also said, “In this recent art exhibition the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists.” (He went on, “There is no reason why people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, or Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine, if they so desire; as expressing anything serious and permanent, one term is as fatuous as another.”)

Roosevelt would eventually use the phrase more explicitly in a political context—after receiving a painting of one of his heroes, he proclaimed in a letter to a friend that “I am always having to fight the silly reactionaries and the inert, fatuous creatures who will not think seriously; and on the other hand to try to exercise some control over the lunatic fringe among the reformers.” But according to Safire’s Political Dictionary, the term was revived and given new life by FDR in the 1940s, who used it explicitly to refer to the “fear propaganda” that has “been used before in this country and others on the lunatic fringe.”

  1. Myth: Theodore Roosevelt was the first president not sworn in on a Bible.

The world of Bible usage during presidential inaugurations is a dicey one, as often (especially for early presidents) the evidence is inconclusive [PDF]. John Quincy Adams wrote, “I pronounced from a volume of the laws held up to me by John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, the oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States,” and LBJ used a Catholic missal after Kennedy was assassinated. Others are more obscure. For instance, Calvin Coolidge is often listed as being sworn in on the family Bible after Harding’s death, but in his autobiography, Coolidge explicitly noted that “The Bible which had belonged to my mother lay on the table at my hand. It was not officially used, as it is not the practice in Vermont or Massachusetts to use a Bible in connection with the administration of an oath.”

The assertion that Roosevelt didn’t use a Bible when he was inaugurated in 1901 after McKinley's assassination comes from Ansley Wilcox, the Buffalo resident who owned the home in which Roosevelt took the presidential oath. According to 1905’s Historic Bibles in America, Wilcox recalled, “no Bible was used, but President Roosevelt was sworn in with uplifted hand. As I recollect it, there was design in this. There were Bibles, and some quite interesting ones, in the room and readily accessible, but no one had thought of it in advance, there being little opportunity to prepare for this ceremony, and when Judge Hazel advanced to administer the oath to the new President he simply asked him to hold up his right hand, as is customary in this State. We seldom use Bibles in this State in administering oaths except in court rooms, and they are not required even in court rooms.”

  1. Myth: Theodore Roosevelt was the presidential savior of football.

Theodore Roosevelt was of critical importance to saving football, but Woodrow Wilson was also critical—though in his capacity as president of Princeton, not the United States.

In 1905, college football was becoming increasingly controversial due to multiple deaths and injuries, so Roosevelt summoned representatives from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to “clean up” the sport. A committee met and drew up new rules (a more thorough discussion can be found here), and then Roosevelt largely stepped away from football reform.

Just a few years later, in 1909, Harper’s Weekly asked “Dr. Hadley, Dr. Lowell, Dr. Wilson”—a reference to the presidents of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, respectively—“don’t you think football, as it was played this year, is a little rough? There had been twenty-seven deaths up to November 21st ... You could stop this kind of football if you chose, you three men. The mothers can’t, poor souls.” Wilson responded by writing Lowell and Hadley to have “an informal conference ... to save a very noble game.” The three schools met, and by May 1910 came up with a suite of new rules. According to a 1988 article by John S. Watterson, the rules that emerged were “seven men on the line of scrimmage, no pushing or pulling, no interlocking interference (arms linked or hands on belts and uniforms), and four fifteen-minute quarters,” as well as readopting the forward pass in a limited role.

Soon after the rules were widely adopted, Watterson explained that “In the years that followed the reforms on the gridiron, football evolved rapidly into the ‘attractive’ game that Wilson had advocated and a far less brutal game than the unruly spectacle that Roosevelt had tried to control.”

  1. Myth: The 1912 election was Theodore Roosevelt’s last attempt at the Presidency.

After Roosevelt lost the 1912 election, it might seem that the Progressive Party faded into nothingness—but that’s not quite true. Roosevelt’s running mate in 1912 was governor of California Hiram Johnson, who ran for reelection as governor in 1914 as a Progressive and got more votes than the Democratic and Republican candidates combined. In April 1916, John Parker ran as a Progressive candidate for governor of Louisiana, which was, according to a contemporary article in the Shreveport Times, a bid to boost Roosevelt’s power for the Republican convention coming up. Parker failed, but still got 37 percent of the vote (in 1912, the Republican gubernatorial candidate only got 8.78 percent). Such was his success that at the 1916 Progressive Convention, Parker was a natural pick for Vice Presidential candidate.

But what to do for president?

A mile away, at the same time the Progressives were having their convention, the Republicans were also having their convention—and the tone couldn’t have been more different. According to a contemporary account, the Progressive convention and Republican convention were “as different ... as champagne from ditch water boiled and sparkled and effervesced,” because the Republicans were torn between Charles Hughes, who “they would give their eye teeth not to take” and Roosevelt, who “they would not have.” The Progressives, however, were firm in a desire for Roosevelt.

To avoid a repeat of 1912, the Republicans and Progressives held a series of meetings to try and come up with a compromise candidate. According to historian Edmund Morris the Progressives were willing to give away virtually their entire plank in exchange for Roosevelt’s nomination, while the Republicans made it clear Roosevelt was not an option. At the end of the first ballot, Hughes was far ahead of Roosevelt but without a majority. Quickly Roosevelt realized he wouldn’t win, so suggested Henry Cabot Lodge as a compromise candidate. It came to naught and the Republicans chose Hughes. At almost the exact same time the Progressives chose Roosevelt to run for president again.

The only problem was that Roosevelt didn’t seem to want the nomination. “I am very grateful to the honor you confer upon me by nominating me as president," he wrote to the Progressive convention. "I cannot accept it at this time. I do not know the attitude of the candidate of the Republican party toward the vital questions of the day.” Roosevelt did suggest an out, that the Progressive National Committee could wait to see where the Republican candidate stood on the issues and if they were satisfied with what they heard they could accept Roosevelt’s refusal. If they weren’t satisfied, they could talk it over with Roosevelt and decide the next step.

A little over two weeks later, the Progressive National Committee in a vote of 32-6, with nine declining to vote, endorsed the Republican candidate. The New York Times declared, “The Progressive Party as a separate political organization died tonight.”

Except not really. There was still the issue of VP candidate John Parker. And Parker did campaign—largely against Hughes, and by inference for Wilson, although he explained that he’d “speak against Mr. Hughes’ candidacy. Of course, that would be in favor of Mr. Wilson, but I will speak as a Progressive and not as an affirmative supporter of the Democratic nominee.”

Come the election, the Progressive Party received 33,399 votes, down over 4 million from 1912.

In the days before the election, when it became clear Wilson was going to win, one of Roosevelt’s friends commented, “We can ... look forward to 1920. There will be nothing to it then but Roosevelt. No one can stop it.” To which Roosevelt replied “You are wrong there ... This was my year—1916 was my high twelve. In four years I will be out of it.”

Roosevelt died suddenly in 1919, but the Roosevelts weren’t out of the game yet. In 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding crushed James M. Cox as well as his vice-presidential nominee—Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

12 Facts About Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Two bison grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Two bison grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
scgerding/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The only U.S. national park named after a person—America's 26th presidentTheodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) was established in North Dakota by Harry S. Truman in 1947. The park honors Roosevelt, who lived as a ranchman in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s and, as president, conserved 230 million acres of public land for future generations. Read on for things to do and see, plus what to know before you go camping, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

1. The plans for Theodore Roosevelt National Park began not long after Roosevelt’s death in 1919.

Medora, North Dakota, was chosen as the site of the memorial, and in 1921, the state’s legislature asked its reps in Congress to help set aside land for that purpose. One early proposal called for a park of more than 2000 acres, but that was controversial—the land was valuable to ranchers. Some believed a national monument was more appropriate than a national park.

Then, in the 1930s, drought and overgrazing led many homesteaders to abandon their land, which they sold to the federal government; some of those lands were set aside to create a park. In 1935, the land—which was in a north unit and a south unit—became the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area, and in 1946, it was taken over by the Fish and Wildlife Service and became the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge.

On April 25, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the bill that created Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park; at that time, the land included the South Unit and the site of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. The North Unit of the park was added the next year. Finally, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a law that changed the memorial park to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In 2018, it received nearly 750,000 visitors.

2. Before the land became Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Native Americans hunted in the area.

A flint spearpoint and other projectiles from the Archaic Culture (5500 BCE to 500 CE) have been found in the park, as have artifacts from the Plains Woodland Tradition (1 to 1200 CE) and pre-Columbian peoples. Though one of the pre-Columbian sites includes a bison processing camp (or what remains of it), there was no permanent occupation of the area of that time, according to the park’s website.

There are a number of sites from what the website calls the Historic Period, which lasted from 1742 to the 1880s, and included artifacts like “stone rings, a rock cairn, and four conical, timbered lodges. Two of the lodges, presumably used by men engaged in seasonal eagle trapping, are still standing today … One archaeological interpretation indicated that the use of the badlands for hunting, gathering, and spiritual pursuits, though undertaken by numerous cultures and groups over millennia, had not significantly changed over that entire time span.” The Mandan and Hidatsa, among many other Native tribes, hunted in the area, and the lands have spiritual significance for some tribes as well.

3. Theodore Roosevelt National Park contains 70,488 acres.

The park is spread over three units. The South Unit, which is located in Medora off I-94, is its most visited area. The North Unit, 50 miles off the same highway, is more remote. Both units have scenic drives—though the drive in the South Unit is currently closed due to slumping—and hiking trails. The South Unit also has a petrified forest with a 10.3-mile trail.

The third unit of the park is its smallest, and very out of the way: The roads leading to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit are unpaved and sometimes require four-wheel drive. No roads go directly to the site to preserve the solitude TR would have felt living there, so getting to the site requires a bit of a walk along a mowed pathway.

4. Visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can see the future president’s Maltese Cross ranch house.

Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin.
Erin McCarthy

When Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Dakota Badlands to hunt bison in 1883, he stayed with some cattle ranchers and decided to invest in a ranch himself. Before he left, he invested $14,000 into Maltese Cross Ranch. The cabin was built seven miles outside of Medora, and it was unusual for the area: While most houses were made of sod, Roosevelt’s ranch was made of ponderosa pine. It had a singled, pitched roof, which created an upper half-story where his ranch hands could sleep. There were three rooms (a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom for TR), and white-washed walls.

The cabin got new owners in 1900, and after Roosevelt became president, it went on tour: It could be seen at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, then to Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. For a time, it sat in Fargo, North Dakota, and then on the state capital grounds in Bismarck. Finally, in 1959, the cabin came back to what was, by then, Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. Today, it can be found in the South Unit of the Park behind the Visitor’s Center.

The building is mostly original; the roof and shingles were removed at one point and have been restored. Inside, visitors can see several authentic Roosevelt artifacts, including a traveling trunk with “T.R.” on the top and a hutch.

5. Visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can go out to the site where Roosevelt’s second ranch house once stood.

A gate in front of the site of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site.
A gate in front of the site of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site.
Erin McCarthy

In 1884, Roosevelt decided to abandon politics after the deaths of his wife and mother and settle at his ranch in the Dakotas permanently. But his Maltese Cross cabin was located on a popular route into Medora, and people were always stopping by. Grieving and seeking solitude, Roosevelt rode out to a site 35 miles north of Medora that had been recommended to him.

On the site, Roosevelt found the skulls of two elk, their horns interlocked, and named what he would come to refer to as his Home Ranch in their honor. He bought the rights to the site for $400; his nearest neighbors were at least 10 miles away.

Two friends of Roosevelt’s from Maine, Bill Sewall and Wilmont Dow, came to the Dakotas and built the 30-by-60-foot house of cottonwood pine; it had 7-foot high walls, eight rooms, and a veranda. Also on the site was a barn, a blacksmith’s shop, a cattle shed, and a chicken coop.

In Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Roosevelt wrote:

“My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand—though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and for, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset."

But the cattle business was not meant to be Roosevelt’s future. He eventually returned to New York, and after a hard winter where he lost 60 percent of his herd, he sold the ranch in 1898. By 1901—the year Roosevelt became president—the ranch was gone. A local said that all that remained was “a couple of half-rotted foundations."

Today, visitors to TRNP can take a scenic drive on gravel roads, then hike three-eighths of a mile to the Elkhorn site, located between the Little Missouri River and black, white, and yellow Badlands bluffs. There, they can stand on the foundation stones that mark where TR’s Home Ranch once stood, listening to the birds, insects, and low mooing of cattle, as he would have done. (They might even encounter a cow or two on the trail!)

6. More than 185 species of birds have been spotted in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The black and brown Spotted Towhee in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
Spotted Towhee in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Wildnerdpix/iStock via Getty Images Plus

They include bald and golden eagles, blue-winged teal, American wigeon, turkey vultures, prairie and peregrine falcons, and the sage grouse. The park has a handy checklist [PDF] to help visitors keep track of the birds they’ve seen.

Birds aren’t the only animals you might see: TRNP is also home to elk, prairie dogs, pronghorns, feral horses, big horn sheep, coyotes, badgers, beavers, porcupines, mule deer, longhorn steers, rattlesnakes, and bison.

7. There are hundreds of bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Whether you call them bison or buffalo (though Americans use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference!), you’ll have a chance to see plenty of them at TRNP. Both the north and south units have herds—200 to 400 animals in the south and 100 to 300 in the north. Full-grown bison bulls can stand up to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 2000 pounds, so visitors should give them a wide berth or risk getting charged and possibly gored.

The American bison (Bison bison) was once critically endangered and nearly went extinct. (Roosevelt was one person who was instrumental in saving the species from extinction.) The animals were reintroduced into the park in 1956. Because all of the living bison are descended from a small number of animals, monitoring the genetic diversity of the herd is important. Every couple of years in October, park staff round up the animals in both units by using helicopters to herd them into progressively smaller enclosures. Eventually, each animal ends up in a squeeze shoot, where staff takes hair (for DNA analysis) and blood (to test for disease) samples and weighs and measures the animals. Bison born since the last roundup are given tags and microchips so they can be tracked.

8. Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a few prairie dog towns.

Two black-tailed prairie dogs coming out of a burrow in the ground.
Two black-tailed prairie dogs coming out of a burrow in the ground in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
RONSAN4D/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Black-tailed prairie dogs are abundant in TRNP. Roosevelt himself described them as “in shape like little woodchucks,” and called them “the most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable.” Visitors can see the first of many prairie dog towns in the park near the Skyline Vista trail.

9. In prehistoric times, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was home to a Champsosaurus.

Fifty-five million years ago, during the Paleocene Epoch, North Dakota—including the area of TRNP—was a swamp, and in that swamp lived a reptile called Champsosaurus. The animal looked like modern-day crocodilians called gharials and could measure nearly 10 feet long.

10. You can go camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

There are three campgrounds in TNRP, but visitors just can’t drive in and set up a tent—reservations must be made, fees must be paid, and, in some cases, permits are required to camp in the park.

Camping isn't the only thing you can do in the park: It's also possible to canoe or kayak down the Little Missouri River if the water is deep enough.

11. The colors of the rocks in Theodore Roosevelt National Park tell a story.

A rock formation in Theodore Roosevelt National Park with gray, yellow, and light colored-layers.
hartmanc10/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The massive and unusual formations in TRNP, created by erosion over millions of years, are awe-inspiring—and you can tell a lot about them from the colors of their layers [PDF]. Brown and tan layers indicate sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone, which came from the Rocky Mountains, while blue-gray is bentonite clay laid down by the ash of far-away volcanic eruptions. (The clay can absorb up to five times its weight in liquid, which is why it’s used in … kitty litter.)

Black is a layer of coal, and red is the delightfully named clinker, which is formed when coal veins catch fire and cook the rock above it. Locally, the red rock is called scoria, but clinker is its scientific name.

One coal vein located in the park caught fire in 1951 and burned for 26 years. Apparently, visitors could roast marshmallows over the fire, which finally burned out in 1977. Fires in the Badlands aren’t unusual; they can be caused by lightning strikes or even set purposefully to reduce hazards or benefit certain species.

12. There are a number of interesting historic sites near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

While you’re in the area, check out the Chateau de Mores—the mansion that was home to a French marquis who dreamed of bringing a cattle-slaughtering business to Medora—and the Von Hoffman House. And don’t miss the Medora Musical, a variety show held in an open-air amphitheater that features the history of the town’s most famous and infamous figures—plus an appearance by the president who once called the area his home.

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