Wild West

THE BIG DIE-UP

In September 1883 24-year-old Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Dakota Territory to hunt buffalo. There he became entranced by the Badlands and invested a good amount of capital buying cattle to be run from Chimney Butte Ranch, along the Little Missouri River just outside Medora. “The country is growing on me,” he wrote sister Anna. “It has a curious, fantastic beauty of its own.”

Five months later, on Valentine’s Day 1884, back East at the family’s Manhattan brownstone, his wife of little more than three years, Alice, and his mother, Martha, died within hours of one another. In early June a grieving Roosevelt returned to his Badlands ranch for solitude and the isolation it offered. Over the next couple of years he increased his investment, buying more cattle and making his headquarters at a second ranch, the Elkhorn, farther north in a grove of cottonwoods on the Little Missouri.

The cattle business was then a thriving enterprise, attracting capital from the East and Europe, but Roosevelt was nonetheless worried about the significant stake he had placed on its continued success. “I hope my Western venture turns out well,” he confided in an Eastern friend. “Of course, it depends upon how the cattle have gotten through the winter. The weather has been very hard, and I am afraid they have suffered somewhat.”

Unfortunately, three years after he first visited the Badlands, the weather would get still harder, the suffering greater. And it would almost break him. He was hardly alone in his misfortune. During the winter of 1886–87 heavy snows and subzero temperatures swept across the Great Plains, devastating his enterprise and countless others.

The snow fell early and thick that winter.

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