Wild horses tied to Theodore Roosevelt's past 'integral to honoring ranching experiences'

Theodore Roosevelt brought 60 wild horses from Montana to his Maltese Cross Ranch near Medora. Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials want to remove wild horses from the park.

Wilmot Dow, left, Theodore Roosevelt and William Sewall at the Elkhorn Ranch in 1884. Roosevelt, holding a rifle, is wearing chaps. Dow and Sewall were friends of Roosevelt.
Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library, Dickinson State College

MEDORA, N.D. — Theodore Roosevelt tangled with a couple of mean broncos — one nicknamed “the Devil,” the other “Man Killer” — as a tenderfoot rancher wrangling alongside hardened cowboys in the Little Missouri Badlands.

In the fall of 1884, not long after he fled the brownstone comforts of New York City to mourn the deaths of his wife and mother in the raw solitude of Dakota Territory, Roosevelt took on a hulking bay bronco named “the Devil.”

The following year, in 1885, he tested himself on a “sullen, evil-eyed” stallion called the “Man Killer” — one of 60 wild horses Roosevelt bought from the Montana ranch of famed western artist Frederick Remington to his Maltese Cross Ranch 7 miles south of Medora.

Roosevelt's role in bringing wild horses to the area that later would honor his legacy through the establishment of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is largely forgotten, overshadowed by his more famous exploits, such as shooting a buffalo, catching some boat thieves and punching a bully who confronted him in a saloon.

Roosevelt’s connection to the wild horses in the Badlands has become an area of intense interest since his namesake national park recently announced a proposal to remove the 186 wild horses now in the park’s south unit.


As the park has acknowledged, Roosevelt himself wrote of commonly seeing wild horses in the Badlands, “invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some ranch or Indian outfit.”

A historian who has written about Roosevelt’s cowboy interlude in the Badlands, and his encounters with wild horses, said keeping wild horses in the park is integral to honoring his ranching experiences.

“That site should be maintained as Roosevelt knew it, and of course that included the horses themselves,” said Michael L. Collins, a retired history professor at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, and author of “That Damned Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt in the American West, 1883-1898.”

Roosevelt is revered as a conservationist — some consider his Elkhorn Ranch, now a unit of the park, as the “cradle of conservation” — but also struck a practical balance, Collins said.

Elkhorn ranch house.jpg
The log cabin at Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch north of Medora, shown in an undated photograph by Roosevelt believed to have been taken between 1884 and 1891.
Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library, Dickinson State University

“Roosevelt above all was a pragmatist,” he said. “He wanted to maintain the wilderness and the wild and also he was very pragmatic about change in the world.”

During the open range era of Roosevelt’s time in the Badlands, change meant bringing in many thousands of cattle — and large numbers of horses for use by ranchers and cowhands — into what had been wilderness.

“I can’t imagine that Roosevelt himself would want to see the horses carried off simply because they’re considered livestock,” Collins said. Personally, he added, “I would lament the loss of the horses. They’re beautiful.”

Although the park described the horses for decades as “wild horses” or “feral horses,” park officials recently classified them as livestock and maintain they have “no basis” to keep livestock in the park under laws and regulations.


* * *

Many experienced riders had tried and failed to break the wild stallion named the Devil, and most who tried were injured.

One morning at the corral of his Maltese Cross Ranch near Chimney Butte, as several cow hands looked on, Roosevelt and one of his ranching partners, Bill Merrifield, approached the wild stallion, swinging their lariats. After roping the defiant horse, they tried to place a hood over its head as a blindfold, according to Collins’ description in an essay, “ The Education of Theodore Roosevelt .”

Holding the ropes, the pair circled the horse for almost 30 minutes as the horse resisted, kicking its legs violently and snapping his head. To win the stallion’s trust, Roosevelt offered it a bucket of water. Merrifield managed to place a blanket and saddle on the horse, lathered with sweat.

Roosevelt swung into the saddle and was bucked off not less than four times, each time climbing back into the saddle. The Devil resisted, arching its back, spinning and bucking “like an antelope fighting a rattlesnake.”

Theodore Roosevelt is shown here at his Elkhorn Ranch in the North Dakota Badlands.
Contributed photo

The duel with the Devil finally ended with Roosevelt the victor, the stallion exhausted and subdued, “as meek as a rabbit” as one observer put it.

Months later, in the spring of 1885, Roosevelt and Merrifield brought 60 wild horses from Fredrick Remington’s Laurel Leaf Ranch in Montana.


One of the wild horses taken to Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Ranch in a drive along the Custer Trail that lasted five days was a surly stallion with a “menacing streak of white” the cowboys called “Man Killer."

Roosevelt preferred to call the horse Ben Butler because a “sinister droop in the nostrils” made the horse resemble a Civil War general of that name, according to an account by William Thompson Dantz, who ran the Quarter Circle Diamond Ranch near Roosevelt’s outfit, that appeared in McClure in 1925.

Roosevelt and his men spent much of the summer breaking and gentling the wild horses, and Ben Butler posed the greatest challenge, one Roosevelt decided to tackle himself, who planned to ride the stallion, which had demonstrated a “bulldog tenacity” and “incredible ability to cover long distances,” according to Dantz.

During the last round-up of the season, Roosevelt slipped his leather lariat and placed a saddle on Ben Butler — who astonished everyone by walking off like a “gentle cow.” But the anticipated confrontation came later in the day’s ride, when he unexpectedly tried to toss Roosevelt into a ravine.

Roosevelt was thrown, but landed in sage brush at the rim of the ravine, which kept him from tumbling down. Although injured — Dantz said Roosevelt had several cracked ribs and Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that he injured his shoulder — Roosevelt insisted on remounting Ben and finishing the day’s grueling 70-mile ride.

Ben Butler returned to camp that night “meek and docile,” Dantz wrote.

In his autobiography, Roosevelt wrote that he never became a good roper and was only an average rider by ranching standards.

Still, he wrote, “When I had the opportunity I broke my own horses, doing it gently and gradually and spending much time over it, and choosing horses that seemed gentle to begin with.” Unfortunately, he added, unbroken horses with gentle dispositions were hard to come by. He added the detail that two of his men roped Ben Butler and dragged them a few hundred yards, “plowing the ground.”


Although rideable, Roosevelt wrote, Ben Butler never became a “nice saddle-horse.”

* * *

The idea of creating a national park to honor Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy began soon after his death in 1919, and there was intense interest in North Dakota.

President Franklin Roosevelt proposed in 1942 that a park be added to the national park system, but the park service, which had gone through a series of budget cuts, resisted the idea.

William Lemke, a North Dakota congressman, took up the mantle in 1945, when he introduced a bill for a park in the Little Missouri Badlands. He suffered a setback in 1946 when President Harry Truman refused to sign the bill.

In his original park proposal, Lemke didn’t include Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross or Elkhorn ranches. But when he reintroduced legislation in 1947, he included the Elkhorn Ranch to broaden the park’s appeal by adding a site with historic value, according to a history of the park, “At the Open Margins: The NPS’s Administration of Theodore Roosevelt National Park,” by David Harmon.

Lemke’s historical preservation argument was critical in establishing what originally was called Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park, but gave the National Park Service lots of leeway in how it managed the park, Harmon wrote.

For the park’s first 30 years, it was managed as an historical area. In 1978, however, when the park became Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the emphasis shifted to “an overt emphasis on natural resources,” Harmon wrote.


Besides the Elkhorn Ranch unit, the park preserves Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Ranch cabin and also the Peaceful Valley Ranch site, all vestiges of the park’s prior history as ranching country.

Horse advocates, noting the ranching and Indian pony origins of the park's wild horses — including horses traced back to those surrendered by Sitting Bull and his followers in 1881 — have pleaded for years with the park to better manage the horses.

In 2013, the North Dakota Legislature passed a resolution asking the park to reintroduce Nokota horses, a unique breed that originated in the park. Written testimony from Robert Utley, the former chief historian for the National Park Service, asked the park to recognize the horses’ historical significance.

Utley, who wrote a biography of Sitting Bull, said he believed the link between the park horses and Sitting Bull’s ponies had been proven by a trail of documentary evidence compiled by Castle McLaughlin, who wrote a history of the park horses in 1989.

Some horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park have a famous pedigree – a lineage to Sitting Bull’s ponies, according to some researchers.
Patrick Springer / The Forum

“I believe that those (horses) running wild within the Theodore Roosevelt National Park constitute a historic resource just like TR’s cabin and so forth, and the landscape is a historic resource that the park is obligated to interpret and preserve,” Utley said in the written testimony.

Utley made similar comments to The Forum in 2007. As chief historian from 1964 to 1980, Utley wrote many of the National Park Service’s historic preservation standards and policies.

Park officials including Angie Richman, the park superintendent, have said the park’s enabling legislation and other federal laws don’t allow them to keep livestock in the park. The park’s mission, Richman has said, is to preserve native species and ecosystems.

But she recently acknowledged the park’s cultural heritage in comments to The Dickinson Press in April 2022, when she said, “Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a true gem for North Dakota. The Memorial Park designation was an integral step in preserving our cultural and natural resources along with honoring Theodore Roosevelt for his conservation efforts.”

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address:
Phone: 701-367-5294
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