William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > IV. Nature the Healer
William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
IV. Nature the Healer
A PERFECT biography would show definitely the interaction between mind and body. At present we can only guess what this interaction may be. In some cases the relations are evident, but in most they are vague and often unsuspected. The psychologists, whose pretensions are so great and whose actual results are still so small, may perhaps lead, an age or two hence, to the desired knowledge. But the biographer of today must beware of adopting the unripe formulas of any immature science. Nevertheless, he must watch, study, and record all the facts pertaining to his subject, although he cannot explain them. Theodore Roosevelt was a wonderful example of the partnership of mind and body, and any one who writes his biography in detail will do well to pay great heed to this intricate interlocking. I can do no more than allude to it here. We have seen that Roosevelt from his earliest days had a quick mind, happily not precocious, and a weak body which prevented him from taking part in normal physical activity and the play and sport of boyhood. So his intellectual life grew out of scale to his physical. Then he set to work by the deliberate application of will-power to develop his body, and when he entered Harvard he was above the average youth in strength. Before he graduated, those who saw him box or wrestle beheld a fellow somewhat slim and light, but unusually well set up. During the succeeding four years he never allowed his duties as Assemblyman to encroach upon his exercise; on the contrary, he played regularly and he played hard, adding new kinds of sport to develop new faculties and to give the spice of variety. He rode to hounds with the Meadowbrook Hunt; he took up polo; and he boxed and wrestled as in his college days.   1
  In a few years Roosevelt became physically a very powerful man. I recall my astonishment the first time I saw him, after the lapse of several years, to find him with the neck of a Titan and with broad shoulders and stalwart chest, instead of the city-bred, slight young friend I had known earlier. His body was now equal to any burden or strain which his mind might have to endure; and hence forth it is no idle fancy that suggests a perpetual competition between the two. Thanks to his extraordinary will, however, he never allowed his body to get control; but, as appetite comes with eating, so his strong and healthy muscles craved more and more exercise as he used them. And now he took a novel way to gratify them.   2
  Ever since his first taste of camp life, when he went into the Maine Woods under the guidance of Bill Sewall and Will Dow, Roosevelt felt the lure of wild nature, and on many successive seasons he repeated these trips. Gradually, fishing and hunting in the wilderness of Maine or the Adirondacks did not afford him enough scope for his brimming vigor. He decided to go West, to the real West, where great game and Indians still survived, and the conditions of the few white men were almost as primitive as in the days of the earliest explorers. When the session of 1883 adjourned, he started for North Dakota, then a territory with a few settlers, and among the Bad Lands on the Little Missouri he bought an interest in two cattle ranches, the Chimney Butte and the Elkhorn. The following year, after the Presidential campaign which placed Cleveland in the White House, Roosevelt determined, as we saw in the letters I have quoted, to abandon the East for a time and to devote himself to a ranchman’s life. He was still in deep grief at the loss of his wife and of his mother; there was no immediate prospect of usefulness for him in politics; the conventions of civilization, as he knew them in New York City, palled upon him; a sure instinct whispered to him that he must break away and seek health of body and heart and soul among the re mote, unspoiled haunts of primeval Nature. For nearly two years, with occasional intervals spent in the East, the Elkhorn Ranch at Medora was his home, and he has described the life of the ranchman and cow-puncher in pages which are sure to be read as long as posterity takes any interest in knowing about the transition of the American West from wilderness to civilization. He shared in all the work of the ranch. He took with a “frolic welcome” the humdrum of its routine as well as its excitements and dangers. He says that he does not believe that there was ever any more attractive life for a vigorous young fellow than this, and assuredly no one else has glorified it as Roosevelt did with his pen. At one time or another he performed all the duties of a ranchman. He went on long rides after the cattle, he rounded them up, he helped to brand them and to cut out the beeves destined for the Eastern market. He followed the herd when it stampeded during a terrific thunderstorm. In winter there was often need to save the wandering cattle from a sudden and deadly blizzard. The log cabin or “shack” in which he dwelt was rough, and so was the fare; comforts were few. He chopped the cottonwood which they used for fuel; he knew how to care for the ponies; and once at least he passed more than twenty-four hours in the saddle without sleep. According to the best standards, he says, he was not a fine horseman, but it is clear that he could do everything with a horse which had to be done, and that he never stopped from fatigue. When they needed fresh meat, he would shoot it. In short, he held his own under all the hardships and requirements demanded of a cowboy or ranchman. To adapt himself to these wild conditions of nature and work was, however, only a part of his experience. Even more dangerous than pursuing a stampeding herd at night over the plains, and plunging into the Little Missouri after it, was intercourse with some of the lawless nomads of that pioneer region. Nomads they were, though they might settle down to work for a while on one ranch, and then pass on to another; the sort of creatures who loafed in the saloons of the little villages and amused them selves by running amuck and shooting up the town. These men, and indeed nearly all of the pioneers, held the man from the civilized East, the “tenderfoot,” in scorn. They took it for granted that he was a weakling, that he had soft ideas of life and was stuck-up or affected. Now Roosevelt saw that in order to win their trust and respect, he must show himself equal to their tasks, a true comrade, who accepted their code of courage and honor. The fact that he wore spectacles was against him at the outset, because they associated spectacles with Eastern schoolmasters and incompetence. They called him “Four Eyes,” at first with derision, but they soon discovered that in him they had no “tenderfoot” to deal with. He shot as well as the best of them; he rode as far; he never complained of food or tasks or hardship; he met every one on equal terms. Above all, he left no doubt as to his courage. He would not pick a quarrel nor would he avoid one. Many stories of his prowess circulated; mere heckling, or a practical joke, he took with a laugh; as when some of the men changed the saddle from his pony to a bucking broncho.   3
  But he knew where to draw the line. At Medora, for instance, the Marquis de Mores, a French settler, assumed the attitude of a feudal proprietor. Having been the first to squat in that region he regarded those who came later as interlopers, and he and his men acted very sullenly. They even carried their ill-will and intimidation to the point of shooting. In due time the Marquis discovered cause for grievance against Roosevelt, and he sent him a letter warning the newcomer that if the cause were not removed the Marquis knew how one gentleman settles a dispute with another. Roosevelt despised dueling as a silly practice, which would not determine justice between disputants; but he knew that in Cowboy Land the duel, being regarded as a test of courage, must not be ignored by him. Any man who declined a challenge lost caste and had better leave the country at once. So Roosevelt within an hour dispatched a reply to the surly Marquis saying that he was ready to meet him at any time and naming the rifle, at twelve paces’ distance, as the weapon that he preferred. The Marquis, a formidable swordsman but no shot, sent back word, expressing regret that Mr. Roosevelt had mistaken his meaning: in referring to “gentlemen knowing how to settle disputes,” he meant that of course an amicable explanation would restore harmony. Thenceforward, he treated Roosevelt with effusive courtesy. Perhaps a chill ran down his back at the thought of standing up before an antagonist twelve paces away and that the fighters were to advance towards each other three paces after each round, until one of them was killed.   4
  So Theodore fought no duel with either the French Marquis or with any one else during his life in the West, but he had several encounters with local desperadoes. One cold night in winter, having ridden far and knowing that he could reach no refuge for many hours, he unexpectedly saw a light. Going towards it, he found that it came from a cabin which served as saloon and tavern. On entering, he saw a group of loafers and drinkers who were apparently terrorized by a big fellow, rather more than half drunk, who proved to be the local bully. The function of this person was to maintain his bullyship against all comers: accordingly, he soon picked on Roosevelt, who held his peace as long as he could. Then the rowdy, who grasped his pistols in his hands, ordered the “four-eyed tenderfoot” to come to the bar and set up drinks for the crowd. Roosevelt walked deliberately towards him, and before the bully suspected it, the “tenderfoot” felled him with a sledgehammer blow. In falling, a pistol went off wide of its mark, and the bully lay in a faint. Before he could recover, Roosevelt stood over him ready to pound him again. But the bully did not stir, and he was carried off into another room. The crowd congratulated the stranger on having served him right.   5
  At another place, there was a “bad man” who surpassed the rest of his fellows in using foul language. Roosevelt, who loathed obscenity as he did any other form of filth, tired of this bad man’s talk and told him very calmly that he liked him but not his nastiness. Instead of drawing his gun, as the bystanders thought he would do, Jim looked sheepish, acknowledging the charge, and changed his tone. He remained a loyal friend of his corrector. Cattle-thieves and horse-thieves infested the West of those days. To steal a ranchman’s horse might not only cause him great annoyance, but even put his life in danger, and accordingly the rascals who engaged in this form of crime ranked as the worst of all and received no mercy when they were caught. If the sheriff of the region was lax, the settlers took the matter into their own hands, enrolled themselves as vigilantes, hunted the thieves down, hanged those whom they captured, and shot at sight those who tried to escape. It happened that the sheriff, in whose jurisdiction Medora lay, allowed so many thieves to get off that he was suspected of being in collusion with them. The ranch men held a meeting at which he was present and Roosevelt told him in very plain words their complaint against him and their suspicions. Though he was a hot-tempered man, and very quick on the trigger, he showed no willingness to shoot his bold young accuser; he knew, of course, that the ranchmen would have taken vengeance on him in a flash, but it is also possible that he recognized the truth of Roosevelt’s accusation and felt compunctions.   6
  Some time later Roosevelt showed how a zealous officer of the law—he was the acting deputy sheriff—ought to behave. He had a boat in which he used to cross the Little Missouri to his herds on the other side. One day he missed the boat, its rope having been cut, and he inferred that it must have been stolen by three cattle-thieves who had been operating in that neighborhood. By means of it they could easily escape, for there was no road along the river on which horsemen could pursue them. Notwithstanding this, Roosevelt resolved that they should not go free. In three days Bill Sewall and Dow built a flat, water-tight craft, on which they put enough food to last for a fortnight, and then all three started downstream. They had drifted and poled one hundred and fifty miles or more, before they saw a faint column of smoke in the bushes near the bank. It proved to be the temporary camp of the fugitives, whom they quickly took prisoners, put into the boat, and carried another one hundred and fifty miles down the river to the nearest town with a jail and a court. Going and coming, Roosevelt spent nearly three weeks, not to mention the hardships which he and his trusty men suffered on the way; but he had served justice, and Justice must be served at any cost. When the story be came known, the admiration of his neighbors for his pluck and persistence rose; but they wondered why he took the trouble to make the extra journey, in order to deliver the prisoners to the jail, instead of shooting them where he overtook them.   7
  I chronicle these examples of Roosevelt’s courage among the lawless gangs with whom he was thrown in North Dakota, because they reveal several qualities which came to be regarded as peculiarly Rooseveltian during the rest of his days. We are apt to speak of “mere” physical courage as being inferior to moral courage; and doubtless there are many heroes unknown to the world who, under the torture of disease or the poignancy of social injustice and wrongs, deserve the highest crown of heroism. Men who would lead a charge in battle would shrink from denouncing an accepted convention or even from slighting a popular fashion. But after all, the instinct of the race is sound in revering those who give their lives without hesitation or regret at the point of deadly peril, or offer their own to save the lives of others.   8
  Roosevelt’s experience established in him that physical courage which his soul had aspired to in boyhood, when the consciousness of his bodily inferiority made him seem shy and almost timid. Now he had a bodily frame which could back up any resolution he might take. The emergencies in a ranchman’s career also trained him to be quick to will, instantaneous in his decisions, and equally quick in the muscular activity by which he carried them out. In a community whose members gave way to sudden explosions of passion, you might be shot dead unless you got the drop on the other fellow first. The anecdotes I have repeated, indicate that Roosevelt must often have outsped his opponent in drawing.   9
  We learn from them, too, that he was far from being the pugnacious person whom many of his later critics insisted that he was. Having given ample proof to the frontiersmen that he had no fear, he resolutely kept the peace with them, and they had no desire to break peace with him. Bluster and swagger were foreign to his nature, and he loathed a bully as much as a coward. If we had not already had the record of his. three years in the Legislature, in which he surprised his friends by his wonderful talent for mixing with all sorts of persons, we might marvel at his ability to meet the cowboys and ranchmen, and even the desperadoes, of the Little Missouri on equal terms, to win the respect of all of them, and the lifelong devotion of a few. They knew that the usual tenderfoot, however much he might wish to fraternize, was fended from them by his past, his traditions, his civilized life, his instincts; but in Roosevelt’s case, there was no gulf, no barrier.   10
  Even after he became President of the United States, I can no more imagine that he felt embarrassment in meeting any one, high or low, than that he scrutinized the coat on a man’s back in order to know how to treat him.   11
  To have gained solid health, to have gained mastery of himself, and to have put his social nature to the severest test and found it flawless, were valid results of his life on the Elkhorn Ranch. It imparted to him also a knowledge which was to prove most precious to him in the unforeseen future. For it taught him the immense diversity of the people, and consequently of the interests, of the United States. It gave him a national point of view, in which he perceived that the standards and desires of the Atlantic States were not all-inclusive or final. Yet while it impressed on him the importance of geographical considerations, it impressed, more deeply still, the fact that there are moral fundamentals not to be measured by geography, or by time, or by race. Lincoln learned this among the pioneers of Illinois; in similar fashion Roosevelt learned it in the Bad Lands of Dakota with their pioneers and exiles from civilization, and from studying the depths of his own nature.   12


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