A Free and Hardy Life: Theodore Roosevelt’s Sojourn in the American West book review
February 3, 2012
In the late 1920s, plans for a grand patriotic sculpture to be carved in a South Dakota mountainside were simmering. Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln made the short list of those to be immortalized in granite. Selecting the fourth individual wasn’t so simple. The sculptor lobbied to include his own hero. Eventually, Gutzon Borglum got his way, blasting and chiseling the likeness of Theodore Roosevelt into Mount Rushmore.
Even today many ask, “Why Roosevelt?” As Douglas Brinkley offers in his introduction to A Free and Hardy Life: Theodore Roosevelt’s Sojourn in the American West, “What a pity Borglum didn’t have Clay Jenkinson’s marvelous [book] to hand out to those citizens pulling for James Madison or Woodrow Wilson or James K. Polk …”
At the request of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, Jenkinson created a series of interpretive panels to hang in the 70 rooms of the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora, ND. Most of the vignettes pertain to Roosevelt’s time in the American West – and more specifically Dakota Territory – where he hunted and ranched. A humanities scholar, Jenkinson is the director of The Dakota Institute through Lewis & Clark, Fort Mandan Foundation, which published the panels in book form.
Wishing to experience some of the things his heroes had, among them Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Roosevelt came West in 1883 to hunt buffalo. Arriving as a slight, anemic and grieving easterner who had never saddled his own horse, Roosevelt became interested in cattle ranching. He threw himself completely into all facets of the enterprise, surprising locals with his pluck. When he departed the Badlands for the last time, he was as rugged and formidable as the terrain. He said of his time spent among the resourceful and independent characters who inhabited the breaks, “It is here the romance of my life began.”
Jenkinson drew on his considerable research as a first-person historical impersonator to winnow Roosevelt’s life experiences down to the intriguing series. The large-format title (The Dakota Institute, 2011, 176 pages, hardcover, ISBN-13: 978-0982559789) presents the hyper-kinetic Roosevelt’s zest for adventure (riding a chair strapped to the cowcatcher of a locomotive while on safari in Africa), his determination to clean up corruption and lawlessness, and a desire to protect the environment.
The panels feature quotes from Roosevelt’s speeches, letters and books, illustrated with appropriate photos and artwork. Some of the images have never before been published; several photos were taken by Roosevelt. They span Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession, Roosevelt’s time in Dakota, his inauguration (Geronimo and Chief Joseph took part in his 1905 inaugural parade), the building of the Panama Canal, the Spanish American War, his journey on South America’s River of Doubt, and the establishment of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
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At 42 years of age, Roosevelt is the youngest man to take office as a U.S. President. He was also the first sitting president to leave the country during his term in office and the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. A prolific reader and writer, he is credited with creating the phrases “lunatic fringe,” “good to the last drop,” and “muckraker.”
Jenkinson presents a solid case for the pivotal role this region played in the development of Roosevelt’s persona. Living just 45 miles from the national park named for him, I have a new appreciation for the man Jenkinson describes with detail, clarity and passion. It doesn’t hurt that Roosevelt punched out an obnoxious gun-toting drunk in our county seat of Wibaux.
While some suggest the book would make a delightful addition to a Roosevelt bookshelf, I like to think it’s the first book you should buy if you don’t have a Roosevelt shelf. A Free and Hardy Life lists for $45. Look for it in bookstores or purchase from the North Dakota Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, PO Box 607, Washburn, ND 58577-0607; 701-462-8535; http://www.fortmandan.com.