The Badlands Babies
President Theodore Roosevelt’s time in what is now North Dakota is known for the hunting and ranching that helped soothe his soul and form his outlook on conservation. There are many famous episodes: his persistent pursuit of his first bison, chasing boat thieves down the Little Missouri River, and giving his Fourth of July speech in Dickinson.
Also during his time out west: two births at his Elkhorn Ranch. Two woodsmen from Maine—Bill Sewall and his nephew, Wilmot Dow—built and managed the ranch. It’s about 35 miles north of Medora along the river. In 1885, they were joined by Dow’s wife Lizzie and Sewall’s wife Mary and their daughter Lucretia. Roosevelt adored the Sewalls’ little girl and called her Kitty. He asked his sister Anna to send toys for her from New York.
Mary Sewall and Lizzie Dow did cooking, cleaning, housekeeping and gardening. Roosevelt supplied them with chickens – which attracted bobcats. Mary baked bread and cake and made jam from wild plums and buffalo berries. Roosevelt’s new ranch house was made a home.
On this date in 1886, Lizzie Dow gave birth to a boy, also named Wilmot. He was born one week after Mary Sewall gave birth to a son, named Fred. “We were a hundred and ten miles from the nearest physician,” Bill Sewall later wrote. “The only help we could get was the wife of an old hunter who lived several miles from us. My wife was terribly sick. The only reason they did not both die was because their time had not come. But both the women lived, and are still alive, and the boys lived to make strong men.”
Roosevelt, upon returning to his ranch soon after the births, found Sewall building a cradle for the babies. “The population of my ranch is increasing in a rather alarming manner,” Roosevelt wrote to his sister, Anna. Cowboys from near and far came to see “the Badlands babies.”
But the romantic home-life didn’t last long. Roosevelt returned to the Elkhorn from a mountain goat hunt in the Cœur d’Alene Mountains in September, and came to an agreement with Sewall and Dow to end their contract. Sewall had always figured the Badlands wouldn’t promise well. A drought gripped the area that summer, and though they couldn’t know it, a devastating winter would soon cripple cattle operations. The short-lived golden days of the Elkhorn Ranch were all but over.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Di Silvestro, R.L. (2011). Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A young politician’s quest for recovery in the American West. Bloomsbury: New York, NY.
Hagedorn, Hermann. (1921). Roosevelt in the Badlands. Theodore Roosevelt Nature & History Association: Medora, ND
Sewall, W.W. (1919). Bill Sewall’s story of T.R. Harper & Brothers Publishers: New York and London