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Roosevelt Boat Thieves Adjudicated


Catching the thieves who stole his boat is one of the most storied adventures of Theodore Roosevelt during his time in the Badlands. The future president and his two ranch hands faced frigid cold, icy water and dwindling supplies to subdue the three thieves on the Little Missouri River. He marched them south to Dickinson for justice.

Roosevelt was a deputy sheriff and would later earn $50 in fees and mileage for the job. Medora folks were shocked he didn’t just kill the thieves, assuming the thieves would certainly have killed Roosevelt if they had the chance. But Roosevelt said all he wanted to do was defend himself and his property.
The story didn’t end there. Roosevelt filed a complaint against “Redhead” Mike Finnegan, Edward Burnstad and “Dutch Chris” Pfaffenbach with Justice of the Peace Western Starr (yes, that was his name). His complaint alleged the three “did take feloniously by fraud or stealth a boat being the property of the complainant.” Pfaffenbach’s charges were later dismissed. Roosevelt said Pfaffenbach “did not have enough sense to do anything good or bad.”

Finnegan and Burnstad had their day in court on this date in 1886 in Mandan and were convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to 25 months in the Bismarck penitentiary.

“If I’d had any show at all, you’d have sure had to fight!” Finnegan told Roosevelt in the courtroom. But he later wrote Roosevelt a friendly letter from prison, even asking him to visit. “I have read a good many of your sketches of ranch life in the papers since I have been here, and they interested me deeply,” Finnegan wrote. But after his sentence, he returned to crime and was later hanged. Burnstad was later committed to the Jamestown hospital.

More than 30 years after the boat theft, North Dakota’s state auditor prorated $1,524.54 in expenses for Burnstad’s care to Billings, Golden Valley and Slope counties. Burnstad died in 1926 and is buried in the state hospital cemetery.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Bad Lands Cow Boy. 1886, Aug. 19. Page 4
The Bismarck Tribune. 1917, April 23. Page 8
DiSilvestro, R.L. (2011). Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A young politician’s quest for recovery in the American West. Bloomsbury USA: New York, NY
Hagedorn, H. (1921). Roosevelt in the Badlands. Theodore Roosevelt Nature & History Association: Medora, ND

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