Leaves His Unruly Detractor Unconscious in Wibaux, Montana
BY BOB BROWN
Nolan Hotel, Mingusville (later Wibaux), Montana, autumn, 1884. Young, bespectacled Theodore Roosevelt was tired and hungry. He had been searching for stray horses since dawn. As he entered the inn TR described what happened.
“A shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. As soon as he saw me, he hailed me as “Four Eyes,” in reference to my spectacles, and said, “Four Eyes is going to treat.” I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down. He followed me, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive. In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I rose, and struck him quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and again with my right. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head and was senseless.”
The ruffian survived the pummeling by the future President, and apparently slunk out of town the following morning on a freight train.
I was reminded of this incident as I passed through Wibaux recently on my way to the 92nd annual meeting of the Theodore Roosevelt Association held at both Dickinson State University, and at Medora where Roosevelt owned a ranch.
TR later said his experiences on the northern plains, shaping his endurance, courage and character, were the most valuable of his life. The story about the “Four Eyes” incident got around cowboy country. It was reinforced in the multi-ranch round up the following spring as one of the foremen observed, “We forgot about his glasses when we saw he played the game with no favors.”
Born to a wealthy family in an upscale neighborhood near Park Avenue in New York City, TR spoke and looked like the Easterner he was. He once barked to one of his cowboys, “Hasten quickly there, now!” The ranch hands who heard this understandably found it hilarious, and it too made the rounds on the range. Until decades later a stiff drink in cowboy country around Medora, Wibaux and Miles City was known as a “Hasten Quickly.”
Roosevelt’s identifi-cation with common people in his later political life probably originated in his experience with them in North Dakota and Montana. Almost without question, his attitude toward conservation and the wise use of natural resources was influenced by his time in the West. When he became President in 1901, the United States contained 43 million acres reserved for the public. When he left office in 1909 he had expanded that figure to 194 million acres. Because of TR, Montana has the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Kootenai, Custer, Lolo, Helena and Kaniksu National Forests. His imprint is huge on Montana.
It was not accomplished without controversy. “Montanans don’t need any more federal land grabs,” protested Montana Governor Edwin Norris in 1905. Montana U.S. Senator and copper baron W.A. Clark was similarly critical.
Roosevelt stood his ground and used the power of his office to fight for what he believed was right. As a man of action, his approach to leadership was uncomplicated. He made his goals clear, and he fought hard for them. Reminiscent of his Wibaux encounter, TR observed, “Don’t hit if it is honorably possible not to, but never hit soft.”
And, richly reminiscent of his mixed Western spirit and Eastern culture, he proclaimed, “Get action. Seize the moment. Man was never intended to behave as an oyster.”
Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.
More on TR: In 1883, while on a buffalo hunting expedition, Teddy Roosevelt purchased a ranch in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory.
Thirty-five miles north of Medora, North Dakota, he acquired more land and built another ranch that he named Elk Horn.
It was in those days that TR learned much about life in the West—roping, hunting and rough riding near the banks of the Little Missouri River, subjects that became fodder for his writings published in East Coast journals.
And Roosevelt walked the walk. As a deputy sheriff, he tracked and arrested a trio of boat thieves who had stolen his boat at the Elk Horn and fled with it up river on the Little Missouri.
Stopping short of hanging the scoundrels on the spot, Roosevelt escorted the brigands to Dickinson on horseback, forcing himself not to yield to sleep for two days (they say while reading Tolstoy, and then pulp fiction belonging to one of the thieves), while his ranch foreman set off for home with the boat.
In another Western adventure worthy of an HBO mini-series, TR befriended Sheriff Seth Bullock of Deadwood while Bullock pursued a band of accomplished horse thieves, an acquaintance that turned into a lifelong friendship between two greats of the Wild West.
His strength and bravado notwithstanding, Roosevelt suffered a financial loss of at least $60,000, a virtual fortune in those days, resulting from the terrible winter of 1886 when his stock of cattle starved and froze. TR, though, a man of wealth and resources, headed back east to his other “ranch,” Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, New York, the place he called home until his death in 1919.