I recently ran a Facebook promotion featuring Teddy Roosevelt as a “Legendary North Dakotan”. I knew that few Americans are aware of TR’s residence in northern Dakota back in the 1880’s, but I was surprised at the pushback I received from people refusing to accept the legitimacy of North Dakota’s claim.
He was born and raised in New York City, later building a beautiful home in Oyster Bay, but as a young New York politician he had chucked a promising career and headed West following the tragic loss of both his wife and mother on the same day. He had already visited northern Dakota on one of his numerous hunting trips, and had fallen in love with it’s wildness and serenity. It turned out to be just the place to put together the shattered pieces of his life, and for four years between 1883 and 1887 Theodore Roosevelt claimed Medora, Dakota Territory, as his hometown, though he actually lived some 7 miles south of town on the Maltese Cross Ranch. The “big die-up” blizzard of 1887-88, put an end to his cattle ranching, and his fortune, so he reluctantly headed back East, never forgetting the people and the experiences of Dakota.
Now admittedly, “Legendary North Dakotan” is a fluid term. All states claim famous people who sometimes have a tenuous relationship with that particular state. In actuality, North Dakota didn’t even exist until 1889. And it took almost fifty years after Lewis & Clark passed through for it to become a territory – thanks to their explorations in the area – but they too are Legendary North Dakotans! So are Custer, Sitting Bull, and a host of others. Many lived here before statehood, but that doesn’t negate the fact of their residence – and influence – on the development of the state.
And by the way, the 26th President himself acknowledged the importance of the years spent in northern Dakota during his formative years, claiming that he never would have become President if it weren’t for the time spent at his beloved ranch on the Little Missouri River. Many of the Roughriders who followed him into battle in the Spanish American War were recruited from his friends and neighbors in Dakota. They adored him, and were proud to march in his inaugural parade when he finally won the Presidency in his own right.
There are more recent celebrities who claim a birthright in North Dakota, of course, and we learn about them too in our exploration of the state. New York Yankee Roger Maris was from Fargo, Angie Dickinson took her stage name from her hometown in North Dakota, Peggy Lee and Lawrence Welk, Louis L’Amour, Eric Severeid – it’s really quite a long list. But we’ve only got a week, so we have picked out some whose trails are still visible, with reproductions (and sometimes even original buildings, such as Teddy’s cabin) and certainly landscapes that the legends would actually recognize. Along the way we’ll encounter interpreters and living history reenactors who bring the legends to life, making our sojourn a truly memorable experience.
You can read all about the legitimate connections of these Legendary North Dakotans – whether life-long or transitory – at Legends of North Dakota.
And after you’ve done that, consider heading up to North Dakota with us next July for a Legendary experience on the Plains.
Now I ask you, do you really think this photo was taken at Oyster Bay, Long Island?
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.