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Roosevelt, Theodore
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Photo of Theodore RooseveltTheodore Roosevelt

(1858-1919)

First as a popular writer, and later as President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt exercised a profound influence on the history of the American West, earning his place among the presidential giants portrayed on Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Born on October 27, 1858, in New York City, Roosevelt grew up in a wealthy family long prominent in local civic affairs. He was sickly as a child, suffering especially from asthma, but he early devoted himself to vigorous exercise, gaining a physical stamina and love of outdoor sports that became a hallmark of his character.

Graduating from Harvard in 1880, Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee and the next year was elected to the New York State Assembly, where he became a leader among the minority of Republicans who pressed for social reform through government regulation. He first headed West in 1883, drawn to the Dakota Territory by reports that three years of systematic hunting had all but destroyed the once massive buffalo herd of the northern plains.

Roosevelt was determined to add this symbol of the American West to his trophy collection before it became extinct, and despite punishing weather, he stayed in the field until he accomplished his goal. At the same time, Roosevelt became enamored of the western landscape and the strenuous outdoor life of the plains, and purchased two ranches in the Dakota Badlands before heading back east.

The next year, 1884, Roosevelt returned to his ranch as a refuge from tragedy and disappointment. His young wife and his mother had both died on Valentine's Day that year, and in the summer his reformist faction had been defeated at the Republican national convention. The isolation and immensity of the Badlands helped him escape these misfortunes, and offered a retreat where he could pursue his interest in writing. Roosevelt had already published a history of The Naval War of 1812 (1882), which he had begun at Harvard. Now he became a western author, publishing such works as Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), Thomas Hart Benton (1886), and a four-volume history of the early frontier, The Winning of the West (1889-1896).

In 1886, Roosevelt left his ranch to marry his childhood sweetheart, Edith Kermit Carow, and continue his literary career at their home, Sagamore Hill, near Oyster Bay on Long Island, New York. Among his writings at this time was a series of articles on western life published by the Century Magazine and later collected as Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. Drawing on his experience as a rancher and sportsman, Roosevelt painted a picture of the West that prompted many well-to-do eastern readers to head onto the plains as tourists. In Dakota, where the "Great Die-Up" of 1886-87 had decimated cattle ranching, many of Roosevelt's old neighbors welcomed these visitors eagerly, converting their operations into what would soon be called "dude ranches." Beyond contributing to the growth of this new industry, however, Roosevelt's articles also contributed to the perception of western life as imbued with special virtues -- self-reliance, honor, loyalty, determination -- that made it a proving ground of the American character.

Returning to politics in 1889, Roosevelt served on the U.S. Civil Service Commission, where he led the reform effort to replace patronage with merit in the awarding of government jobs. In 1895, he became New York City police commissioner, transferring his reformist zeal to local politics. Then, two years later, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy and became a leading proponent of war with Spain, which was attempting to reassert control over its Caribbean colonies. When war came in 1898, Roosevelt resigned from government and helped organize the "Rough Riders" (officially the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry), a force made up of "cowboys and college graduates," as he put it, and led them in a much-publicized charge up Kettle Hill in the battle for San Juan Heights.

Home from the war a hero, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in the fall of 1898, but his enthusiasm for reform so provoked the state's Republican leaders that they arranged for him to run as the party's vice presidential candidate in 1900. When the Republican ticket won, Roosevelt was out of their hair.

Less than a year later, however, on September 14, 1901, the assassination of President William McKinley in Buffalo, New York, brought Roosevelt to the nation's highest office. Over the next seven years, he worked tirelessly to promote social and governmental reform, often relying on his executive authority to implement programs that would have been rejected by the conservative forces that controlled Congress. He revived the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 to break up some of the country's biggest corporations and restore competition to the business world. Later, he secured passage of federal regulations to control railroad rates and to set quality standards for foods and drugs. In foreigh affairs, he extended the Monroe Doctrine by asserting the United States' exclusive right to police international relations in the Western Hemisphere. He also precipitated a revolution that separated Panama from Columbia and cleared the way for construction of the Panama Canal.

For the West, Roosevelt's most important actions as president came in the areas of conservation policy and foreign relations with the nations of East Asia. At the urging of Gifford Pinchot, a college-trained forester who argued that the natural resources of the West required scientific management to prevent their depletion by private developers, Roosevelt seized on the 1891 Forest Reserves Act, which empowered the president to set aside public lands as national forests, and used it to increase federal land reserves from approximately 40 million acres when he took office to nearly 200 million acres by the end of his second term. In 1905, Roosevelt gave Pinchot responsibility for administering this vast domain, as head of the newly organized U.S. Forest Service, and ushered in the modern era of western land management, which aims at sustained efficient use of natural resources rather than exploitation and development. Under Pinchot and his successors, much of the West came under bureaucratic control, with local communities and business interests subject to federal regulation in their use of the resources surrounding them.

Roosevelt initiated similar sweeping change in the West with his support of the National Reclamation Act (or Newlands Act) of 1902, which gave the federal government primary responsibility for dam construction and irrigation projects. A new federal agency, the Reclamation Service, brought scientific expertise and bureaucratic administration to this task, and by 1906 there were water projects underway in all the western states, establishing federal control of the use of this vital resource as well.

Roosevelt also extended federal control over the scenic wonders of the West, using the 1906 Antiquities Act, which had been intended to preserve historic landmarks, to set aside 800,000 acres in Arizona as the Grand Canyon National Monument. All told, he created 16 national monuments, 51 wildlife refuges and five new National Parks, including Crater Lake in Oregon and the Anasazi ruins at Mesa Verde, Colorado, helping to pave the way for eventual recognition of such "national treasures" as natural resources requiring federal management to sustain their use by the West's growing tourist industry into the future.

Aside from his conservation programs, Roosevelt's most significant influence on the history of the West came as a result of his efforts to strengthen American interests in East Asia. He recognized the Pacific as a potential avenue for U.S. trade and sought political stability in the region through improved relations with Japan. In 1905, he negotiated a settlement of the Russo-Japanese War, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, and in 1907, he worked out what was called a "Gentleman's Agreement" with Japan when he forced San Francisco to end its segregation of Japanese schoolchildren in exchange for a curb on the emigraion of Japanese laborers to the United States. Earlier, in 1905, Roosevelt had used gunboat diplomacy to resolve a similar situation with China, forcing the government there to end a trade boycott protesting the U.S. exlusion of Chinese workers. Both actions showed Roosevelt's sympathy with the longstanding racial prejudices of the West, but underscored as well his conviction that the future of the West lay in the Far East.

Following his presidency, Roosevelt went on a game hunting expedition to Africa and returned to find that his hand-picked successor, President William Howard Taft, had become allied with his conservative Republican adversaries. Roosevelt opposed Taft for the party's presidential nomination in 1912, and when he was outmaneuvered at the convention, ran as the candidate of the newly formed Progressive Party. This split among Republicans helped put the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, into the White House, although Roosevelt at least had the satisfaction of trouncing Taft at the polls.

Over the next years, Roosevelt wrote his autobiography and led an expedition into the Brazilian jungle, where he contracted a near-fatal fever. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought him back into public affairs as an outspoken advocate of American support for the Allies, and when the United States entered the conflict in 1917, he attempted unsuccessfully to join in the fighting as the leader of a volunteer battalion. After the war, Roosevelt criticized Wilson's idealistic peace proposals and poised himself to make another run for the White House. But on January 6, 1919, he unexpectedly died at home in his sleep.


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