With Presidents Day approaching, I am reminded of the many U.S. presidents who visited the Cody Yellowstone region throughout history. Some came for personal vacations and some came in official dignitary capacity. Some came for a brief park visit and photo op and others left a lasting mark on the park. One of those presidents was Theodore Roosevelt.
It is widely known that one of the most adventurous and pro-conservation U.S. presidents in history was Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, a New Yorker who became the youngest president in history when he swore his oath as a 42-year-old after the 1901 assassination of William McKinley.
Born to a wealthy family, Roosevelt was a sickly child who as a teen, and with the encouragement of his father built up his body and physical endurance through weightlifting, boxing and other physical pursuits.
Sharply intelligent and driven, Roosevelt quickly ticked off personal milestones – Harvard, law school, wife, baby – and took his first position in the world of politics on the New York State Assembly.
His professional and personal trajectories were suddenly halted, however, when his mother and wife died on the same day in February 1884. Grief-stricken, Roosevelt left his child in the care of his sister, departed New York and public service and became a cattle rancher in the Dakota Territory, which may have been the root of his later advocacy for public lands. After two years of robust ranch life, Roosevelt returned to New York, remarried and once again demonstrated his political-service chops in increasingly responsible positions.
At the time of the Spanish-American War, he grew restless once again, and this time he organized a volunteer cavalry called the Rough Riders. He led a charge during the Battle of San Juan Heights in 1898, earning a Medal of Honor. His bravery helped him win election as governor of New York in 1898. Three years later he joined the McKinley ticket as vice president and was bumped to the top a short time later.
Roosevelt was a progressive president for the times, supporting women’s suffrage and desegregation. He was a dedicated big-game hunter and an equally dedicated environmentalist. In 1906, he signed the National Monuments Act which protected numerous natural places, wildlife sanctuaries and game reserves.
His conservationist practices inspired the creation of a toy – the Teddy Bear. The trip that inspired the toy was in 1902 when Roosevelt was on an unsuccessful bear hunting trip in Mississippi. Intending to be helpful, an assistant trapped a black bear, tied it to a tree and invited the president to shoot the helpless bruin. Roosevelt deemed that as unsportsmanlike and let the bear go free. Word got out to a shocked public that the president’s sense of justice stemmed to animals too. And that one nuanced act also inspired a candy shop owner to create a stuffed bear and name it “Teddy’s Bear” after the man who wouldn’t shoot it.
Before and during his presidency, Roosevelt made several visits to Yellowstone. One of the most notable was in April and May of 1903 during an eight-week, 25-state tour of the American West. He took a brief break from his grueling schedule of speeches and meetings and camped for 16 days in the backcountry of Yellowstone in the company of park superintendent Major John Pitcher, a wildlife writer named John Burroughs and a few other escorts. Awe-struck, Roosevelt wrote in detail about the wonders of the park’s wildlife and its many natural features.
Before departing the park at last, he laid the cornerstone for a new arch that was to mark the park’s northern entrance. The cornerstone covered a time capsule that contains a bible, photo of Roosevelt, local newspaper stories and a few other items. Travelers who enter the park from the north can still stop and read the inscription on the arch, a quote from the Organic Act of 1872 which established Yellowstone as the world’s first national park. The simple inscription reads, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”
When Roosevelt’s train departed on a chilly spring day, he could not have known that it would be his final visit to the region he loved. Nor could he have known that his words and deeds, all these years later, would continue to inspire visitors from around the world.
Until next time, I’m hugging my Teddy Bear and loving life here in Cody Yellowstone.