Dakota Datebook

Ethel Roosevelt Derby’s Trip

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


The Dakota Badlands played an important role in Theodore Roosevelt’s life. He often said he never would have been President had it not been for his experiences in Dakota Territory. But what may be surprising is the immense role the Dakota Badlands also played in the lives of Roosevelt’s children. None of Roosevelt’s six children ever lived in Dakota, but their father’s stories were enough to intrigue even the youngest mind.


Ethel Roosevelt Derby, Theodore’s fourth child and youngest daughter, was born on this date in 1891; several years after her father had given up active ranching in the Badlands. Growing up in Oyster Bay, New York, she and her siblings were often entertained with stories of Chimney Butte and the Elkhorn Ranch. In penning the foreword to a book on her father’s work as a naturalist, Ethel wrote, “We used to hear of the strange wild beauty of that country and of the pioneer virtues of the people who lived there. Men, women and children who were hardy, brave and self-reliant, who faced adventure and dangers of which we knew nothing.” They heard about the scarcity of wood, the long days and nights of the roundups, their father’s favorite horse and the pleasure he found in a simple rocking chair in the cool of a summer evening. His stories inspired several exciting camping trips at Oyster Bay in an effort to recreate the Badlands experiences.


Having grown up with such stories, it is little surprise that several of the Roosevelt children visited their father’s one-time home in the West. Ethel made her first and only trip to North Dakota in 1954 to visit the fledging Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. Accompanied by her children and grandchildren, she stayed at the Custer Trail Ranch near Medora, where her father had often called on friends. They visited the site of Chimney Butte Ranch, met with representatives of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and examined the work being done at the memorial park. But the highlight was visiting with several locals who had personally known her father; locals such as Mrs. Palissier of Dickinson who fondly recalled Roosevelt playing games with her, even though she was only a child.


Ethel Roosevelt Derby thoroughly enjoyed her trip and was certain her father would have been delighted with the new memorial park. She later wrote, “I could well understand my father saying that the years in North Dakota had affected his whole life.”


Dakota Datebook written by Christina Sunwall



This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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