North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Consisting of two geographically separate units and founded initially as a memorial to the twenty-sixth president of the United States, the park is home to several species of plants and animals that characterize the Great Plains glorified in writings about the Old West. The North Unit represents the natural beauty and remoteness of the Badlands of North Dakota. The South Unit possesses much of the same natural beauty of the North Unit and contains the pioneer town of Medora and most of the historical evidence of early settlement in the area.

Site Office

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

P.O. Box 7

Medora, ND 58645-0007

North Unit ph.: (701) 842-2333

North Unit fax: (701) 842-3101

South Unit ph.: (701) 623-4466

South Unit fax: (701) 623-4840

Web site: www.nps.gov/thro/

The concept of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, to be created as a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, originated shortly after his death in 1916. A committee chosen by Sylvane Ferris, a friend and business associate of Roosevelt’s, was appointed to investigate the feasibility of such a memorial. It officially became a National Park in 1978.

The Personalities: Roosevelt and de Mores

Roosevelt came to the Dakota Territory as a young man seeking adventure. He arrived in 1883, stepping off a Northern Pacific passenger train at what was the settlement of Little Missouri. Roosevelt, in poor health as a youngster, quickly discovered adventure and found the dry climate of the Badlands beneficial to his health. In fact, most historians credit Roosevelt’s time in the Dakota Territory for giving him the stamina and ideologies for his future achievements. In 1884 Roosevelt, smarting from a political defeat and grieving the deaths of both his wife and his mother, returned to the area, seeking solitude. On his previous visit he had entered the cattle business by purchasing an interest in the Maltese Cross Ranch. Unlike many ranchers of the late 1800’s, Roosevelt was not the owner and financial entrepreneur running things from afar. He enjoyed the life of a working cowboy. He later sold his interest in the Maltese Cross Ranch and set up a permanent ranch of his own called the Elkhorn Ranch. Roosevelt’s original Maltese Cross cabin and the site of the Elkhorn Ranch are parts of the park today.

Roosevelt was not the only rancher or entrepreneur who shaped the character of the area. Indeed, the most flamboyant was the Marquis de Mores. De Mores was a wealthy Frenchman who founded a number of businesses in the area, including a ranch, a stagecoach line, and a grandiose venture into the meat packing business. The de Mores fortune waxed and waned several times. When a more permanent town was created to replace the settlement of Little Missouri, it was named Medora in honor of the Marquis’s beautiful red-haired wife. Medora serves as the park’s main headquarters. Other remnants of the de Mores presence in the area are the Château de Mores, the luxurious home built by the Marquis, and a tall brick chimney marking the spot where de Mores’s last venture, a meat packing plant, was consumed by fire in 1907.

Natural Beauty

Aside from the presence of historical figures, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is full of natural treasures. The park is the core of the North Dakota Badlands and has a unique and complex geologic history. Located in what is geologically called the “slope region” of North Dakota, the park’s territory is in an area that was not covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Since the layers of sediments were undisturbed by the glaciers, they remained to be removed gradually by the effects of wind and rain erosion. The result is a fantastic landscape of canyons, spires of rock, buttes, and mesas. The wildlife of the area also contributes to the natural wonder. From the tiny prairie dogs living in their “towns” to the herds of massive bison, the wildlife has been preserved or restored to a state representing what once was natural to the area. The bison and the elk, reintroduced in 1956 and 1985, respectively, are examples of successful reintroduction of species nearly hunted to extinction by humans. The park preserves large tracts of grasslands and the unique woodlands of the Little Missouri River bottomlands.

Politics, the Dust Bowl, and a New Park

Though the effort to create this park began shortly after Theodore Roosevelt’s death, it took until 1949 for the area to be designated as a state park. The lobbying to make it a part of the National Park system took over sixty years. Ironically, it was the economic and ecological catastrophe of the Dust Bowl that made the park possible. The land for the park and the surrounding Little Missouri National Grasslands were purchased by the state during the 1930’s at a mere two dollars per acre. Today the park is renowned for natural beauty, conservation efforts, and tourism. Medora is a town frozen in time, with original buildings including the Château de Mores, intact and open for tours. The park hosts the Medora Musical, a variety show celebrating the state, the land, and the personalities of the area’s history. Both units of the park offer excellent camping and wilderness experiences.

For Further Information
  • Brands, H. W. T. R.: The Last Romantic. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
  • Collins, Michael L. That Damned Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and the American West, 1883-1898. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
  • Goplen, Arnold O. The Career of the Marquis De Mores in the Bad Lands of North Dakota. 2d ed. Bismarck: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1979.
  • Miller, Nathan. Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. New York: William Morrow, 1992.
  • Tweton, D. Jerome. The Marquis de Mores: Dakota Capitalist, French Nationalist. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1972.
Categories: History Content