You don’t have to look very far in North Dakota to find references to our 26th President.
Teddy Roosevelt, who was born in New York and spent most of his life there, ranched in North Dakota for about four years in the 1880’s. After that he visited frequently for recreation.
There’s no doubt he loved our part of the country. By his own testimony, the time he spent in North Dakota was an important chapter in his life. He once described our state as “the romance of my life began.”
That’s important history worth celebrating, but are we getting carried away with it?
I ask because we are in the process of building a presidential library for Roosevelt on the campus of Dickinson State University, something funded in part by taxpayer contributions from the State of North Dakota and the City of Dickinson.
Presidential libraries got their start in 1939 with President Franklin Roosevelt when he gifted the National Archives and Records Administration his artifacts. That sort of thing became a tradition for presidents, and then something more official when Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act. Since then there’s been a movement to create libraries for pre-FDR presidents.
But usually those libraries are built somewhere with a closer connection to the president in question than North Dakota has with Teddy Roosevelt.
At times the official obsession North Dakota has with Roosevelt – for instance “Rough Rider Country” was brand the state tourism department used at one point and a proposed official nickname, a reference to Roosevelt’s volunteer cavalry in the Spanish-American War, and our state still grants the Rough Rider Award as its highest honor – can seem a little desperate.
North Dakota has always struggled with its identity. Famed journalist Eric Sevareid – born in Velva, North Dakota – lamented in his biography that his home state was “a large rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind.”
That statement is as painfully true today as it was when Sevareid wrote it. And because it’s true, we North Dakotans have a tendency to want to connect our beloved state, however tenuously, to people of notoriety.
Thus, the obsession with Roosevelt.
Don’t get me wrong; Teddy’s importance as a national leader is too often overlooked. And there’s no question his time here in North Dakota helped him become that leader. But by adopting someone like Roosevelt, are we obfuscating history more closely tied to the people of North Dakota? Not just the white settlers, but also of the indigenous peoples who were here first?
Case in point, while the Roosevelt library enjoys $15 million in taxpayer support, there has been a fight to get funds to preserve the Double Ditch Indian Village Historic Site before it falls into the river.
Is Roosevelt a more prominent presence in history than the village? Undoubtedly so, and his connection to North Dakota drives more interest and tourism to our state to boot.
But should tourism really be what drives our decisions when it comes to which history to prioritize?
I don’t want to stop celebrating Teddy Roosevelt’s connection to North Dakota, but I do wish we’d spend a bit more time, and resources, elevating other aspects of our state’s history.