Theodore Roosevelt was particularly fond of retelling the story of his pursuit and capture of the boat thieves in the badlands. He put the story on paper in his 1888 book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. In early spring of 1886, just as the ice was beginning to break up on the Little Missouri River, three thieves cut Roosevelt’s boat from its mooring at the Elkhorn Ranch and took it downriver. Roosevelt, out of personal pride and duty as a Billings County Deputy Sheriff, chased after them with his ranch hands Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow.
As you read the story, imagine the thrill of the entire event for Roosevelt. A spring flood is no trivial matter, and navigating a river jammed with ice and powerful currents is treacherous work. The weather was viciously cold. The men he was chasing were armed and dangerous. How might you have reacted to the theft of a replaceable boat when capturing the thieves was so time-consuming and dangerous? The story begins with the ice breaking up on the Little Missouri River at the Elkhorn Ranch in March, 1886:
“It moved slowly, its front forming a high, crumbling wall, and creaming over like an immense breaker on the seashore; we could hear the dull roaring and crunching as it ploughed down the river-bed long before it came in sight round the bend above us. The ice kept piling and tossing up in the middle, and not only heaped itself above the level of the banks, but also in many places spread out on each side beyond them, grinding against the cottonwood-trees in front of the ranch veranda…."