Seven Times Teddy Roosevelt Should Have Died — But Somehow Didn’t

Published January 6, 2023
Updated April 3, 2024

Chasing Boat Thieves Down The Little Missouri River In North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt In Hunting Gear

Public DomainTheodore Roosevelt dressed as a hunter. 1885.

Teddy Roosevelt showed his fearlessness in the face of danger just a few years after his doctor’s warning, but not without suffering from another devastating heart problem: heartbreak.

In 1884, Roosevelt lost both his mother and wife in quick succession. His mother, Martha, died of typhoid fever on Feb. 14. Just hours later, Roosevelt’s wife, Alice, died of kidney disease two days after giving birth to their daughter. “The light has gone out of my life,” the grieving Roosevelt wrote.

Wracked with despair, Roosevelt decided to go west. In the spring of 1886, as the National Park Service reports, Roosevelt established himself as the Billings County Deputy Sheriff. And on one cold day in March, the future president plunged into danger — almost literally — in pursuit of boat thieves.

Pursuing The Boat Thieves

Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library/Dickinson State UniversityA photo taken by Roosevelt during the pursuit of three boat thieves in the Dakota Territory.

Then, three boat thieves cut Roosevelt’s boat from its mooring at Elkhorn Ranch in the Dakota Territory and slipped away down the frigid Little Missouri River. Rather than let them go — as Roosevelt’s college doctor might have recommended — Roosevelt roused his ranch hands, who built a second boat for the pursuit.

For three days, he and his men pursued the thieves down the ice-packed river. The temperature plunged to zero degrees, and Roosevelt worried about the possibility of a shootout. But on the third day, they caught up with the thieves and were able to capture them without a struggle.

On the return journey — through temperatures so cold that Roosevelt could not bind his captives’ hands or feet, lest they get frostbite — Roosevelt led his men through “Indian country” and hoped that they didn’t run into any aggressive warriors. They didn’t, and Roosevelt was able to hand his captives to the sheriff. He even earned a $50 reward for capturing the three thieves.

“In any wild country where the power of law is little felt or heeded, and where everyone has to rely upon himself for protection, men soon get to feel that it is in the highest degree unwise to submit to any wrong,” he later wrote, “no matter what cost of risk or trouble.”

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Seven Times Teddy Roosevelt Should Have Died — But Somehow Didn’t.", January 6, 2023, Accessed May 28, 2024.