Theodore Roosevelt's racist remarks about American Indians are widely documented, but there's more to the 'cowboy president'
Theodore Roosevelt, as a believer in white superiority, was a man of his times. But he grew as a political leader and as a person. He brimmed with contradictions. He once considered American Indians to be "savages" — but invited chiefs to ride in his inaugural parade.
FARGO — Theodore Roosevelt made one of his most controversial remarks about American Indians while he was promoting a memoir of his exotic ranching and hunting experiences in the Badlands of Dakota Territory.
In one of a half-dozen appearances in his native New York City in 1886, the youthful Roosevelt made clear to his Eastern audience that he adhered to the antagonistic views common among frontier whites regarding Native Americans.
“I suppose I should be ashamed to take the Western view of the Indian,” Roosevelt said . “I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”
Three years after making that notorious comment, in 1889 as a member of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, Roosevelt was working with the Indian Rights Association to root out corruption on reservations.
The two examples, only a few years apart, hint at the complexity of Roosevelt, America’s aristocratic “cowboy president,” in his evolving views on American Indians and race, perspectives that were widely held by his contemporaries and placed white, Christian Anglo-Saxons at the top of a racial ladder.
His harsh comment about “dead Indians,” which appeared in newspapers at the time and in an early biography, “Roosevelt in the Badlands,” has been cited by American Indians following the recent announcement that a statue of Roosevelt on horseback above the standing figures of a Native American and Black man will be moving to Medora.
The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation has an agreement with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The statue has been displayed outside the museum since 1940 and will be moving to Medora, where the planned Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is expected to open in 2026.
Ed O’Keefe, chief executive officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, said no decision has been made about whether or how to display the statue. An advisory committee that will include Native American and Black historians, scholars and artists will make recommendations about how the statue should be shown and interpreted, if deemed appropriate.
Also, the foundation is working with noted historians to write about Roosevelt, a “story committee” that will guide how the presidential library tells the story of Roosevelt on a range of issues and aspects of his life.
“We are creating this presidential library in the 2020s, not the 1920s, and as such we have a rare opportunity to tell the full story, start a dialogue and have a conversation about the evolution of the United States and our relationship with Native Americans,” O’Keefe said. “The museum will humanize, not lionize Theodore Roosevelt.”
* * *
Roosevelt first visited the Little Missouri Badlands of Dakota Territory in 1883, just two years after Sitting Bull and his followers surrendered at Fort Buford and seven years after Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Although no American Indians remained around Roosevelt’s ranches near Medora, he sometimes encountered them when they passed through or when he roamed on hunting trips. Animosity from the wars was still fresh, and occasional violent conflicts erupted between whites and Indians.
In 1879, before Roosevelt arrived, Indians surprised and killed five men at a station along the Fort Keogh Trail, just south of his ranching operation, and in 1883 some Cheyennes and cowboys clashed in a skirmish nearby, with bloodshed on both sides.
“Since then, there have been in our neighborhood no stand-up fights or regular raids; but the Indians have at different times proved more or less troublesome, burning the grass, and occasionally killing stock or carrying off horses that have wandered some distance away,” he wrote in “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail,” published in 1888. “They have also themselves suffered somewhat at the hands of white horse-thieves.”
Once, while riding northeast of his Elkhorn Ranch in what then was “practically unknown country,” Roosevelt had a tense encounter with a group of American Indians on horseback who materialized in the distance before him on a plateau.
Native Americans drew their guns and came galloping toward Roosevelt, whooping and brandishing their rifles. Roosevelt dismounted his horse and waited until they were 100 yards away, then raised his rifle, which he aimed at the leader, causing the approaching party to scatter.
The Native Americans huddled for a conversation, then one approached, dropping his rifle and waving a blanket overhead. Roosevelt stopped him when he came within 50 yards, at which point the man held out a piece of paper, apparently his pass allowing him to leave the reservation.
Roosevelt and the man exchanged a few words, and the others in the party began to approach. Roosevelt aimed his rifle, forcing the man to back away, cursing in English as he left, according to Roosevelt’s account in “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail,” illustrated in a sketch by the Western artist Frederic Remington, “Standing Off the Indians.”
Later, from a couple of trappers camping near Killdeer Mountain, Roosevelt learned that the men were a party of Sioux men who had stolen a couple of their horses.
Roosevelt wrote in “Hunting Trips Of A Ranchman,” published in 1885, that the nomadic American Indians never held title to the land, and he advocated parceling out allotments of land for them to settle upon and farm and live like white settlers, who could get homesteads.
“The Indians should be treated in just the same way that we treat the white settlers,” Roosevelt wrote. “Give each his little claim; if, as would generally happen, he declined this, why then let him share the fate of the thousands of white hunters and trappers who have lived on the game that the settlement of the country has exterminated, and let him, like these whites, who will not work, perish from the face of the earth which he cumbers.”
Despite his generally low opinion of American Indians, Roosevelt admired their determined resistance to white domination and believed they should be treated fairly. He helped recover horses stolen from American Indians, an unusual gesture by a white rancher during the era.
Still, Roosevelt’s ranching experiences left him with the belief that American Indians should embrace white civilization or be left to vanish.
“During the past century a good deal of sentimental nonsense has been talked about our taking the Indians’ land,” he wrote in “Hunting Trips.”
* * *
During his presidential inauguration in 1905, Roosevelt invited prominent American Indians to ride their horses in his inaugural parade. They included Geronimo of the Apaches, Quanah Parker of the Comanches, American Horse of the Oglala Lakotas and Hollow Horn Bear of the Sicangu Lakotas.
Earlier, as the leader of a cavalry troop that came to be known as the Rough Riders in the 1898 Spanish American War, Roosevelt recruited American Indians and praised their performance as soldiers, saying he was proud to serve alongside the men.
Roosevelt was a lifelong advocate of fairness and equality under the law. Even though he believed throughout his life in the superiority of white, northern Europeans, he grew as a political leader and as a person and rose above the “vile bigotry of his times,” wrote John Ashbaugh in an essay for the Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal entitled, “Theodore Roosevelt Through the Prism of Race: Black, White and Shades of Gray.”
As president, Roosevelt was a staunch advocate of breaking up reservation land into allotments for American Indians, with “excess” lands eligible for purchase by whites — a policy some historians say was well-intentioned but undeniably had devastating consequences for American Indians and their culture.
“His general view was that Indians were primitive and savages and it was going to be very difficult to assimilate them,” said Clay Jenkinson, a humanities scholar with the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. “He was very typical of his time,” when “Kill the Indian, save the man,” a phrase encapsulating the case for forced assimilation of American Indians, was prevalent.
Later in life, Roosevelt’s triumphalist views softened. His efforts to end official corruption on reservations was part of his broader belief in the importance of good government, which included integrity, said Jenkinson, who wrote “A Free and Hardy Life: Theodore Roosevelt’s Sojourn in the American West.” Those concerns reflected his “basic decency and fairness.”
Despite his prejudice, Roosevelt still regarded Native Americans as “people deserving of a Square Deal,” his slogan for his domestic program.
“Anytime anyone wants to dismiss Roosevelt as a racist, they need to be able to show pretty considerable balancing,” Jenkinson said. “Roosevelt was capable of real spasms of sympathy and spirit,” but the case is not a simple one.
Roosevelt’s infamous comment about “dead Indians” was an example of the “triumphalist” views he held as a young man who matured to become less “bombastic,” he said.
Kathleen Dalton, who wrote the biography, “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life,” agreed that Roosevelt changed over time, “yet he was very much a creature of his time.”
At Harvard, Roosevelt was taught scientific theories of whites being at the top of a racial hierarchy, a prevalent view in society and academia at the time, she said.
“We look back on that and say that’s pseudoscience,” Dalton said. “Theodore Roosevelt grew up breathing that air.”
Roosevelt condemned genocide, yet was in favor of the extermination policies against the Plains Indians that prevailed during his youth, she said. As a political leader, she added, Roosevelt aligned himself with American Indian reformers and considered himself one.
By then, he favored assimilation over military force. “But he certainly failed to work hard enough to respect and bring justice and fair play to native people” through his Square Deal, she said.
Roosevelt’s praise of American Indian and Black soldiers during the Spanish American War was viewed through a nationalistic lens. “He wants nationalistic brotherhood with Native Americans and Blacks,” Dalton said.
“That’s what that statue is about,” she added, referring to the controversial statue of Roosevelt on horseback beside standing figures of an American Indian and Black man.
“I see him as a complicated person who changed over time,” Dalton said, noting he helped gain financial support for Edward Curtis’s project to photograph American Indians before their way of life disappeared.
“Theodore Roosevelt is not Andrew Jackson,” who ordered the infamous removal of Cherokees that resulted in the deadly “Trail of Tears,” she said. “He never killed an Indian. He said a lot of stupid, stupid things about people he didn’t understand. I’m not defending him. He was complex.”
Michael Cullinane, who wrote “Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon,” said Darwin’s theory of evolution appeared two years before Roosevelt was born, in 1858.
“That colored everything he thinks about the world,” he said. Roosevelt believed any race could achieve civilization — a status the whites alone had already achieved, in his view. For that reason, Cullinane rejects the label of white supremacist for Roosevelt, which suggests a belief in a genetic destiny that Roosevelt didn’t have.
“He believed all races could achieve those traits,” and also believed whites could succumb to decadence and that many New Yorkers were “over civilized."
“He didn’t believe that whites were destined to be at the top," Cullinane said.
Still, he added, he didn’t want to be an apologist for Roosevelt, who said some “awful things.”
Roosevelt’s policies regarding American Indians were patriarchal and denied them the right of self-determination, something that wasn’t completely achieved until the 1970s, he said. But those views were in the mainstream at the time.
“He’s not in any way out of the norm,” Cullinane said. “Roosevelt is a great lightning rod for a lot of the criticism for American racialism, or racism as it became later known.”
The controversial statue, if displayed in North Dakota, provides a chance to tell a story, Cullinane said. Ironically, he added, Roosevelt was strongly opposed to having any statues erected in his memory.
As a historian himself, Cullinane has written , Roosevelt was keenly aware that views about history change over time.