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October 2009 cover image lesser prairie-chicken

Teddy Roosevelt’s Texas

The great outdoorsman hunted javelinas and recruited Rough Riders here.

By Russell A. Graves

From the side road, you may never know the history inside the nondescript door mere feet from the Alamo’s south wall. A sign hangs overhead announcing a doorway to history that every Texan should visit — Menger Bar.

Walking inside, the bar — which is still in operation and greets visitors daily as a part of the palatial Menger Hotel — is predictably dark despite it being early afternoon. No exterior windows and a dark, rich cherrywood interior accounts for the dimness while turn-of-the-century-looking in-candescent bulbs provide enough fill light to bring out the detail in the finely carved wood.

“Hello,” I say to the bartender, who is dressed in appropriately professional togs with a hint of old-school flair. He wipes the bar with a white rag and looks up to return my salutation. He offers me a drink but I decline — opting instead to talk about the history of the bar and to shoot a few images.

It takes no time exploring the lower level of the bar, as it isn’t all that big. I scamper up the stairs to the top level and look over the rail at the black-and-white-clad barkeep sorting bottles and carrying about his business before his mid-week crowd filters through the doors. I catch a subtle waft of cigar smoke and see a man walk through the door from the hotel. Turns out, he’s a filmmaker scouting locations for an upcoming feature and figured that Texas is the place where he’d find what he was looking for.

It seems that this bar is a good place to find what adventurers seek. In 1898 Colonel Theodore Roosevelt sat in this very bar looking for a piece of a puzzle that, he surmised, he would have no trouble finding in Texas. I’m on TR’s trail and aim to visit some of the same sites he visited in Texas and, in the process, learn how the 26th president influenced our state.

The First United States Volunteer Cavalry

The 1898 trip to the Menger Bar was Roosevelt’s second trip to the San Antonio area. Six years earlier he was in Texas for recreation when he hunted javelinas near the Nueces River.

The 1898 trip was all business, though. Less than a month after President William McKinley signed the April 1898 law that formed volunteer military regiments in the western United States and territories, Roosevelt traveled to the Menger Bar to recruit volunteers for the cavalry that he was appointed to command — the Rough Riders.           

Roosevelt with his men

The Rough Riders were mustered because the regular army was deemed too small to undertake a foreign military engagement. In Texas, Roosevelt knew that he’d be able to find hard-fighting men who matched what he needed for his outfit. Turns out, he was right.

“We drew a great many recruits from Texas,” wrote Roosevelt on his visit to San Antonio in his book The Rough Riders, “and from nowhere did we get a higher average, for many of them had served in that famous body of frontier fighters, the Texas Rangers. Of course these rangers needed no teaching. They were trained to obey and to take responsibility. They were splendid shots, horsemen, and trailers. They were accustomed to living in the open, to enduring great fatigue and hardship, and to encountering all kinds of danger.”

On May 15, Roosevelt joined his men just south of downtown San Antonio on land (now named Roosevelt Park) next to the San Antonio River, where some 1,200 men drilled and trained on horses bought in Texas. Less than two weeks later, the men left for Florida, and a couple of weeks after that, the Rough Riders were the first United States troops to land in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. They cemented their place in history with their charge of San Juan Hill — a move that seized Spanish fortifications and caused the enemy’s retreat.

The Wolf Hunt

Teddy Roosevelt’s fame as a commander in the Spanish-American War, of course, catapulted his political popularity, and he was soon elected governor of New York, then tapped as vice president, and upon the assassination of William McKinley, became president of the United States.

While still president, Roosevelt traveled back to Texas for a Rough Riders reunion in San Antonio in 1905. After the reunion, he made his way back up through northwest Texas to hunt coyotes in the Comanche Territory in present-day southwest Oklahoma.

After train stops and speeches in small towns like Quanah, Texas, the presidential procession arrived in Frederick, Oklahoma, where, on April 18, he joined notable Texas cattlemen like Burk Burnett of the Four Sixes Ranch, Comanche Indian Chief Quanah Parker and Texas Ranger Bill McDonald for a few days of “wolf coursing.”

While most of the hunt took place just across the Red River in Oklahoma, toward the hunt’s end, the party relocated to a ranch south of Quanah near the present-day Lake Pauline. Just south of town, a county road (Wolf Hunt Road) pays homage to the event.

In his memoir Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, Roosevelt describes a lively hunt: “We entered the town after dark, some twenty of us on horseback. ... We broke into a lope a mile outside the limits, and by the time we struck the main street, the horses were on a run and we tore down like a whirlwind until we reached the train. Thus ended as pleasant a hunting trip as anyone could imagine.”

In all, the group took 17 coyotes on the hunt. Roosevelt was fascinated by one of the hunters, Jack Abernathy, and was impressed by his ability to catch and tie up live coyotes by hand. Roosevelt, in complimentary fashion, was reported to have quipped to Abernathy, “I want you to be my guest in Washington, and every time you see a senator grab him and tie up his jaws the way you do those wolves.”

Lasting Texas Legacies

While parks and streets in San Antonio bear Roosevelt’s name, only one Texas community was named to honor him. Established in 1898 out on the hardscrabble edge of the western Texas Hill Country in Kimble County, Roosevelt was named for the future president after it was reported he visited the area with the Rough Riders before heading to the Spanish-American War.

Perhaps the most long-lasting influence that Teddy Roosevelt had on Texas was his strong conservation ethic. His leadership brought conservationist principles to the forefront after the excesses of market hunting decimated wildlife populations in the 19th century.

Founded in 1887 by Roosevelt and a handful of other like-mined individuals, the Boone & Crockett Club was formed to promote fair chase in hunting, and lobby for conservation-minded hunting regulations. Additionally, the Boone & Crockett Club established the standards by which big game animals are judged. The Boone & Crockett scoring system is the most widely used system for objectively establishing a measurable score for antlered and horned mammals.

Interest in big deer has shaped the way most Texas hunters think, and a huge deer hunting culture has emerged. Today, Texas is recognized internationally as being one of the top states for harvesting free-range white-tailed deer with the potential of making the Boone & Crockett Club record books.

In 1903, President Roosevelt set aside lands for the protection of wildlife when he authorized the creation of the first National Bird Preserve on Pelican Island, Florida. The move eventually paved the way for the national wildlife refuge system, and today, Texas is home to 17 national wildlife refuges encompassing more than 400,000 acres.

While Roosevelt was a New Yorker by birth, his impact on Texas culture and folklore is undeniable. As a soldier, conservationist, hunter and president, he held Texas and Texans in high esteem, and his impact on our state lasted well beyond his passing.

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