The True Story Of Teddy Roosevelt’s Wild West Bar Fight

Like so many American heroes, Teddy Roosevelt has become a larger-than-life legend who we imagine chugging a bottle of whiskey from one hand while beating the crap out of ne’er-do-wells with the other, but the real Teddy was absolutely nothing like that. Not only did Teddy not care much for drinking — aside from the occasional mint julep, apparently — he also preferred not to fight. Yes, although Teddy was known for his boxing exploits while a student at Harvard and trained in various martial arts, he didn’t wander the Earth in search of those deserving of an ass kicking.

That’s not to say that Teddy didn’t find himself in a fracas every now and then. One such noteworthy occasion occurred in 1884. Following the deaths of both his wife and mother, Teddy gave up on New York politics and moved west, building a ranch in North Dakota. One night, while traveling between the Dakota and Montana territories, Teddy found himself in the bar at Nolan’s Hotel in Mingusville. There he encountered a drunk and armed cowboy who called the future president “four eyes.” Big mistake.

Roosevelt related the tale in his Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography, beginning on page 135:

“It was late in the evening when I reached the place. I heard one or two shots in the bar-room as I came up, and I disliked going in. But there was nowhere else to go, and it was a cold night. Inside the room were several men, who, including the bartender, were wearing the kind of smile worn by men who are making believe to like what they don’t like. A shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. He had evidently been shooting at the clock, which had two or three holes in its face.

…As soon as he saw me he hailed me as ‘Four Eyes,’ in reference to my spectacles, and said, ‘Four Eyes is going to treat.’ I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice. He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language… In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I said, ‘Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,’ and rose, looking past him.

As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely a convulsive action of his hands, or whether he was trying to shoot at me. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head… if he had moved I was about to drop on my knees; but he was senseless. I took away his guns, and the other people in the room, who were now loud in their denunciation of him, hustled him out and put him in the shed.”

By the time he became President in 1901, Teddy’s bar-brawling days were long past, but he still maintained a fighting spirit; He was said to spar several times each week until being hit so hard in the face that he was blinded in his left eye. After that, he took it easy — sticking to his judo training.