Alexander Hamilton dueled Aaron Burr. Andrew Jackson dueled Charles Dickinson. For Theodore Roosevelt, the challenge came from North Dakota rancher, military man, and Winchester-toting French aristocrat Marquis de Morès.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Nemesis
Marquis de Morès et de Montemaggiore, his full French title, became a famous figure in 1880s Dakota Territory. At first glance, the posh nobleman seemed an unlikely contemporary to Old West icons like Bat Masterson and Buffalo Bill, but the Marquis was a deadly marksman and duelist with a spirit for adventure that went hand-in-hand with the American West.
Teddy Roosevelt, another larger-than-life personality, first met de Morès while the two owned neighboring ranches in the Badlands of 1883, and their egos soon came to a head. Twice they clashed over land rights, and after Marquis de Morès killed a cowboy in a gunfight, the hotheaded Frenchman blamed Roosevelt for his indictment and jailing and challenged the future president to a duel.
“Emperor of the Badlands”
Marquis de Morès was born in 1858, eldest son of the Duke of Vallambrosa. Shortly after graduating France’s premier cavalry officer academy, the Marquis served in Algiers, helping to suppress uprisings in the French colony, as well as participating in his first of many duels. He married Medora van Hoffman, the daughter of a wealthy New York banker, and in 1883 the couple struck out for the Badlands of North Dakota and claimed six square miles of ranchland.
Upon receiving a rather cold welcome from the locals of the lawless Little Missouri settlement, de Morès founded his own town and named it after his wife. Ever the entrepreneur, the Marquis became one of the first cattle barons in the area to fence off his property with barbed wire, which infuriated the neighboring free grazing ranchers, many of whom seemed to already dislike de Morès due to his noble heritage, assuming that he viewed himself as their betters.
Two Giant’s Collide
Theodore Roosevelt had fallen in love with the Dakota Territory in 1883 and returned the following year after the tragic death of his wife. He and the Marquis de Morès both volunteered to join the famous Montana vigilante group “The Stuart Stranglers”, founded by Montana legend Granville Stuart in an attempt to curtail rampant cattle rustling in the area. De Morès even recommended Roosevelt be admitted into the Montana Stockgrowers Association in the spring of 1885, but their relationship soon took a turn for the worst.
In addition to disputes over grazing and water rights, Marquis de Morès and Theodore Roosevelt clashed over cattle prices. Teddy’s Elkhorn ranch was only 35 miles from de Morès’ boomtown of Medora, and while the future president immersed himself in the western lifestyle, learning to ride, rope, hunt, and raise cattle on the banks of the Little Missouri River, the Marquis was receiving resistance to his ranching endeavors from everyone from resentful locals to Chicago meat dealers.
The animosity toward de Morès escalated as his home was peppered with rifle shots multiple times in the summer of 1883, with the Marquis and his men fighting off the attackers on each occasion. Later that year, three drunk cowboys decided to teach the Frenchman a more serious lesson. Reiley Luffsey, Frank O’Donald, and John Reuter, allegedly after partaking in a healthy amount of whiskey, stormed through Medora and shot the town up, calling out the Marquis and reportedly threatening his life.
The Marquis caught wind of this and informed both the sheriff and his lawyers. The arrest attempt failed and the three outlaws fled. Hearing gunshots, de Morès and his posse assumed that the sheriff had been killed. They cut off the three cowboys and tried to detain them, but a fierce gunfight erupted. No stranger to combat, the Marquis’ answered with a blaze of fire from his Winchester rifle, killing Reiley Luffsey and injuring another before the streets fell silent once more.
Over the next couple of years, de Morès was charged with murder multiple times but never convicted. While under arrest for the killing in the fall of 1885, he expressed concern that Roosevelt’s employee and friend Joe Ferris had been “very active against me and has been instrumental in getting me indicted.” He asked if Teddy was behind it personally, and his letter closed with the threat, “If you are my enemy, I want to know it. I am always on hand as you know, and between gentlemen it is easy to settle matters of that sort directly.”
Dueling words nearly erupted into dueling guns as Roosevelt interpreted de Morès’ letter as a threat and remarked to one of his friends that if challenged he would choose Winchester rifles at the murderous distance of twelve paces. True to his philosophy of “Speak softly and carry a big stick”, the future president’s written response to the Frenchman displayed a desire for diplomacy, but also a willingness to answer any challenge the Marquis issued.
“Most emphatically, I am not your enemy; if I were, you would know it, for I would be an open one and would not have asked you to my house nor gone to yours. As your final words, however, seem to imply a threat, it is due to myself to say that the statement is not made through any fear of possible consequences to me; I too, as you know, am always on hand and ever ready to hold myself accountable in any way for anything I have said or done.” – T.R.
The Deadliest Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt versus The Marquis de Morès
Roosevelt’s letter seems to have settled the score peacefully. A duel between the two giants would have likely been a bloody affair, as each man was skilled in the weapons of the era. Photos show that T.R. and de Morès each favored 1876 Winchester rifles and Colt revolvers in this period of their lives, (though in later years Roosevelt would go on to praise the 1895 Winchester chambered in .405).
By 1885, Roosevelt had served in the National Guard for three years and had no shortage of courage, but the future Bull Moose had only just moved west and was still learning how to live on the frontier. By all accounts, Teddy was a fine student and would have been a formidable opponent for the bold Frenchman, though we shouldn’t discount de Morès skill with swords and rifles. The Marquis once told the local Dakota newspapers he aspired to go one-on-one with a grizzly and kill it with a knife.
The Roosevelt who later went on to lead the Rough Riders would have been an even more imposing rival to the Marquis, though in 1885 the Frenchman had already seen service in the Algiers and had proven himself deadly with a Winchester. De Morès was quick to challenge anyone who insulted him, and there is no record of him losing any of his many duels.
Though the Marquis himself appears to have had somewhat of a flamboyant reputation among the Dakota locals, his Winchester 1876 .50 Express rifle carries no such frills. The Model 1876 was the first repeating Winchester that could handle a .50 caliber cartridge, ideal for the big game hunting that attracted de Morès to Dakota Territory in the first place.
Included with the rifle is a factory letter and a variety of correspondence tracing the lineage of this gun back to the Marquis. The rifle also comes with a copy of the book, “Marquis de Morès at War in the Bad Lands” by historian Usher L. Burdick, describing the events of de Morès’ gunfight in North Dakota and his final murder trial.
Blaze of Glory
By the time of his last trial in 1885, de Morès’ cattle empire was failing. The brutal winter of 1886 delivered the final blow to his business ambitions, and the Marquis returned to France. After getting caught up in numerous duels, including the fatal wounding of French Captain Armand Mayer, de Morès’ once again found himself in French North Africa, from which he would not return.
Due to his extreme political views, de Morès made numerous enemies in French politics, and some historians speculate that the Marquis’ rivals hired a group of Tuareg Berber tribesmen to act as though they were his guides before assassinating him. In the summer of 1896, the Tuareg turned on de Morès, with their numbers estimated as high as 40. The Marquis offered a fierce resistance, killing and wounding many before he was finally taken down. Like so many legends of the American West, he lived and died by the gun.
De Morès’ Legacy
The Marquis de Morès was a part-time resident of the Badlands for only three years, but the fearless Frenchman left a mark on the region that’s still celebrated today. Chateau de Morès, a popular tourist attraction administered by the State Historical Society of North Dakota, rests on the outskirts of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the two giants of the Dakota Territory sharing an eternal bond through the vast frontier that drew them together in the final decades of the Old West.
A rifle owned by a frontier icon like Marquis de Morès is a rare find for collectors, especially given its extensive documentation and link to the conflict that set the Marquis on a collision course with future president Teddy Roosevelt. Rock Island Auction Company offers a wide variety of desirable frontier guns from the same historic collection at our May 14th-16th Premier event.
As always, if there are any questions regarding consignment, registration, or future auctions, please contact Rock Island Auction Company. Our 2021 auction schedule is now posted on our website, so be sure to go through the listing and start making your plans to visit. All our events adhere to all COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We can’t wait to see you here.
Nemesis of Theodore Roosevelt: The Marquis de Morès is written by for www.rockislandauction.com