Dr. Victor Hugo Stickney was a frontier doctor based in Dickinson, Dakota Territory. He is most commonly recognized as the doctor who mended Theodore Roosevelt’s feet after the legendary march of the boat thieves in 1886. During that time, Stickney was the only doctor in all of Western Dakota. Like many other citizens in the area, he had arrived just a few years earlier. Not long after Stickney arrived and became fully acquainted with Western culture on the open range, he wrote a letter to his father, back at home in Vermont. Curiously, this letter, written in either 1883 or 1884, surfaced at the Dickinson Museum Center. The Museum Center staff were kind enough to transcribe this letter and share with us the doctor’s impressions of the Dickinson area, from the same years that Roosevelt first experienced the Dakota Territory and the Little Missouri Badlands.
Stickney’s letter is most telling of the early development of Dickinson. However, his letter also presents a character analysis of people, from cowboys, to hunters, and Native Americans, similar to Roosevelt’s later essay Frontier Types. In this excerpt, Stickney gives his good and bad impressions of the “cowboys” (and Stickney remains true to his profession, demonstrating the perspective of a doctor). We have retained Dr. Stickney’s original spelling, which leaves much to be desired.
…The cattle are looked after by the inveterate cowboy the terror of all peaceable members of society. The cowboy is a psychological curiosity and is noted the world over as being the best revolver shot, the finest horseman, the most enthusiastic swearer, and the worst man in a row that America produces.
…The cowboy in appearance is unique. All that is actually essential for his existance is a revolver…but to make him actually happy give him a pair of leather briches, high healed boots and a set of jingling spurs a red shirt and a sombrero = (Mexican hat) and he is fixed…He never leaves any work behind for the surgeon but always maks a clean job of death. But the cowboy has stearling, Christian qualities which I must not overlook: he never barters on a traid and if you do him a favor he will remember it forever. They stick together like a headache and derange stomach, and if you injure one it is the fight of the whole pack.
Stickney, Victor Hugo. Letter to Father. 1883, 1884 (?). Dickinson Museum Center.
Special thanks to Shanna Shervheim and the Dickinson Museum Center.
Cowboys eating at chuckwagon, n.d. Image from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University.