Theodore Roosevelt crossed my mind recently, prompted by a conversation with comics historian, former Marvel editor, and world’s greatest Roosevelt expert Rick Marschall, which led me to think about the term “Rough Rider” because of course the word seeps into several corners of the dime novel field. Naturally, for every question about history, there is an issue (and typically many issues) which can help point the way towards answering that question. In this case, I chose Young Rough Riders Weekly #64, July 8, 1905 from publisher Street and Smith. As in many such cases, it’s really just a hook into helping us understand the context of the times.
The Issue is a regular column about vintage comics and other vintage periodicals from throughout world history. The idea behind The Issue is simple: for each post, I’ll choose something from my collection and talk about what’s going on in it, and discuss the publishers and creators behind it. And essentially I’m just going to end up stepping through comics history one issue at a time. There is just one rule in The Issue: No recent stuff. Everything will be from before 1940, and most of it will be from before 1920. Regarding the origin and popularity of the term “Rough Rider” in the context of Theodore Roosevelt, Wikipedia tells me:
Wood’s second in command was former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, a strong advocate for the Cuban War of Independence. When Wood was promoted to become commander of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, the regiment became known as “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.” That term was borrowed from Buffalo Bill, who called his travelling Western show “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World”.
One should always be skeptical of Wikipedia and indeed of any history you haven’t confirmed with your own eyes, but let’s see if they’re right. A quick bit of research in various newspaper archives brings me to the obvious conclusion that the phrase “rough rider” started off meaning, basically “horse breaker” or “horse tamer” during the colonial era, both here and in England. By around the time of the American Civil War, the term began to take on a particular military meaning in addition to that, here in America at least — it was part of a cavalryman’s skill set, and being good at it indicated competence and self-sufficiency. By the end of the war, “rough riders” became something akin to a guerrilla cavalry force.
There the meaning of the term sat until the 1880s, when… yes indeed, Buffalo Bill and other showmen came on the scene. Newspaper reports of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and similar shows referred to some of the performers as “rough riders” — in a context that appears to mean what we’d refer to today as rodeo riders — and in particular bull riders. By the early 1890s Buffalo Bill had incorporated the name “rough riders” into the name of his act, as wiki indicates. But again, the usage has evolved somewhat — from descriptions, it’s clear that this now means very very skilled horsemen. It’s been generalized.
From there, the phrase became even more broad, but harkens back to is civil-war-era meaning, such as this bit from an 1896 newspaper: “These last named are in the saddle in the United States Senate, and they are rough riders. They do not intend to allow any wholesome legislation to get through congress…”
This leads us to 1898, Roosevelt, and the Spanish American War, and while Wiki is not completely wrong — Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show certainly did help popularize the term — I think it’s clear that in the context of the cavalry, the meaning of the term is likely more similar to the civil war era meaning.
Speaking of the meanings of phrases, I must leave you with this… while burning through the above research, this little gem from an 1897 newspaper column caught my eye: “Why do they say ‘as smart as a steel trap?’ asked the talkative boarder. I never could see anything particularly intellectual about a steel trap. A steel trap is called smart, explained Mr. Ashbury Peppers, in his sweetest voice, becaus it knows exactly the right time to shut up.”