Teddy Roosevelt’s Bar Fight: ‘If I’ve Got to, I’ve Got to’

On September 26 2019 an Imgur user shared the following Teddy Roosevelt “fun fact” meme:

A post titled “Messing with [the] wrong guy” and referencing its subject as “Teddy Badass Roosevelt,” featured a meme depicting the twenty-sixth president with text that read:

did you know?

A man once pointed two guns at Teddy Roosevelt and insisted that he pour drinks for the entire bar. Teddy said, “Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,” then stood up, knocked the guy out with three punches, and took his guns away.

Concurrently, the meme was shared to Reddit’s r/Iamactuallyverybadass (by the same karma farmer behind a separate then-recent fact check):

The meme’s bottom text referenced the site DidYouKnowFacts.com, but did not include a direct link. On DidYouKnowFacts.com, the image was featured in a July 2017 post, consisting primarily of the text on the meme itself.

An image used to illustrate the meme was credited to Wikimedia Commons. It was taken in 1898, belongs to the Library of Congress, and shows Roosevelt in his uniform for the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry in the Spanish-American War. Its caption stated:

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, in rough rider uniform, full-length portrait, standing and facing slightly left.

On the National Parks Service’s official website, the story is included on a page titled simply “Roosevelt’s Bar Fight.” According to that page, the incident likely took place in 1884 at Nolan’s Hotel in Mingusville, while Roosevelt was traveling across “the prairies of western Dakota Territory and eastern Montana Territory.” Roosevelt’s autobiography is quoted:

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 next morning,” notes the page drily, “the bully had left town on a freight train.”

The claim did appear in Theodore Roosevelt: The Rough Riders, An Autobiography, a two-volume book published in 2004. That book included Roosevelt’s 1899 The Rough Riders, as well as his 1913 autobiography (An Autobiography). The portion excerpted above was on pages 377 and 378 of the combined books, and both are available on Google Books.

Roosevelt included the story in a letter he wrote to Secretary of State John Hay. Roosevelt’s complete letter to Hay, dated in 1903, was presented and preserved by the Harvard College Library.

Although history memes are not infrequently misleading or inaccurate, the story about Teddy Roosevelt punching, knocking out, and disarming a gunslinger accurately represents a story relayed by Roosevelt in his 1913 autobiography. As the meme states, Roosevelt recalled the man’s uncouth behavior and threats, Roosevelt struck him three times, the man was presumably knocked out when he “struck the corner of the bar,” and Roosevelt subsequently “took away his guns.”