American President and Adventurer
In addition to his years as the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt was an adventurer and big-game hunter who traveled to numerous remote regions of the world. He also made important discoveries when he and his son, who accompanied him on many expeditions, joined up with Brazilian Colonel Cândido Rondon (1865-1958) in 1914 to explore the River of Doubt deep in the jungles of South America. The wild trip down the River of Doubt provided a great deal of information about this previously unknown waterway, and about the insects and other animals of the area.
Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 27, 1858, as the second of four children to Theodore and Martha Roosevelt. Despite asthma and poor eyesight, the young Roosevelt became an avid sports enthusiast, taking up riding, shooting, and boxing. He also took a particular interest in the natural world. Roosevelt eventually became a student at Harvard University, and was graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1880. During the same year, he married Alice Hathaway Lee. His interests wavered from law to history, and although he could have pursued an academic life, he turned instead to writing and politics.
After writing a history of the War of 1812, Roosevelt was elected to the New York Assembly, where he served from 1882-84. In 1883, his asthma became severe enough that he went to the Dakota Territory in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms. While there, he joined a group of ranchers who were hunting buffalo. This experience triggered a lifelong interest in big-game hunting. His last year on the New York Assembly was one of tragedy on the homefront. Both his mother and his wife died only hours apart on February 14, 1884. His wife died in childbirth, but his daughter, Alice Lee, survived.
Afterward he served as a delegate-at-large to the Chicago Republican National Convention, and continued his writing career at a ranch he had purchased in the Dakota Territory. Some of his books from this period included Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail, two volumes of The Winning of the West, and Essays on Practical Politics. In 1886 he tried for and lost election for mayor of New York. Following this defeat, he traveled to London, where he married Edith Kermit Carow in December of that year.
His political career continued in Washington with his appointment in 1889 as commissioner of the U.S. Civil Service. In 1894 he returned to New York where he took a post as a police commissioner, but a year later he was back in Washington, this time as assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy under President William McKinley. In May 1898, Roosevelt resigned and put together a volunteer cavalry regiment called the Rough Riders. He fought battles in Cuba—many of which were chronicled in Roosevelt's Rough Riders (1889)—and he gained hero's status back in the United States. When he returned, his notoriety allowed him to continue his political career as governor of New York. In 1890 President McKinley ran for reelection with Roosevelt as vice president. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt—now 42 years old—took the oath of office and became the 26th president of the United States. He sought and won reelection, but turned down a third term, instead promoting William Howard Taft, who won the election. Perhaps Roosevelt's most enduring legacy as president were his efforts in the conservation arena: he set aside 125 million acres as forest reserves, established 16 national monuments and 51 wildlife refuges, and doubled the number of national parks.
Without the day-to-day demands of the presidency, Roosevelt went back to his life as an adventurer. He and his oldest son Kermit went to Kenya in 1909 for a nearly year-long hunting and scientific expedition. They traveled through Nairobi, Uganda, Sudan, and Khartoum. Roosevelt recorded their adventures in his book African Game Trails: An Account of the African Wanderings of an American Hunter-Naturalist (1910).
Upon his return to America, he had a fallout with President Taft, and vied unsuccessfully for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination. Undaunted, he then ran for president on the new Progressive Party ticket. During the run for office, Roosevelt faced political opposition and even an assassin's bullet. While he recovered quickly from the bullet wound, he lost the election to Woodrow Wilson.
Now, the former president set his sights on South America. He had planned a speaking tour and a steamer trip, but instead accepted an invitation from Colonel Cândido Rondon, a Brazilian army engineer and experienced explorer, to investigate the River of Doubt. Their journey began with a steamboat ride up the Paraguay River and a canoe trip along the Sepotuba River, and continued by horse and mule to a stream that would join with the River of Doubt. Other than a few miles at the entrance to the river, the waterway remained completely unknown to anyone but the few native people who dotted the forest interior.
Roosevelt, Rondon, and their party, which included Roosevelt's son Kermit, set out on their river adventure in February 1914 during the rainy season. The trip was anything but leisurely. Dangerous rapids capsized their dugout canoes time and time again, sometimes causing the loss of valuable supplies. Portage around rapids meant exhausting, time-consuming trudges through nearly impassable forests. All the while, the men were plagued by incessant, biting insects. Nonetheless, the party was able to map the river and return with specimens of many animals they had encountered along the way.
Following his return to the United States, Roosevelt continued to take an active role in politics until he died at his home on Long Island on January 6, 1919, at the age of 60.
LESLIE A. MERTZ