Teddy Roosevelt’s last hurrah

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115394586832190.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Two of many books written by Theodore Roosevelt.’);

Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858 in New York City, and as a boy, despite poor health, developed a keen interest in the out of doors. Whenever he could, he visited the wilderness areas of upper New York state to study and collect specimens of the fauna and flora. He was an accomplished naturalist by the time he was a teen-ager, and had learned the art of taxidermy to preserve specimens of interest to him. When he entered Harvard, he decided to major in zoology but later changed his plans.

As a young adult, he was devastated by the death of his wife and mother on the same day, and to get away, he journeyed to the Dakota Territory, where he engaged in ranching for a few years. The books he wrote during his stay in the Badlands are considered by many to be classics.

Returning to New York, he became involved in politics and became President William McKinley’s vice president in 1900. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt assumed the presidency at the unheard early age of 42. He was elected on his own to a full term in 1904. Choosing not to run again in 1908, his hand-picked successor Taft won over Bryan.

Immediately after Taft’s inauguration in 1910, T.R. and his son Kermit left for a year-long safari to Africa, where their primary purpose was to collect specimens for the Smithsonian and The American Museum of Natural History. His never-ending thirst for adventure was the driving force behind this endeavor.

Returning home, he decided to seek the presidency again and was bitterly disappointed when his Bull Moose Party lost to Woodrow Wilson in 1914. The itch for adventure was still strong, and he readily accepted an invitation to give a series of lectures in South America.

In 1913, a vast portion of the Amazon Basin was shown on maps as simply a blank spot. Roosevelt could not resist the temptation to organize an expedition to explore part of this area that was about the size of Germany today. The Amazon River had already been thoroughly explored, but many of its tributaries were completely unknown. The government of Brazil encouraged his plan and assigned a veteran guide to assist. Funding was secured from Brazil and various sources in the United States, and Roosevelt was heard to exclaim, “This is my last chance to be a boy.”

Feb. 27, 1914, the group set out to explore the so-called Rio Duvida (River of Doubt), to where it joined the Amazon. Son Kermit, who was working as an engineer in South America at the time, again accompanied his father.

The hardships the group encountered on the some 500-mile, two-month trip, were so great it is amazing any survived (several of the group did not). Planning had been faulty, and the expedition soon faced a severe shortage of food. Venomous snakes and other dangerous animals were a constant threat as well as a tribe of fierce Indians who closely monitored the group. T.R.ordered gifts to be left for the natives, who hunted with poisoned- tipped arrows, to find, and this probably accounts for them not attacking the invaders.

Tropical diseases were prevalent, with most of the party, including Roosevelt, contracting malaria. One day, while assisting with a portage, T.R. severely injured his leg. The wound became infected and nearly cost him his life. He ordered Kermit to leave him behind and go on to the end of the journey, but his son refused to do this. Eventually, the wound partially healed, and he was able to continue.

April 15, 1914, the voyage ended when they finally reached the Amazon. The contribution to the geography of the region so impressed the Brazilian government they renamed the river Rio de Roosevelt.T.R. was so devastated by the illnesses he contracted on the expedition that he never fully regained his health, though he did try to organize a regiment to fight in World War I. He was more or less an invalid until the stout heart finally gave out, and he died in his sleep at his home on Oyster Bay, N.Y. in 1919. He was only 61, but what a life the old Bull Moose had led.

Last year, my eldest son who lives in upstate New York, attended a yard sale and found two first editions of T. R.’s books: Through the Brazilian Wilderness and African Game Trails, which he purchased for 25 cents each and sent them to me. Though the books were damaged by wear and tear, I have never appreciated a gift more.

Perhaps, if we look hard enough, we will find a person the caliber of Theodore Roosevelt to occupy the White House in 2008.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the July 26-Aug. 1, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!