Editor’s note: Below is the final entry in a series on Theodore Roosevelt. It is recommended that visitors read parts one and two before proceeding to part three. Part one delves into the birth and early life of the Teddy Roosevelt brand, whereas part two explores Roosevelt the president as the brand reaches its full blossom. Part three is Roosevelt after the White House—the explorer.
Therefore, submitted for your approval…
Part Three of Three: Popular after leaving office in 1909 Roosevelt was sought out to mount a serious run for the presidency again in 1912. Believing that his successor, William Howard Taft, had failed to continue his program of reform, TR threw his hat into the ring as a candidate for the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party. Although defeated by Democrat Woodrow Wilson, his efforts resulted in the creation of one of the most significant third parties in U.S. history.
During his campaigning and while in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Roosevelt was shot in the chest as he entered the auditorium to give a campaign speech. John Schrank, the shooter and a Bavarian immigrant, who tended bar in New York, was immediately arrested. When interrogated by police, it was learned he had shot Roosevelt because he was concerned that a third term would establish a monarchy in the United States. Amazingly, Roosevelt was saved by his heavy wool army overcoat, the fifty page manuscript of his speech folded in half, and a steel glass case, which he carried in his right breast pocket. Still the bullet managed to penetrate five inches deep into his upper chest, lodging near his rib cage. Incredibly, Roosevelt entered the auditorium with blood dripping down his arm, facing a terrified and transfixed audience he roared, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!” The audience roared with applause and laughter for several minutes.
Later in New York’s Madison Garden, Roosevelt delivered what was to be his last great campaign speech. His audience kept up the boisterous cheering for forty-one minutes before he was allowed to begin his speech. The time was 10:03 pm, and he still carried the bullet lodged in his chest. And without the aid of a microphone, Roosevelt delivers one of the greatest speeches of his political career. Several times during the speech, cheering from the audience interrupts him. To the people in the hall, and to millions of Americans, Roosevelt was their hero. Even as he stood on stage, giving his speech, he knew he would lose the election in six days, thus ending his life in the political spotlight. He would later become reviled by many and then ignored. This was what gave Roosevelt nightmares.
Roosevelt spent that winter hunkered down at Sagamore Hill with his wife, Edith, and youngest daughter, Ethel. He was fifty-four years old and had already lived a full life. In February 1913, a letter arrived from the Museo Social in Buenas Aires that would change his life. Its Board of Directors wanted Roosevelt to be a guest lecturer. This appealed to Roosevelt’s Achilles’ heel, his vanity, especially since he was allowed to define all the terms of his visit while in Argentina. Although Roosevelt inherited a large estate from his father most of the inheritance had been spent on elections and living expenses. He was concerned about what he would be leaving to his children, and was determined to provide them with some inheritance. Kermit, his youngest son, had been working in Brazil for the past year, and he was also driven by the need to spend time with him.
But there was another factor involved in his decision. South America’s vast, largely unexplored interior was calling his adventuresome soul and he felt the need for one last adventure. Following his defeat in 1909, he and Kermit went to Africa on a safari, there was only one problem, according to Roosevelt, Africa had become tame and there were no unknown lands left to be explored. So, when he decided to accept the offer to lecture in Brazil, no one who knew Roosevelt was surprised. For Roosevelt this trip would also allow him to return to his youth as a naturalist. When he was only fourteen he was already providing specimens to New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the same museum his father helped found in 1869. Although Roosevelt chose politics over science, he never lost his love for natural history.
He knew the Argentine museum’s invitation would not cover his plans for exploration while there so he began soliciting help from friends and business contacts made during his long political career. He also sought and gained assistance from the Museum of Natural History. Henry Fairfield Osborne known as “Fair” by Roosevelt had been a friend for several years and was President of the museum. The first scientist to hold this position and would do so for twenty-five years. Together they assembled a team for exploring the Amazon and began to make plans.
|Roosevelt aboard the Vandyck
On October 18, 1913 the Vandyck landed in Bahia, Brazil. In the harbor, Kermit waited on a flag-draped launch. Because of TR’s popularity there were thousands of Brazilians waiting to greet him. His reputation was known in South America and he was revered. However, Roosevelt was anxious to get ashore, dispense with the greetings, and leave for the city of Rio de Janeiro. He wanted to be there by October 21 because he was anxious to meet Lauro Muller, Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Muller was to act on behalf of Don Domicio de Gama, Brazil’s Ambassador to the United States, who volunteered to help Roosevelt during his expedition efforts in Brazil. It was also de Gama who planned this expedition with the help of Roosevelt’s friend and fellow traveler, George Cherrie. In addition to Cherrie, there were Anthony Fiala, Father John Zahm, Kermit Roosevelt, Frank Harper and Leo Miller who would accompany Roosevelt on the Amazon expedition.
During his time with Roosevelt, Muller recognized quickly that the trip down the Amazon would not present the challenge Roosevelt desired. With a single question Muller was to change history. He made Roosevelt an offer to go down an unknown river. The river, Rio da Duvida (The River of Doubt) was remote, unknown, mysterious, and by its very name was a warning to would-be explorers. Another significant point that should be known is it was Colonel Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon who discovered the rivers source and named the river. Even when he reported his findings, very little was known about the river’s course or, its character. Randon is significant because he was Brazil’s top guide and would lead the party into the Amazon region. He was not the typical guide; he had spent half his life exploring the Amazon and traversed roughly fourteen thousand miles of wilderness in Brazil that was unmapped and unknown. He also made it clear at the time he was requested to join the expedition, that he would do so provided the expedition would be a scientific endeavor.
No maps existed, every eddy, waterfall, and direction, were unknown. Both sides of Rio da Duvida were covered in dense jungle, sometimes blocking out the sun for miles. Wild Indians that lived in the jungle preyed on explorers invading their territory. Upon hearing Muller’s proposal to explore this uncharted river, combined with being eager for adventure, Roosevelt’s answer was immediate. This was a perfect storm scenario. Instantly, Muller was regretting his proposal for Roosevelt to descend the River of Doubt.
Now that Roosevelt had made his decision to explore the River of Doubt, he had to convince his fellow explorers, and equally important, his financial backers at the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. When the news of Roosevelt’s decision was presented to Henry Fairfield Osborne, president of the Museum of Natural History, he totally rejected the idea. Osbourne did not want the museum to assume any responsibility should Roosevelt not survive the expedition.
For the next few months, while correspondence flowed back and forth between Roosevelt and Osborne, TR honored the terms of his agreement, traveling throughout Brazil and South America giving lectures. It was while he was in Chile that he learned not everyone appreciated his tenure as President. One of his significant accomplishments was the negotiation and construction of the Panama Canal. The students at the University of Santiago opposed the canal and everything Roosevelt stood for, while there a heated debate with the former Chilean Ambassador to the United States, who was leading the charge against the Panama Canal, took place and Roosevelt did not back down. In addition to the debate, a speech in Chili won over the crowd of antagonists. Once again he had his audience in his pocket by the time his speech ended. The old lion had entered the den of his detractors and with his debate performance and impassioned speech, had won the crowd over. He never backed down nor apologized for his actions, he knew the Panama Canal was the right decision, and his decision would prove to be on the right side of history.
With his obligations met, he left to meet Rondon at the juncture of the Paraguay and Apa rivers on Brazil’s southern borders to begin the journey to the headwaters of the River of Doubt. Roosevelt felt like a boy again. He had told Osborne in his last correspondence that he had lived the lives of nine men and that if he was to leave his bones in South America, he was prepared to do so.
|Roosevelt with fellow explorers on the river
The trip was begun, perhaps unwisely, on December 9, 1913, the height of the rainy season. Prior to this expedition, no naturalist had penetrated deep into the central region of Brazil that ran between the mighty Amazon and La Plata river systems. Roosevelt's entourage endured a 900-mile trek, including a 40-day excursion across the Paraguay-Amazon divide, leading to the headwaters of the River of Doubt.
During this portion of the expedition, a meeting among the group took place and it was decided that Roosevelt and those he selected would descend the River of Doubt, while other members would explore other rivers. Roosevelt's crew consisted of his 24-year-old son Kermit, Colonel Rondon, a naturalist sent by the American Museum of Natural History, named George K. Cherrie, Brazilian Lieutenant Joao Lyra, team physician Dr. Cajazeira, and sixteen highly skilled camaradas, or paddlers. Once the crew reached the River of Doubt, all travel would be made in seven dugout canoes.
|Portage around the rapid
Dangerous rapids were the norm. The river rose and fell in the space of a few hundred yards. In spots, the river narrowed to less than two yards between unforgiving boulders.
The river claimed its first member of the expedition on March 15 when one of the camaradas, a man named Simplicio, drowned while attempting to rescue Kermit's overturned canoe. The turbulent rapids tossed the fragile boats around and scattered precious food rations. With dwindling food supplies, Roosevelt and his men looked to the jungle shores for sustenance. Monkey meat became a diet staple.
Along with the lack of food, the men also battled various other jungle perils: fever and painful insect bites. Roosevelt recounted:
"The little bees were in such swarms as to be a nuisance. Many small stinging bees were with them, which stung badly. We were bitten by huge horse-flies, the size of bumblebees. More serious annoyance was caused by the pium and boroshuda flies during the hours of daylight, and by the polvora, the sand-flies, after dark. ...All of us suffered more or less, our hands and feet swelling slightly..."
Roosevelt himself came so near to death—from a leg injury and a soaring fever—that he counseled the rest to go on without him. They would not. He even considered suicide so the crew would continue on without him.
On April 27, 1913, Theodore Roosevelt with the help of rubber trappers reached the end of the River of Doubt and arrived in Sao Joao. The trip was considered a success in that it provided information necessary to map, for the first time ever, the interior of Brazil. Over 2,000 species of birds and 500 mammals had been collected for further study. The river was renamed Roosevelt River by the Brazilian government.
The trip exacted a heavy toll on the once indefatigable Theodore Roosevelt. Writing to a friend, TR confessed, "The Brazilian wilderness stole away 10 years of my life." Once home, Roosevelt faced detractors who said he did not make the trip that he did. For the next several years he fought for recognition of his Brazilian adventure. Roosevelt got his grand adventure, leaving him with tales that rivaled those from Africa and the Dakotas.
On January 9, 1919, while with the occupying army in Germany, Kermit received a telegram from his brother Archie, it simply read, “The old lion is dead.” A 60-year old Roosevelt had died in bed at his beloved home, Sagamore Hill. His death was attributed to cardiovascular disease. Two days later, Theodore Roosevelt was buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery, just down the road from his longtime home. Roosevelt was finally at peace, he had fought the good fight, and he had finished the race, having lived every day of his life like it was his last day.