Monday, November 21, 2011

Theodore Roosevelt And The River Of Doubt

In 1912, after his unsuccessful bid for a third-term in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt was in search of adventure.

Father John Augustine Zahm, a friend, suggested they find it together in an expedition to the Amazon Rainforest. Roosevelt agreed – and arranged financial support from the American Museum of Natural History.

Kermit, Theodore’s son, didn’t want to participate, having recently become engaged.
But he finally acquiesced to his mother’s wishes to accompany the expedition and protect his father.

Upon their arrival in Brazil, it was suggested they join-up with Candido Rondon, the famous Brazilian explorer. (More about him next week.) Rondon had recently discovered the headwaters of a river he called the Río da Dúvida (The River of Doubt) so-named because no one had ever mapped its course.
And he was anxious to do so.

Here’s a photo of the initial party. Seated left to right are Father Zahm, Rondon, Kermit, the American naturalist George Cherrie, the expedition’s physician, Doctor Miller, four Brazilians and Roosevelt. They set out on the ninth of December, 1913, reached their objective on the 27th of February and set out in dugout canoes to explore the river.

By that time, malaria had infected almost everyone in their party, leaving them all in a constant state of sickness. The food ran out, forcing them to live on starvation diets. The Cinta Larga Indians stalked them constantly, and could have wiped them out at any moment. Some had festering wounds. All had high fevers. 

The river was fraught with rapids, and the heavy dugout canoes were often lost, stopping them for days at a time, while they built new ones. Of the 19 men who set out, only 16 returned. One died from drowning in the rapids, one was murdered and one (the murderer) was left in the jungle where he presumably perished.

Roosevelt suffered a minor leg wound when he jumped into the river to try to prevent a canoe being lost.
The wound festered, and he developea fever. Kermit and the expedition’s doctor, had to treat him day and night. He became delirious and would keep on reciting, again and again, the first stanza of Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

In his rare moments of lucidity, Roosevelt insisted that the expedition continue without him because his condition had become a threat to the survival of the others. But they did not. And, although he never entirely recovered from his ordeal, he was able to return to the United States.

Where he lived on for another five years.

They don’t make Presidents like him anymore.

If you have time for it, here’s a link to the only motion picture in existence of the Roosevelt/Rondon expedition:

It’s about fifteen minutes in length, with the trek downriver beginning at about two-and-a-half minutes in. The titles in quotes are Roosevelt’s words, extracted from Through the Brazilian Wilderness a book he later wrote about his adventure.

The Dyott expedition referred to in the titles, and from which some of the footage is taken, took place in 1927. You can read about George Dyott and his exploits here:

They don’t make explorers like Dyott either.

The river, now called the Rio Roosevelt, winds for about 400 miles (640 km) until it joins the Aripuanã, which then flows into the Madeira, thence into the Amazon.

Leighton – Monday


  1. I think the River of Doubt is a wonderful metaphor for being president of the United States.

  2. The moral to the story is found in two words: Discovery Channel.

    Personally, I can't wait for Snow White's take on "They don't make Presidents like him any more."

  3. Sorry? Sorry? My take??? I'm sooooo sleepy, but it was such a good apple.

    My take, buster, is that we've still got two-fisted politicos here in Amurrica. Look at Governor Mark Sanford, out stalking the length of the Appalachian Trail, all alone - excuse me? He was where?

    Well, never mind.

    Great piece, Leighton. Isn't it funny that in recent years only Jimmy Carter, reviled while he was in office, has made being a former president into an honorable career.

  4. No, they don't make presidents like him anymore. Don't we wish they did?

  5. Teddy Roosevelt, like his equally famous distant cousin, got into politics because he didn't need a job. He became famous when he charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish American war. Teddy was a Republican but he would be drummed out of the party today. He was a Progressive and his mantra was the Square Deal, that all Americans must benefit from the wealth of the country.

    Roosevelt was, for a time, assistant secretary of the Navy. He was the governor of New York, when the Republican party forced their presidential candidate, William McKinley, to choose Roosevelt as his running mate in the election of 1900. Roosevelt was the main reason the ticket was elected. In September, 1901, McKinley was shot, dying a few days later. At 42, Theodore Roosevelt is the youngest man to become president of the United States. John F. Kennedy was, at 43, the youngest man elected to be president of the United States. Teddy was elected as vice-president.

    Roosevelt curbed the power of large corporations,trusts, and became known as the "trust buster." When the United Mine Workers went of strike for higher pay and shorter hours, Roosevelt set up a commission to study the mine workers' demands and then ordered the mine owners to accede to the miners demands. He created the Pure Food and Drug commission, signed into law the meat inspection act, and created a group to oversee laws about the care of dependent children.

    The single most important thing that Roosevelt did, an act that has defined America's place in the world and has informed its foreign policy, was the corollary to the Monroe Doctrine issued in 1905. In 1823, James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, let Europe know that the US would consider any effort by the Old World to interfere in the New World would be seen as aggression requiring intervention by the United States. Monroe applied this to countries in North and South America. He felt obligated to protect the emerging nations of South America to be free from control by Spain and Portugal. The corollary stated that the United States has an obligation to intervene in international affairs to keep emerging countries from being overwhelmed by countries trying to destabilize them. So, Teddy Roosevelt can be blamed for the Vietnam debacle.

    Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were fifth cousins. Eleanor Roosevelt didn't change her name when she got married; she didn't have to. She was Teddy's niece, the daughter of his brother Elliot.

    Another plug for a non-fiction book that engages the reader and teaches a large chunk of US history into the bargain - Joseph Lash's extraordinary ELEANOR AND FRANKLIN.

    Leighton, I apologize for hijacking your post and pulling it way off course but "Roosevelt" gets the history teacher going.

    Tim, I think that this is going to make you far more sleepy than any apple the witch concocted for Snow White.

    In fact, we do make presidents like Teddy Roosevelt. We have one in the White House now but he has been doomed by the oppositional party, the members of which have stood by their pledge to make him fail. It puzzles me that so many people want him to fail when such failure is also a failure of the country. If anyone has benefited from any government program created by the New Deal to the present day, it is beyond my understanding how we can not want it for those who need that same help now. I went to college thanks to the Great Society programs created by Lyndon Johnson.