মুখ্য The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt and His Adventures in the Wilderness

The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt and His Adventures in the Wilderness

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The surprising story of intrepid naturalist Theodore Roosevelt and how his lifelong passion for the natural world set the stage for America's wildlife conservation movement.
Perhaps no American president is more associated with nature and wildlife than Theodore Roosevelt, a prodigious hunter and adventurer and an ardent conservationist. We think of Roosevelt as an original, yet inThe Naturalist, Darrin Lunde shows how from his earliest days Roosevelt actively modeled himself in the proud tradition of museum naturalists—the men who pioneered a key branch of American biology through their desire to collect animal specimens and develop a taxonomy of the natural world. The influence these men would have on Roosevelt would shape not just his personality but his career, informing his work as a politician and statesman and ultimately affecting generations of Americans' relationship to this country's wilderness. Pulling from  Roosevelt's diaries and expedition journals, Lunde constructs a brilliantly researched, singularly insightful history that reveals the roots of Roosevelt’s enduring naturalist legacy through the group little-known men whose work and lives defined his own.
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DARRIN LUNDE is a Supervisory Museum Specialist in the Division of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C. Previously he was Collections Manager for the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City. As a museum naturalist, he has conducted fieldwork throughout the world and has named more than a dozen new species of mammals. He lives in Maryland.

For Sakiko

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Pages fm1.1, p01.1, p02.1, and p03.1: Library of Congress.

Photograph insert: 520.11-004, Houghton Library, Harvard University (pai1.1); 560.11-020, Houghton Library, Harvard University (pai1.2); Image 337999, American Museum of Natural History Library (pai1.3); 520.12-17, Houghton Library, Harvard University (pai1.4); 570.R67a-001, Houghton Library, Harvard University (pai1.5); 570.R67ed-003, Houghton Library, Harvard University (pai1.6); 570.P69a-11, Houghton Library, Harvard University (pai1.7); Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image 76-4354 (pai1.8); Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image MAH-46853 (pai1.9); Library of Congress (pai1.10 and pai1.11); 560.51-1903-031, Houghton Library, Harvard University (pai1.12); Image 31715, American Museum of Natural History Library (pai1.13); Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image 82-3231 (pai1.14); Library of Congress (pai1.15); 560.61-053, Houghton Library, Harvard University (pai1.16); Reproduced from African Game Trails, 1908, by Theodore Roosevelt (pai1.17); 560.61-148, Houghton Library, Harvard University (pai1.18); Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image 95-253. (pai1.19); Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image NHB-24881 (pai1.20); American Museum of Natural History Library, Image 330591 (pai1.21); American Museum of Natural History Library, Image 319065 (pai1.22); Megan Krol (pai1.23).

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As the most formal space in the Roosevelt home, the front parlor was generally reserved for receiving the most distinguished guests. On the night of;  April 8, 1869, it was dazzling under the light of its great cut-glass chandelier, with some of the wealthiest philanthropists in the city milling about below. To the Roosevelt children peering in from the hallways, it was clear that this was an important night, and if one of the guests seemed a little more anxious to them than the others, it was probably Albert S. Bickmore. Unlike the other men in the room—all New York elites—Bickmore had no prestigious pedigree, little money, and only average academic credentials. But he did have unbounded enthusiasm for the dream that had carried him into the Roosevelt home that night: he wanted to found a natural-history museum in the heart of New York City.

Bickmore hailed from Maine, where he lived an idyllic life nestled between the forest and the sea. He grew up watching great schools of mackerel and herring swim each spring, and in summer he gathered bushels of giant lobsters at low tide. Fall brought basking seals almost to his doorstep, and all year long he explored the old Penobscot trails that meandered through the woods behind his house. Like Spencer Baird before him, he always knew he wanted to be a naturalist, ultimately making his way to Harvard to study under an influential professor named Louis Agassiz. A Swiss biologist and geologist, Agassiz had brought to America a very different kind of naturalism that tended to reduce animal study to the animal’s component parts. This was a much more European style of nature study—one that used microscopes to zero in on minute anatomical complexities. While American naturalists looked to the frontier for new species to discover, Agassiz lost himself in the infinite details of animals, especially of fish and sea creatures found not far from his home. The professor was eager to study more specimens than he could ever hope to personally collect, and he printed thousands of copies of a pamphlet describing how to preserve fish for study. Sending these out, he received specimens from hundreds of amateur naturalists all over America. The Agassiz team’s findings began to pile up at Harvard, filling the basement to the point that Agassiz needed the university to build him his own museum. Agassiz’s new museum—later named the Museum of Comparative Zoology—finally opened its door to the public in November 1860.

Arriving at the Museum of Comparative Zoology as a Harvard student, Albert Bickmore found Agassiz amid a jumble of amber jars full of dead animals. The broad-shouldered, square-jawed Agassiz barely looked up from his work as he handed Bickmore a jar with a sea urchin in it and told him to make a study of it. This was the eccentric Agassiz’s standard entrance exam. “You will either become utterly weary of the task, or else you will be so completely fascinated with it as to devote your whole life to the pursuit of our science,” he told Bickmore as he waved him out of the room. Of course, the young student passed the test.

But Bickmore found life at Harvard more oppressive than enlightening. Agassiz told his students they were forbidden to publish, barred from seeking employment, and could not even plan a simple field trip without his permission. Agassiz controlled everything, stifling his students, and after two years of languishing in Agassiz’s shadow, Bickmore let his mentor know he was looking for a way out. Infuriated by what he perceived to be a lack of gratitude and loyalty, Agassiz refused to consider Bickmore for a permanent position in his own Museum of Comparative Zoology, essentially shutting him out of any gainful museum employment.

But his experience with the domineering professor was not wholly without value. In addition to studying under Agassiz, Bickmore had been making his own independent study of Agassiz. As he watched him charm Boston’s wealthy elite for donations, Bickmore realized that Agassiz had made a mistake building his museum in the sleepy town of Cambridge, as all the important museums of Europe were centered in major cities. If a museum is to become great, Bickmore thought, does it not need to be near the heart of a nation’s wealth and power? And yet no such museum existed in New York City, the commercial capital of America. He became increasingly certain that he could found his own museum; all he needed were enough specimens to convince the bankers and philanthropists of the country’s biggest city to back him. So Albert Bickmore left Harvard intent on founding his own museum in New York, one that he insisted would be run on “democratic principles,” in sharp contrast to the “dictatorial methods” employed at Cambridge. Bickmore, like Peale before him, held strongly to the distinctly American belief that museums needed to be accessible to everyone.

Inspired, he drafted a proposal for his museum and sailed off to collect specimens in remote Asia. Armed with his two most valuable possessions—his Bible and his plan—Bickmore spent the next three years collecting birds and shells throughout Borneo, Java, and the Spice Islands. His main purpose was to amass “the beautiful shells of those seas,” and he followed this trip with a year-and-a-half-long sojourn through China, Japan, and Siberia. On his return he wrote a book about his adventures called Travels in the East Indian Archipelago—one that matches David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels in its thrilling illustrations, especially the drawing depicting Bickmore clinging to the deeply rooted fern that saved him from falling into a volcano.

Albert Bickmore returned home, a robust specimen collection in hand, just as the nation was rebuilding after the Civil War and its captains of industry were amassing great wealth. Wealthy men began thinking and talking about millions of dollars instead of mere thousands. Some of these same Americans were also painfully aware of their inferiority to Europeans in matters that ranged from architecture to the arts and the sciences, and they hoped that their money and influence could correct that. All these circumstances coalesced to create the perfect climate for speculation in the world of museums.

Theodore Roosevelt Sr. was among those seeking to elevate America’s cultural heritage, and together with Albert Bickmore he hoped to do his part by founding a great natural-history museum. American scientific advancement (and his son’s interest in the subject) aside, the widespread Victorian belief that nature had a strong moralizing effect was also a motivating factor. Being a very moral man himself, Roosevelt considered the construction of a natural-history museum one of his greatest endeavors.

Bickmore also shared some of Roosevelt’s belief in muscular Christianity. Both men saw nature as a link to a simpler and more honest time, before the corrupting influence of urban life, and they valued natural-history collecting for the virtues of manly struggle it embodied. They even shared a similar visage, with full beards and serious eyes, and young Theodore likely saw in Bickmore the ideals of his father.

The 1869 meeting in the front parlor of the Roosevelt home was the culmination of months of discussions in which Roosevelt Sr. played a lead role. The men had gathered on East 20th Street to draft a charter and elect the museum’s first officers. More contentious than the parliamentary plans was the selection of a name befitting such a grand institution. In the end, it was Bickmore who came up with one they would all agree upon. Their new institution would be called the American Museum of Natural History—and although P. T. Barnum’s dime museum bearing the same name was still fresh in the minds of New York citizens, this uptown establishment would be something completely different.

Theodore was but ten years old when the American Museum of Natural History was officially founded, yet he was already keenly interested in the subject. The elder Roosevelt even ensured his son was present to watch as Bickmore unpacked the museum’s first specimens. Besides the Spice Islands specimens, the collection included more than three thousand items from the cabinet of the late French naturalist Édouard Verreaux, with hundreds of birds and small mammals. Also among Verreaux’s collection was the first specimen officially entered in the museum’s catalogue book—a snarling lion.

The holdings of the early museum soon doubled when the museum purchased more than four thousand mounted birds, six hundred mounted mammals, and two thousand fishes and reptiles from the heir of the Prussian prince Alexander Philipp Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied. Maximilian’s explorations of southeastern Brazil and travels in the American West in the first half of the nineteenth century had brought him international renown as a naturalist and ethnographer. He had had all his specimens expertly mounted, and at the time of their purchase, the American Museum bragged that “the cost of mounting this collection exceeds the price we paid for it.” There also came a flood of many smaller donations, including a fur seal, a giraffe, and a baboon from P. T. Barnum, along with a number of animals from the nearby Central Park Menagerie. Wishing to contribute, Theodore made an early donation of his own, and an annual report records the acquisition of one bat, twelve mice, one turtle, a red-squirrel skull, and four birds’ eggs.

Once the museum was fully operational, Theodore visited regularly. The American Museum of Natural History was at first temporarily housed on the top floors of the old Army Arsenal Building on the southeast corner of Central Park, not very far from the Roosevelts’ home. It would be five more years before the collection would move farther uptown to its permanent home on Central Park West. There, in 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant laid the cornerstone for “building one” of the American Museum of Natural History, a quaint Victorian structure that would eventually grow into a campus of more than thirty buildings.

Being so well-connected, Theodore could have aimed for a respectable career as an “armchair naturalist” at the American Museum. He easily might have taken one of the high-ceilinged offices on the top floor and from one of its arched windows peered out across Central Park in the direction of his home, describing new species from the comfort of a study. But Theodore was motivated to pursue his passion in a way that challenged him—thanks, in no small part, to his father.


MR. ROOSEVELT WAS deeply bothered by his son’s poor health, and he resorted to desperate measures to make the boy well. He found that caffeine sometimes helped ease Theodore’s asthma, so Teddy started drinking coffee at a very early age. Nicotine was also thought to help, and there are sadly comical accounts of little asthmatic Theodore smoking fat cigars in bed. After years of failed treatments, Roosevelt Sr. was persuaded by doctors that perhaps the one thing Theodore needed most was a change of scenery.

In the span of just a few months in the spring and summer of 1870, the Roosevelts traveled all over the Northeast in search of the perfect conditions to alleviate young Theodore’s health problems. Based at the family’s summer home in the Bronx’s Spuyten Duyvil, Theodore visited relatives in Philadelphia, went to water-cure spas in Saratoga Springs, and then ventured to Oyster Bay on Long Island before heading back up to central New York State, enduring more water-cure spas in Richfield Springs. “Of course I came here because I was sick,” he wrote to his beloved sister Anna, adding that he had been “several times sick” that season.

Theodore was always happy to get out of New York City and into the country, where he had the freedom of the great outdoors. There he could swim, ride his pony, and play in the woods. Always the naturalist, he dabbled in studying wild mice, outsourcing some collecting to the townsfolk by announcing that he would pay ten cents for every mouse and a whopping thirty-five cents for every family of mice delivered in good condition. Unfortunately, Theodore had to leave for another stop on his cure tour before he could make good on his promise, leaving Anna to deal with the droves of “clamoring country people” who “demanded their ten-cent pieces or the larger sum irrelevantly offered by the absentee young naturalist.”

In the end, Theodore’s summer travels were no more effective in curing his asthma than caffeine, nicotine, or brisk midnight rides. He returned to Manhattan just as sickly as ever. A doctor examining him found the boy still short, frail, and with a chest that seemed too small for his body. This news was a blow to Roosevelt Sr., who once again attempted to take charge of a situation that he increasingly felt was out of his control.

In the fall of 1870, on the eve of Theodore’s twelfth birthday, his father sat him down for a talk that would completely reframe the younger Roosevelt’s life. Rest cures weren’t working; water spas did nothing. There seemed to be no effective treatment that would improve his son’s health. Drawing on his background as a muscular Christian, Mr. Roosevelt gravely explained, “You have the mind, but you have not the body, and without the help of the body, the mind cannot go as far as it should.” The conversation was a last resort, and, knowing that Theodore was a determined little boy, he insisted: “You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”

It was a challenge, and one that had been building up slowly over the years, although never expressed with the same force as it was then. Struggling with his asthma, his diarrhea, and his constant headaches and fevers, young Theodore was acutely aware of how his father felt about his physical shortcomings. He knew that his father loved him—that he would do anything to ease his discomfort—but he also keenly felt his disappointment. As the years went by, Theodore’s health was not improving, and the unspoken tension between father and son exacerbated the problem, culminating in this stern warning.

Theodore was determined to build up his physical strength. There would be no more excuses and no more accepting the fate of an invalid—he could transform his body, and he was determined that he would. But his father’s words profoundly affected him in another way as well. His whole outlook changed: no longer would Theodore tolerate weakness in anyone.

Determined to make his father proud and prove to himself that he could be physically fit if he willed it hard enough, Theodore enrolled in Wood’s Gymnasium on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The gym was known for turning out heavyweight fighters, but little Theodore was escorted to his first session by his mother. Seated on a big settee at one end of the gym, Mrs. Roosevelt watched as her son wended his way through a roomful of sweaty men. He headed straight for the chest weight machines, and, standing with his left foot planted well forward, he pumped a featherweight’s load of iron. Slowly at first, and with a slight tremor in his arms, he raised and lowered the weights until he was able to lift them with a machinelike rhythm.

The workouts were pure toil, but by the end of his first session Theodore’s determination was enough to convince his father to install a complete set of exercise equipment on the open-air porch of their home’s second floor. Now Theodore could work out whenever he pleased—which, evidently, was often. He wanted desperately to become strong and prove himself to his father. Favoring the parallel bars, he continued his exercise regime all winter and into spring, and as the girth of his chest increased, the severity of his asthma attacks appeared to Roosevelt Sr. to have diminished. (In truth, though, Theodore still suffered periodic asthma attacks—he simply got better at hiding them.)

Whatever their effects on his illnesses, Theodore’s workouts did have the undeniable effect of transforming him from a frail and timid boy to one full of courage and vitality. No longer content merely reading Livingstone’s and Reid’s adventure stories, he now looked forward to actually having a few adventures of his own. His chance came soon enough, as the family was already making plans to visit the Adirondack Mountains.


THE ADIRONDACKS COVER much of the northern part of New York State, forming a mosaic of rocky hills and boggy valleys so impenetrable that they remained virtually unexplored wilderness until well into the nineteenth century. Mountainous only in the high-peaks area of the Northeast, most of the region consists of gently rolling hills forested with patchworks of red spruce, yellow birch, black cherry, and maple that shimmer with color in the fall—not a true mountain range so much as a vast, eroded dome of uplifted rock. What make the Adirondacks so impassable are the valleys, with their berry-choked bogs and dense mats of elfin moss beneath spindly tamaracks and cedars. This is where the black bears come down to feed after emerging from their dens in springtime. Beaver dams intersect cool, hemlock-lined brooks, creating a vast network of shallow ponds where an occasional moose can be seen knee-deep in the water.

The Roosevelts left New York City on August 1, 1871. Their party included Theodore, his parents, his two sisters and brother, two sets of aunts and uncles, and his cousin West, who was just about the same age as Theodore. They began with a leisurely stay on Lake George in New York, and the three young boys quickly demonstrated their unbridled enthusiasm for the outdoors by exploring the rural paradise. They searched the ruins of Fort George, took turns shooting an air gun, visited a Native American encampment, rowed to an island in the lake, swam offshore, ascended a small mountain, and climbed some trees atop that mountain—all in one day. If Roosevelt Sr. had any reservations about his son’s readiness for a camping trip, he almost certainly didn’t after that first day.

Continuing north up Lake Champlain to Plattsburgh, the visitors hired two stagecoaches and turned west, away from the settled lowlands of the Champlain Valley and deeper into the true wilderness of the Adirondacks. Theodore and cousin West rode with the driver up top, who regaled them with stories of wolves and bears before they strategically changed their seats to the rear storage rack. Dangling their feet off the back of the stagecoach, they could easily jump off to investigate anything interesting they saw along the way—animal tracks, birds, and even unusual mosses and ferns. Ultimately the boys exhausted themselves, and after they were summoned inside the stagecoach, they promptly fell asleep, not waking until they had arrived at the family’s destination, Paul Smith’s lodge.

Paul Smith’s was the leading Adirondack resort hotel, still run by its namesake—a large jovial man with a hearty laugh. Smith spoiled his guests with home-cooked meals of fresh game he had hunted himself. Surrounded by dense conifer forest, the lodge offered spectacular views of St. Regis Lake. Giant pileated woodpeckers hammered in the treetops, and curious gray jays chuckled in the understory; these were nothing like the birds Theodore was used to seeing, and he must have been raring to get out into the woods.

But the Roosevelts began their first day in the mountains in another sort of spiritual communion—attending a wilderness church service, as it was a Sunday when they arrived. Teddy sat through the sermon, likely fidgeting as he thought about all that awaited him outdoors. It had been a full week since their departure from New York City, and Theodore was eager for his first adventure. After the services let out, the family “went to a sort of half swamp,” where Theodore caught and killed a common snake and several species of frogs for his collection, classifying all of them in his diary using their appropriate Latin names. His real adventure would begin the next day.

Adirondack mornings are serene, and at an hour when the streets of New York City were already baking in the hot summer sun, Theodore found the shores of St. Regis Lake surprisingly chilly. The last of the morning mist was dissipating over the water’s surface as the Roosevelt boys, together with Mr. Roosevelt and their guides, slid their three birchbark canoes into the water. Loons cried out eerily in the distance. As he gently paddled south, Theodore could look over his shoulder and watch the rustic outline of their lodge diminishing against a backdrop of seemingly limitless white pines.

After hours of water travel came an overland carry, and the party dragged their canoes through the woods behind horse-drawn sledges. They traveled miles through the forest and ate lunch under their upturned canoes when a thunderstorm hit.

Theodore was in heaven. Later, he would refer to his Adirondack days as his introduction to and first inspiration for preserving wilderness. The fact that such wilderness existed so close to his home was especially moving. The remote wilds of Africa that he often read about in books seemed impossibly far off, but in the Adirondacks he found a wilderness that felt very much his own.

Canoeing farther down the forest stream, they passed through two small rapids, bringing them to the junction of a much larger stream, where they pitched their tents. The campers had to live off the land, and the Roosevelts did a great deal of fishing. (Although the guides hooked trout, Theodore caught nothing, thus beginning his lifelong aversion to the sport.)

The Roosevelts depended wholly on their guides. Part practical helpmate and part wilderness sage, the best Adirondack guides enthralled their clients with the majesty of nature, leading them effortlessly through the wilderness by day and keeping them amused with tales of the animals that roamed the forests by night. One of the Roosevelt guides, a man named Mose, told a particularly chilling story of a winter hunt that had ended with an encounter with a mountain lion. For young Theodore, campsite tales like this—ones of sudden danger—only increased the wilderness’s allure. Later in life, Roosevelt’s own experience would prove that the North American mountain lion is not nearly so threatening, but that day in the Adirondacks, he was sure Mose was just like David Livingstone, narrowly escaping the jaws of a big cat.

As the Roosevelts traveled through the wilderness, Theodore, his brother Elliott, and his cousin West tipped their canoe, drenching themselves and all their gear. Their spirits, however, were hardly dampened, and they spent most of the rest of the day reenacting Mose’s encounter with the mountain lion. Playing the part of the lion, the guide climbed a tree, but the boys chopped it down. When he dashed to a second tree, the boys pulled him down by his feet, and from a third tree they jabbed at their prey with sharpened sticks until Mose could take no more. When finally it was too dark for playing games, Theodore wrapped himself in a thick wool blanket in front of the campfire and struggled to stay awake as his father read aloud from his copy of The Last of the Mohicans.

The days came and went, each full of adventure and opportunity. Theodore Jr. kept a meticulous diary of his time “in the bush,” as he called it, and what is most impressive about the account, besides the group’s ambitious itinerary, was the boy’s precocious knowledge of the fauna and his expert command of scientific names. Covering the entire month of August, Roosevelt’s accounts of his trip included references to no fewer than thirty species, ranging from the hamster mouse to wolves, from bald eagles to salamanders, all with Latin identifiers meticulously transcribed in boyish scrawl; Roosevelt had made such a study of his father’s library that most sightings were augmented by supporting descriptions of the creatures’ natural history.

The trip was Theodore’s first taste of the real wilderness, and although he didn’t wrestle any bears the way the boys in his books did, he saw the tracks the bears made. He didn’t have any near-escapes from mountain lions, but he skulked around the mountains they wandered. He was finally having his own wilderness adventure. Young Roosevelt had not only survived the endurance tests of the Adirondacks, but he had proven himself more than capable of handling the outdoors’ physical challenges—all while compiling a notebook full of data. The whole experience instilled him with a new confidence. He now felt he could embody the adventurous naturalist who lived between the covers of his favorite books—books that captured the spirit of what his father considered an ideal son.

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The country is the place for children, and if not the country, a city small enough so that one can get out into the country.


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Along the cobblestone streets of New York City, a small and somewhat pink-faced boy wandered down Broadway, dwarfed by the towering wall of storefronts at his side. Still sporting a full head of baby curls, the child seemed barely old enough to be out in the city alone, and he looked frail, as if he might have been sick.

Horse-drawn carriages rattled by, dropping off elegant women in hoop-skirted dresses and big hats. Gathering their billowing raiments up with their fingers, they floated in and out of stores showcasing velvet gloves, mink stoles, and fancy sweets. This was “Ladies’ Mile”—that stretch of Broadway between Union and Madison Squares where New York’s fancy boutiques competed for space and well-heeled customers.

Jostled by the swarms of fashionable shoppers, the boy continued along Broadway, glancing through the storefront windows, until he passed a familiar grocery, where something caught his eye. Amid the usual cartons of fruits and vegetables was an object strangely out of place, splayed out on a slab of wood. It was the dull mass of a seal, dead less than a day. Placed on display to attract paying customers, its corpulent body drew the child’s attention.

Sliding his hand along the seal’s glossy-smooth pelt and peering deeply into its clouding eyes, he was overwhelmed with interest. Its eyes were so big, and they were fringed with delicate eyelashes just like his own. Curious onlookers stood back, only a brave few leaning in for a closer look, but the little boy remained transfixed. It was probably a harbor seal, still fairly common in New York Harbor. So transfixed was the boy by this exotic creature that he raced home for a notebook and ruler, returning moments later to measure the carcass and jot down a few notes on its color and appearance. The eight-year-old boy then wrote a detailed natural history of seals based entirely on that one dead animal.

Theodore Roosevelt’s life changed forever in that encounter, for it marked, as he later noted, “the first day” of his career as a naturalist. Recalling the event in his autobiography decades later, Roosevelt wrote that the seal filled him with “every possible feeling of romance and adventure.” It was so unlike anything he had ever seen before. Touching that seal, he would have felt the stiffness of its long, graceful whiskers, and, gently lifting up its lips, he would have seen the gleaming white teeth. The ears were just tiny holes, barely noticeable in its dense fur. Squeezing the front flippers, he would have felt that they were just like greatly enlarged hands, the individual finger bones completely encased in the flesh of the flipper with tiny claws extending from the tip. Feeling the seal’s body with his own hands, he could appreciate all the similarities to his own basic anatomy, but he wanted to get closer—to take the animal home, perhaps to dissect or stuff it. He had read about how naturalists kept animal specimens to study them, and now he had a chance to practice naturalism himself.


BORN ON October 27, 1858, to Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and Martha Bulloch Roosevelt (known as “Mittie”), Theodore was one in a long line of Roosevelts to have lived in Manhattan, the descendant of some of New York’s early Dutch settlers. The family had always been well-off, but Theodore’s paternal grandfather, Cornelius Roosevelt, amassed an incredible fortune through real estate speculation. From his redbrick mansion on the southwest corner of Broadway at 14th Street, Cornelius settled each of his five sons in nearby homes. Theodore Sr. was given a four-story brownstone just a short walk uptown, on East 20th Street. It was here that Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born and raised with his older sister, Anna (nicknamed “Bamie”), younger brother, Elliott (“Ellie”), and their baby sister, Corinne (“Conie”).

Tall, bearded, and with fierce blue eyes beneath heavy brows, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. looked grim, but to those who knew him well, Mr. Roosevelt was benevolence personified. Although he was a partner in the Wall Street investment banking firm Roosevelt & Son, he preferred to think of himself as a philanthropist, and he took great pleasure in championing charitable causes. He especially adored children, even spending Sunday evenings serving meals to destitute newsboys and street urchins.

To his own family Roosevelt Sr. represented strength and courage, tenderness and great unselfishness. He was so admired by his children that they went to great lengths to compete for his attention. Theodore Jr. later recalled that his father was “the best man I ever knew” but added that he was also “the only man of whom I was ever really afraid.” What Theodore feared most was his father’s stern disapproval—for Theodore, nothing was more important than earning the respect of his father.

Perhaps more than anything, Mr. Roosevelt was shaped by his views as a “muscular Christian.” A popular movement with British and American Protestants of the Victorian era, muscular Christianity taught that Jesus was not only morally strong but also physically sturdy. Masculinity—as shown in the will to fight for a cause—was seen as integral to Christian morality. Muscular Christianity was the answer to a growing concern among men that the world was becoming overly feminized, a reaction to the increasing number of sedentary occupations in the industrializing world and women’s growing role in the church. The movement stressed physical activity and spending time outdoors, urging cold-water swims and vigorous mountain climbs.

In sharp contrast to the muscular Christians and her robust, rugged husband, Martha Roosevelt was meek and genteel, a southerner who had grown up in a Georgia plantation house. While Mr. Roosevelt worked tirelessly, Mrs. Roosevelt was physically frail and often complained of fatigue. She was obsessively hygienic and had a penchant for immaculate white dresses, which she wore year-round. One acquaintance described her as “the purest woman he ever saw. No matter how dirty, hot, and ruffled everyone else looked, Mrs. Roosevelt seemed so cool and clean. No dirt ever stopped near her.” To her children, she was distant, like a delicate china doll—beautiful to look at but fragile and cold.

Young Theodore Jr. inherited his mother’s frailty. No amount of money could spare him the almost constant stomachaches, headaches, coughs, fevers, and nausea he suffered. But Theodore’s most chronic and persistent struggle was with asthma. He was plagued by the horror of battling for a shallow gasp of air, only to have anxiety trigger still more severe struggles for breath. Theodore’s asthma attacks lasted from a few hours to several days of nonstop wheezing, and it was never entirely certain that he would survive to adulthood.

At the time, asthma was a poorly understood condition, which doctors mistakenly attributed to a narrow chest. There were no effective treatments, so the sufferers and their families were often left to devise their own desperate cures. Roosevelt Sr.—so distraught by his son’s ill-health—once summoned a horse and rig from a neighboring stable so that he could take young Theodore on a vigorous nighttime ride, attempting to force air into the small boy’s lungs.

Fearful of letting the sickly boy out of their sight, his family rarely allowed him far from their watchful eyes, and (except for a very brief period) he never attended school. Although trapped inside all day, fearing his next asthma attack, Theodore sought solace in his father’s library—a dark, windowless room on the first floor of their town house. Lined with bookcases of “gloomy respectability” and cluttered with coarse horsehair chairs that scratched his bare legs, the library was, nonetheless, a sanctuary for the young boy. Sitting on his favorite velvet stool or standing with one leg propped against a wall and his neck bent sharply downward, he lost himself in books.

In these tomes, Theodore found adventure. One of his favorites was Scots medical missionary David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. Although it was too large and heavy for a small boy such as Teddy to carry properly, he dragged the book around the house, begging people to read it to him. Livingstone had left his native Scotland to devote his life to evangelism in South Africa, but he was much better known for his explorations of the African continent than for his religious work. Missionary Travels documented those exploits and was illustrated with detailed engravings. Roosevelt may have been too young to understand the words, but the pictures in Livingstone’s book spoke clearly: a desperate man pinned to the earth by a snarling lion; men with spears and shields driving whole herds of zebras, elands, and antelope into giant pitfall traps dug into the earth; a dugout canoe being violently tipped by an enraged hippopotamus, the passengers flailing their arms and leaping to escape.

The man squirming under the lion’s paw was David Livingstone himself. He had been trying to help some villagers by shooting one of the lions raiding their cattle corrals. Firing both barrels of his muzzle-loading rifle, he only wounded the lion, which charged him as he hastily reloaded. The animal sprang onto Livingstone, bit into his shoulder, and pulled him down to the ground. “Growling horribly, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat,” Livingstone explained. “It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though I was quite conscious of all that was happening.”

Even more influential to young Teddy than Livingstone’s writings were the books of novelist and adventurer Captain Thomas Mayne Reid, whose yarns of hunting, animal lore, and natural history were enormously popular during Roosevelt’s youth. Described as adventure novels but also as juvenile scientific travelogues, Reid’s writing displayed no stylistic pretensions, and he made it very clear that his books were written for boys. His accurate descriptions of the natural world—everything from mammals and birds to plants—became the mise-en-scène of all Reid’s books.

Reid championed the genre of the hunter-naturalists—those intrepid men of the nineteenth century who were at once avid huntsmen and students of nature, and he counted himself among their ranks. “I have ridden wildly with the hunter and strolled quietly with the naturalist,” Reid explained. “I excel not in the chase, I excel not in a knowledge of natural history—but both I love.” To Reid, the adventure of the hunt and the quiet study of nature were intimately connected.

One of Reid’s books in particular must have been especially inspiring to young Roosevelt, presaging much of his naturalist career. The Boy Hunters details the lives of three brothers who are sent off by their father on an expedition to shoot a white buffalo for a great museum in Europe. Most important, Reid took the boys and their mission seriously, making very clear from the outset that they were capable of this feat. It’s likely that Roosevelt’s first impressions of naturalism were formed by countless hours spent with The Boy Hunters. Here were children free to roam outdoors in the fresh air all day. They traipsed through the woods with guns and knives; they were crack shots and fearlessly killed charging bears and menacing alligators. They collected gunnysacks full of specimens, preserving them in little natural-history museums of their own making.

Equally significantly for Roosevelt, Reid wrote about the father of these young hunters. Unable to join the hunt because of an old soldiering injury—one that left him with a wooden leg—the father sent his boys off on their buffalo-hunting expedition with a great sense of pride, boasting to his neighbors about his strong “boy men.”

How Theodore must have wanted to have such adventures; how he must have wanted his father to be proud of his bold and enterprising character. Trapped indoors on East 20th Street, Theodore could only read with rapture the novels of Thomas Mayne Reid and others, the sole antidote to his sickly life indoors. Adventure stories gave him an escape into a world full of exciting possibilities, but the excitement was always out of reach—until he stumbled upon that dead seal on Broadway.

Years later, Roosevelt admitted in his autobiography that the moment he discovered the creature, all the stories he had read sprang to life before him. Adventure suddenly seemed attainable, and, for the first time, Roosevelt thought maybe he could pursue the life of a hunter-naturalist, just like a character in a Thomas Mayne Reid book.

Inspired, Roosevelt returned daily to that storefront to check on the dead seal. He tried to persuade the shopkeeper to give him the whole animal, but since the carcass was already starting to decay, young Theodore had to settle for just the head, which, perhaps together with a few equally pleased flies, he proudly carried home.

Roosevelt wanted to clean the seal head to save its skull, and from his readings he would have been familiar with at least some of the methods used for cleaning skulls. One technique is bacterial maceration, which requires placing the bone in a vat of warm water for days and weeks at a time. Bacteria gradually build up, rotting the meat off and turning the water into a brown mushy soup. This method literally stinks, and it is a slow, disgusting process. If Roosevelt prepared his seal skull using this technique, his parents would have shown unbelievable tolerance, especially in light of his mother’s aversion to filth.

Another method involves placing the skull in a chamber of flesh-eating insects. Any invertebrate inclined to eat flesh will do, including ants, woodlice, or even maggots—but flesh-eating beetles of the dermestid family are the most efficient. “Bugging” a skull yields superior results, because all those little mouthparts quickly pull flesh off without harming bone.

But Roosevelt most likely prepared his treasure by boiling it until the meat cooked off. Boiling is the fastest and most intuitive of all bone-cleaning methods, and there is an early reference to Roosevelt once asking a cook to boil a woodchuck carcass for him. The animal can’t just be plopped into a pot and boiled intact; first the carcass has to be gutted and skinned, and the major muscle masses have to be carefully removed. Even after boiling, a certain amount of scraping is required to remove the last stubborn bits of gristle adhering tenaciously to bone, and the boiled brain still has to be sloshed out the back of the skull—not an easy job for the squeamish.

Holding the finished skull in his hands, he would have seen for the first time how the seal’s teeth worked—lower molars interlocking neatly with the uppers. The suture lines—the places where the different bones of the skull fuse together—would have been obvious, and Roosevelt might have easily learned all the bones’ names: frontals, parietals, nasals, occipitals. He could estimate the size of the eyes by placing a ruler across their bony orbits. In the back of each eye socket he would have seen the tiny hole for the optic nerve to pass through to the brain. Inside the nose he would have seen the delicate, scroll-like bone that supports the membranes responsible for the sense of smell. Instead of simply seeing drawings in his favorite books, he could touch the skull, hold it, and look inside it.

What Roosevelt read inspired him to build his own natural-history museum—he had learned how the Reid boys had “artistically preserved by stuffing” the skins of birds and mammals. Roosevelt recruited his brother and sisters to help him, along with his two cousins, Emlen and West. With the seal skull acting as the centerpiece of his budding collection, Roosevelt founded what he ambitiously called “The Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.”

All that is known of Theodore’s earliest days as a nascent museum curator comes from a brief history recorded on just a few pages of handwritten notes. Roosevelt’s Record of the Roosevelt Museum begins very officially: “At the commencement of the year 1867 Mr. T. Roosevelt, Jr. started the Museum with 12 specimen…” Housed in Theodore’s bedroom, the “museum” soon grew to include hundreds of prizes: mice, shrews, and birds. The only organizing principle for the museum’s collection was to accumulate as many specimens as possible. The Roosevelt children worked furiously to add to the pile, though it wasn’t just the younger family members who were expected to contribute to the eager curator’s trove.

Writing to his parents while they were visiting Georgia in the spring of 1868, nine-year-old Teddy stressed that he expected them to collect a few specimens from their exotic southern locality: “In your letter you write to me to tell me how many curiosities and living things you have got for me,” he prodded his mother. Writing his father, he was even more direct, goading him to cut off the tail of a “tiger-cat” belonging to a friend, adding that it would be on prominent display in his museum. Even the family nurse was enlisted, as one breathless letter to her reveals: “I have one request to make of you. Press plenty of plants and leaves and get a good many seeds for me, and some beetles and butterflies, get feathers and wood too. Get as many live things as you can.”

Though small and frail, Theodore had boundless energy for building his collection, and although his parents were not especially inclined as naturalists, their delight that their sickly son had found an outlet ensured that his interests—no matter how fanatical or foul-smelling—were never really challenged. The values of the time also dovetailed nicely with little Teddy’s keen interest, and Theodore Sr.’s interest in muscular Christianity likely contributed to his encouragement. In the Victorian era, nature study was a moral good. Studying God’s word in the Bible and studying His works in nature were considered twin facets of the same truth. British philosopher William Paley’s Natural Theology had been influential since 1802, arguing that since natural objects showed evidence of design, they also showed evidence of a designing god. Being a very religious man himself, Roosevelt Sr. no doubt saw young Theodore’s passion for natural history as a way of bringing him closer to the creating hand of God.

Of course, Theodore’s museum ambitions went well beyond what might be considered typical, and he amassed zoological specimens as if they were the sole measure of his self-worth. While other children might have been content with a small collection of seashells or some neatly pressed flowers, Roosevelt’s collection included some truly grotesque finds. When he acquired a live snapping turtle—an aggressive pond-dweller covered in algae and decorated with a gruesome frill of leeches—the entire household rebelled. Still, the collection increasingly became the center of his young life. No longer a pastime or mere escape from his dreary existence indoors, he was making meaning out of his fieldwork. As his museum grew, it came to embody his prowess as a naturalist.

But while Roosevelt’s naturalist ambitions were openly encouraged, the location of the museum was not as easily tolerated. The housekeepers were the first to protest, and after they received the approval of “the higher authorities” (his parents), it was agreed that Theodore’s museum had to be moved, preferably as far away from the family’s daily life as possible. In the end, his collection of dead animals was relocated to a far back hallway at the top of a flight of stairs where it would bother no one. For Theodore, the relegation was only a minor setback—not nearly as traumatic as when someone carelessly disposed of some mice he was keeping in a top dresser drawer, an event he perhaps overstated as a “loss to science.” At least the relocation of the Roosevelt Museum gave Theodore the assurance that his prized collection was safe from the trash heap.

Ironically, had he been healthy or grown up in the country instead of the heart of New York City, Roosevelt’s passion for nature might never have blossomed so extravagantly—for it was the very fact that it offered an antidote to his own limits, one so ripe with complexity, that he was drawn to the natural world. He often felt that he was just a sickly city kid; even when his father took him to the country for his health, Roosevelt was always burdened with the knowledge that he would be returning to the city just as soon as he was well. For young Theodore, his museum provided a measure of assurance that he would always be close to the natural world—he need only go to the top stairs of a back hallway to commune with nature and play the part of the brainy naturalist and muscular adventurer.

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Ever since his Harvard days, when he received the grim news about his fragile heart, Roosevelt knew that he could drop dead at any moment. He expected his life to be short and relished the thought of having an especially heroic demise. Whether during his close encounter with an enormous grizzly in the Bighorns or his bullet-zinged charge up Kettle Hill in the Spanish–American War, Roosevelt enjoyed the temptation of bringing his life to its grand finale.

Visions of death and legacy were likely swirling through Roosevelt’s head when, after winning the White House in 1904, he abruptly announced that, after completing his next term, he would never run for office again. Official presidential term limits did not yet exist, so Roosevelt technically could have stayed in power for the rest of his life. But, having finally been elected by the people instead of by an assassin’s bullet, Roosevelt wanted to end his career as a winner. To anyone who asked, he explained that he was merely following the two-term tradition set by George Washington, but his advancing age was likely closer to the truth. At forty-six, Roosevelt was already feeling the onset of rheumatism and his expanding waistline, and he could not bear the thought of spending his last healthy years sitting in the White House. That was not how he wanted the story of his life to end.

He also knew that he was missing out on a great deal of fun. The rough-and-tumble world of Washington, D.C., politics certainly had its appeal, but it was no substitute for real outdoor adventure. “I am fond of politics, but fonder still of a little big-game hunting,” he wrote before the start of his first western buffalo hunt in 1883, and the same still applied more than a quarter century later. But being president was an impediment to Roosevelt’s ability to hunt. The job demanded his full attention, and the constant presence of newspapermen since his disastrous Mississippi bear hunt kept him cautious. Writing to his son Kermit, he explained how “all kinds of people crowd after me, and it is too much like hunting with a 4th of July procession.” As president of the United States, Roosevelt had little choice but to wait until he was out of office before contemplating any serious hunting.

Retreating to the leather-bound chairs of his study, he found respite in books, and these remained an important part of Roosevelt’s nature experience—the adventures on the pages coming alive for him almost as vividly as if he were there. Just as he had when he was a boy, Roosevelt found himself drawn to stories of East Africa. The railroads were opening up the continent, as had happened years earlier in the American West, and many hunters were writing books about their adventures on the far continent. Paving the way was Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson’s best-selling The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, which tracked the predations of a pair of lions ravaging the railway workers constructing the new Uganda line. In Patterson’s book, it was the hunter who played the role of hero, finally taming the ferocious beasts standing in the way of progress. From British conservationist Edward North Buxton’s Two African Trips to Winston Churchill’s My African Journey, Roosevelt voraciously consumed the adventures of these hunters. He even read African hunting stories to his children, so much so that they grew up unusually knowledgeable of African fauna. As far as Roosevelt was concerned, East Africa was “the greatest of the world’s great hunting grounds.”

Hunters from all regions were also regular visitors in the Roosevelt White House. If Roosevelt could not travel to the hunt, he could, at least, bring the hunters to him. Sometimes these were of the “backwoods” type; for example, in 1907 he hosted a “bear hunt dinner” that was attended by a number of his especially rugged chums. “We had bear meat as the main course, as well as wild turkey, I think it was about as nice a dinner as we have ever had in the White House. Nobody wore dress suits, for I think most of the bear hunters did not have any.” More often, though, the hunters were of the refined British type, and of these Roosevelt especially enjoyed the company of fellow African enthusiast Frederick Courteney Selous. Tall, fit, and with a neatly trimmed snow-white beard and clear blue eyes, Selous was the picture of a dashing British sportsman. Any time Selous came to visit the White House, the affairs of state were set aside for the occasion, freeing the friends to discuss African animals and hunting well into the night.

Like Roosevelt and many other naturalists, Selous started out with a love of birds, and he, too, was influenced early on by the writings of hunters. As a child, he was captivated by William Charles Baldwin’s African Hunting from Natal to the Zambezi, which planted in him the resolve to one day become an African hunter-naturalist. Once caught sleeping on the bare floor instead of in his bed, he explained that he was merely trying to harden himself for his future life in Africa, exclaiming, “I mean to be like Livingstone.”

Leaving England for South Africa at the age of nineteen, Selous set out to make his fortune hunting ivory in a land where elephants were already scarce. He had to trek far inland and got off to a bad start when someone stole his prized double-barreled rifle. Forced to make do with a clumsy muzzle-loader that fired a four-ounce ball of lead, he was badly burned by an accidental gunpowder explosion, nearly died of thirst in the bush when lost for days there, and when he finally found the chief of the Matabele people to ask permission to hunt elephants on his turf, he was mocked for his hubris and small stature: “You are only a boy; have you come to hunt tiny antelope?”

Unlike most ivory hunters, who pursued their quarry on horseback, Selous hunted on foot. This allowed him to penetrate deep into tsetse-fly areas, where horses could not survive due to the rinderpest disease these flies carried. Here, the elephants had learned that they were safe from hunters, a false security that Selous exploited. He spent years killing elephants this way, becoming an African legend. Roosevelt must have seethed with envy every time he read of another of Selous’s adventures. “Who could wish a better life,” he mused many years later. But Roosevelt’s life was full of commitments, none of which related to elephant hunting. In a letter to Selous, he voiced his frustration:

I have found it more and more difficult to get away; for the last eight years, indeed, my hunting trips have merely been short outings….I cannot say how I long at times for the great rolling prairies….I also long for the other wilderness which I have never seen, and never shall see, excepting through your books….It may be that some time I can break away from this sedentary life for a hunt somewhere; and of all the things possible to me, I should like to take this hunt among the big bears of Alaska….But I don’t know whether I shall ever get the chance.

Nearing the end of his presidency, Roosevelt was hungry for a good hunt, and although seriously considering Alaska, he had confided to Selous that an African safari was still one of his greatest ambitions, even if it always seemed more dream than reality. Alaska was certainly the more feasible destination, and the chance to hunt dangerous game in North America was a real draw. Ever since the Harriman Alaska Expedition made hunting in the territory popular, quite a number of Alaskan hunter-naturalists had been sending their bear skulls back to Washington, D.C., where Clinton Hart Merriam was busily describing some of them as new species and subspecies. But despite the efforts in Alaska, the numbers of bear skulls available in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History were still inadequate, and Roosevelt wondered if he needed to go to Alaska to shoot more bears for the collection, much as he had done with the Colorado cougars. As he approached his last year in the White House, Roosevelt had not yet made up his mind about his next destination. Hardheaded devotion to America pushed him closer to hunting in Alaska, but he could never completely quiet his boyish passion for Africa.

He finally made up his mind in the middle of a presidential dinner party. Seated next to Roosevelt was Carl Akeley, a museum taxidermist and African explorer who was getting a lot of attention for the new ways in which he was preparing specimens. Roosevelt had previously admired one of Akeley’s works, an especially expressive deer head Akeley had entered in the Sportsmen’s Show in New York in 1895. Roosevelt, who was the state’s governor at the time, was one of the taxidermy judges, and he awarded Akeley a prize. Back at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Akeley had started working on a more ambitious project called The Four Seasons, which displayed not only heads but entire deer standing in exquisite, realistic settings representing all four seasons. What made Akeley’s taxidermy especially lifelike was his training as a sculptor; he had perfected a technique that not so much stuffed animals as, rather, arranged their skins over sculptured mannequins that conveyed the spirit of the living animal. The specimens were placed in detailed, three-dimensional reconstructions of their habitats; the scenes were groundbreaking. Roosevelt later visited the Field Museum as vice president, and he was so impressed with the Four Seasons exhibit that he invited Carl Akeley to the White House, an event for which Akeley was required to get a new “store bought” suit.

Akeley had just returned from a Field Museum expedition to Africa, and, sitting next to the president, he hardly had a chance to eat. Roosevelt aggressively hounded him to tell of his adventures, mining his guest for vicarious thrills. One of Akeley’s most vivid stories was of being jumped by a wounded leopard—which attack he survived only because he had the presence of mind to choke the animal to death by shoving his fist down its throat after it bit his hand. Perhaps rolling up his sleeves to show off his scars, Akeley went on to tell another story, of how he was left for dead in the Somali desert, living only by demanding at gunpoint a lifesaving drink from a passing caravan.

But the story that most captivated Roosevelt was about the sixteen lions emerging from the mouth of a cave Akeley once counted at a place just outside Nairobi called Juja Farm. Lions were known to populate the area around that cave in great numbers, and they had a reputation for being especially bold and fearless. Roosevelt was transfixed. Although earlier that evening he had seemed determined to hunt in Alaska—the North Woods hunter at the table already congratulating himself for winning the president’s favor—Roosevelt capped off the evening with a sudden change of mind. He turned to Akeley and with great resolution proclaimed: “As soon as I am through with this job, I am going to Africa.”

Africa! It had been decades since Roosevelt had set foot on the continent, and he had little idea how to begin planning his trip. Writing to Frederick Courteney Selous to prepare, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm. “How would it do for me to try to go in somewhere from Zanzibar and come out down the Nile, or vice versa? What time ought I to go? That is, what time ought I make my entry into the country? Is there anyone who could give me an idea of how much the trip will cost; and, finally, could you tell me whether there are people to whom I could write to ask about engaging porters, or whatever it is I would travel with? I hope I am not asking too many questions.”

This breathless note was followed by a flurry of similar letters to about a half dozen other prominent hunters, all nearly identical in their tone of earnest questioning. Writing to Kermit at Harvard, he asked his son to come along. “You blessed fellow, I do not think you will have to wait until your ship comes in before making that African trip. If all goes well I intend to make it soon after I leave the Presidency, and unless there is a very real reason to the contrary, you will go with me. It ought to be a very interesting trip.” Like his father, Kermit was manly and athletic—he had even taken up boxing—and Roosevelt hoped to add a little African hunting to the boy’s repertoire.

Edith, meanwhile, was wringing her hands over the thought of her husband and son traipsing across the African plains for a year. Anticolonial sentiment was still a source of great tension, and there had just been an epidemic of sleeping sickness in the region. Transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly, the disease had no known cure, and most cases resulted in death. Roosevelt took it all with humor, reminding everyone that sleeping sickness was of no concern, because it did not suit his active personality. But even minor scrapes and cuts can be potentially dangerous in the tropics, as they are especially prone to infection in the tropical environment. The dangers facing Roosevelt on the safari were not lost on the general public, and some of his detractors seemed to genuinely hope for his speedy demise, quipping that every lion should “do its duty.”

Edith’s concerns were not allayed by some of the mail delivered to Oyster Bay that summer, as Roosevelt corresponded with politicians and naturalists in preparation for his upcoming trip. Some of these men couldn’t help but make light of the dangers the president would face. Theodore’s old friend, British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice, sent him a pamphlet on sleeping sickness but joked that there was no reason to worry because he would no doubt escape the dreaded disease on account of having previously been eaten by a lion or crocodile or mauled by an enraged elephant or buffalo. More alarming—and perhaps more personal—were some of the pieces that ran in the papers. An article in the Philadelphia Ledger, for example, remarked that since Roosevelt had already had a very colorful career, and as it was probably now at an end, it would be a fitting and wholly happy conclusion if he were to die in bold and dramatic fashion on safari. Roosevelt found it all very amusing (if anything, the articles actually fueled his obsession with a heroic death), and even Edith finally admitted that the dangers of Africa were really no worse than the dangers of being president, the target of crank assassins.

More than disease and dismemberment, Roosevelt dreaded the specter of being trailed through Africa by tourists or, worse, a horde of reporters. Roosevelt had long resented the press for its interference in his hunts, and he entertained the idea of getting the colonial authorities to intervene on this trip, perhaps buying him some time to elude the reporters in the wild. He also went to great lengths to make it widely known that he would not say anything to the press while on safari, so that any quotes published would be known to be without authority and foundation. He even appealed to the Associated Press, telling its general manager that it would be a “wanton outrage” for them to send reporters to follow a private citizen into the bush.

At first, Roosevelt was planning nothing more than a father-and-son hunt—something he had been dreaming about since his earliest wanderings in the West. For years he had been writing to Kermit about the possibility of their taking such a trip. Of his four sons, Kermit was the one most interested in the sport, and Roosevelt hoped to share with him a bit of true wilderness—to ride across unfenced plains and to hunt vast herds of game in a land where the onslaught of the railroads had only just begun. When a younger man himself, Roosevelt was “just in time to see the last of the real wilderness life and real wilderness hunting” in the American West; now he hoped to share a bit of the same spirit with Kermit on the plains of East Africa.

To bankroll the trip, Roosevelt accepted a $50,000 advance from Scribner’s Magazine to write a series of twelve articles detailing his safari even as it unfolded, the plan being to finally publish them all in book form at the end of the expedition. Other magazines had made more lucrative offers, but Roosevelt didn’t think them “dignified and appropriate” enough to publish his work, and the $50,000 was more than enough to cover the party’s expenses, with some left over for Edith’s trip through Europe (she was to be reunited with her husband at the end of the expedition in Khartoum—“lions, mosquitoes and the tsetse fly permitting”).

Two British hunters—Frederick Courteney Selous and Edward North Buxton, both Boone and Crockett Club members—helped Roosevelt plan his trip, and through dozens of exchanges the three men carefully considered routes, personnel, and equipment. Sometimes the Brits gave Roosevelt conflicting advice. One of the most serious points of contention related to the type of guide he should rely on in the bush. Selous felt very strongly that Roosevelt needed a “white hunter,” while Buxton countered that he should “trust to the native.” Roosevelt was puzzled over what to do; he trusted the opinions of both but eventually sided with Selous and hired the same professional hunter Carl Akeley had recently used. Following Buxton’s advice on another matter, though, he arranged his trip as a series of smaller two-month-long safaris that would set off from points along the Uganda Railway. Roosevelt figured that two months was sufficient time to get him into “good game country and out of the ordinary tourist infested areas.”

Roosevelt gave serious thought to the nature of his trip. For plenty of moments in his past he had been caught up in the thrill of the hunt, yet he always remained a naturalist at heart. It was not lost on him that his upcoming African trip was very much like one that medical missionary David Livingstone might have taken, and this certainly brought up feelings from his earliest stirrings as a naturalist. From the beginning Roosevelt had identified with museum collectors and shared the need to build up natural-history collections. Although certainly at moments in his adolescence his zeal for hunting got the better of him, ever since meeting George Bird Grinnell and founding the Boone and Crockett Club, Roosevelt had strived to marry the finest qualities of both museum collecting and sport hunting. As a naturalist, he hoped that the chief value of the safari would be his observations “upon the habits of the game, and to a lesser extent of birds, small mammals, etc.” Hunting was only part of what motivated him, and he was eager to have more than a “mere holiday after big game.” So just three months into the planning, Roosevelt came up with a far more ambitious plan, and one that took into consideration his earliest boyhood passions as a museum collector—to turn his hunting trip into a full-scale natural-history expedition. He wished to have along a team of naturalists to study the non-game fauna while he and Kermit collected big mammals for museum exhibits.

There was a precedent for what Roosevelt was proposing. The American Museum of Natural History’s Tjäder Expedition to East Africa of 1906 had recently traveled much the same route that Roosevelt was contemplating. That expedition had consisted of one hunter and one naturalist with a special skill for preserving specimens. Together they had brought back just over two hundred large mammal specimens for the museum—a fine haul, but Roosevelt hoped his expedition would do even better. A bold expression of his lifelong dedication to naturalism was what the president had in mind. Roosevelt aspired to write himself into the annals of natural history by leading what he envisioned to be the grandest collecting expedition of all time.


FOUNDED IN 1846, the nucleus of the Smithsonian’s natural-history collection was at first crammed into a castle—the institution’s original Gothic Revival building on the National Mall. Some relief, in terms of a more appropriate space, came with the construction of the new Arts and Industries Building next door, but within a year the museum was again pleading for additional room. America’s hunger for knowledge, and the accumulation of specimens and artifacts in the warrenlike recesses of these museum buildings, was outpacing the physical space available. Materials were pouring in faster than new buildings could be constructed.

It was during the first years of Roosevelt’s presidency that Congress appropriated the funds for a new and sufficiently large building. Roosevelt gleefully signed the legislation authorizing construction of the massive neoclassical building (which still houses many of the museum’s collections today) on Constitution Avenue, just a short walk from the White House. With its towering rotunda and impressive storage wings, the new museum building was conspicuous, broadcasting the vast amounts of empty space it now had to fill. Conveniently for the outgoing president, the building was expected to be completed just in time for his planned return from Africa. Roosevelt approached Charles Doolittle Walcott, the administrator of the Smithsonian Institution, with an idea:

As you know, I am not in the least a game butcher. I like to do a certain amount of hunting, but my real and main interest is the interest of a faunal naturalist. Now, it seems to me that this opens up the best chance for the National Museum to get a fine collection, not only of the big game beasts, but of the smaller animals and birds of Africa; and looking at it dispassionately, it seems to me that the chance ought not to be neglected. I will make arrangements in connection with publishing a book which will enable me to pay for the expenses of myself and my son. But what I would like to do would be to get one or two professional field taxidermists, field naturalists, to go with us, who should prepare and send back the specimens we collect. The collection which would thus go to the National Museum would be of unique value.

The “unique value” Roosevelt was referring to, of course, was the chance to acquire specimens shot by him—the president of the United States. Always a tough negotiator, Roosevelt put pressure on Walcott by mentioning that he was also thinking about posing his offer to the American Museum of Natural History in New York—but that, as president, he felt it was only appropriate that his specimens go to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Compared to those of other museums, the Smithsonian’s African-mammal collection was paltry back then. The Smithsonian had sent a man to explore Kilimanjaro in 1891 and another to the eastern Congo, but the museum still held relatively few specimens. Both the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum in New York had been sending regular expeditions to the continent, bringing home thousands of African specimens. Eager not to fall farther behind, Walcott took up Roosevelt’s offer and agreed to pay for the preparation and transport of specimens. He also agreed to set up a special fund through which private donors could contribute to the expedition. (As a public museum, the Smithsonian’s budget was largely controlled by Congress, and Roosevelt worried that politics might get in the way of his expedition—the fund solved this sticky issue).

As far as Walcott was concerned, the expedition was both a scientific and a public-relations coup. Not only would the museum obtain an important collection from a little-explored corner of Africa, but the collection would come from someone who was arguably one of the most recognized men in America—the president of the United States. Under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution, Roosevelt’s proposed safari had been transformed from a hunting trip to a serious natural-history expedition promising lasting scientific significance. An elated Roosevelt wrote Frederick Courteney Selous to tell him the good news—the trip would be conducted for science, and he would contribute to the stock of important knowledge being accumulated on the habits of big game.

Roosevelt saw the trip as perhaps his “last chance for something in the nature of a great adventure,” and he devoted the last months of his lame-duck presidency to little other than making preparations. Equipment needed to be purchased, routes mapped, guns and ammo selected. He admitted that he found it very difficult to “devote full attention to his presidential work, he was so eagerly looking forward to his African trip.” Having studied the accounts of other hunters, he knew that the Northern Guaso Nyiro River and the regions north of Mount Elgon were the best places to hunt, and that he had to make a trip to Mount Kenya if he was to have any chance at getting a big bull elephant. He made a list of animals he sought, ordering them by priority: lion, elephant, black rhinoceros, buffalo, giraffe, hippo, eland, sable, oryx, kudu, wildebeest, hartebeest, warthog, zebra, waterbuck, Grant’s gazelle, reedbuck, and topi. He also hoped to get up into some of the fly-infested habitats of northern Uganda in search of the rare white rhino. Winston Churchill had shot one the year prior, and, after reading all about Churchill’s safari—which was serialized in Strand Magazine and later released as a book, My African Journey—Roosevelt was inspired by the Brit’s feat.

Roosevelt did use the power of his office to open doors for himself in Africa, but when the colonial officials suggested a hunt in the reserves, he demurred, making it clear he did not want to shoot in areas that were entirely closed. Roosevelt had developed a strong aversion to hunting in protected enclaves. “I shall leave Mombasa just as soon as I can after reaching there; go straight to Nairobi, stay there as short a time as possible….I particularly wish to avoid going on any hunting-trip immediately around Nairobi or in the neighborhood of the railroad, for that would be to invite reporters and photographers to accompany me, and in short, it would mean just what I am most anxious to avoid.”

Assembling a crack team of field naturalists for the expedition proved challenging. The American university system had long since abandoned outdoor study in the natural sciences in favor of laboratory work, and professional naturalists were hard to find. Experimental biology was deemed more “scientific” than mere wanderings in the wilderness, and university presidents seemed to prefer the look of crisp lab coats and bubbling beakers to that of dead animals and dusty trappers. This new crop of histologists and embryologists sneered at the outdoor naturalists, and, as Roosevelt put it, the result was to “crush out the old school of faunal naturalists.” Roosevelt resented how the universities were transforming otherwise vigorous naturalists into hunched-over microscopists, and he still harbored a grudge from his own frustrations as a young naturalist at Harvard. Roosevelt called these laboratory scientists “little scientific men,” and he wanted none of them on his African expedition.

Instead, he would populate his party with men of science who had experience in the field. At Walcott’s suggestion, Roosevelt selected a retired Army physician with ample experience in the tropics named Dr. Edgar A. Mearns to lead the scientific team. Mearns was touted as the “best field naturalist and collector in the United States.” Short of stature, slight of build, and with an imposing walrus moustache, Mearns—who, at 52, was just two years older than Roosevelt—had spent years collecting zoological and botanical specimens and had already collected thousands for both the Smithsonian and the American Museum. While serving in the Philippines during the Spanish–American War, he had sometimes put himself in the line of fire to collect particularly valuable specimens (and rumor had it that he also liked to collect human skulls after skirmishes in the jungle). Given this robust résumé, Roosevelt had full confidence in Mearns and left it to him to recruit the rest of his scientific team. Mearns selected the two best men to join him on the trip—American zoologist Edmund Heller and American mammalogist and field naturalist J. Alden Loring.

Heller was just returning from a trip in Alaska when he was asked to join the expedition. At thirty-four, Heller was rather dapper, with his hair parted neatly just off the centerline of his scalp. But he was also experienced, having traveled throughout the Southwest, Mexico, and Central America as a professional collector for the Field Museum. He had also been Carl Akeley’s accomplice in Africa, and it was Akeley who recommended Heller for the Roosevelt expedition.

At age thirty-eight, Loring sported a full moustache to offset his thinning hair. A seasoned hunter and outdoorsman from upstate New York but with considerable experience in the American West as a member of Clinton Hart Merriam’s Biological Survey, he had already been sent abroad to collect small mammals in Sweden and northern Europe, where he set an unofficial record by trapping nearly a thousand specimens in just three months’ time. His job on the Roosevelt trip was to target the smallest of species—to be the catcher of thousands of African rats, bats, and shrews.

Gathering some of these naturalists together at Sagamore Hill, Heller developed a firsthand appreciation for the president’s expertise in mammalogy; he was struck by Roosevelt’s encyclopedic knowledge of obscure animals. “He is well aware of the distinctions between the different genera of rodents and also with the characters of the northern species notwithstanding the extreme obscurity of many of them,” he marveled in a letter to Merriam.

As Roosevelt’s venture grew to the size of a military expedition—and at Selous’s protestations that if Roosevelt didn’t stop adding to it, he would end up spending all his time managing logistics instead of enjoying his trip—Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to contract an outfitter. Newland, Tarlton & Co. was the very best at planning lavish East African safaris, but they were caught off guard when the swashbuckling Roosevelt rebuked them for thinking him effete after they made the mistake of suggesting that he pack some pâté de foie gras and other French delicacies. The president struck these items from the list, penciling in practical canned beans and tomatoes in their place. Cracking open a can of beans brought back fond memories of his many outdoor adventures, lifting his spirits in a way that no French delicacy ever could. His only luxury was to be a selection of homegrown strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry jams for those rare occasions when he craved a sweet treat.

Selous was curious to know how much liquor Roosevelt wanted to bring along, but on this matter he was clear. “I do not believe in drinking while on a trip of this kind, and I would wish to take only the minimum amount of whiskey and champagne which would be necessary in the event of sickness.” Later he would eliminate all the whiskey except for three flasks, but he kept a case of champagne handy “in case of fever.” Roosevelt made an exception for brandy, which was also brought along for medicinal purposes. By the end of the trip Roosevelt would have drunk no more than six ounces of the stuff.

The president of the United States took pride in choosing mostly American-made firearms, favoring his military-style .30 1903 Springfield Sporter, “a sturdy, reliable bolt-action rifle of perhaps a somewhat light caliber for the larger African game but perfectly ideal for smaller antelope.” For heavier game—buffalo, hippopotamus, and rhinoceros—he ordered a Model 1895 Winchester .405, but the rifle did not quite pass muster when it first arrived. Test-firing it in a makeshift rifle range that he set up in the basement of the White House, Roosevelt was incensed when he discovered that the sights were entirely off mark. Writing an angry letter, the president shipped it back to Winchester, demanding that it be fixed at once.

A very fine 12-gauge Fox shotgun was sent from the company as a gift. When Roosevelt first saw it, he thought it the most beautiful gun he had ever seen. He was “exceedingly proud” that it was of American manufacture, and was “almost ashamed” to take it to Africa, where it would be subjected to very rough use. The gun was intended for the gentlemanly pursuit of game birds, and Roosevelt no doubt horrified Mr. Fox when he spelled out his intentions for the gun: “I should like in case of an emergency to have it loaded with ball and use it as a spare gun for lion.” Such a special gun was not meant to be a backup lion slayer.

But by far the most magnificent gun in Roosevelt’s arsenal was of strictly European origin—an exquisite, double-barreled, .500/450 Holland & Holland royal-grade elephant rifle that was presented to him at the White House. It came with a list of the names of more than fifty prominent donors, led by Edward North Buxton, along with a note stating that it was “In recognition of his [Roosevelt’s] services on behalf of the preservation of species by means of national parks and forest reserves, and by other means.” It was an obvious gesture of respect, and Roosevelt was relieved to have received it—fine double-barrels were exceedingly expensive but absolutely essential for hunting Africa’s biggest game. As for Kermit, he had his own Winchester .405, a .30/40 Winchester, and a borrowed .450 Rigby double-barreled elephant gun, though it was not nearly as impressive as his father’s.

Clothing was something Roosevelt had always taken very seriously (and there was always a performer’s element to his naturalist costumes). After much consideration, he settled on heavy, hobnailed boots with rubber soles, khaki trousers with leather-faced knees, tan army shirts, and a sun helmet instead of his usual slouch hat. He had a slicker for wet weather, an army overcoat, and a mackinaw for the cold African nights.

Everything the hunters might need to live in the wild for a year had to be packed and carried—axes and matches, ladles and lanterns, saddles and shovels, candles and bridles, gun-cleaning rods and sewing needles. Every specimen they collected and prepared, from tiny mice skins to enormous hippopotamus skulls, had to be packed in paint cans, barrels, or waterproof metal boxes and carried around on the expedition until they could be shipped back to America.

Supply quantities had to be exact. Bringing a little extra, out of caution, would quickly bog down the safari. Even the lantern Roosevelt would use when writing up his notes in the evening folded down into a compact four-inch square. Still, a few exceptions were made. Kermit packed his mandolin, and one item Roosevelt would never skimp on was his glasses. Without them he was practically blind, and their loss would have brought the entire safari to a standstill. Roosevelt took no chances. He packed nine pairs.

Also, perhaps considered extraneous by some explorers was the library Roosevelt brought along. He could not go anywhere, “not even into the jungles of Africa,” without a fine selection of books, and he made a list of about sixty he wished to take. Titles were chosen to span the full history of Western literature and included the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Poe, Twain, Longfellow, and Dickens. Roosevelt passed this list to his sister Corinne, and she obtained the books in the smallest possible sizes, trimming them down at the margins so that they would fit in a good-size overcoat pocket. She then had them bound in durable pigskin—a move that marked the beginning of Roosevelt’s famous “pigskin library.” Specially packed in an oilcloth-lined aluminum case that weighed in at just less than a pound per book, Roosevelt’s portable field library was light enough for one porter to carry it on his back yet durable enough to withstand the toughest conditions imaginable. Corinne presented the library to her brother as a parting gift, adding that she hoped he would think of her when “reading in some little mosquito cage far off in Africa.” On the hunt, Roosevelt carried a volume from the collection wherever he went, and the leather covers became so stained with dust, sweat, and gun oil that they began to look and feel like a well-worn saddle.

As his departure date neared, Roosevelt reflected on the hazards that lay ahead. Africa was a dangerous place, and he suddenly grew apprehensive about bringing along Kermit. Having lived for more than fifty years with vainglorious ideas of death crowding his mind, he was perfectly content to die himself, but Kermit was just nineteen—a tender age for hunting African lions. In the weeks leading up to the safari, Roosevelt constantly reminded his son of the danger: “It is no child’s play going after lion, elephant, rhino and buffalo. We must be very cautious; we must be always ready to back one another up, and probably we ought each to have a spare rifle when we move in to the attack.”

Roosevelt warned Kermit that his favorite .30/30 deer rifle was too light for African game and that he had better leave it behind. He was also worried about Kermit’s marksmanship; a charging lion offers just one or two shots, with no margin for error. Roosevelt was experienced enough to know that it took regular practice to develop what he called “rifle sense,” and he expected that both he and Kermit would be fairly “rusty” after their month-long transatlantic voyage.

Finally, on the morning of March 23, 1909, Roosevelt and Kermit said good-bye to Edith before riding a carriage down the hill from Sagamore to the Oyster Bay train station. Newspapers reported an emotional farewell, the father and son fighting tears as they waved to their wife and mother. Arriving at the train station, the Roosevelts again welled up as they bid farewell to Quentin, the youngest Roosevelt child, before continuing on to New York City. A subway ride under the Hudson River took them to Hoboken, New Jersey, where they worked their way through a jubilant crowd to board the Hamburg for Naples. An estimated three thousand well-wishers converged on the scene to wave them off, and a brass band blared “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Roosevelt worked the crowd, shaking hundreds of hands, even as some of those same hands clamored to snatch the gold buttons off his overcoat.

Once across the Atlantic, they changed ships, boarding the Admiral—another German-flagged ship, chosen because it was among those allowing transport of large volumes of ammunition, bound for the East African port city of Mombasa. The seasickness that at first troubled Roosevelt eventually subsided, and he eagerly greeted his old friend Frederick Courteney Selous, who had boarded the Admiral en route to his own safari. Intending to pass through many of the same parts of Kenya as Selous, Roosevelt had previously joked about the fortuitous timing of their two trips. “Three cheers! I am simply overjoyed that you are going out. It is just the last touch to make everything perfect. But you must leave me one lion somewhere! I do not care whether it has a black mane or a yellow mane, or male or female, so long as it is a lion; and I do not really expect to get one anyhow.”

Life aboard the Admiral settled into a routine of daily anticipation interrupted only by the occasional departure of the naturalists as they made brief bird-collecting forays ashore at Suez and Aden. These birds were later skinned and stuffed in Roosevelt’s own room, as it was the largest and most suitable for this task. Looking at all the taxidermy specimens being stuffed in his cabin, Roosevelt reminisced about his long-ago family trip to Egypt, dashing off a letter to his sister Corinne to tell her that the bird skins they had just collected from Suez were “drying in my room at the moment, just as if we were once more on the Nile.” By the time they reached Mombasa, the Smithsonian naturalists would have collected 102 “nicely prepared” birds for the museum.

In the morning, they prepared to go ashore, and although dark storm clouds threatened, enough sun streaked down on the green hills of Mombasa to give the whitewashed buildings dotting the landscape an eerie luminosity. Roosevelt gazed at the scene from the Admiral, still anchored offshore. Poised to begin his adventure, it was the perfect opportunity to mentally jog through the events of his life leading up to this point—from his childhood weakness and earliest attempts at being a naturalist, to his hunts in the Dakota Badlands, and to the assassin’s bullet that put him in the White House. The adventure ahead of him had been a long time coming. As it started to rain, Roosevelt gripped the deck railing, his eyes bright with excitement as he looked toward Mombasa and uttered, “That’s a wonderful sight.”

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It is to be hoped that the days of mere wasteful, boastful slaughter are past, and that from now on the hunter will stand foremost in working for the preservation and perpetuation of the wild life, whether big or little.


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In gathering animals for study, Roosevelt was participating in a tradition his father could be proud of: one that went all the way back to the Bible, from the second chapter of Genesis, when God brought all the animals to Adam to see what he would name them. If one takes this passage of the Bible literally, animal taxonomy was one of the first responsibilities of man, a duty he was entrusted with even before procreation. It follows that practically everyone has a deep-rooted instinct to collect, an impulse to control and categorize the world around him or her. To collect is human, even spiritual. This fundamental need is perhaps what led to the forerunner of today’s natural-history museums—the cabinets of wonders and curiosities.

The word cabinet was originally used for a room that might include books, coins, and paintings, in addition to natural-history curios. But even in the early days, there were always a few specialists in naturalia. One of the earliest naturalist enthusiasts was the Danish physician and antiquary Ole Worm. A woodcut print from his Museum Wormianum dating to 1655 shows something akin to a natural-history pawnshop, with bins of crystals, corals, and dried puffer fish strewn among other oddments. A stuffed lemur sat on a top shelf in a corner, and on the walls hung dried snake skins, iguanas, and an armadillo. Stuffed birds were suspended from the ceiling alongside benthic fish and a shark. Many of these objects were thought to have medicinal, even mystical, powers, and the Wormianum looks as much like a sorcerer’s storeroom as it does a museum.

More than a century later, fascination with these types of collections had only grown. One of the most famous was in London, where the British naturalist Sir Ashton Lever had turned his home into his Holophusicon (meaning, “all nature museum”). Surviving watercolors of the interior show glass-fronted display cases containing thousands of stuffed birds and mammals against clean white backgrounds. Lever loved the exotic, favoring showy birds-of-paradise, colorful parrots, flamingoes, and unusual mammals such as sloths, shrews, and a giant kangaroo. He even had a full-size stuffed Asian elephant in his collection.

The Wormianum and the Holophusicon were just two of many antecedents to Roosevelt’s boyhood museum. Traveling through Europe when he was only eleven, Teddy compared some of the Continent’s old cabinets to his own collection. After visiting one in Germany, he was pleased to find that out of 101 animals on exhibit there, he already had two of the reptiles and three of the birds in his own collection back home.

Roosevelt was not unique in starting his own museum. Following the Revolutionary War, Americans were quick to imitate the European aristocrats who kept such collections, largely prompted by envy of Europe’s cultural primacy and a desire to assert their membership in the same scientific milieu. Even Benjamin Franklin had his own collection. Natural history was a new and popular science on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was especially well suited to Americans, given their easy access to wilderness. Unlike most other cultural pursuits, for which wealth and education were absolutely requisite, anyone with access to the outdoors could participate in natural history, and Americans took to building cabinets of natural curiosities. It was in the early days of this new nation, anchored by democratic ideals, that public natural-history museums were born, beginning with the museum of a patrician Pennsylvanian named Charles Willson Peale.

Soft-spoken and warm, Peale had served with George Washington at Trenton and stayed with him through the long winter at Valley Forge. He was among America’s founders and he hoped to make his living painting portraits of his famous cohorts. Opening a small studio and gallery off to the side of his Philadelphia home, Peale hung examples of his work for the public to glimpse the visages of famous Americans, one of few opportunities for the general population to see the likenesses of their most renowned citizens. But a pile of about fifty gigantic bones positioned unceremoniously on the gallery’s floor attracted more interest. These were the fossil remains of a large prehistoric creature discovered on the frontier; Peale was making some drawings of the bones, not realizing that his patrons would be so taken with them. The fragmented skeleton also awakened in him a long-simmering passion for natural history, and, seeing the public’s own interest, Peale was inspired to turn his gallery of art into a museum of natural history.

Peale’s museum was designed to “diffuse a knowledge of the wonderful works of creation.” He was several decades ahead of his time in anticipating the triple-bore function of a modern natural-history museum—to keep vast collections of specimens and support scholarly research in addition to offering popular exhibits. No other museums, in either Europe or America, had these lofty goals.

To populate his museum, Peale first had to learn how to preserve his specimens. A few published guides detailed how to skin and stuff animals, but chemical preservation was still a mystery. The available books emphasized the use of dubious concoctions of cinnamon, tobacco, and pepper, which allegedly preserved animal skins long-term. One paper even suggested using myrrh and frankincense as preservatives.

Live insects posed great peril to these early museums. Beetles and moths could devour animal skins with indiscriminate efficiency, and if these insects were able to access a collection, a curator might be surprised one day to find nothing but a pile of frass (as insect excrement is called) and some stray bits of stuffing and wire in the place where prized taxidermy specimens were once kept. But nothing solved the problem until a French alchemist and naturalist developed a poisonous deterrent.

Ornithologist Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur invented arsenical soap in the latter half of the eighteenth century. His formula was simple: arsenic, lime, camphor, and salts mixed into plain white soap that could be moistened and painted on the inside of a skin before the bird or animal was stuffed and sewed up. Even as a child, Roosevelt was allowed to have arsenic for insect-proofing his specimens, but he had to take special care to make sure that the toothbrush he used for applying the poison was kept separate from his own. He had a close call once when someone mistakenly placed his arsenic toothbrush next to the washbasin.

Despite Bécoeur’s advancement in collection-related pest control, taxidermy was still very much a crude and imperfect art. Peale struggled to teach himself the basics using the inadequate guides available, and he overcame those limitations in some creative ways. With his artist’s eye, he thought that specimens should be displayed in naturalistic poses, grouped together with natural objects in lifelike scenes. In one of the earliest examples of a habitat diorama, he painted scenic backdrops for many of his bird mounts, creating immersive experiences for his viewers.

Eventually, Peale’s collection outgrew his home studio, and he moved the museum to the high-ceilinged and bare-wooden-floored rooms of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed just a few years earlier. He organized his collection to showcase the perfection of creation, and a walk through the museum unfolded as a long march through the animal kingdom.

Despite some early successes—and the expansion of the Peale Museum brand to Baltimore and New York—his family struggled financially. To counter this, and to keep his doors open, Peale had to indulge the whims of his admission-paying visitors, but he did his best to balance monetary priorities with the educational spirit upon which the collection was first founded. Eventually, Peale’s sons took over, and they added sensational crowd-pleasers such as a calf with two heads and six legs, a “learned dog” named Romeo who barked out the answers to questions, and Signor Hellene, a one-man band simultaneously playing the viola, Turkish cymbals, tenor drum, Pandean pipes, and Chinese bells.

Attempting to tread a middle ground between serious science and entertainment, the Peales eventually reached the point where they could no longer compete with the rise of a new kind of institution—called the dime museum—that pandered exclusively to the lower levels of popular taste, trivializing museum exhibitions to mere sensationalism. In just a few short decades the Peales were forced to close their museums. Even more tragic, their collections were dispersed, and many specimens were bought by the man whom some considered to be the most notorious dime museum huckster of all—P. T. Barnum.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, of later circus fame, was the genius behind the largest and most outlandish of all the dime museums. Situated in Lower Manhattan at the corner of Ann Street and Broadway, Barnum’s American Museum of the 1850s was an immaculate white building festooned with banners and covered with colorful posters on all five stories of the exterior. The main gallery on the first floor was filled with glass cases of stuffed animals. There was even a taxidermy shop where you could drop off a dead pet and have it stuffed and ready to take home by the end of the day. Barnum proudly described his American Museum as an “encyclopedic synopsis of everything worth seeing in the curious world.”

By 1864, P. T. Barnum was boasting that he possessed more than 850,000 curiosities. A self-proclaimed proponent of the art of money-making, he was famous for enticing paying customers with outlandish hoaxes, and part of the fun of going to the American Museum was never quite knowing what was real and what was merely a clever trick. Barnum’s modus operandi was to turn obvious deceit into a game, baiting the public and the press alike and then sitting back to enjoy the spectacle (and the profits) of a public itching to see his hyped-up exhibits. He also mastered the art of manipulating the press, building suspense so well that people were drawn to his shows even after some of the exhibits were revealed to be bogus.

But Barnum’s most outlandish trick played on the tools of the naturalist trade. After obtaining a taxidermy mount of what appeared to be a mermaid, Barnum was careful not to display it right away. Instead, he went on a PR offensive, spinning a yarn about the discovery of the strange specimen he called the “Fejee Mermaid” in the local newspapers. According to Barnum’s fiction, the specimen had been recently discovered in the far-off Hawaiian Islands, and a hitherto unheard-of scientist was on his way to exhibit it in the United States for only a very short time. For weeks Barnum craftily fed the newspapers updates about the imaginary scientist and his mermaid, building a great sense of anticipation of their arrival. When the Fejee Mermaid was finally put on exhibit, with placards suggesting a voluptuous feminine creature of outsize proportions, people flocked to Barnum’s museum, where, instead of a sea siren, they found an extremely shriveled “mermaid” only eighteen inches long. The mermaid, of course, was an obvious fake—the work of Japanese craftsmen stitching together a monkey torso and a fish tail as a novelty item for sailors.

To Barnum, it was all just fun, but serious naturalists were incensed. Barnum had made a mockery of their science, buying up Peale’s prized specimens and turning natural history into a farce. Among those who had been for a long time upset by Barnum’s charades were New York City’s most respected elites, including Theodore Roosevelt Sr. To these educated men, Barnum symbolized everything that was wrong with America, including the decline of serious scientific inquiry. To their minds, Americans—with their vast reserves of wilderness and wildlife—deserved a grand public natural-history museum. It was a small handful of such individuals—the elder Theodore Roosevelt among them—who played a key role in pioneering serious natural-history museums in America. They sought a return to Peale’s original idea of a natural-history museum housing collections of specimens for science, and they were willing to donate substantial amounts to make this kind of public museum a reality; they just needed to find the right flag-bearer.


MUSEUMS ARE THEIR collections, and the vitality of a natural-history museum depends on naturalists actively collecting new specimens for science. Without avid specimen hunters, natural-history museums never would have progressed beyond the cabinets of curiosity, those static collections owned by a few wealthy individuals. Through the sheer volume of their findings, it was the specimen collectors who brought natural history to the general population, making museums out of otherwise esoteric groupings. One of the most influential of these collectors was Spencer Fullerton Baird, the force behind the creation of one of America’s largest natural-history museums—the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution—a