History Vs. Episode 4: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Nature
Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.
It’s early on a spring day in 1866, and Theodore Roosevelt, age 7, is heading down Broadway in New York City to pick up strawberries from the market when he sees something that rocks. his. world.
It’s a dead seal laid out on a slab of wood, and as soon as he lays eyes on it, Little Teedie is never the same.
He needs to know everything about the seal. He asks where it was killed and is told, “the harbor.” He returns to the market, and the seal, day after day, lurking, getting a closer look whenever he can.
He wants to measure the girth of the animal but he doesn’t have a tape measure, so he must make do with a “pocket foot-rule,” which he later recalls is “a difficult undertaking” that yields “utterly useless measurements.” Nevertheless, Teedie scribbles his findings in a notebook and begins what he calls a “wholly unpremeditated and unscientific” natural history of the seal. He dreams of taking the seal home and preserving it; it fills him, he says, “with every possible feeling of romance and adventure.” He is obsessed.
It's not hyperbole to say that the seal changes everything: The day he saw it, TR will later write, is the day he started his career as a zoologist. And while he doesn’t succeed in procuring the whole seal carcass, Teedie is able to get his hands on the skull. It’s the first specimen in his “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History,” and from that point on, he can’t resist bringing home every living, or formerly living, thing he can get his hands on.
Bugs and lichen fill his bedroom; young squirrels he raises by hand scurry across the floors. He befriends mice and tries to tame a woodchuck. Once, when he’s riding a streetcar, he sees an adult he knows and absentmindedly lifts his hat in greeting—letting loose several frogs he’d been hiding underneath.
TR’s reverence for the natural world drove many of his policy decisions in the White House. But he was also an avid big game hunter who relished hanging a taxidermied kill on his wall. So how did his desire to save species square with his desire to shoot stuff? We’re about to find out.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this episode is TR vs. Nature.
Theodore Roosevelt, who went by the nickname Teedie as a boy, was born in Manhattan in 1858. New York City might not be the first place you’d think to find a budding naturalist—even in the 1860s, it was a bustling metropolis with factories, busy streets, and densely-packed tenement buildings.
But Teedie still found opportunities to foster an obsession with the outdoors from an early age, starting with the books he read. He suffered from severe asthma as a child, and while bedridden, he passed the time by devouring books. He was especially drawn to tomes that dealt with nature. Illustrated Natural History and Homes Without Hands by John George Wood, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa by David Livingstone—which was so big that Teedie could barely carry it—and Mayne Reid’s adventure novels, which had a scientific flair, were some of his favorites.
Charles Darwin also had a huge influence on TR: In his book Wilderness Warrior, historian Douglas Brinkley writes that, “By the time Theodore was 10 or 11 [Darwin] was his touchstone, a Noah-like hero.” On the Origin of Species came out the year after Theodore was born, and the book shaped not just his view of the natural world, but his view of everything. Brinkey writes that, "Roosevelt swallowed natural selection hook, line, and sinker. For the rest of his life, in fact, he used evolutionary theory as his guiding light; it illuminated his views on everything from politics to geography to fatherhood."
Darwin’s accounts of collecting specimens in exotic locations compelled TR to have adventures of his own, and later, Theodore would carry On the Origin of Species with him on those adventures.
When he was well enough to go outdoors, Teedie found the nature he read about in books all around him. Bugs were some of his first research subjects. At age 7 or 8, he wrote an essay titled “The Foregoing Ant.”
As his sister Corinne later recalled of the essay’s creation, he was reading about ants, and, “Turning the page of his huge volume, at the head of the following page, the narrative continued, ‘The foregoing ant also has such unusual characteristics.’ The young naturalist not realizing that the word ‘foregoing’ referred to the ants of whose habits he had already read, decided that the adjective in question was applied to a new species, and after ardent investigation of the habits of this supposedly new species of ant, he decided to write an article … entitled, ‘The Foregoing Ant,’ and having accomplished this feat in a large, painstaking, babyish hand, he then called the members of the household together to listen to this essay on this hitherto unknown representative of the ant family.”
For a paper he penned at age 9 called “Natural History on Insects,” he expanded his scope to cover more species like ladybugs and fireflies. Teedie explained his research process, writing: “All the insects that I write about in this book inhabbit North America. Now and then a friend has told me something about them but mostly I have gained thier habbits from ofserv-a-tion.”
His powers of observation—or, should we say, “ofserv-a-tion”—were remarkable for a 9-year-old. When writing about a bark spider, he described its nest in detail, noting: “It looks exactly like some cotton on top but if you take that off you will see several small little webs … each having several little occupants.”
These observations are made even more impressive by the fact that Teedie grew up severely near-sighted.
David Hurst Thomas: The remarkable thing was he just finished reading a 332-page book on the subject.
That’s David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History.
Thomas: That to me is the remarkable part. This kid was so precocious that he was just reading and he was then trying to sort of put it into practice. As he went on, he just used all of his experiences and started collecting things. And so he learned how to do this and he was looking out for specimens. So he created his own Museum.
When he wasn’t taking notes in the field, TR brought his work home with him. The “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” that started with his beloved seal skull soon grew too big for his bedroom—it contained several hundred specimens. According to historian Edmund Morris, when Teedie asked the cook to boil a woodchuck for 24 hours—which makes the meat fall off the bone, and is one way scientific specimens are prepared—it caused a great stink in both senses of the phrase, so she laid out an ultimatum: “Either I leave or the woodchuck does.” The housekeeper reportedly complained as well, saying: “How can I do the laundry with a snapping turtle tied to the legs of the sink?”
His parents may have been the only adults in the house who didn’t mind his hobby—in fact, they supported it. Theodore later wrote:
“My father and mother encouraged me warmly in this, as they always did in anything that could give me wholesome pleasure or help to develop me.”
His father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., even went so far as to set him up with his own taxidermy tutor when TR was 14. John Graham Bell was a colleague of John James Audubon, and in his musty Manhattan shop, he taught Theodore how to stuff and mount exotic birds and how to clean skeletons with dermestid beetles, which eat muscle and flesh to leave behind bone—a method still used by museums today. It was an unconventional education for a teenager, to say the least. Per Morris, TR “very likely had no peer as a teenage ornithologist.”
It helped that his dad shared his passion for nature. A businessman and philanthropist, Theodore Sr. helped found the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1869.
TR also owed part of his naturalist streak to his Uncle Rob, who lived next door to Teedie and his family on East 20th Street. Robert Barnwell Roosevelt was a well-known conservationist who rallied to save New York’s fish, founded clubs devoted to wildlife, and wrote an important work on ornithology. He also kept a pony in the house and let his German Shepherd eat at the table. He taught his nephew the value of the field of science known as ecology today. According to Brinkley, RBR turned his nephew into a conservationist as a teenager and notes that TR was "a hybrid—half his father, the other half Uncle Rob."
In 1872, TR received two things that changed his relationship with nature in very different ways: eyeglasses and a gun.
When shooting his gun with friends, he realized they were able to see targets that weren’t visible to him at all. He knew something was wrong when the other boys read a billboard ad that he didn’t even notice had letters. Theodore told his dad about the problem, and it became clear that he needed glasses.
Through his first pair of spectacles, he reacquainted himself with the world. The blurry green shapes above him sharpened into clusters of thousands of distinct leaves. The static ground was now animated with scuttling insects and blades of grass ruffling in the wind. But the biggest revelation came when he saw birds. He had a hypersenstive sense of hearing, which according to Morris, “is surely the legacy of the myopic years that came before.” Long enthralled by their songs, he was now able to see a cardinal sitting on a branch or a goldfinch flying through the air in detail for the first time.
Thomas: Those glasses … just opens a whole new world to him, but the birds really took the show, the colors and the details. And the idea that there were so many of them he hadn't seen before must have just been a real turnaround.
His glasses also allowed him to use his gun properly. When he vacationed in Egypt with his family later that year, he shot 1 gray heron, 2 partridges, 2 squirrels, 3 quail, 8 hoopoos, 8 cow heron, 18 large plover, 36 little shore birds, and 81 pigeons in two months. He recorded his haul in his “Zoological Record,” but his motives weren’t strictly scientific—he also liked shooting things.
Biographers have different theories on where this desire came from. Kathleen Dalton wrote that TR "turned to nature as an outlet for his most aggressive impulses and liked wilderness stories best when man's aggression and wildlife's destruction went unchecked.” According to Brinkley, Roosevelt shot, stuffed, and studied animals as a way to honor them, writing, "Most other men would simply shoot birds. Roosevelt, by contrast, shot and collected them for scientific scrutiny. Only by learning everything about a species could you eventually save it from the maw of industrial man."
But eventually, Roosevelt himself acknowledged that with birds, anyway, he’d been too quick with a gun. In 1901, he wrote to a friend,
“When I was young I fell into the usual fashion of those days and collected 'specimens' industriously, thereby committing an entirely needless butchery of our ordinary birds. I am happy to say that there has been a great change for the better since then in our ways of looking at these things."
Regardless of his motives at the time, hunting became part of Roosevelt’s new persona. Theodore had transformed from the clumsy, nearsighted boy of his youth into a budding outdoorsman.
Thomas: The robust guy that TR, the one we all know and love, was a creation of himself. He literally built himself into that person, who became president. … And that really colored the way he viewed the world. If I can do this, anybody can take themselves and be whatever you want, you just need to work hard enough and have enough passion.
But TR held onto some of his boyhood habits, including collecting animals. He enrolled in Harvard when he was nearly 18 to study natural history, and he kept his specimens—both the living and the dead ones—in his room at the boarding house. Preserved animal remains, formaldehyde bottles, and arsenic jars were strewn around his workspace. A tortoise of his even escaped its cage one day and wandered into the hallway. He wasn’t able to catch it before it surprised the landlady, who, according to Morris, “was frightened into hysterics.” She didn’t kick him out, though—TR lived there for the rest of his time at Harvard.
A career in science seemed like the perfect fit for Theodore; he may have even dreamt of being a curator at the museum his father helped found. In 1877, TR came back from Harvard to attend the grand opening of the American Museum of Natural History’s new building, and he donated some of his personal items to the collection, including 12 mice, four bird’s eggs, and a red squirrel skull.
But ultimately, a career in science wasn’t meant to be. After a few years at Harvard, Roosevelt learned the work wasn’t quite what he had envisioned.
He had spent most of his life studying nature up close, and being cooped up indoors in a lab left him dissatisfied. Class bored him, and he interrupted his teacher, Nathaniel Shaler, so often the professor once had to say, "Now look here, Roosevelt, let me talk. I'm running this course."
On Harvard, Theodore wrote in his autobiography:
"There was a total failure to understand the great variety of kinds of work that could be done by naturalists, including what could be done by outdoor naturalists [...] In the entirely proper desire to be thorough and to avoid slipshod methods, the tendency was to treat as not serious, as unscientific, any kind of work that was not carried on with laborious minuteness in the laboratory. My taste was specialized in a totally different direction, and I had no more desire or ability to be a microscopist and section-cutter than to be a mathematician.”
Alternate career paths were starting to look more appealing.
Thomas: He finally had to make a decision, “Am I going to be a natural historian or am I going to be a politician?” And that was a tough decision for him to make at Harvard and it didn't happen until his senior year when he finally decided that the kind of biology and natural history that he was learning, Louis Agassiz and the tradition at Harvard, that was a lab-based tradition. And he was a field-based kid and his dad warned him about that.
He was ultimately inspired to get into politics by the death of his father in 1878. The greatest way to honor his father, Theodore felt, was to dedicate his life to public service. He switched majors to history and government, but he didn’t abandon his interest in the outdoors. Nature sustained him throughout his life.
When his first wife, Alice, and his mother Mittie died within hours of one another, he retreated to the Dakota Badlands in search of solace. When his political career in New York got too hectic, he took breaks to live out his cowboy fantasies on a ranch out West. But after entering the White House, Theodore Roosevelt realized that nature could no longer be just an escape for him. Instead, it became part of his life’s work.
We’ll be right back after this quick break.
Since the early days of his presidency, the American people have associated Theodore Roosevelt with the outdoors. Just months after President William McKinley was assassinated and he was sworn into the White House, Roosevelt went on a hunting trip that would saddle him with a nickname he could never shake.
It was 1902, and TR was looking for a way to smooth relations with the South. He had recently invited African American leader Booker T. Washington to the White House, angering segregationist voters. The invitation alone wasn’t what caused a stir—Washington and Roosevelt often shared late-night conservations about politics whenever the activist came to town. But on this occasion, TR was double-booked: He had planned to spend the night with his children to celebrate his two youngest sons finally moving into the White House, but he also had an after-hours meeting with Washington.
He found a way around the scheduling conflict by inviting Washington to join his family for dinner. It was the first time in history a black guest had been invited to dine at the White House. According to Deborah Davis in her book Guest of Honor, "When Booker T. talked about the dinner in years to come, it was the fact that TR's family was alongside him at the table, not his new role as political adviser, that seemed to mean the most to him."
But not everyone applauded TR for the progressive move.
Thomas: TR got hammered for that. He accepted an invitation to go hunt bears in the South, knowing that there were some political liabilities and also, hoping that not only could he have some fun, but there were some political things to be said there as well there.
The invitation came from Mississippi Governor Andrew Longino. Holt Collier, a formerly enslaved Confederate cavalryman, would be their hunting guide. He was familiar with the land, and, according to legend, had killed more than 3000 bears. With the plan in place, TR headed South.
Thomas: He puts on his fringe jacket, and heads down to the South to go on this sort of ceremonial bear hunt. Even at the time, he says, you know, “Once you start adding more than two people to a bear hunt that's too many people.” But he went on this thing and it ended up being staged and went badly and a couple of his dogs were killed. So he's got his Winchester 94, his 3030. He's supposed to kill this bear that they've got tied up to a tree, who's already wounded and killed the dogs. And he just says he's not going to do it. It's just not his idea of being a hunter. And so he refused. He called it a most unsatisfactory experience. He was embarrassed by it and comes back and of course, there’re cartoons, poor little bear tied to a tree and TR holding his Winchester, not shooting it. That's where the teddy bear deal comes from.
After the incident, the nickname Teddy caught on—much to the president’s chagrin. As a strict rule-follower who appreciated formality, he felt the name was too personal to be used by the public. It’s also what his late wife Alice called him, and it was likely a painful reminder of her.
The public ate up the image of gruff, manly Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear (though he did order it put “out of its misery,” and a member of the party “dispatched it with a knife,” in Morris’s words). But his environmentalist principles were less popular when he tried putting them into law. At the start of the 20th century, natural resources were seen as something to be tamed and exploited—not to be conserved for future generations.
Still, there were some policies in place to protect the environment at this time. The Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 made it illegal to dump waste into bodies of water without a permit, and the Forest Reserve Act allowed U.S. presidents to preserve forests on public land. By the time TR took office, presidents Harrison, Cleveland, and McKinley had set aside roughly 50,000,000 acres of public forest under the law. Benjamin Harrison also used his power to protect wildlife, and even entered an international dispute in an effort to save the fur seal.
But these laws weren’t enough to match the rapid development taking place at the turn of the century. With hunting, mining, and deforestation left unchecked, the resources Americans took for granted were on track to disappear for good.
Thanks to his uncle, Roosevelt had long known that America’s wilderness was precious—and vulnerable. He had taken his own steps to preserve wilderness, co-founding the Boone and Crockett club after proposing the idea at a dinner in his New York City home in 1887. The B&C Club advocated for ethical hunting practices and established wildlife preserves for big game like bison, elk, and antelope.
As president, TR knew he had more power than ever to protect the wild lands he cherished, but with no precedent for the kind of comprehensive conservation laws he had in mind, he wasn’t sure how to move forward. So he turned to a friend from the Museum of Natural History for guidance.
Thomas: What he had done is pull in Frank Chapman again from the American Museum of Natural History. So he sits down with his lawyers and with Chapman. “What's the most important thing I can do today to make a difference?”
The American Ornithologists Union had made several attempts to purchase a small island off the coast of Florida from the government. The island was called Pelican Island, because it was the last rookery of brown pelicans on the east coast of the state. The AOU’s goal was to turn it into a bird preserve, but in order to buy the land, they needed to survey it … which would open the land up to homesteaders planning to use it for agriculture. The AOU’s status as a conservationist group would automatically send them to the bottom of the application pile.
But when they asked TR to use his executive power to make Pelican Island a nature preserve, he actually listened.
Thomas: TR looks around and talks to his lawyers and all. And he said, “Do I have the power to actually do that?” And the legal advice is “That's a big step for a president, but you don't explicitly not have the power to do it. So if you want to make that move to go one step further, all you have to do is say, ‘I so will it.’ And by saying ‘I so will it,’ you can turn that into law.”
The president was on board. By pushing the executive order through the USDA, it snuck by Congress without causing a fuss. In 1903, Pelican Island was established as the first-ever national wildlife refuge in the United States.
Thomas: It also sort of redefined a modern presidency: “If I'm not explicitly by law not able to do it that means I will do it.” I so will it then, I think that was the cornerstone moment in his presidency and his career.
On a camping trip he took that same year, TR realized there was even more he could be doing to save the environment. The president spent three days in California’s Yosemite with naturalist John Muir. They hiked in the shadow of the granite Sentinel Dome and camped under the towering sequoia trees of Mariposa Grove—TR with 40 wool blankets to keep him warm. But it wasn’t a pleasure trip for Muir—he was determined to convince his friend to use his power to protect the incredible place.
Muir made his case around the campfire … and succeeded. TR left California humbled by the natural beauty he saw, and he vowed to preserve it. When writing about Yosemite a few years later, he said: "There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of [the] giant sequoias [...] our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children … with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”
When Theodore returned home from the camping trip, he was inspired to pass new laws preserving America’s wilderness—often using the “I so will it” approach that worked for him with Pelican Island. Congress didn’t share TR’s environmentalist goals, though, so he went over their heads on many occasions, using executive orders to craft the conservation policy he wanted for the nation.
Tyler Kuliberda: He has a speaker of the house, Joseph Cannon, during his presidency that famously says that he will not appropriate one cent for scenery.
That’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Roosevelt’s Long Island home, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, where, on one floor, there hangs a painting of Roosevelt and Cannon arguing.
Kuliberda: That was the attitudes of a lot of people that these were natural resources to be used, this is how people make their livelihood, and why should we bar them from using them, whereas Roosevelt had a conservationist idea where they're the people's resources, and we can manage how many of them are used.
Some of TR’s most influential management came from the Antiquities Act of 1906.
With the act, Theodore Roosevelt had the power to establish National Monuments on federal land. If he felt there was an area in danger, he could grant it permanent protection without having to get permission from Congress first.
Here’s Will Shafroth, President and CEO of the National Park Foundation, whose great-grandfather was involved with the creation of the Antiquities Act:
Shafroth: It was a very different time in our country. You know, the population was dramatically less and the west was relatively undiscovered. The Homestead Act was still in place. And, you know, as people realized, wow, these places have got some value, let's use them for economic benefit. The Antiquities Act, which was formally passed in 1906 was a law that was created to provide the president of the United States with the flexibility and the authority to establish national monuments. Sometimes a president will need to have essentially kind of an emergency authority to set aside lands because Congress is not acting or it's taking too long to act so that the particular resources of concern can be protected in a short period of time and for the longterm.
The goal of the Antiquities Act wasn’t to shut people away from the nation’s natural wonders. With these protections put in place, TR ensured National Monuments would be preserved for more citizens to enjoy, whether by studying them in a scientific capacity, reflecting on their history, or just appreciating their beauty.
The first site designated a National Monument was Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. Anyone who’s seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind knows this rock formation: The 867-foot-tall butte juts out from the horizon, with cliffs lined with hundreds of parallel cracks leading to a flat-ish summit. The Antiquities Act was also used to preserve places of cultural significance. Immediately following Devils Tower, El Morro, an ancient pueblo in New Mexico, and Montezuma Castle, a pre-Columbian structure built into an Arizona cliff face, were added to the register of National Monuments.
The Antiquities Act was really put to the test on January 11, 1908. That’s when President Roosevelt upgraded the Grand Canyon from a game preserve to a National Monument.
Shafroth: When that happened, it was like, OK, this was the full scope of the Grand Canyon of something like 800,000 acres I think at the time. And that was a big deal for the government to do that and it established a precedent for other presidents to do something that bold in their own way.
The Grand Canyon—already a major tourist attraction—may have started to resemble a theme park without federal protection. Or maybe it would have fallen victim to copper and zinc mining interests.
Instead, Theodore Roosevelt paved the way for the Grand Canyon to become a full-fledged National Park in 1919, three years after the National Park Service was established. The National Park Service, alongside other government agencies, would be tasked with protecting these lands.
Before the environment was a top issue with voters, and before climate change was a regular part of the news cycle, Theodore Roosevelt saw the importance of conserving the country’s resources—not just for his constituents, but for future generations of Americans.
In 1908, TR gave a speech titled “Conservation as a National Duty.” In it, he said that:
“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight; we have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!”
TR did as much as he could to protect the environment—perhaps more than any other president before or since. By the end of his presidency, he had established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments. A total of 230 million acres of public land owe their protected status to him. As Brinkley puts it, that’s “almost the size of the Atlantic coast states from Maine to Florida” or “almost half the landmass Thomas Jefferson had acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803."
This feels like a good place to take a quick break. We’ll be right back.
It’s hard to find a surface of Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill estate that isn’t adorned with something that used to be alive. The walls display trophies of bighorn sheep and moose, while the tanned skins of big cats are draped over chairs and placed on floors, their faces frozen in permanent snarls.
In the north room, the saber and hat from TR’s days as a Rough Rider hang in the antlers of an elk—one of two in the room—which are situated across from two bison heads. There’s a dinner chime made of elephant tusks in the foyer, beneath the head of a cape buffalo. In his upstairs library, there’s a bizarre-looking chair made with the horns of longhorn cattle, and a hippo foot that was transformed into a inkwell.
Though not all of the animals there were bagged by TR, the former president’s home is a testament to his love of big game hunting.
Kuliberda: A lot of the hunting trophies that you see, the rugs on the floor, most of them in the house, the vast majority of them are hunted by him, so he is an avid big game hunter.
That’s Tyler Kuliberda.
Kuliberda: He's trying to display animals from all over the country, and I would say it was his goal to try to get as many as he could of a certain animal. So it was important for him to be able to hunt every animal.
Many of the trophies at Sagamore Hill came from a hunting trip TR took after leaving office. Like many ex-presidents, he celebrated the end of his tenure with a much-needed vacation—but instead of relaxing on some beach, he set off on a safari in the east African wilderness.
TR embarked from New York on March 23, 1909, and arrived in Mombasa on April 21. He was accompanied by a team of explorers and his son, Kermit. This wasn’t a typical post-presidency vacation: The expedition was sponsored by the Smithsonian, and it was organized for the purpose of collecting specimens for the National Museum of Natural History.
The former president took this job seriously. He entered Africa with rifles, a shotgun, a barrel of salt for preserving hides, a trunk of pigskin-bound books, and a gold-mounted rabbit’s foot for good luck.
The party returned home with more specimens than the museum could have hoped for. Between them, Kermit and Theodore shot and killed 512 animals. That’s not including the hundreds of creatures the other party members collected or the many birds the Roosevelts didn’t tally. Most specimens were donated to the National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History, though the pair did keep a few trophies for themselves. It took the Smithsonian eight years to catalogue every item it received. Some of the smallest specimens the party pocketed ended up in the U.S. Tick Collection—a massive catalogue of ticks from around the world that scientists use to study tickborne illnesses.
Some criticized TR for the excessive amount of slaughter that took place on the trip. But even after shooting hundreds of animals in the span of 11 months, he insisted it was done in the name of science. He told the press: "I can be condemned only if the existence of the National Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and all similar zoological institutions are to be condemned."
Any self-described environmentalist president killing one lion, let alone nine as TR did, would be a massive scandal today. But a conservationist hunter wasn’t an oxymoron in the early 20th century.
Kuliberda: If you wanted access to an animal in Roosevelt's day, you had to have it, and a lot of times that meant killing it. If you wanted to study a bird, you wouldn't want to put it in a trap and put it in a cage, because you want to take it apart and learn something about it, so you'd shoot it. He and other conservationists at the time, and other people that are interested in natural history, they are killing all of their subjects.
That includes ornithologist John James Audubon, another outdoorsman naturalist that Roosevelt was obsessed with. When he set off to create a life-sized guide to all the avians in America—which would become the Birds of America, a book so large that it required its own furniture just to look at it—he didn’t capture the level of detail in his vibrant and lifelike paintings solely by studying live birds through a pair of binoculars. His work required him to hunt. He shot his specimens, articulated them with wires, and then painted them.
Here’s David Hurst Thomas:
Thomas: Somebody like Audubon, he carried a paintbrush, but he also carried a gun. He collected everything that he could in part, so that he’d paint them and understand them. And one of his taxidermists is the one who taught TR how to do that. There wasn't any distinction as TR was growing up.
In 1914, TR set off on another expedition—this time to the Amazon rainforest. Originally meant to be a lecture tour of South America, he turned the trip into a scientific mission by collecting specimens for the American Museum of Natural History. At age 55, he knew that his adventuring days were limited. He called the journey his “last chance to be a boy.”
These scenes have been recreated in pop culture countless times thanks to Theodore’s account of it. His description of the fish itself also helped cement its terrifying reputation in the public imagination. He wrote:
“The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks.”
Whether he was watching a flock of birds or spreading tales about the piranha, Theodore Roosevelt loved nature. As Kuliberda explains, he expressed his respect for wildlife by hunting it—something that’s difficult for people to wrap their heads around today.
Kuliberda: Hunting isn't just shooting an animal, hunting is spending time out in the wilderness, sometimes for a week, or many days, or even longer than that. Hunting is cooking out in the open. Hunting is testing yourself, testing your abilities, and these things all attract Roosevelt to hunting.
Harvesting animals for museum collections doesn’t happen in such large numbers today—it’s strictly regulated and there are ethical guidelines. But when it does happen, there’s often public outrage. One scientist who collected a rarely-seen bird received death threats afterwards.
I know what I’m about to say is not going to be popular, but hear me out. Scientific collections are essential—specimens collected in the past help scientists solve scientific mysteries and make new discoveries that can actually help save wildlife. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Peregrine falcon populations were mysteriously declining, scientists compared contemporary falcon eggs to decades-old specimens at several museums and private collections around the country. They noticed the fresh eggshells were much thinner than the old ones, and determined that the pesticide DDT was to blame. Another example: By comparing the old feathers of seabirds to new feathers, scientists could show that the amount of mercury in the world’s oceans was rising. Who’s to say what future scientists might learn from specimens being collected today?
Hunting can even be used as a conservation strategy. In Midwestern states, hunters bid in auctions or enter lotteries to obtain the tags needed to hunt bighorn sheep, with the proceeds going to conservation. These hunting tag programs, along with reintroduction efforts, have helped the once-endangered bighorn sheep make a dramatic comeback. Here’s David Hurst Thomas.
Thomas: I've taken museum crews out for years and years and years, working at 12,000 feet in areas where Native Americans were hunting bighorn sheep. We can see all the archaeological evidence for that. They're not there anymore. Except the last time we went back there, there are bighorn back. And the reason they're back is because of the hunters.
What they've done is gotten together and see themselves as a prime movement of conservation. By raising money and reintroducing antelope and elk and bighorn in former environments and having some kind of limiting hunting season on them, they're actually making a pretty positive difference, and I see that as a legacy of where TR was coming from.
Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy may have looked much different if it wasn’t for his time spent in the Badlands. In 1883, the 24-year-old headed West in search of bison to hunt and display. There was nothing like the Badlands’ Painted Canyon back East: The hilly vista would have rolled on for miles before him, the colors of the rock formations varying in intensity depending on how sunny it was outside and if it had rained that day. The Lakota people dubbed the terrain "mako sica" or "land bad" because it was barren and unforgiving, but to TR, it was paradise.
Bad luck followed him the whole trip: He and his hunting guide discovered that the great herds of bison that had once roamed the region were now hard to find. He was also plagued by bad weather—but nothing could dampen his mood.
Eileen Andes: They woke up one morning and it had been raining, and he was lying in a puddle. And he woke up and said, "By Godfrey, this is fun," when most other people would say, "Let's just go home. It's hot. It's wet and nasty out here."
That’s Eileen Andes, Chief of Interpretation and Public Affairs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Even after he’d bagged his bison, TR wasn’t quite ready to leave the Badlands behind completely. He had fallen in love with cowboy life and decided to invest in a cattle ranch in North Dakota called the Maltese Cross. Later, he’d buy another, which he dubbed the Elkhorn. There was nothing glamorous about being a rancher in that part of the country. Fuel, food, and water were all hard to come by. In the summer, temperatures exceeded 100 degrees, and in the winter, the snow piled up so high that cattle were found in trees. Though challenging, the hardships he faced out West were a refreshing change from what TR experienced in New York.
Andes: I think he had some freedom out here that he didn't have when he was back east. And when he came out here, he didn't have the same kinds of responsibilities. So, it was a romantic life for him.
He spent the next few years traveling back and forth between North Dakota and his New York home, but it was in the Badlands where he built his rugged persona. He took his iconic buckskin suit there. Picture a buttery, fawn-colored garment with long fringes trimming nearly every seam. To TR, it was a symbol of the Old West at its peak. He also found it practical—the neutral color camouflaged him in the woods and the soft material allowed him to sneak through the brush quietly. But most working cowboys at the time were not impressed. Here’s Kuliberda.
Kuliberda: It's interesting, Roosevelt went out to Dakota territory, and went to be a cowboy, but he was very wealthy, and cowboys aren't wealthy, so he gets these very nice kind of fine-ries, he gets a rifle with things engraved on it, he gets a knife from Tiffany that he sticks in his belt. He has a buckskin suit, because Davy Crockett had a buckskin suit, but no one’s wearing buckskin suits in the Dakotas. So he had this idea of what a cowboy was, and he decided he was just going to go for it, and he gets out there, he gets made fun of.
One of his most iconic portraits shows him wearing the get-up in what appears to be a forest with a rifle resting in his lap. Labeled “Theo. Roosevelt as hunter,” the photograph was actually shot in Manhattan.
As Andes explains, TR’s time in North Dakota also helped shape his stance on conservation.
Andes: Well, the first time when he came out and it was so hard to find a bison, that was an indication that the great herds of bison were pretty much gone. He could see that for himself. When he came out here and was a rancher, he saw the effects of over-grazing. He saw diminishing wildlife populations. So it wasn't just hearing about it, he saw it for himself. And he started to think, probably, more clearly about conservation and what needed to be done. And his ideas started to crystallize. And he was able to do that out at the Elkhorn kind of like Thoreau did at Walden Pond. It gave him space to think, but he also saw things. And he also saw the need for habitat, which, we all know now that without a habitat, you can't save species unless they have a place to live. It seems logical, but that's not always been a known thing.
Twenty years after trekking to the Badlands to kill his first bison, Theodore Roosevelt used his power as president to help them. He became the honorary president of the American Bison Society at the Bronx Zoo in 1905. With TR’s support, the organization transported bison out West in an effort to repopulate the Great Plains. There were less than a thousand wild bison living in the U.S. in the late 1800s and there are roughly 350,000 of them today.
Theodore Roosevelt’s time in the Dakotas is what inspired him to live a life of significance and adventure with little room for compromise when it came to changing the world for the better. On his time there, he proclaimed, “I have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota. It was here that the romance of my life began.”
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Michele Debczak and researched by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer and Tyler Klang. Joe Weigand voiced TR in this episode.
The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.
Special thanks to David Hurst Thomas, Tyler Kuliberda, Will Shafroth, Eileen Andes, and North Dakota Tourism.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs.
History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.