Theodore Roosevelt, the Cowboy President

Writer Ray Setterfield at the site in Yosemite Valley, California, where President Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir "talked forest good"
Writer Ray Setterfield at the site in Yosemite Valley, California, where President Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir "talked forest good"

by Ray Setterfield


May 17, 1903 — President Theodore Roosevelt sat at a campfire with naturalist John Muir on this day and discussed conservation – a matter of deep concern to both men.

It was part of a three-night camping trip that helped shape Roosevelt’s conservation policies. During his presidency he placed 230 million acres of public land under government protection, including iconic landmarks such as the Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon.

He became a close friend of Muir who had written: “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”

Theodore was the first of the two Roosevelts to become President of the United States. Although born 24 years apart, he and Franklin D. Roosevelt had much in common. As well as being distant cousins, they both had wealthy parents, they both went to Harvard University and they both went to Columbia Law School.

But Theodore chalked up one achievement that his cousin could not match: he had the Teddy Bear named after him. It happened when, as President in 1902, he went on a hunting trip in Mississippi and was invited to shoot a bear that had been tied to a tree. Considering this cruel and unsportsmanlike, the President refused.

After reading a newspaper report of the incident a toy maker in New York created a stuffed bear which he named “Teddy’s Bear”, using Roosevelt’s nickname. It led to a “teddy bear” fad that swept across the nation and then the world.

Like Franklin, Theodore was a descendant of Dutch colonists who settled in America in the mid-17th century. He was born in New York City in 1858, his father being a glass importer and one of New York's leading philanthropists.

Theodore was a sickly child, suffering from asthma and to escape his health problems he exercised in a home gym. He also spent hours in his father’s library reading about wild animals, hunting trips and frontier adventure.

At the age of seven, enterprising Theodore created the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” and charged visitors one cent to view it in the parlour of the family home.

By now he was firmly gripped by a fascination with the great outdoors. Fast forward to Roosevelt in his 20s and his first hunting trip in the Dakota Territory. He ended up buying land and a ranch in what would become North Dakota.

It was here one day in 1886 that Roosevelt’s boat, moored outside his ranch, was stolen and taken down the Little Missouri River. The thieves obviously had no idea of the kind of man they were dealing with. Roosevelt and two ranch hands quickly built a replacement boat, then set off in pursuit.

Knowing the expedition could be long he packed essentials such as coffee and flour and also took a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to read if there were any spare moments.

Roosevelt wrote about the episode later, revealing that it was late winter and the river had become icy and treacherous. But after three days of bumping along the water in freezing weather his group caught sight of their quarry.

They crept up on the thieves – who were armed – and apprehended them all on the river bank. The future president was angry about the theft of his boat but not enough to endanger the lives of the culprits.

Fearing that tying them up might cut off their circulation, he ordered the men to take off their boots. This was cactus country and without footwear the men would be going nowhere. Roosevelt spent the long journey back reading Anna Karenina.

While maintaining his passion for the Great Outdoors Roosevelt took a keen interest in politics and was elected as a Republican to the New York State Assembly at the age of 23. President William McKinley appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy when he was 29.

But he did not stay long in the post because war was looming between the United States and Spain over Cuba and he wanted to fight. So Roosevelt resigned then helped organise the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, known as the Rough Riders, and led them into battle.

He emerged from the Spanish-American war as a national hero, became Governor of New York, then McKinley made him his running mate for the 1900 presidential re-election campaign, which they won.

All was to change the following year when an assassin shot and killed McKinley and Roosevelt, as Vice-President, automatically took over the White House. Six weeks short of his 43rd birthday, he was the youngest person ever to enter the presidency (although John F Kennedy, at 43, remains the youngest person to be ELECTED President).

Domestically, he promised the American people a “Square Deal” – “a square deal politically, a square deal in matters social and industrial.” He also took on powerful corporations and earned the nick-name of ‘trust-buster.’ “Our government, national and state, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests,” he said, adding:

“Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics.”

Roosevelt established the US as a major player in world affairs, believing the right way to conduct foreign policy was to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He mediated an end to the war between Russia and Japan, a triumph that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

But he considered his greatest accomplishment as President was helping Panama to secede from Columbia, leading to the construction by America of the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was seen as a symbol of American determination and technological know-how, taking ten years to build from 1904 to 1914.

Theodore Roosevelt was America’s first “cowboy President” and was happy to be photographed in a buckskin shirt, a gun at his side. Larger than life more than any other occupant of the White House, he had been an amateur boxer. He was the first American politician to learn judo. He was a rancher. During his honeymoon he scaled the Matterhorn, reaching its summit. And he joined an expedition to log data about an unchartered river in the Amazon.

He also produced many memorable quotes, not least his reflection on his presidency:

“I believe in a strong executive; I believe in power. While President, I have used every ounce of power there was in the office . . . I do not believe that any President ever had as thoroughly good a time as I have had, or has ever enjoyed himself as much.”

Like his father, Roosevelt’s youngest son Quentin enjoyed a scrap and served as a pilot in the United States Air Service in the First World War.

Tragically, as the conflict was nearing its end in 1918, 20-year-old Quentin’s plane was shot down in France and he was killed.

Six months later on January 6, 1919, sick with illness and grief over the loss of his favourite son, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep. He was 60 years old.

Alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, his features form one of the four presidents carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore at the national memorial in South Dakota.

Published: April 20, 2020

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