River of Doubt

The River of Doubt was Roosevelt’s last great adventure and, as he called it, his “last chance to be a boy.” After his defeat in the 1912 election, Roosevelt looked to his familiar pattern of adventure as therapy. Following an invitation to speak in Buenos Aires, Roosevelt gathered a party to explore the uncharted Rio da Duvida (“River of Doubt”) in Brazil.  Kermit Roosevelt, American naturalist George Cherrie, and Colonel Candido Mariano de Silva Rondon were among his companions.  Their mission was to chart the unknown river and to collect specimens for the Museum of Natural History.

The journey began with a 900-mile, forty-day trek to the headwaters of Rio da Duvida.  As they commenced their trek down the river, Roosevelt described the scene as almost tranquil in his book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness: “As we drifted and paddled down the swirling brown current, through the vivid rain-drenched green of the tropic forest, the trees leaned over the river from both banks.  […] Butterflies of many hues fluttered over the river.  The day was overcast, with showers of rain.  When the sun broke through rifts in the clouds, his shafts turned the forest to gold.”

Roosevelt’s initial impressions were deceiving. Impenetrable jungle and a multitude of waterfalls and Class IV rapids lie along the 1,000-mile river.  Along their journey, Roosevelt’s party lost many of their original vessels and had to make crude dugout replacements. The rapids claimed supplies and the life of one of the camaradas (comrades), who drowned.  There were also human problems. First, their quartermaster, Anthony Field, was dismissed when it was discovered that he had packed gourmet condiments like olive oil and Rhine wine over necessities like meat. Within eighteen days, the party had used a third of their food and relied on palm-tops as a food source. Second, the territory they charted contained hostile native tribes. Thanks to Colonel Rondon, who implemented policies that banned attacking the natives, even when provoked, as well as leaving gifts, the party only lost one dog to native hunters. Finally, the party faced internal division, which led one comrade to murder another and flee into the jungle.

Roosevelt also nearly died on the journey.  In April, Roosevelt cut his leg when his canoe overturned.  Shortly afterward, he contracted a high fever, lying delirious in camp, unable to even lift his head, with a temperature of 105 degrees. By the end of his journey, Roosevelt lost fifty-five pounds, a fourth of his original weight.  In a letter to a friend, Roosevelt wrote, “The Brazilian wilderness stole away 10 years of my life.”  He was troubled by recurring malaria until his death.

The party reached the river’s end at Sao Joao on April 27, 1913.  Their mission was a success since it provided the information to map the interior of Brazil for the first time.  Additionally, the party had collected over 2,000 species of birds and 500 mammals for the Museum of Natural History.  The river was renamed the Rio Roosevelt, yet Roosevelt felt this was a misplaced honor.  As he wrote to Vilhjalmur Stefansson in 1918, Roosevelt felt that full recognition should have gone to Colonel Rondon, who had successfully led them through the river and then made a 2,000-mile journey back to Rio de Janeiro.  No one else succeeded in making the trek down the River of Doubt until 1926, and the region remained remote and hostile until the 1960s.

Bibliography:

Roosevelt, Theodore.  Through the Brazilian Wilderness.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914.

NPR. “Tracing Roosevelt’s Path Down the ‘River of Doubt’.” NPR Books. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4986859

This essay was submitted by Tiffany Rhoades, a summer 2014 TR Center intern.