The TR Center Blog would like to welcome guest blogger Valerie Naylor, superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park!
As Superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I care for the Elkhorn Ranch and other places special to TR, so I strive for firsthand experience with all things Roosevelt. When the Theodore Roosevelt Association announced a U.S. government-licensed educational trip to Cuba to explore TR history, I filled out all the forms required for the specific license and sent in my money. We departed on February 15 for our week-long adventure.
Members of the Theodore Roosevelt Association group explore San Juan Hill. Photo courtesy of Valerie Naylor.
Few Americans have had the opportunity to walk in Roosevelt’s footsteps in the last 50 years of the Cuban Revolution. On our special tour, we saw the beach at Siboney, where Theodore Roosevelt and his regiment marched after their dicey initial landing at Daiquirí on the southeast corner of the island. We asked permission from a farmer to hike along the trail that TR took on his way to Las Guásimas and San Juan Hill. We saw the ruins at El Caney, where other U.S. regiments fought the Spanish at the same time TR was marching to his battle. And we gained great insight at the places we know as San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill.
Many of us who interpret Roosevelt are quick to correct those who say that TR “led the charge up San Juan Hill.” We profess that TR led the charge up “Kettle Hill” and that only later did he proceed to San Juan Hill. That is technically true, but not significant on the ground. The area is a low ridge on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba. While San Juan Hill itself may be the most significant point on the ridge, the entire area is known only as “The San Juan Hills.” TR coined the term “Kettle Hill” and admits this in his book, The Rough Riders, when he refers to it as “…the hill on our right, which we afterward grew to call Kettle Hill.” If Kettle Hill has a Cuban name, it is San Juan de Majares, as I found on a small plaque with an arrow on top of a guard house monument on San Juan Hill. So from now on, if people say that TR led a charge of San Juan Hill, I can live with that.
San Juan Hill itself is a small, developed park, covered with all types of memorials to Cuban, American, and Spanish soldiers that fought in the war. It is a great place to wander on intersecting paths, to squint at the text on bronze plaques, granite markers, and old monuments, and to try to get a perspective on what the area was like when Roosevelt was there.
A plaque that shows the way to San Juan de Majares (Kettle) Hill. Photo courtesy of Valerie Naylor.
As a biologist, I was also interested in the vegetation, which TR consistently referred to as “jungle.” Jungle can be defined as an area in the tropics overgrown with thick vegetation. From TR’s description most people might picture a lush, tropical rainforest. The area is hot and somewhat humid, but the vegetation is that of an almost semi-arid area. “Jungle” is not a descriptor we would use today for that area. For example, TR’s “open jungle” is what most of us would refer to as a “meadow.”
Cuba is a fascinating place, partially frozen in a pre-1959 world of mafia-constructed hotels, American-made antique cars, and beautiful historic buildings. I hope to return to see more of the countryside and to delve further into Roosevelt’s adventures.