In last week’s blog post I wrote at Alice Roosevelt’s trip to Mardi Gras in 1903. Today I’ll be looking into her host for that trip, John Avery McIlhenny. If you’ve ever looked closely at a Tabasco sauce label his last name may be familiar to you. His family owned the Tabasco sauce empire on Avery Island, Louisiana. His mother, Mary Eliza Avery McIlhenny, had family ties to the island going back to the 1830s. Formerly called Petite Anse Island, it was later renamed after her family, and made world renowned by her husband and sons.
In reality, Avery Island was not an island per se, but a large salt dome surrounded by marshland. During the Civil War, Union troops’ blockades of salt shipments in the South led to dramatically inflated prices, sometimes as much as 50 times the value, affecting not just the general public, but the troops as well. Under Confederate control, the salt mine on Avery Island produced 22 million pounds of salt during the war.
In 1868, John Avery McIlhenny's father, Edmund, started making Tabasco sauce from peppers harvested in his garden. Within the decade his sauce was used by cooks throughout the United States. John, a baby when the company was started, took over the family business after Edmund’s death in 1890. For eight years he expanded and modernized the production and marketing of their product. Earning popularity at world's fairs and from their colorful advertisements, there was even an opera made about Tabasco sauce in 1894 by George Whitefield Chadwick, seen in the advertisement and photograph below from the company archives. Hear some of the burlesque opera recreated here.
With the outbreak of the Spanish American War, the younger McIlhenny joined the First Volunteer Cavalry of the United States Army, known as the Rough Riders, on May 19, 1898. He participated in the battles of Las Guasimas and San Juan Hill, Cuba, and claimed to have saved Theodore Roosevelt from a sniper's bullet. Roosevelt promoted McIlhenny to 2nd Lieutenant of Troop E, and McIlhenny was later discharged on September 15, 1898.
John Avery McIlhenny in his Rough Rider uniform.
The two remained life-long friends and wrote and visited each other often. Those who read last week’s blog post know that McIlhenny and his mother hosted Alice Roosevelt and Edith Root during their Mardi Gras trip in 1903, holding a dinner for them in the salt mines. McIlhenny was also with Roosevelt during his famed Mississippi bear hunt in 1902, and another hunting trip in northern Louisiana in 1907.
John Avery McIlhenny, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Campbell Greenway
Like Roosevelt, McIlhenny also got into politics, holding a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1900 to 1904, and in the state Senate from 1904 to 1906. In 1906 McIlhenny was asked by Roosevelt to help oversee the United States Civil Service Commission, a position he continued to hold through the Taft and Wilson administrations. In 1919 he left to work with the Department of State in Haiti as a financial advisor. After retiring in Virginia, McIlhenny passed away in 1942 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
We have dozens of letters between Theodore Roosevelt and John Avery McIlhenny (and his mother Mary Eliza) in the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library, available here.
McIlhenny’s brother is also of interest and a contemporary of Roosevelt’s. Edward Avery "Ned" McIlhenny was a famous explorer, who joined Frederick Cook’s 1894 Arctic expedition as an ornithologist, and led his own expedition in 1897 to Point Barrow, Alaska. Like Roosevelt he was an avid conservationist, working to collect and protect both exotic birds and plant life, writing numerous books on both. Over the years he banded 189,298 birds for tracking. Some claim conservation efforts of exotic species by Ned McIlhenny and like-minded individuals led to invasive species like nutria overtaking areas of Louisiana.
Explorer and conservationist Edward Avery McIlhenny, 1897.
Images: TABASCO Archives