Theodore Roosevelt, the Naturalist

Sep 20, 2013

Each summer, graduate student interns around the country become part of our team, cataloging the Roosevelt documents. Stephanie Patton enjoyed learning about Theodore Roosevelt the naturalist.

On July 5, 1911, Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to Frank M. Chapman of the Natural History Museum declaring, “I begin to feel that I wish I could devote myself exclusively to work as a naturalist.” Roosevelt’s love for nature started early in his life and stayed with him, even as he became occupied with his military and political life. He filled countless books with his observations about birds and animals throughout his life, from his family trips as a boy to his time on safari to his post-Presidential years.

When I started reviewing the records in the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library, I expected to be interested in Roosevelt’s place in history, in his reforms, in his dealings with the famous and the infamous, but it was Roosevelt the naturalist with whom I felt a real connection. As someone who occasionally dreams of working with plants and spends hours reading about the heritage of seeds, Roosevelt’s consistent devotion to nature and his meticulous notes on his observations of birds and animals struck a chord with me. 

Many of his early journals and letters were written during the travel-filled years of 1872-1873 when his family explored parts of Europe and Africa, as well as the Eastern United States, and show both the serious naturalist he would become and the fun-loving character that appears in his later letters to his sons. A notebook titled “Zoological Record from October 1872 to September 1873” became the basis for “The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks” and shows a meticulous classification record, while an 1873 letter to Anna Bulloch Gracie expounds on how “injurious” the sporting has been on his trousers – complete with diagram.

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Anna Bulloch Gracie

Detail. Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Anna Bulloch Gracie, January 26, 1873. Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.

Roosevelt was a prolific writer on the subject of birds and mammals and his years documenting fauna paid off in his Natural History examinations at Harvard. One of the first documents I reviewed was a 49-page exam book in which his knowledge of biology shines. The years on safari produced equally voluminous writings and description of his various trophies and he wrote consistently about his experiences as a hunter and observer, but it is the reflective post-presidency Roosevelt that appeals to me.

During the years following his presidency, Roosevelt returned to his interest in natural history, focusing his writings on the camouflaging behavior of birds and mammals. His observations on the songbirds of England turned into an article in The Outlook in 1910. In a 1911 letter to Arthur H. Lee, Roosevelt describes his life out of the public spotlight, noting “I was never in better shape, and have never been happier….I am really thinking a good deal more about natural history than about politics, and am just finishing a masterly article on Revealing and Concealing Coloration in Birds and Mammals.”

The article seemed to produce equal amounts of pride and frustration for Roosevelt. He exchanged letters with Frank M. Chapman throughout the summer of 1911 asking him for “real observation and honest opinion” after a critique of Roosevelt’s theories appeared in Popular Science. He had little respect for Thayer’s article or his methodology, arguing “neither Mr. Thayer nor his forty naturalists apparently appreciate the real significance of his experiments with the deer, which was that Nature had failed to make the deer concealingly colored until Mr. Thayer thoughtfully stepped in and remedied Nature’s shortcomings. Of course I can paint any animal so that it would disappear against almost any background.” 

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Frank M. Chapman

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Frank M. Chapman, July 5, 1911. From the Library of Congress Manuscript Collection. 

By June 1911, Roosevelt was also becoming frustrated with Edmund Heller for dragging his feet and worried that someone else – Richard Lydekker, most likely – would issue a similar publication "simply because they worked it up and we did not." The publication of his article occupied quite a lot of his time and energy. His exchanges with Frank Chapman in June and July 1911 reveal how hard he was working on the art plates for his publication, how he worried over potential criticism of his methodology and qualifications, and how concerned he was that his work would not be received well. In the wake of the “nature fakers controversy,” his anxiety is understandable, although his faith in his own observations remained largely unshaken.

He and his son Kermit read nature pamphlets with great interest and a good deal of Roosevelt’s letters that summer dealt with his article or observations in some form or another. He seemed particularly fascinated by flamingoes and their ability to survive in the crocodile-infested waters in Africa, despite their vibrant coloring. Roosevelt’s genuine curiosity for nature and animals remained strong and, in fact, his letters and other writings about nature in the later years of his life were as enthusiastic as those of the 14 year-old boy who meticulously documented the ornithology of Egypt. 

Stephanie Patton completed her MLIS at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in May 2009. She is a doctoral student in the American Cultures Studies department at Bowling Green State University and teaches U.S. History at Rhodes State College. 

Posted by Stephanie Patton on Sep 20, 2013 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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