Roosevelt, Robert Barnwell

Robert Barnwell (Barnhill) Roosevelt (1829-1906) was the fourth son of Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt and Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt as well as the uncle of President Theodore Roosevelt. He was a prominent New York lawyer, public servant, diplomat, writer, and conservationist. 

Robert married Elizabeth Thorn Ellis Roosevelt (“Aunt Lizzie”) in 1850.  The couple and their three surviving children, Margaret Barnhill, John Ellis, and Robert, Jr., lived in the brownstone adjacent to the family of Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., in Manhattan.  In 1873, Uncle Robert acquired Meadowcroft, a Long Island estate in Sayville, New York.

Beginning in 1850, Robert Roosevelt operated a thriving legal practice until 1871. At that time, his sizable inheritance enabled him to pursue a variety of other interests, especially politics and conservation.   

While Uncle Robert and the Hyde Park relatives remained War Democrats, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., switched his party affiliation during the Civil War. This decision forever divided the family into the Oyster Bay Republican and Hyde Park Democratic factions. Eager to do his part,   Robert helped establish the Loyal National League and the Union League Club during the war.

As Robert’s interest in politics grew, he changed the spelling of his middle name from Barnhill, his mother’s maiden name, to Barnwell. This was done in an attempt to avoid misappropriations of the original name, “manure pile,” by political adversaries.

Uncle Robert and Aunt Lizzie may have fueled TR’s fondness for exotic pets.  As a child, TR and his siblings reveled in his relatives’ assortment of guinea pigs, chickens, and pet monkey, creatures that frequently shared the children’s outdoor exercise space.  Uncle Robert’s interest in hunting, fishing, and conservation also influenced his like-minded nephew.  Uncle Robert, an avid sportsman and pioneering conservationist, helped establish the New York State Fishery Commission in 1867.  He subsequently served, without pay, as a state fish commissioner until 1888.  Robert Roosevelt’s prolific literary output, including five books featuring game birds and fish, helped generate interest in protecting the nation’s wildlife resources.

Robert Roosevelt, a noted reformer, represented New York’s 4th congressional district in the US House of Representatives from 1871-1873.  Eager to end widespread corruption, he joined forces with Charles G. Halpine and other members of the Committee of Seventy to oppose the machinations of Tammany Hall and William Marcy “Boss” Tweed.  He, in cooperation with Halpine, also edited the organization’s journal, the New York Citizen.

In 1888, President Grover Cleveland appointed Robert Roosevelt as the US Minister to the Netherlands, a post he held for two years.  His impressive record of public service also included serving as a Brooklyn Bridge commissioner (1879-1881) and as a New York City alderman (1882). He also helped to create the city’s first paid fire and health departments.

Although passionate about reform, Uncle Robert harbored a deep secret; he fathered a second family of children with Marion Theresa O’Shea Fortescue.  Although Uncle Robert later married his mistress after Lizzie’s death in 1887, he never formally acknowledged his sons’ paternity.  In an effort to hide the scandalous nature of his affair, Robert considered the two children, Kenyon Fortescue and Granville Roland “Rolly” Fortescue, to be his stepchildren.  He died on June 14, 1906, in Sayville, New York.