Roosevelt, Theodore, Sr.


Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (1831-1878) was the fifth son of Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, a prosperous New York merchant, and Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt. Theodore (Thee), a partner in the family’s import business, Roosevelt and Son, inherited a considerable sum following his father’s death in 1871. “Great Heart,” a moniker indicative of Thee’s character and generosity, was universally admired for his kindness, philanthropy, and civic involvement. 

As a young adult, Thee frequently accompanied his older brother Silas to the Philadelphia home of Dr. Hilborne West where he was captivated by Susan Ann Elliott West’s animated stories about the American South. In 1850, Thee accompanied the couple to Bulloch Hall in Roswell, Georgia. During the excursion Thee met his future bride, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch, for the first time. Due in large part to his reserved manner and subsequent European travels, a romantic relationship did not blossom until Mittie’s 1853 visit to Philadelphia. Following the couple’s marriage on December 22, 1853, in Roswell, Georgia, the newlyweds returned to Manhattan where they lived with Theodore’s parents until their own home was built. The family would later include four children: Anna, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Elliott, and Corinne.

As they matured into adulthood, the children regarded their father as the best man they ever knew.  Theodore Jr. (Teedie) regarded his father “as the ideal man.” He also fondly recalled his father’s patient and loving care as Teedie battled frequent asthma attacks. In time, Theodore Sr. challenged his namesake “to make his body” and overcome his infirmities. Eager to please the father he adored, Teedie committed himself to a regimen of vigorous physical activity, a routine that remained with him well into adulthood. After a confrontation with bullies who pummeled Teedie, Thee encouraged his son to take up boxing.

Theodore Roosevelt Sr. also modeled charitable service by setting aside time each week to assist the poor, visit poorhouses, and to teach mission school. During his lifetime he helped establish a number of philanthropic, cultural, and civic organizations, including the Children’s Aid Society, the American Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Art, and the New York Orthopedic Hospital. The children also accompanied their father during his Sunday evening visits to the Newsboys Lodging House.

The Civil War placed an enormous strain on the family, especially considering Mittie’s southern heritage. Out of respect for his wife’s family, Thee did not enlist in the Union Army. Instead, he hired a substitute to take his place and did his part assisting the war effort by serving as an allotment commissioner for New York. This job entailed frequent travel in an effort to persuade soldiers to set aside money to support their families. Roosevelt also played a key role in the establishment of the Union League Club of New York.

In 1874, the family began spending its summer vacations at Oyster Bay on Long Island’s North Shore. The vacation spot beckoned family members for years to come, especially those who liked horseback riding, woodland treks, swimming, and other outdoor activities. The summers spent in the company of family also left an enduring impression on a young TR who would, in time, make Oyster Bay his permanent home. 

“Great Heart” succumbed to stomach cancer on February 9, 1878, at the age of forty-six. Writing to Bamie, TR noted how fortunate they were “in having a father whom we can love and respect more than any other man in the world.”