Theodore Roosevelt – “TR” to his friends, never “Teddy” – was born a city boy, but he quickly developed a fascination for nature.
In part, it was because of his uncle, Robert Roosevelt, a nature writer who helped start several groups to oppose irresponsible hunting.
And, in part, it was because he saw a dead seal at the market.
He was only seven or eight when he was sent to the market for strawberries and saw the seal, which had been caught in New York Harbor, at a fish stall. He was fascinated and came back for several days to examine it, measure it and even make notes about it.
When the seal was finally sold, young Theodore somehow got the skull, and it became the first exhibit in the "Roosevelt Museum of Natural History" that he and his cousins started.
There was nothing special about the collection of strange things that came to be in the museum, he admitted later, except that it was his, and that his parents wanted him to be curious.
“My father and mother encouraged me warmly in this,” he wrote, “as they always did in anything that could give me wholesome pleasure or help to develop me.”
Roosevelt was homeschooled, and the “Roosevelt Museum” started him collecting bits of nature and keeping careful notebooks about his collections and things he saw in his trips to the country.
And a little boy with asthma in a city full of chimneys putting out coal and wood smoke needed to spend a lot of time in the country, if his parents could afford to take him there.
“One of my memories is of my father walking up and down the room with me in his arms at night when I was a very small person, and of sitting up in bed gasping, with my father and mother trying to help me,” he wrote.
Fortunately, the Roosevelts were quite well off, and young Theodore spent a great deal of time in the country, hiking and watching for things to add to his “museum.” He not only studied and wrote about the things he found, but he learned taxidermy so he could bring home birds and small animals for his collection.
In those days, when cameras were bulky and everyone had to sit perfectly still for a picture, the only way to draw pictures of animals was to shoot them first, and all serious naturalists had to also be hunters. Roosevelt began to collect birds and, in preserving them for display, learned about their bodies.
That was also how, at 13, Theodore learned something important about himself: “(I)t puzzled me to find that my companions seemed to see things to shoot at which I could not see at all,” he remembered later. “One day they read aloud an advertisement in huge letters on a distant billboard, and I then realized that something was the matter, for not only was I unable to read the sign but I could not even see the letters. I spoke of this to my father, and soon afterwards got my first pair of spectacles, which literally opened an entirely new world to me.”
As he grew to manhood, he exercised and became very fit, leaving much of his asthma behind. But he never left behind his love of nature. Not only did he continue to hike, camp and hunt, but, as a New York State legislator and then governor, Roosevelt helped pass laws to protect the forests and rivers of the state, and he wrote books about nature and animals.
He even left New York for a time and went out to the Dakotas to start a cattle ranch and live the life of a cowboy. He often joked about what a city dude he was, but the real cowboys appreciated his sense of humor and the fact that he always did his fair share of the work and was willing to live the same hard life that they did.
The friends he made out west became friends for life, and some even went to the Spanish-American War alongside him years later, as members of his “Rough Riders” brigade of cavalry.
Those cowboys were not his only friends. Through his writing and his political work, Roosevelt made friends with some of the most important nature writers and conservationists in the country.
Once, a magazine editor wrote about the mistakes Roosevelt had made in a book he wrote about animals, and Roosevelt was furious. He stormed into the editor’s office to argue with him, but then listened as the editor explained the mistakes.
Not only did Roosevelt admit he had been wrong, but he and George Bird Grinnell became great friends. They founded “The Boone and Crocket Club” to promote wise and responsible hunting and conservation of animals, and worked together to write and edit the club’s publications.
By the end of the 19th century, Theodore Roosevelt was a well-known politician who cared about people, a writer of books that sold very well and a hero of the war. He was elected Vice-President, and then, when President William McKinley was assassinated, he became the youngest US president in history.
In that position, he was able to do great things to help the nation and the conservation movement. But, as he rode out to Yellowstone with his friend John Burroughs, President Theodore Roosevelt still had a lot to learn about nature.
Text copyright 2014, Mike Peterson – illustration copyright 2014, Christopher Baldwin