Teddy Roosevelt And The River Of Doubt

Malaria and dysentery take the pounds right off

Former President Theodore Roosevelt was in a weird mood.

He had come in second in the presidential election of 1912, which meant he had nothing to do on March 4th of the following year while Woodrow Wilson was being sworn in.

So he went to an art exhibition.


In his inaugural address, President Wilson had called for “all honest men, all patriotic men, all forward-looking men” to “counsel and sustain him.”

Teddy knew for sure Wilson wanted no part of his counsel, and he was far from forward-looking. A new America was growing beneath the triumphant gaze of the college professor President, an America of red-hot industry and commerce, massive profits, and the rule of corporate executives who believed that not only could America be run like a business, but that it was a business.

Teddy wrote a nostalgic article about his time in the Badlands that ended on a paragraph that was really about himself:

“That land of the West has gone now, ‘gone gone with lost Atlantis, gone to the isle of ghosts and of strange dead memories…the stars were glorious in our eyes each night before we fell asleep; and in winter we rode through blinding blizzards, when the driven snow-dust burnt our faces…We knew toil and hardship and hunger and thirst; and we saw men die violent deaths as they worked among the horses and the cattle, or fought in evil feuds with one another; but we felt the beat of hardy life in our veins, and ours was the glory of work and the joy of living.”

He didn’t have “the glory of work,” or at least the kind of work he wanted; Woodrow Wilson did. So now he needed to find the “joy of living.”

Teddy flailed around for a bit after the election, starting his autobiography, writing articles, and planning new books about nature. His only major speech was as president of the American Historical Association, in which he talked about “history as literature.” He believed that history needed to be told more like a story and less like a scientific treatise, which was a style coming into fashion in academic circles.

Teddy was finding many of his notions out of step with the changing times.

Maybe art criticism could be his new thing.


Unsurprisingly, he preferred landscapes to portraits or nudes. His sense of interior design was limited to animal heads mounted on the walls. His daughter Alice once had to correct her father’s admiration of a sculpture of the goddess Diana by pointing out the very clear anatomical evidence that it was actually the god Apollo.

“Art is about the only subject of which I feel some uncertainty,” he had once admitted.

But never lacking in confidence (and having nothing else to do), the former cowboy went to an art show.

This is probably a good time to mention that he was mostly blind in one eye.


His presence at the “Futurists Exhibition,” officially called the “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” guaranteed that the show made the news.

This was an event Teddy should have avoided, as it bypassed the old masters he knew and favored the up and coming artists and new styles like Cubism.

Everywhere he went, Teddy Roosevelt beheld the ominous and unpleasant future.

His review of the show, like most of his writing after his defeat in the election, was both wistful and served as advice to himself: “It is true…that there can be no life without change, and that to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life.”

But he also couldn’t help from pointing out that the Navajo rug in his bathroom was “a far more satisfactory and decorative picture” than the so-called “A Naked Man Going Down Stairs.”

His career as an art critic never really took off. He would have to find something else to occupy his time.


Woodrow Wilson spent his first few days on the job trying to shake all the Theodore Roosevelt out of his new digs. The only wall decoration in the Oval Office on his first day was a portrait of Teddy done by John Singer Sargent. The office chair he ordered hadn’t arrived, so he had to use Teddy’s battered old one.

And instead of looking outward to the world as his predecessor had always done, the new President focused on domestic, not foreign policy. He appointed William Jennings Bryan Secretary of State, making America’s top foreign diplomat a fellow who “believed all foreign provocations could be talked or prayed away.”

Teddy forced himself not to publicly criticize the new President. But you can bet he wanted to.

A month after the inauguration, Teddy gave away his daughter Ethel in marriage. Unlike Alice’s White House wedding, this was a private affair with many of Teddy’s old friends like Elihu Root and William Howard Taft conspicuously absent, thanks to the contentious nomination fight and subsequent election battle.

The comparison between the two wedding ceremonies wasn’t lost on Teddy. His friend Owen Wister said that Teddy would likely “never again…attract such a concourse of familiars.”

Everywhere he turned, it seemed, even at something as innocuous as his daughter’s wedding, Teddy saw his former power waning and future generations demanding to take their rightful places: his granddaughter Gracie wailed loudly during the ceremony, while the new Assistant Secretary of the Navy — Teddy’s old job — stood by. Franklin D. Roosevelt, thirty-one years old, was the only Democrat present, invited due to his relation by blood and his marriage to Teddy’s niece Eleanor.


After the wedding was over and the bridal couple was off on their honeymoon, Teddy went back to his autobiography, despite telling Ethel that “I fairly loathe it now.”

He wrote uninspired articles to fulfill his magazine contracts. There was some excitement generated by his defamation lawsuit against George Newett, who had written in his newspaper during the campaign that Teddy was a drunk.

The trial consisted of Teddy proving through testimony and affidavits signed by luminaries like Admiral George Dewey that he only used alcohol occasionally and medicinally.

He defended his ruddy complexion, saying it was due to high blood pressure. “I’m always a great bleeder. I get hurt and bleed so often that Mrs. Roosevelt pays no attention to it.”

Teddy won his case, receiving only “nominal damages.”

So even after all that, he still had money troubles. “I can never afford to be in arrears,” he said.


As had become his practice after, shall we say, NOT winning a presidential election, Teddy left the country. He didn’t trust himself to stay quiet while Woodrow Wilson did things he didn’t approve of: removing African-Americans from the federal bureaucracy, passing a pro-business tariff, and developing an isolationist and pacifist foreign policy.

He warned his cousin Franklin to keep the fleet together in case of the war he could see coming, and then went to South America.

Like his African trip in 1909, Teddy’s journey to South America had a number of items on the agenda: scientific study of flora and fauna, the usual slaughter of native beasts for sport, and a way for him to make some money. He told his wife that he “expected to clear $20,000 over the next six months.”

And, like his African trip, Teddy was putting himself firmly in harm’s way. It’s not inconceivable that somewhere in his subconscious was the notion that he might end his life, which now seemed without purpose, in the midst of the kind of action that made him feel most alive.

Theodore Roosevelt did not think he should die in his sleep.

He nearly got his wish on this post-election trip south of the equator.


Teddy’s guide and partner on his expedition to the Amazon was Colonel Candido Rondon, an engineer and explorer who had spent a lot of time in the Brazilian interior laying telegraph lines. He had discovered a mysterious river that flowed north into a major tributary of the Amazon River. He surmised that it could be as long as a thousand kilometers.

He named it ‘The River of Doubt,” and invited the former President of the United States, who at that point in his life was plagued with doubt, to go with him.


Even though it was mostly a river trip, the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition was a trainwreck.

They were beset by flies, man-eating fish, poisonous snakes, restless natives, and an unpredictable river. Their canoes got destroyed by the current and new ones needed to be built. Wherever the rapids were impassable, they had to portage the boats and their supplies over land.

Teddy was deemed too old and too valuable for the heavy and dangerous work, which was proven right when he suffered a malaria attack, his fever reaching 104 degrees. He lay prone on the jungle floor, his heart pounding, deliriously reciting Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. His son Kermit, who had accompanied his father on the expedition, wrote, “Worried a lot about Father’s heart.”

Teddy summoned Colonel Rondon and the other leaders of the expedition and told them to leave him behind and keep going. “The expedition cannot stop,” he said. “On the other hand, I cannot proceed. You go on and leave me.”

They refused.

One of their number drowned in the river. Another was shot through the heart by a disgruntled porter, who fled into the jungle. The murderer appeared days later along the river, starving, willing to surrender in exchange for food and shelter. Teddy refused, arguing that the man would use up their dwindling provisions and require a round-the-clock guard.

His son Kermit spoke up, disagreeing with his father.

“Shut up,” Teddy snapped at him.

One of the expedition members whispered in Portuguese, “He thinks he is still President.”


The attack of malaria had killed Teddy’s legendary appetite, so he ate little. The leg he had injured while President grew inflamed and weak, so he had to be carried on a litter. Dysentery worsened his condition. The expedition to survey the River of Doubt turned into a race to get “one of the most valuable men in the world” safely back to civilization.

After a tense ten days, during which Teddy grew even more emaciated and required “camp surgery” on an abscess on his thigh, the expedition reached a small town of rubber harvesters. The next day, Teddy managed to stand long enough to make it through a ceremony that formally changed the name of the Duvida, the River of Doubt, to Rio Roosevelt.

A photo taken of the ceremony shows a gaunt, weary-looking Theodore Roosevelt, his clothes hanging off of him, who had to brace himself to stay upright. Soon he was carried to a steamboat that would take him up the Amazon toward home.

Before he left the country, he made his farewells with Colonel Rondon, his partner on the expedition.

“I hope and pray that you will visit my country,” Teddy told him.

“I will do so,” Rondon replied. “When I can help you be re-elected President of the United States.”


Teddy returned to New York in May, 1914, leaning on a cane, his belt tightened six inches more than normal, yellow from malaria. He had lost fifty-five pounds. The news reports called him, “a spent force.”

But a week later he marched into the White House, no longer needing the cane. President Wilson had invited Teddy to lunch while he was in town to address the National Geographic Society.

The two men avoided politics, instead talking about books, Teddy’s recent expedition, and the upcoming speech Teddy was making to geographers. Teddy joked that the British geographers doubted there was any such thing as ‘The River of Doubt.’

As Teddy limped to his car to leave, a boy shouted “Hurrah for Teddy! Hurrah for our next President!”

Teddy bopped the youngster on the head with his hat, and got into his car to leave. When asked his opinion of the former President, Wilson said, “He is a great big boy. There is a sweetness about him that is very compelling. You can’t resist the man. I can easily understand why his followers are so fond of him.”

At that moment, the idea that Theodore Roosevelt would challenge him for re-election in 1916 didn’t sound all that farfetched.




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Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.