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Teddy Roosevelt and the National Parks: A Bit of History

Image: Theodore Roosevelt 1885 (age 27). Library of Congress.

Today in 1858, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was born in New York City. He would become one of the most influential individuals in US history for the preservation of National Parks and our treasured public lands. It is good for us to think about how people like Teddy Roosevelt made such a big difference, how they came to be the people we knew them to be, and how we might follow in their footsteps, even if in a small way.

When Roosevelt was born, he was afflicted with poor health including asthma. Roosevelt’s determination and energy, which would become famous in his public life, were evident even at this young age. He decided to “make his body” as he called it, and became as strong as or stronger than any other boy his age through demanding physical exercise and activity.

He was always interested in the outdoors and in natural history, much like many of us backpackers who read this blog. At the age of 7, Roosevelt began learning taxidermy and collecting specimens for what he and his cousins referred to as, “The Roosevelt Museum of Natural History”. He began studying and writing about the natural history of animals and insects, and at age 12, he donated some of his specimens to the American Museum of Natural History. By age 23, he was presenting hundreds of specimens to the Smithsonian.

Image: Governor Cleveland and State Legislator Theodore Roosevelt (age 23) at "Their Good Work", April 19, 1884. Artist: Thomas Nast. New York Times.

In his early 20's, Roosevelt was already involved in politics in New York. He also traveled by train to North Dakota to hunt buffalo during this period in his life. The trip was more or less spontaneous for the young man from a prominent New York City family. When asked why he was making the trip, he cited his fear that all the buffalo would be gone before he had the chance to shoot one. He returned to New York with the head of a bull bison.

This trip to North Dakota (the state where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is today) would change the future president’s life. He bought a ranch in the Badlands and returned frequently to hunt and ride his horses.

Image: Roosevelt's North Dakota Maltese Cross Cabin. Now located in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota Badlands. Roosevelt purchased this cabin and land in the early 1880's.

He soon after formed the Boone and Crockett Club with Forest and Stream Magazine publisher George Bird Grinnell.

Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1901 and became one of the world’s foremost champions of conservation. On a national speaking tour, Roosevelt took 2 weeks off to go camping in Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite.

Image: Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, Grizzly Giant Tree, Yosemite National Park, 1903. Yosemite National Park - National Park Service.

In Yosemite, he and John Muir spent three nights under the stars, while Muir attempted to persuade Roosevelt to expand Yosemite National Park to include Yosemite Valley.

During his presidency, Roosevelt created five new National Parks, which doubled the size of the National Park system. He also put his signature on the Antiquities Act, which allowed the president to create National Monuments and protected areas by executive order. He happily used this new power to create an additional 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon, 51 federal bird sanctuaries, 4 national game refuges, and more than 100 million acres of national forests.

Image: Roosevelt on Horseback in Colorado, November 30, 1904. Library of Congress.

"President Theodore Roosevelt was the nation's first conservationist President. He preached the need to preserve woodlands and mountain ranges as places of refuge and retreat and wanted the United States to change from exploiting natural resources to carefully managing them. Roosevelt identified the American character with the nation's wilderness regions, believing that our western and frontier heritage had shaped American values, behavior, and culture." -The Miller Center.

After Roosevelt’s two terms as president, he ran for a third term with the now-extinct Progressive Party. During a campaign speech in 1912, a saloonkeeper attempted to assassinate Roosevelt. He shot the candidate in the chest, but the bullet was slowed by Roosevelt’s eyeglass case and a copy of his speech. Instead of going to the hospital, Roosevelt told the crowd, “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose,” and delivered his speech in a bloody shirt.

Roosevelt was the epitome of toughness. After losing the election for a third term, he went on an expedition to South America to chart an unknown river through the Amazon, called the River of Doubt. He was successful in his expidition, even having almost died in the effort. The river was renamed "Rio Roosevelt", or the Roosevelt River.

Image: Roosevelt and his South America team at the Roosevelt River. Freemans Explore Website.

There is an exceptional book on this expedition called River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt by Candice Millard. It’s one of Mark’s favorite books, and he recommends everyone read it.

Teddy Roosevelt stands among the greatest Americans in more ways than one. In the context of this blog and in our backpacking and outdoors community, he is responsible for preserving and dedicating more public land than any one person had before him. There’s no doubt that without Teddy, we would have a much more limited selection of pristine wild places to practice our backpacking.

Reference for Theodore Roosevelt History Content:

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