Theodore Roosevelt and the River of Doubt

Most Americans know Theodore Roosevelt as the 26th President of The United States and a champion of conservation. But few are familiar with his time spent in South America exploring one of the most dangerous rivers on Earth: Rio Grande del Norte, or simply “the River of Doubt”.

Theodore Roosevelt and the “river of doubt” is a movie that tells the story about Theodore Roosevelt’s journey down the River of Doubt. The film was released in 2015, and stars Josh Hutcherson as Theodore Roosevelt.

“Only those who do not dread death are worthy to live.”

Roosevelt, Theodore

When Theodore Roosevelt set off from New York port, he had no idea that the expedition he was about to embark on, which he had described as “a beautiful vacation” with “just the proper amount of excitement,” would prove to be the most difficult test of his famously rigorous life. Roosevelt wanted to get away after his recent failure as the Progressive Party’s presidential contender in the 1912 elections. Roosevelt had been begging old friend and aspiring explorer Father John Zahm to accompany him on a South American river expedition at the conclusion of his final term as President. Roosevelt had declined the invitation at the time, stating that he was more interested in going on safari in Africa, which he did shortly after leaving office. Now that he was ready to leave politics behind and embark on a new adventure, he informed Father Zahm that the South America trip had been confirmed and that he should begin making arrangements.

Father Zahm had intended to take a journey down a well-traveled Amazon river. While such a journey was still dangerous, there were no big hazards, and the old Bull Moose had no intention of taking a leisurely pleasure cruise. T.R. leapt at the chance to explore the uncharted Rio do Dvida (River of Doubt) when a government official casually mentioned it. Both Brazilian authorities and the American Museum of Natural History, which was financing the trip, were taken aback by the change in plans. After all, having a previous head of state die on your watch is typically seen as bad publicity. With no way of knowing what perils the mission would face, the men quickly realized that death was a distinct possibility.

“There is no more arduous or risky voyage in all of South America than down the [River of Doubt],” says the author.

-At the time, Frank Chapman, Curator of the American Museum of Natural History.

The River of Doubt, according to its name, was a total mystery, with no indication of its length or course on any map. It was anticipated to include not just the typical Amazonian mix of perils and sickness, but also possibly hostile Indian tribes. It wasn’t the way most former presidents would spend their retirement, but T.R. wasn’t like most former presidents, either. Prior to the expedition’s departure, Henry Osborn, the director of the American Museum of Natural History, pleaded with Roosevelt multiple times to abandon his risky new plans and return to the old route. Roosevelt replied to Osborn’s proposal in a letter to Frank Chapman:

“Tell Osborn that I’ve already lived and enjoyed as much life as any nine other guys I know; I’ve got my fair share, and if it’s necessary for me to leave my bones in South America, I’m willing to do so.”

 

In Search of the Unknown

It was evident early on that the novice Father Zahm would be unable to lead this new trip, thus a new guide was sought. Colonel Cândido Rondon, possibly the most qualified guide in all of South America, was supplied by the Brazilian government to Roosevelt. Rondon was a well-known and well-respected military commander who had led an endeavor to lay telegraph cables throughout the Amazon for years. No one was more acquainted with the Amazon and its hazards, particularly those posed by indigenous tribes, than Cândido Rondon, it was commonly assumed.

The expedition headed off into the Amazon’s wilds after making all of the necessary preparations. They’d have to travel for at least two months simply to get to the river’s headwaters, first by steamboat up the Paraguay River into the Brazilian Highlands to a little frontier settlement, when they’d transfer to mules. Every step they made after that deepened the gap between the explorers and the civilisation they were abandoning. The crew would have to travel almost 400 kilometers through the wilderness on muleback before reaching the Rio da Dvida, and only then would the adventure officially begin.

By the time the soldiers arrived to the River of Doubt, Roosevelt and Rondon could see that some of the men were unprepared for the journey. Worse, it became increasingly obvious that they were underprepared for the trek ahead of them. The decision to separate the squad was taken by the leaders. Instead of descending the mysterious River of Doubt, many members of the crew would go for the Rio Aripuan, which Colonel Rondon thought joined the River of Doubt at its end. While this division meant separating supplies, it also meant the main party would be able to descend the unknown river at a faster pace. Roosevelt, his son Kermit, Rondon, his aide Lyra, the team medic Dr. Cajazeira, and naturalist George Cherrie were the last members of the Roosevelt-Rondon River of Doubt mission. A total of 16 camaradas, local Brazilians recruited by Rondon to operate as paddles and trailblazers, were added to the squad.

When the guys assessed their supplies, they discovered that the supplies planned for the previous expedition were woefully insufficient for the new journey. Father Zahm had gone to considerable pains to provide as many creature comforts as possible for the initial trip, seeking the approval of the previous President. Roosevelt was not pleased by the rations as he set off on a trek into the unknown. Instead of the dried goods and salted meats he had anticipated to obtain, he discovered a variety of teas, sweets, and meals that would surely deteriorate on this new, lengthier voyage. Roosevelt and Rondon understood that the mission had changed from a voyage into the unknown to a race against time as they organized what was necessary and discarded the rest. To make things worse, the team had been forced to leave the lightweight canoes they had planned to use, leaving them with only crude dugout boats, which they knew would not only be insufficient, but would also likely not withstand the rapids they would encounter. Nonetheless, on February 27, 1914, the expedition started their descent of the River of Doubt. They would confront every conceivable danger until the end, and the Bull Moose, who had evaded death so many times before, would finally face his mortality.

 

The Adventure Begins

A concealed hazard lurks in every dark nook of the Amazon. The expedition’s dugout canoes hovered barely a few inches above the water’s surface, making the men intensely aware of the fifteen-foot caimans, school bus-length anacondas, and razor-toothed piranhas lurking just under the surface (which T.R. referred to as “ferocious little creatures”). The river swelled and receded periodically, was riddled with treacherous rapids, and sometimes restricted to a small 2 yard crossing between steep stone cliffs on each side. No one on the trip realized what danger awaited them around every corner. Dry ground was just as dangerous, with swarms of disease-carrying insects, poisonous snakes, poison arrow frogs, and the elusive jaguar to contend with. The possibility of coming onto a hamlet of possibly hostile locals who had never seen outsiders weighed more heavily on the men’s thoughts than any of the other hazards they expected. There were many recognized cannibalistic tribes in the area they were going through, as well as countless other unknown local people.

“With all their own expertise and knowledge, Roosevelt and his troops were vulnerable outsiders in such a sophisticated world of ingenuity, cunning, and merciless self-interest, developed over hundreds of millions of years.” The majority of the guys were seasoned outdoorsmen, with many of them considering themselves natural masters. They were stealthy hunters, expert marksmen, and seasoned survivalists, and they felt that with the correct equipment, they would never be in a scenario in the wild that they couldn’t handle. However, as they fought to make their way down the River of Doubt’s banks, any foundation for such assurance was swiftly eroding. From the lowest camarada to the previous president of the United States, they were all awkward, visible prey in comparison to the Amazonian species, even the Indians whose country they were invading.”

Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt

The expedition’s progress was modest at first. They barely covered six kilometers on the first day, which was much less than they had hoped for. They were unable to speed their pace in the days that followed, and by the second week, they were fully aware that they would run out of food far before they ran out of river. They had avoided the rapids till now by strolling along the banks and using ropes to guide the large canoes packed with provisions through the whitewater. While this strategy worked for a while, catastrophe came when two boats broke free, leaving the men powerless to watch as their canoes and provisions were crushed on the river’s rocks and swept downstream. The guys were unable to proceed ahead after losing their boats, yet turning back was as impossible. They were compelled to pause for many days in order to construct a new, bigger canoe to replace the two that had been lost. After completing this, the guys resorted to paddling over the rapids in their canoes in order to make up for lost time.

 

On the River, Death

They eventually came to a sequence of rapids leading to the brink of a 30-foot waterfall. Rondon made the smart decision to declare the rapids inaccessible and started preparing for the portage around. Kermit Roosevelt, on the other hand, took the bold choice to try to find a way around the rapids. He paddled out to a little island in the center of the rapids with two camaradas in his canoe. He instructed the paddlers to return to the beach after quickly discovering Rondon was correct and the rapids were truly impossible. The guys lost control of the canoe and were dragged into the powerful whitewater as they attempted to traverse the rapids a second time. As his son and the soldiers were driven downstream and over the brink of the falls, Theodore Roosevelt could only stare in terror. The men of the expedition were relieved to see Kermit and one of the camaradas alive when they rushed down to the foot of the falls, but their joy was short-lived. One of the camaradas was sucked downstream and never came back.

Locals Make Their Presence Known

Roosevelt on the left with a deer he had shot and Candido Rondon is on the right.

On the left, Roosevelt is holding a deer that he had shot. On the right is Col. Candido Rondon.

While the guys set up their overnight camp a few days later, Rondon went hunting with his dog and gun to augment their scant food. In the darkness of the forest canopy, a monkey cry alerted him, and his dog swiftly went towards the noise. Rondon knew he had been brought in by Indians imitating monkey noises in an effort to entice him in when he heard the dog howl out. His concerns were verified when he saw his dog emerge from the forest ahead of him with two enormous arrows in his side. He hastily withdrew to camp and placed the soldiers on high alert. They had a feeling they were in the territory of an unknown and perhaps hostile tribe, and now they knew for sure. Later expeditions confirmed that the group dwelling beside the river was both hostile and cannibalistic against strangers.

A Race Against the Clock

Misfortune continued to befall the group. They had to break up due to the loss of two more boats in the rapids and a shortage of appropriate wood for crafting replacement dugouts. Several members would have to carve their way down the overgrown riverbank with a machete while the remainder floated along the riverside, further slowing progress. They’d used up more than a third of their supplies by the 90-mile point, and Rondon estimated that they’d have to go at least five times that distance to rejoin marked territory and civilization. Their supplies and remaining watercraft needed protection now more than ever. Roosevelt stepped into the river to release two of the boats that had been stuck between rocks in a passage of rapids before they were lost. He stumbled while trying to cross the rapids, causing a big cut on his thigh. Such a wound would have been immediately patched up in the White House, and he would have been ready to resume his duties. The wound, on the other hand, may be fatal in the Amazon.

 

The expedition doctor attended to the wound right away, but the soldiers were terrified. Roosevelt had a high temperature and was unable to walk when a major illness developed overnight, followed by an epidemic of malarial fever. Roosevelt’s health deteriorated during the following several days, with his temperature reaching 105 degrees and him drifting in and out of consciousness. He eventually fell into a trancelike condition, eerily repeating the opening words of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, A magnificent pleasure-dome declare,” over and again. His son Kermit, who was certain that his father would make it out of the forest alive and healthy, was constantly at his side. Roosevelt recognized he didn’t stand a chance and had now become a nuisance to the mission, endangering the lives of the other soldiers, during one of his lucid periods. He pleaded his argument by enlisting the help of his son and Cherrie:

“Boys, I understand that some of us will not be able to complete this voyage. Cherrie, I’d want for you and Kermit to continue. You are free to go. “I’ll come to a halt here.”

The guys, who were well familiar with Roosevelt’s nature, were not surprised by his acknowledgment of loss. This was not a choice made out of fear or a lack of luck. This was the final price to pay. Roosevelt was well aware that his life was not more valuable than the lives of the other members of the expedition, and he was just removing himself from the equation to avoid more tragedy. Kermit and the crew, on the other hand, refused to comply with his demands, and Roosevelt immediately recognized that Kermit would never leave his corpse in the Amazon, even if he died. Any time spent waiting due to his sickness was plainly better than hauling a corpse out of the bush. Roosevelt persisted in his efforts.

There’s Blood in the Water

Theodore Roosevelt in canoe at Brazil river of doubt with group of men.

For many days, Roosevelt’s health worsened, but the soldiers had to keep marching. He was eventually compelled to lay prone in one of the dugouts, unable to contribute in any manner to the trip. The loss of Roosevelt’s vitality and capacity to help the men around him was almost as bad as death for Roosevelt, who had championed hard labor and a tough existence since boyhood. Roosevelt, even when pushed to the brink of death, was able to respond quickly when the circumstances demanded it.

While the most of the camaradas had proved to be dependable laborers and pleasant friends, the expedition’s commanders had immediately discovered that one of the men was a dangerous individual. Few crimes on excursions were more serious than stealing rations, which one of the soldiers had been doing discreetly for weeks. When challenged by another camarada, the guy retreated to camp discreetly, picked up a gun, and strolled back to his accuser, shooting him in the heart. The guys in camp heard the shot and believed it was one of the team members hunting, so they started to plan their dinners around meat. The atmosphere suddenly shifted as three camaradas stormed into camp screaming murder. Roosevelt, even in his weakened state, could not stand such injustice. He leapt out of bed, grabbed his gun and heading towards the murder scene, much to the surprise of the soldiers surrounding him. They discovered the poor camarada’s corpse and the pistol used to murder him when they arrived, but the killer was nowhere to be found. They just left him to his destiny, knowing that no penalty could be worse than being alone and defenseless in the Amazon’s wilds.

 

A Last-Ditch Effort

Roosevelt was beginning to realize that he would not live another day unless he allowed the doctor to operate on his leg. Roosevelt had previously resisted a surgery, but it had become unavoidable at this point. The doctor prepared to remove the dead flesh and clean the incision by lying Roosevelt down in the mud on the riverbank, surrounded by swarms of insects drawn to the open hole. The doctor was unable to supply Roosevelt with even a modest quantity of painkillers due to a lack of even the most basic medical equipment, leaving the former President fully cognizant and intensely aware of every cut of the knife. Roosevelt, true to style, did not even blink when the doctor performed the procedure, much to the surprise of the men around him. Roosevelt’s resolve was as strong as ever, despite his beaten and shattered physique.

Civilization

The guys started to see traces of civilisation not long after that. Rubber tappers had been traveling further into the forest with each passing year, hoping to strike it big in the Amazon’s version of a gold rush. The expedition’s members started to notice evidence of the rubber men and eventually discovered numerous tiny houses that housed rubber men and their families. At first, the rubber tappers and their families were terrified when they saw the strange-looking guys coming upriver, and they thought the worse, that they were Indians. Fortunately, the expedition’s members were able to identify themselves before the rubber men opened fire, and they were welcomed back into their houses.

Although the most difficult part of the voyage was passed, they still had a long way to go. The rubber tappers, fortunately for the guys, were very kind, supplying them with food and supplies as well as swapping lightweight boats for their dugouts to ease their voyage. A few days later, the soldiers witnessed what must have been the loveliest sight of their life out in the distance. The Brazilian and American flags flapping in the wind side by side were a clear indication that they had arrived at the confluence of the River of Doubt and the Rio Aripuan, where the other squad they had left months before was waiting to welcome them. They had traveled 950 kilometers on the Rio da Dvida.

Cândido Rondon, the expedition’s Brazilian commander, was in charge of naming the newly discovered river, which he named the Roosevelt River, today known locally as the Rio Theodoro.

Cover page of "Roosevelt's River Now Rio Theodoro" by Col. Rondon.T.R. was critically unwell for weeks after the trip ended and never completely recovered. Roosevelt had dropped about sixty pounds and had aged significantly as a result of a starvation diet and the sickness that had afflicted him during the expedition. His physical vitality and endurance were almost gone, and he was now compelled to rely on a cane to support himself at least momentarily. Roosevelt, not one to be held back, proceeded to test his limitations. When he was well enough to continue the journey home, he was met by cheering throngs on the ship’s deck in New York harbor. A brave few opposed the expedition’s efforts, with some even calling its accomplishments a hoax. Astounded by these absurd charges, Roosevelt embarked on a speaking tour throughout America and Europe to back up his statements. Every critic was silenced, as one could anticipate. Nobody dares to meddle with a Bull Moose and expects to get away with it.

 

“It is much better to risk great things, to achieve beautiful victories despite setbacks, than to join the ranks of those miserable souls who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in that grey twilight that knows neither success nor defeat.”

Roosevelt, Theodore

Listen to Candace Millard, author of River of Doubt, on our podcast: 

 

 

 

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Theodore Roosevelt and the River of Doubt was a journey that Theodore Roosevelt took in Argentina during his time as President. It is considered to be one of his most famous expeditions. Reference: theodore roosevelt argentina.

Frequently Asked Questions

What river did Teddy Roosevelt discover?

What was Theodore Roosevelts favorite saying?

A: Roosevelts favorite saying was, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

What river was the River of Doubt?

A: The River of Doubt is a 762-mile long tributary of the Amazon in Peru that runs from its source near Lake Maranon to its confluence with the mainstream Marañón.

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