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13 January, 2012
Chapter I: The Boy Who Collected Animals
by Pearson, Edmund Lester
|If you had been in New York in 1917 or 1918 you might have seen,
walking quickly from a shop or a hotel to an automobile, a thick-
set but active and muscular man, wearing a soft black hat and a
cape overcoat. Probably there would have been a group of people
waiting on the sidewalk, as he came out, for this was Theodore
Roosevelt, Ex-President of the United States, and there were more
Americans who cared to know what he was doing, and to hear what he
was saying, than cared about any other living man.
Although he was then a private citizen, holding no office, he was
a leader of his country, which was engaged in the Great War.
Americans were being called upon,--the younger men to risk their
lives in battle, and the older people to suffer and support their
losses. Theodore Roosevelt had always said that it was a good
citizen's duty cheerfully to do one or the other of these things
in the hour of danger. They knew that he had done both; and so it
was to him that men turned, as to a strong and brave man, whose
words were simple and noble, and what was more important, whose
actions squared with his words.
He had come back, not long before, from one of his hunting trips,
and it was said that fever was still troubling him. The people
wish to know if this is true, and one of the men on the sidewalk,
a reporter, probably, steps forward and asks him a question.
He stops for a moment, and turns toward the man. Not much thought
of sickness is left in the mind of any one there! His face is
clear, his cheeks ruddy,--the face of a man who lives outdoors;
and his eyes, light-blue in color, look straight at the
questioner. One of his eyes, it had been said, was dimmed or
blinded by a blow while boxing, years before, when he was
President. But no one can see anything the matter with the eyes;
they twinkle in a smile, and as his face puckers up, and his white
teeth show for an instant under his light-brown moustache, the
group of people all smile, too.
His face is so familiar to them,--it is as if they were looking at
somebody they knew as well as their own brothers. The newspaper
cartoonists had shown it to them for years. No one else smiled
like that; no one else spoke so vigorously.
"Never felt better in my life!" he answers, bending toward the
"But thank you for asking!" and there is a pleasant and friendly
note in his voice, which perhaps surprises some of those who,
though they had heard much of his emphatic speech, knew but little
of his gentleness. He waves his hand, steps into the automobile,
and is gone.
Theodore Roosevelt was born October 27, 1858, in New York City, at
28 East Twentieth Street. The first Roosevelt of his family to
come to this country was Klaes Martensen van Roosevelt who came
from Holland to what is now New York about 1644. He was a
"settler," and that, says Theodore Roosevelt, remembering the
silly claims many people like to make about their long-dead
ancestors, is a fine name for an immigrant, who came over in the
steerage of a sailing ship in the seventeenth century instead of
the steerage of a steamer in the nineteenth century. From that
time, for the next seven generations, from father to son, every
one of the family was born on Manhattan Island. As New Yorkers
say, they were "straight New York."
Immigrant or settler, or whatever Klaes van Roosevelt may have
been, his children and grandchildren had in them more than
ordinary ability. They were not content to stand still, but made
themselves useful and prosperous, so that the name was known and
honored in the city and State even before the birth of the son who
was to make it illustrious throughout the world.
"My father," says the President, "was the best man I ever knew....
He never physically punished me but once, but he was the only man
of whom I was ever really afraid." The elder Roosevelt was a
merchant, a man courageous and gentle, fond of horses and country
life. He worked hard at his business, for the Sanitary Commission
during the Civil War, and for the poor and unfortunate of his own
city, so hard that he wore himself out and died at forty-six. The
President's mother was Martha Bulloch from Georgia. Two of her
brothers were in the Confederate Navy, so while the Civil War was
going on, and Theodore Roosevelt was a little boy, his family like
so many other American families, had in it those who wished well
for the South, and those who hoped for the success of the North.
Many American Presidents have been poor when they were boys. They
have had to work hard, to make a way for themselves, and the same
strength and courage with which they did this has later helped to
bring them into the White House. It has seemed as if there were
magic connected with being born in a log-cabin, or having to work
hard to get an education, so that only the boys who did this could
become famous. Of course it is what is in the boy himself,
together with the effect his life has had on him, that counts. The
boy whose family is rich, or even well-off, has something to
struggle against, too. For with these it is easy to slip into
comfortable and lazy ways, to do nothing because one does not have
to do anything. Some men never rise because their early life was
too hard; some, because it was too easy.
Roosevelt might have had the latter fate. His father would not
have allowed idleness; he did not care about money-making,
especially, but he did believe in work, for himself and his
children. When the father died, and his son was left with enough
money to have lived all his days without doing a stroke of work,
he already had too much grit to think of such a life. And he had
too much good sense to start out to become a millionaire and to
pile million upon useless million.
He had something else to fight against: bad health. He writes: "I
was a sickly, delicate boy, suffered much from asthma, and
frequently had to be taken away on trips to find a place where I
could breathe. 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. I went very little to school. I never
went to the public schools, as my own children later did."
[Footnote: "Autobiography."] For a few months he went to a private
school, his aunt taught him at home, and he had tutors there.
When he was ten his parents took him with his brother and sisters
for a trip to Europe, where he had a bad time indeed. Like most
boys, he cared nothing for picture-galleries and the famous
sights, he was homesick and he wished to get back to what really
pleased him,--that is, collecting animals. He was already
interested in that. And only when he could go to a museum and see,
as he wrote in his diary, "birds and skeletons" or go "for a
spree" with his sister and buy two shillings worth of rock-candy,
did he enjoy himself in Europe.
His sister knew what he thought about the things one is supposed
to see in Europe, and in her diary set it down:
"I am so glad Mama has let me stay in the butiful hotel parlor
while the poor boys have been dragged off to the orful picture
These experiences are funny enough now, but probably they were
tragic to him at the time. In a church in Venice there were at
least some moments of happiness. He writes of his sister "Conie":
"Conie jumped over tombstones spanked me banged Ellies head &c."
But in Paris the trip becomes too monotonous; and his diary says:
November 26. "I stayed in the house all day, varying the day with
brushing my hair, washing my hands and thinking in fact having a
verry dull time."
November 27. "I did the same thing as yesterday."
They all came back to New York and again he could study and amuse
himself with natural history. This study was one of his great
pleasures throughout life and when he was a man he knew more about
the animals of America than anybody except the great scholars who
devoted their lives to this alone.
It started with a dead seal that he happened to find laid out on a
slab in a market in Broadway. He was still a small boy, but when
he heard that the seal had been killed in the harbor, it reminded
him of the adventures he had been reading about in Mayne Reid's
books. He went back to the market, day after day, to look at the
seal, to try to measure it and to plan to own it and preserve it.
He did get the skull, and with two cousins started what they gave
the grand name of the "Roosevelt Museum of Natural History"!
Catching and keeping specimens for this museum gave him more fun
than it gave to some of his family. His mother was not well
pleased when she found some young white mice in the ice-chest,
where the founder of the "Roosevelt Museum" was keeping them safe.
She quickly threw them away, and her son, in his indignation, said
that what hurt him about it was "the loss to Science! The loss to
Science!" Once, he and his cousin had been out in the country,
collecting specimens until all their pockets were full. Then two
toads came along,--such novel and attractive toads that room had
to be made for them. Each boy put one toad under his hat, and
started down the road. But a lady, a neighbor, met them, and when
the boys took off their hats, the toads did what any sensible
toads would do, hopped down and away, and so were never added to
The Roosevelt family visited Europe again in 1873, and afterwards
went to Algiers and Egypt, where the air, it was hoped, would help
the boy's asthma. This was a pleasanter trip for him, and the
birds which he saw on the Nile interested him greatly.
His studies of natural history had been carried on in the summers
at Oyster Bay on Long Island, on the Hudson and in the
Adirondacks. They soon became more than a boy's fun, and some of
the observations made when he was fifteen, sixteen or seventeen
years old have found their way into learned books. When the State
of New York published, many years afterwards, two big volumes
about the birds of the state, some of these early writings by
Roosevelt were quoted as important. A friend has given me a four-
page folder printed in 1877, about the summer birds of the
Adirondacks "by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and H. D. Minot." Part of
the observations were made in 1874 when he was sixteen. Ninety-
seven different birds are listed.
When he was fifteen and had returned a second time from Europe, he
began to study to enter Harvard. He was ahead of most boys of his
age in science, history and geography and knew something of German
and French. But he was weak in Latin, Greek and mathematics. He
loved the out-of-doors side of natural history, and hoped he might
be a scientist like Audubon.