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26 June, 2013
Theodore Roosevelt
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 man.

"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 galary."

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 Museum.

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.

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