The voyage down
the river in dugout canoes was a nightmare. Some of the canoes leaked; others
were hard to handle. They lost three, together with food and supplies on which
they had been counting. They faced a thousand miles of river, punctuated with
waterfalls and rapids, murderous hordes of ants and flies, disease, unknown and
unfriendly natives and innumerable other dangers.
At one point
Roosevelt plunged into the swirling rapids to prevent destruction of a capsized
boat. His leg was dashed against a sharp rock, and the wound became infected. A
few days later, he realized he also had malaria. Dysentery added to the misery
of the abscess on his leg and the malaria. His temperature rose to 105° and he
was frequently delirious.
Roosevelt's second son, Kermit, nursed him through one desperate night. Toward
dawn he spoke to them: "Boys, I realize that some of us are not going to
finish this journey. I know that I am only a burden to the rest of you.
Cherrie, I want you and Kermit to go on. I want you to get out. I will stop
Kermit flatly refused. If it meant their own deaths—and they knew it well
might—they would never leave him behind. The devotion of these two men and his
own feeling of responsibility stirred Roosevelt to the last ounce of
determination of which he was capable: they had given him the strength to go
The new strength
came just in time. The next day Kermit had malaria; Cherrie had dysentery. One
crewman killed another and ran off into the jungle. Portages followed one after
another, and each was worse than the last. They were driven to eating monkeys
and bloodthirsty piranha fish—bony but nourishing.
No one was ever
certain how they got through the last few days. But suddenly they reached the
Amazon, and men from rubber plantations were on the shore. They had come
through. A few days paddling down the river and they caught a steamer that took
them to Manaus.
The results were
valuable from a scientific standpoint. Cherrie and Miller collected 2,500 birds
and 500 mammals, as well as numbers of amphibians, reptiles, fish and insects.
The American Museum had a new, significant collection, but at what a cost!
Roosevelt's health was broken; he was never quite the same again. His
friends—Chapman, Osborn and all the others—had been quite right when they tried
so strenuously to dissuade him from his perilous voyage down the River of Doubt
(which was later renamed, in his honor, the Rio Roosevelt, or the Rio
In his college
youth, Roosevelt had deliberately decided not to devote his life to natural
history. Yet, the channeling of his tremendous energy into politics led
Roosevelt to perform feats impossible for a studious naturalist. His tremendous
prestige made possible both the African and Brazilian expeditions. His passion
for nature made him the greatest conservationist the world had ever known. And
his contribution went beyond even this. When he liked a piece of work in the
field of natural history, he wrote enthusiastically to the writer, spurring him
on to greater things.
letter was one he wrote to William Beebe, expressing great pleasure in a new
monograph on pheasants that Beebe had just published. The letter was in
Roosevelt's usual, helpful and friendly vein.
He died the next
morning, January 6, 1919. Frank Chapman, shocked by grief, said, "He has
been my inspiration for nearly 20 years." John Burroughs, at 82, felt the
loss heavily. "The old man's tears come easily," he said, "and I
can hardly speak his name without tears.... I have known him since his ranch
days...and to know him was to love him.... The world seems more bleak and cold
since he is no longer in it."