Hunting Conservation photo
Field & Stream Online Editors
A young Theodore Roosevelt in a buckskin suit. By Thomas McIntyre He foresaw a brief life, but one in which he fully intended to make his mark on the world. And when it came to the world of American conservation, it is one that he virtually created. Even though he was a sickly child who suffered from asthma and poor eyesight, Theodore Roosevelt became an ardent and energetic naturalist and hunter early on. As a young boy he voraciously collected everything from insects to bird’s nests to snapping turtles, wrote papers on his zoological observations, learned taxidermy, and even kept a natural history “museum” in his bedroom. On an extended tour of Egypt with his family at 14, and with the aid of a large pair of glasses, Roosevelt shot his first bird along the Nile River and spent his days riding out to hunt on the back of a donkey. courtesy of the Library of Congress
Theodore (right) and Elliot Roosevelt. Elliot died seven years before Teddy became president. Though he exercised doggedly to build up his thin body, in his twenties, a physician told Roosevelt that a weakened heart meant he must lead a sedentary life; and Roosevelt replied, “Doctor, I’m going to do all the things you tell me not to do.” So he hiked, climbed mountains, swam, and hunted. He’d trail caribou for tens of miles through the virgin forests of northern Maine. Before marrying his adored Alice Lee, Roosevelt and his much loved, tragic, alcohol-doomed younger brother Elliot made a long hunt throughout the “West” of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. When Elliot, a few years later, returned with a vast array of hunting trophies taken on an Asian shikar, Roosevelt felt the urge for an adventure of similar magnitude and struck out for the Badlands of the Dakota Territory to pursue the native game. Field & Stream Online Editors
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Teddy (center) with his guides during a western hunt around 1885. In the Dakotas and Far West, Roosevelt hunted waterfowl and upland birds, pronghorn, deer, elk, sheep, “Old Ephraim”-the grizzly-and the “lordly buffalo.” The buffalo hunt held particularly urgency for Roosevelt because he was keenly aware that bison was fated to disappear too soon from all but the most inaccessible reaches of it habitat. The quest for buffalo turned into a test of scorching sun and pouring rain, hard rides across broken ground and endless featureless plains, creeks that looked to be flowing backward-telling his guide and them that they were “turned around”-rattlesnakes, cactus thorns, a gashed forehead, hypothermia, horses run off at night by packs of wolves, and missed shots “a man to his dying day always looks back upon with wonder and regret.” Through it all, Roosevelt refused to capitulate or even to acknowledge discouragement or fatigue. One night, his much less enthusiastic guide awoke to discover that they were lying in their bedrolls in four inches of freezing water on the ground, while beside him a grinning Roosevelt was murmuring to himself, “By Godfrey, but this is fun!”
Roosevelt on horseback out west around 1885 On that hunt, Roosevelt finally took “a great bison bull” whose “pride of bearing showed him to be in the lusty vigor of his prime.” Later hunts in the Northern Rockies let Roosevelt bring back the other big game of the West. The far more important thing Roosevelt brought back from his hunts, though, was a profound consciousness that the wildlife and natural resources of the nation were being destroyed and squandered through the “closing” of the frontier by settlement and by unchecked commercial exploitation, especially market hunting. Having experienced so much pleasure in hunting and game, he felt an obligation to take action to preserve it. Back in his home city of New York in the winter of 1887-1888 with the help of naturalist, hunter, and editor of Forest and Stream (a forerunner to Field & Stream) George Bird Grinnell, Roosevelt founded an organization of prominent American hunters that would come to include the likes of General William Tecumseh Sherman, naturalist William T. Hornaday, and the pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot who would ultimately define the basic principles of conservation: development, preservation, and protection of the public interest. courtesy of
Roosevelt with one of his many elephants he killed during an African hunt around 1910. The organization was named, after the two greatest American hunters, the Boone and Crockett Club. Among its five “objectives,” the most significant may have been the third, which was “To work for the preservation of the large game of this country, and, so far as possible, to further legislation for that purpose, and to assist in enforcing the existing laws.” The club actively promoted the concept of “fair chase” and began its efforts by working to outlaw such unsporting New York-state practices as “jacklighting” or using dogs to drive deer into lakes to catch and kill them. The club lobbied for habitat preservation and the protection of the national parks from poaching, mining, and logging. And Boone and Crockett helped create such Federal game laws as the Lacey Act which helped end the interstate commerce in market-hunted game. courtesy of
In 1903, T.R. with John Muir at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. As President, Roosevelt created hundreds of millions of acres of national forests, parks, reserves, and wildlife refuges. As President, he continued to hunt deer, mountain lion, and on what was arguably his single most famous hunt, black bear along the Little Sunflower River in Mississippi in 1902. The hunt was a fruitless one until renowned African-American bear hunter Holt Collier’s dogs got on the trail of a big boar; and Collier worked to drive the bear to where he had place Roosevelt on a stand by a lake, knowing that the bear would head to water. Unfortunately, Roosevelt had gotten tired of waiting and left the stand-where the bear bayed up. Field & Stream Online Editors
Roosevelt shooting at a bear in a tree around 1905. As described in Minor Ferris Buchanan’s book, Holt Collier, the bear and the dogs ended up in the lake; and Collier, who had been instructed not to shoot the bear so the President could claim it, was watching his prized dogs about to be killed. Without hesitation, Collier waded in and swung the butt of his rifle like a club against the bear’s skull. He then got his lariat off his horse and roped the bear to a tree. Roosevelt was brought back to shoot the semi-conscious tethered bear; but in the true spirit of fair chase he refused the dubious honor. When the story made the news, the public reaction was astounding. Roosevelt’s refusal was seen as unadulterated verification of his upright character and of genuine hunting sportsmanship. It also launched the worldwide craze for the “Teddy” bear, named in a tribute to the event. Roosevelt never got a bear in 1902; but five years later, again with Holt Collier and after twelve hard days of hunting, he finally did take a large black bear. On the first hunt, Collier had broken his rifle over the bear’s head. After the second, Roosevelt sent Collier a new Winchester 1886 lever-action .45-70 that Collier treasured for the rest of his lengthy life. courtesy of the Library of Congress
Roosevelt riding back into Glenwood Springs, Colo. after a day of hunting. In that same year, Roosevelt expressed to Congress his credo of the meaning and purpose of conservation when he said, “To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.” By the time he left office in 1909, he had changed the fortunes of wildlife and wild lands in this country for the better and forever. courtesy of the Library of Congress
Roosevelt getting ready to head out during his African safari. A private citizen for one of the rare times of his life, Roosevelt found perhaps the greatest of all hunting fields beckoning him. He had long dreamed of going on safari in Africa, and with the assistance of his British friend, the famed hunter, explorer, and fellow conservationist Sir Frederick Courtenay Selous, he was able to set off in March of 1909 on a nearly yearlong hunt in the then-British East Africa and Belgian Congo. From the port city of Mombasa he took a seat on the cowcatcher of a locomotive and rode a “railroad in the Pleistocene” into the interior of what is now Kenya. The safari, that included scores of trackers, porters, and askaris who worked as guards, was assembled at the Kapiti Plains southwest of Nairobi and jumped off from there. courtesy of the Library of Congress
T.R. (right) sitting on top of one of the six Cape buffalo he shot during his Safari. A not negligible aspect of the safari was Roosevelt’s opportunity to share it with his troubled son Kermit, as a way of helping the young man experience the strenuous life that Roosevelt extolled. Both came appropriately armed, for the day, Roosevelt bringing a custom Army Springfield .30-_06 (a rifle he was instrumental in having the military develop after having faced the withering fire of the Spanish infantry’s Mausers when he fought in Cuba with his Rough Riders), a Winchester .405 (which he reported “did admirably with lions, giraffes, elands, and smaller game”), a .500/.450 Holland & Holland double rifle (presented to him by a syndicate of English admirers), and over fifty pounds of books. courtesy of
Roosevelt with two leopards his son Kermit shot. Between Kermit and him, they took over five hundred head of game. Roosevelt himself accounted for nine lions, eight elephants, eight black rhino (and five rare northern white rhino), and a half dozen Cape buffalo, along with hundreds of species of other animals. Kermit took some even more unique species, such as leopard, cheetah, sitatunga, kudu, and bongo. Together and without their professional hunters who had fallen ill, Roosevelt and Kermit hunted one of the grand prizes of African hunting, the Central African giant eland in the Lado Enclave that is now part of Sudan and Uganda. Most of the animals killed on the safari were to provision the vast entourage, and the majority of the finest trophies that were brought home wound up at either the Smithsonian Institution or the American Museum of Natural History as exhibits. courtesy of
Roosevelt inspecting one of the many guns he used while in Africa. The dispatches and the book Roosevelt wrote about the expedition, African Game Trails, kindled the imagination of American hunters-including a young boy in Oak Park, Illinois, named Ernest Hemingway (who would, later, hunt with one of Roosevelt’s own guides, Philip Percival)-about Africa. In that book, Roosevelt declared, “Game butchery is as objectionable as any other form of wanton cruelty or barbarity; but to protest against all hunting of game is a sign of softness of head, not of soundness of heart.” courtesy of
T.R. with one of the nine lions he shot and group of Masai. Returning from Africa, and dissatisfied with the policies of the Republican Administration that succeeded his, Roosevelt founded the Bull Moose Party, as an homage to the power of one of his favorite big-game animals; and even though he ultimately lost the election of 1912, he mounted the most successful third-party presidential campaign in US history, during which he continued with a speech after being wounded by a would-be assassin’s bullet. courtesy of
Roosevelt sits on a boat, waiting to hunt in Brazil. The short life that had been predicted for Roosevelt held one final monumental adventure, a “last chance to be a boy” in his own words-and one in which hunting would play no minor role. Without the office of the presidency to contain him, he set out in late 1913 for the Brazilian wilderness on another expedition for American Museum of Natural History, this time to map one of the longest, unexplored tributaries of the Amazon River, known aptly at the time as the “River of Doubt.” Again his son Kermit, newly engaged to be married, accompanied him, to make sure Roosevelt survived what would be an even worse ordeal than any they could have envisioned. The journey encountered impassable rapids and waterfalls, maddening swarms of vicious insects, a lack of provisions that reduced it to eating partially cooked monkey meat, stifling heat and humidity, fever, abscesses, caimans, flesh-eating piranhas, and hostile Indians. Roosevelt himself had his clothes literally eaten by ants; suffered from malaria, dysentery, and a leg infection that required surgery in the field without anesthetic; lost more than fifty pounds in a matter of weeks, and when he became too ill to walk, even considered taking his own life to save the other members of his expedition from the burden of carrying him. Before setting off into the wilderness, though, he’d been fit enough to hunt bush deer, peccary with a spear, tapir, and the pinnacle of South American big game, the jaguar. courtesy of
T.R. with his hard-earned jaguar. After one hunt during which Roosevelt chased a jaguar for eleven hours on foot through swamps under the summer sun, he was asked by one of his worried companions if he were all right.” “I’m bully,” the former President replied with his customary self-confidence. But after the expedition down the River of Doubt (renamed “Rio Roosevelt”), his health was truly never the same. courtesy of
Roosevelt posing with one of the eight elephants he shot in Africa. Still he hoped for more hunts and more expeditions. A return to Africa, though, or to South America or a planned voyage to the South Pacific were not to be. Illness was compounded by a broken heart over the death of his youngest son Quentin in aerial combat in World War I. Eventually Roosevelt was confined to his bed. On the night of January 5, 1919, he said to his servant, “James, will you please put out the light?” These were the last words of the finest combination of President, conservationist, and hunter that America has ever known. courtesy of

Check out this gallery of classic T.R. shots, and learn how he helped shape the way we hunt today. Story by Thomas McIntyre