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The American Experience

Theodore Roosevelt: Forging The River of DoubtTheodore Roosevelt

"I am always willing to pay the piper when I have a good dance; and every now and then I like to drink the wine of life spiked with brandy in it." These words, spoken by Theodore Roosevelt, summed up his attitude toward what he called the "strenuous life." It was a style of living he favored, both before and after serving as president of the United States. During a Brazilian jungle expedition in 1913, with his political life behind him, Roosevelt came quite close to paying "the piper" the ultimate tax -- his own life. Roosevelt came face to face with his own mortality while traversing the previously uncharted Rio da Duvida, the River of Doubt.

Theodore Roosevelt was, among many other things, a noted naturalist. A 1909 African safari took him through the jungles of Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Nyasaland, and Mozambique. The adventure whetted TR's interest in exotic plants and creatures, and left him eager to seek out and explore all manner of dark and mysterious places. This interest resulted in his being in Brazil in 1913 with the stated objective of obtaining animal, bird, and plant specimens from its central plateau. While there, the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs told Roosevelt about the uncharted River of Doubt and suggested he join forces with the famous Brazilian explorer Colonel Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon in exploring it.

The trip was begun, perhaps unwisely, on December 9, 1913, the height of the rainy season. Prior to this expedition, no naturalist had penetrated deep into the central region of Brazil that ran between the mighty Amazon and La Plata river systems. Roosevelt's entourage endured a 900-mile trek, including a 40-day excursion across the Paraquay-Amazon divide leading to the headwaters of the River of Doubt. TR's crew consisted of his 24-year-old son Kermit, Colonel Rondon, a naturalist sent by the American Museum of Natural History named George K. Cherrie, Brazilian Lieutenant Joao Lyra, team physician Dr. Cajazeira, and sixteen highly skilled camaradas, or paddlers. Once the crew reached the River of Doubt, all travel would be made in seven canoes called dugouts. Dangerous rapids were the norm. The river rose and fell in the space of a few hundred yards. In spots, the river narrowed to less than two yards between unforgiving boulders.

The river claimed its first life on March 15 when one of the camaradas, a man named Simplicio, drowned while attempting to rescue Kermit's overturned canoe. The turbulent rapids tossed the fragile boats around and scattered precious food rations. With dwindling food supplies, Roosevelt and his men looked to the jungle shores for sustenance. Monkey meat became a diet staple.

Along with the lack of food, the men also battled various other jungle perils: fever and painful insect bites. Roosevelt recounted: "The little bees were in such swarms as to be a nuisance. Many small stinging bees were with them, which stung badly. We were bitten by huge horse-flies, the size of bumblebees. More serious annoyance was caused by the pium and boroshuda flies during the hours of daylight, and by the polvora, the sand-flies, after dark. ...All of us suffered more or less, our hands and feet swelling slightly..." Roosevelt himself came so near to death -- from a leg injury and a soaring fever -- that he counseled the rest to go on without him. They would not.

On April 27, 1913, Theodore Roosevelt reached the end of the River of Doubt and arrived in Sao Joao. The trip was considered a success in that it provided information necessary to map, for the first time ever, the interior of Brazil. Over 2,000 species of birds and 500 mammals had been collected for further study. The river was renamed Roosevelt River by the Brazilian government.

The trip exacted a heavy toll on the once indefatigable Theodore Roosevelt. Writing to a friend, TR confessed, "The Brazilian wilderness stole away 10 years of my life." He never fully recovered his prior vigor and was troubled by recurring malaria until his death in 1919.


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