- Historic Sites
TR's Wild Side
As a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt’s attention to nature and love of animals were much in evidence, characteristics that would later help form his strong conservationist platform as president
Fall 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 3
Roosevelt believed that the American fighting spirit would only continue as long as outdoorsmen didn’t get lazy and rest on their laurels. Slowly he was developing an underlying doctrine that he would call “the strenuous life.” The majestic open spaces of western America, such as the Red River Valley, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Black Mesa, the Sangre de Cristo Range, the Prescott Valley, and the Big Chino Wash, had hardened his men into the kind of self-reliance Emerson had invoked in his writings. Wouldn’t Rough Riders make terrific forest rangers? Didn’t the wildlife protection movement need no-nonsense men in uniform to stop poaching in federal parks? “In all the world there could be no better material for soldiers than that offered by these grim hunters of the mountains, these wild rough riders of the plains,” enthused Roosevelt.
While the Rough Riders recuperated under yellow-fever watch at Montauk, New York’s Republican Party was urging Roosevelt to run for governor that fall. As he contemplated his political future, everybody clamoring to shake his hand, he found respite watching the pervasive raccoons and white-tailed deer of Montauk. There was even Nantucket juneberry along the sandplains to study. One hundred years later, to honor the Rough Riders’ residence at Camp Wikoff in 1898, Montauk named a 1,157-acre wilderness area Roosevelt County Park.
In August the New York Times ran a feature story about Josephine, reporting that the colonel might raise the big cat at Oyster Bay. But his wife, Edith, put a stop to that plan, and Josephine was carted off to tour the West as a circus attraction. Unfortunately, she got loose or was stolen in Chicago and was never seen again.
The eventual fate of Teddy the golden eagle was just as disappointing. Quite sensibly, Roosevelt had given him to the Central Park Zoo, where he became a popular tourist attraction, but he was killed by two bald eagles put into his cage to keep him company. The body of the regiment’s mascot was shipped to Frank Chapman at the American Museum of Natural History to be stuffed.
Cuba the dog’s story, at least, had a happy ending. Discharged from quarantine, Corporal Jackson headed back to his home in Flagstaff and gave the celebrity terrier to Sam Black, a former Arizona Territory Ranger, with whose family he lived for 16 years in the lap of luxury. When Cuba died of natural causes, he was given a proper military funeral.
On August 20, 1898, Colonel Roosevelt was allowed to leave quarantine to return to his Oyster Bay home at Sagamore Hill for five days. By the time he got there, a groundswell of support had arisen for his gubernatorial candidacy. All around Oyster Bay, he was greeted with shouts of “Teddy!” (which he hated) and “Welcome, Colonel!” (which he loved). “I would rather have led this regiment,” Roosevelt wrote a friend, “than be Governor of New York three times.”
Cleverly, Roosevelt had kept diaries in Cuba, jotting down exact dialogue and stream-of-consciousness impressions. His editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Robert Bridges, worried that if Roosevelt ran for governor the war memoir they’d been discussing would have to be put on hold. “Not at all,” Roosevelt assured him. “You shall have the various chapters in the time promised.”
Once back at Camp Wikoff, Roosevelt wandered Montauk Point, care taking his golden eagle and taking little Cuba on walks. Roosevelt seemed like a changed man, disconcertingly calm, studying the undercarriage of wigeon ducks as they flew overhead. Sometimes, particularly when reporters were around, he rode his horse up and down the beach. By having “driven the Spaniard from the New World,” Roosevelt could relax— the burden of family cowardice and the shadow of his father’s hiring of a surrogate for his Civil War service had passed away forever. With nothing more to prove, he could excel as a powerful politician, soapbox expansionist, true-blue reformer, naturalist, and conservationist.
On September 13 a bugle called, and the surviving Rough Riders dutifully fell into formation. In front of them was a card table with a blanket draped over a bulky object. The 1st Volunteer Cavalry had a parting gift for their humane and courageous colonel. Eventually the blanket was lifted to reveal an 1895 bronze sculpture by Frederic Remington, Bronco Buster. (A cowboy was the western term for a cattle driver, while a bronco buster broke wild horses to the saddle.) Tears welled up in Roosevelt’s eyes, his voice choked, and he stroked the steed’s mane as if it were real. “I would have been most deeply touched if the officers had given me this testimonial, but coming from you, my men, I appreciate it tenfold,” Roosevelt said. The Rough Riders had found the best gift possible. It summed up Theodore Roosevelt well: a fearless cowboy, stirrup flying free, determined to tame a wild stallion by putting the spurs to it, a quirt in his right hand, and the reins gripped in the other. A Remington cast of the Bronco Buster now sits prominently in the White House Oval Office for President Barack Obama to appreciate.