- Historic Sites
T.r.’s Last Adventure
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
During the next three weeks Roosevelt made a number of side trips to visit ranches and hunt jaguar, tapir, and the giant peccary—thus fulfilling his lifelong ambition to hunt the major big game of South America and also help complete the museum’s collection of southern fauna. The indefatigable Colonel spent New Year’s Day, January 1, 1914, on an all-day hunt on foot. Hacking their way through the thick jungle with machetes, wading through marshes up to their hips, swimming across two bayous, the members of the party were “drenched with sweat,” wrote T.R., ”… torn by the spines of the innumerable clusters of small pines with thorns like needles. … bitten by the hosts of fire-ants, and by the mosquitoes.… “T.R.’s watch, a veteran of Cuba, came to an “indignant halt, ” but he went on, although there was no breeze, the sun stood overhead in an “undimmcd sky,” and the “heat beat on us in waves.” During these weeks Father Zahm described T.R. as being “happy as a schoolboy on a picnic.”
En route up the Paraguay Roosevelt kept finding “so much of interest all along the banks that we were continually longing to stop and spend days where we were.” He was utterly fascinated by the infinitely varied flora and fauna of Brazil and wrote knowingly and appreciatively of all he saw—especially the gorgeous birds. He seemed almost obsessed with the terrifying piranha fish and eagerly collected accounts of their grisly proclivities. Almost every night he would work at the magazine articles that Scribner’s Magazine had commissioned him to write about the expedition. When other members of the party would flop wearily into their hammocks, he would sit at his folding table, his head draped in mosquito netting, his hands and arms protected from the insects by thick gloves and gauntlets, slowly writing out in longhand these articles, later published in book form as Through the Brazilian Wilderness . Until they reached the headwaters of the River of Doubt, the finished pieces could still be sent back to New York for publication. But he continued to work on the articles after the expedition plunged into the unknown, even working when he was tormented with a fever. “This is not written very clearly,” he advised his editor at Scribner’s in the margin of one manuscript; “my temperature is 105.”
T. R. had brought no books with him on this trip, and for his reading he had to fall back on Kermit’s Oxford Book of French Verse and Everyman editions of Gibbon and Epictetus. Kermit had also brought a few French novels, which T.R. disdained.
On January 15 the party reached the outpost of Tapirapuan on an upper tributary of the Paraguay, and there they left their boats. All the specimens thus far gathered, along with all baggage no longer deemed essential, were sent back down the river and eventually to New York. Six days later the expedition took off on horse and mule for a month-long trek across the highland wilderness of the Mato Grosso—a “healthy land of dry air, of cool nights, of clear, running brooks,” T.R. called it. Father Zahm did not find the terrain quite so enticing; rarely did they see a tree more than twenty feet high, and the lack of water became a serious problem for the animals. Soon, along the route they were following, they began to see carcasses and bleaching bones of pack animals from the supply train that had been sent on ahead. Ominously, among the bones were abandoned boxes labelled “Roosevelt South American Expedition.” With muleteers, cooks, and other assistants the expedition now numbered nearly forty persons; there were some two hundred pack animals. So impressive was the train that Fiala recorded its departure from Tapirapuan on motion-picture film. The third day out the expedition crossed the divide separating the basin of the Paraguay from that of the Amazon, and for this part of the journey they could follow the telegraph lines set up along the route surveyed a few years earlier by Colonel Rondon.
By February 1 the expedition was at Utiarity, an Indian settlement and telegraph station on the Rio Papagaio. From this point Father Zahm—who had decided against making the exploration of the Rio da Dúvida with Roosevelt—and Sigg returned to civilization, while Fiala and one of the Brazilian officers departed for a canoe trip down the Juruena and Tapajós to the Amazon. The main body continued overland to the headwaters of the Dúvida, which was reached on February 26. Here the final separation was made. Miller, with two officers and the geologist, was to march three days to the Gy-Paraná and follow it down to the Madeira and eventually the Amazon, a route previously explored by Rondon. Unless they encountered the others, coming down the Dúvida to its supposed juncture with the Madeira, they were to proceed to Manáos for an eventual rendezvous.