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T.r.’s Last Adventure

May 2024
26min read

Defeated in his attempt at apolitical comeback in the Presidential election of 1912, the fifty-four-year-old Theodore Roosevelt started off 1913 eager for fresh adventures. The former President accepted invitations from the governments of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile to deliver addresses in their respective capitals and also gleefully agreed to accompany the explorer-priest John Augustine ^ahm on ajourney through the Amazon basin. The American Museum of Natural History in New York added two naturalists, George K. Cherne and Leo E. Miller, to the party that would also include Roosevelt’s second son, Kermit, who had been working for the past year and a half in Brazil. As well as being his father’s beloved “side-partner,” Kermit would prove invaluable as the expedition’s interpreter and photographer. Some of his photographs taken during the trip appear in the following pages.

The story of T.R.’s extraordinary adventure in Brazil is told by Joseph L. Gardner in his new book, Departing Glory: Theodore Roosevelt as Ex-President , from which this excerpt is taken. The book will be published this month by Charles Scribner’s Sons. We pick up the story as the Roosevelt party boards the liner Vandyck in Brooklyn on October

For the sailing the ebullient T.R. wore a gray suit and a soft hat of the same color, a tie with a stickpin, and a boutonnière in his lapel. The decks of the ship, the pier, and even a few surrounding streets were thronged with well-wishers; the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party sent a band; and the ambassadors of the three South American republics T.R. would visit came to see him off.

En route south the Colonel (as Roosevelt now liked to be called) easily proved to be the ship’s most popular passenger. His uninhibited version of the sailor’s hornpipe at an evening entertainment brought cries of “Encore, ” while George Cherrie noted that T. R.’s “two hundred and twenty pounds of avoirdupois were the deciding factor in the ‘tug-of-war’ between the married men and the bachelors on the ship.” A passenger who had originally said he would travel ten thousand miles to vote against Roosevelt was introduced to the exPresident, was charmed by him, and said that the next time he would travel twice as far to vote for him.

The first port of call on the cruise south was Bridgetown, Barbados, where the naturalist Leo Miller joined the party; and on October 17 the liner put in at Bahia, Brazil, where Kermit came aboard. Four days later the Vandyck steamed into Rio de Janeiro. A small fleet of gaily decked craft flying Brazilian and American flags welcomed the former President to the breathtakingly beautiful harbor; T.R.’s reception ashore, wrote Father Zahm, had “all the wild enthusiasm of a national holiday.”

At Rio, Roosevelt was met by Lauro M’fcller, the Brazilian minister of foreign affairs, who suggested a change in plans for his trip through the interior of the continent. At the headwaters of the Paraguay River, at the town of Caceres, Roosevelt would be met by Colonel Candido Mariano da Suva Rondon, an army officer of chiefly Indian blood, who for the past quarter century had been exploring the Brazilian hinterland. Four years earlier, while surveying a route for a government telegraph line through the Mato Grosso, Colonel Rondon had come upon a large, previously unknown river flowing north. To this mysterious stream Rondon gave the name Rio da Dúvida, the “River of Doubt.” Its course seemed to lie roughly along the parallel of longitude 60 degrees west of Greenwich, with a source between the 12th and 13th parallels south of the equator and perhaps an outlet into the Madeira, a major affluent of the Amazon. It was the largest uncharted river between the Gy-Paraná, another tributary to the Madeira, and the Juruena, which flowed into the Tapajós, yet another affluent of the Amazon. It was now Colonel Rondon’s plan to follow the River of Doubt wherever it led, and Roosevelt was invited by the government to join him in this journey into the unknown.

T.R. knew that this was an unrivalled opportunity for another great adventure, his “last chance to be a boy”—and, of course, he accepted. The undertaking was christened the Expedição Scientifica RooseveltRondon; and while the Colonel completed his speaking tour Cherrie and Miller went up the Paraguay to begin collecting species of birds and mammals, and two other members of the party, Anthony Fiala and Jacob Sigg, organized the supplies.


By December 7 Roosevelt was at Asunción, the sleepy capital of the landlocked republic of Paraguay, and two days later he was journeying up the Paraguay River aboard the gunboat-yacht of the Paraguayan president. On the twelfth he reached the Brazilian boundary, where he was met by a shallow-draft river steamer carrying Colonel Rondon and his party. “Spick and span in their white uniforms,” T.R. wrote of this initial meeting, the colonel and his companions came aboard Roosevelt’s boat to introduce themselves. The Brazilian contingent would include four other officers, a doctor, and a geologist. “It was evident,” T.R. noted of Rondon, “that he knew his business thoroughly, and it was equally evident that he would be a pleasant companion. ” T.R. spoke no Portuguese, and the officers apparently understood little English; but Kermit, after his year and a half in Brazil, could easily bridge the language gap.

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.

Shortly after noon on February 27 the Gy-Paraná group gathered on the fragile wooden bridge that had been flung across the Rio da Dúvida at the telegraph-line crossing to wave goodbye and call out “Good Luck” to the Roosevelt-Rondon party. In addition to the two colonels the exploring team included Kermit, Cherrie, a Lieutenant Lyra, Doctor Cajazeira, and sixteen camaradas , the expert rivermen of the tropical forest. The paddlers, T.R. wrote, were “a strapping set. … lithe as panthers and brawny as bears.” They swam like water dogs, he reported, and “were equally at home with pole and paddle, with axe and machete.” The camaradas looked like pirates out of a storybook, he further noted; indeed, “one or two of them were pirates, and one worse than a pirate.” They were white, black, copper-colored, “and of all intermediate shades”; of Portuguese, Neero, and Indian blood. As a group they were “hard-working, willing, and cheerful.”

The twenty-two-man party would travel in seven dugout canoes—one small, one “cranky,” two “old, water-logged, and leaky,” three good. Personal baggage had been cut down to the “limit necessary for health and efficiency”; yet in such a voyage it was impossible not to take a large amount of equipment, and the canoes, Roosevelt later wrote, were too heavily laden.

The Colonel, Cherrie, and Kermit would share a light tent; the three Brazilian officers would have another tent; and there would be a third for anyone who felt sick. The camaradas would sleep in hammocks slung between trees. All would be armed, but shooting would only be permitted for collecting species, procuring food, and warning off or repelling Indian attacks. The food and arms taken “represented all reasonable precautions against suffering and starvation”; there were provisions for fifty days but “not full rations, for we hoped in part to live on the country—on fish, game, nuts, and palm tops.” Yet, the Colonel conceded, anything might happen: “We were about to go into the unknown, and no one could say what it held.”


The surveying was to be done by Colonel Rondon and Lieutenant Lyra, assisted by Kermit. The younger Roosevelt would go ahead in a light canoe with a sighting rod; finding a point with a good vista upstream and down, he would land and set up the rod. Upstream, Lyra would estimate the distance as Rondon took directions with a compass and recorded the figures. While they moved on to where Kermit had been standing he would continue downstream to establish a new point. During that first half-day Kermit landed nearly a hundred times, and the surveyors made but nine and a third kilometers.

T.R. ran ahead in his canoe, through “a lofty and matted forest [that] rose like a green wall on either hand.” The trees were “stately and beautiful. … looped and twisted vines hung from them like great ropes.” Fragrant scents blew from flowers on the banks, and apart from an occasional bird call out of the depths of the forest, all was silent. The Colonel only travelled a few hours on February 27, then pulled ashore to make camp and wait for the surveyors. It had rained at intervals during the day—this was toward the end of the rainy season—but after sunset the sky cleared. “The stars were brilliant overhead,” Roosevelt wrote, “and the new moon hung in the west. It was a pleasant night, the air almost cool, and we slept soundly.” The following morning T. R. stayed on in camp after the surveyors started downstream to wait for Cherrie, who was gathering specimens in the nearby forests. It was almost noon before the two embarked again on the Dúvida’s “swirling brown current. ” It seemed as if it was going to be a leisurely and relaxing journey for Roosevelt.

The second day on the river the party registered an advance of sixteen and a half kilometers, and the third day—in rain that went from showers to “vertical sheets of water”—they travelled and recorded twenty and a half kilometers. For the first time they detected signs of Indian habitation: abandoned palm-leaf shelters, overgrown planting fields, the vine handrail of a washed-away pole bridge. Cherrie shot a large monkey, which proved “very good eating.” Sunday, March 2, their fourth day, was again almost without rain, and T.R. found it “delightful to drift and paddle slowly downthebeautiful tropical river.” The current was slow, and “the broad, deep, placid stream bent and curved in every direction, although the general course was northwest.” The country through which they were travelling was flat, noted the Colonel, “and more of the land was under than above water. Continually we found ourselves travelling between stretches of marshy forest where for miles the water stood or ran among the trees.” In midafternoon the current quickened, became faster and faster “until it began to run like a mill-race, and we heard the roar of rapids ahead.” The dugouts were pulled ashore so that a survey could be made.


Stretching for nearly a mile, with many curls and several drops of at least six feet, the rapids proved to be a serious obstacle. At one point the river narrowed to less than two yards between ledges of naked rock. “It seemed extraordinary, almost impossible,” the Colonel marvelled, “that so broad a river could in so short a space of time contract its dimensions to the width of the strangled channel through which it now poured its entire volume.” Kneeling at the narrowest point and leaning out over the water, Cherrie found that he could touch the opposite shore with the muzzle of his rifle. No canoe could get through the channel’s whirlpools. It took the expedition two and a half days to make a portage of these first rapids. They camped above the rapids on March 2, the next day moved their baggage to the foot of the rapids, and on March 4 and the morning of the fifth dragged the dugouts across a road chopped through the forests. The heavy, cumbersome boats were moved with the aid of several hundred small logs cut to serve as rollers and placed about two yards apart. Two men harnessed to a dragrope pulled, while a third pried with a lever behind; and thus each canoe, “bumping and sliding, was twitched through the woods.”

Not only did the portage cost the party two and half days of “severe and incessant labor”; it also resulted in some damage to the dugouts. When the canoes were launched again below the rapids, one of the boats filled with water and went to the bottom, and more hard work was needed to raise it. For the first time, perhaps, the vastness of their undertaking struck the members of the expedition. Gathered around the campfire after dinner, the men discussed what might lie ahead. They realized that they did not know whether they had one hundred or eight hundred kilometers to go; whether the stream would continue smooth and calm or be broken by innumerable rapids, such as the ones just encountered; whether hostile Indians lurked in the surrounding darkness. “We had no idea how much time the trip would take,” Roosevelt reflected. “We had entered a land of unknown possibilities.”

On March 5 the explorers made twelve kilometers, and by three o’clock the following day they had made nineteen. In the lead, T.R. once more noted the quickening of the current that indicated rapids ahead and signalled the party ashore. It took three days to make a second portage, and on a foraging journey downstream Kermit discovered a third set of rapids only five or six kilometers below the second. On the tenth they unloaded the canoes a third time, carried the burdens down, and lowered the boats through the swirling waters of the lesser rapids. Even though it was dangerous to work nearly naked in the river and they were constantly plagued by biting and stinging insects, this was preferable to manhandling the dugouts overland. T.R. found that termites had eaten holes in his sun helmet and in the cover of his cot. During the night the two older canoes filled with water in the rising river, sank, and were broken apart on boulders along the river bottom. Wryly naming the place Broken Canoe Rapids, the expedition halted for four days to make a new dugout.

Resuming their journey on March 15, the party made six kilometers before rising ground and “the roar of broken water announced that once more our course was checked by dangerous rapids.” Rounding a bend, they saw the new obstacle, “a wide descent of white water, with an island in the middle, at the upper edge.” This time Kermit was in the lead canoe, along with two camaradas , a pet dog, and a week’s supply of boxed provisions. Reconnoitering the island to see if a descent could be made on the far side, Kermit suddenly found his canoe caught in a shifting whirlpool and carried broadside into the rapids.

The paddlers were unable to head into the current—the only possible way to navigate the rapids—and the boat took wave after wave of water, quickly filled, and overturned in the frothy current. One of the camaradas reached shore, but the other disappeared beneath the waters—his body was never recovered. The current beat Kermit’s helmet down over his face, and his Winchester was torn from his grasp. In swift but quieter water he swam toward shore. Although his jacket hindered his strokes, he knew that he did not have the strength to take if off. An overhanging branch appeared on the shore, and “with the curious calm one feels when death is but a moment away,” his father later wrote, “he realized that the utmost his failing strength could do was to reach the branch.” Desperately clutching at the branch, Kermit was then barely able to pull himself ashore with his last reserve of energy. Swimming alongside Kermit, the dog also clambered onto dry land.

T.R. was naturally distraught. The fear of some such accident befalling his second son had been a nightmare all along; “it did not seem to me that I could bear to bring bad tidings … to his mother.” A sign was erected: “In These Rapids Died Poor Simplicio.” Looking for his lost canoe, Kermit discovered even worse rapids a couple of kilometers downstream.

“The morning of the loth was dark and gloomy,” wrote the Colonel. “Through sheets of blinding rain we left our camp of misfortune for another camp where misfortune also awaited us.” While another portage was being made that day Colonel Rondon strolled with a dog into the forest. Running on ahead, the animal was suddenly felled by Indian arrows; although the natives were not seen, their hostile presence was cause for new alarm. And during the portage the new dugout was lost when the rope by which it was being lowered through the churning waters broke. With Indians undoubtedly lurking nearby, it was deemed unwise to tarry long enough to build new canoes. All the baggage, trimmed to the barest necessity, was loaded into the four remaining dugouts. Roosevelt, Dr. Cajazeira, and six camaradas —three with feet so swollen from insect bites that they could scarcely walk—embarked once more on the stream. Colonel Rondon, Lyra, Cherrie, Kermit, and the nine other camaradas marched in a single file along the bank. The boats had to be halted continually to allow the slower shore party to catch up. “It is doubtful if all our party ever reaches Manáos,” George Cherrie wrote in his diary.

The expedition camped that night at a point where a major stream joined the Dúvida; Colonel Rondon named it the Rio Kermit, and during a ceremony the next morning to erect a marker on the tributary he pulled from his pocket orders from the Brazilian government formally christening the Dúvida the Rio Roosevelt. T.R. protested; he preferred the name that seemed so appropriate, the River of Doubt, “but my kind friends insisted otherwise, and it would have been churlish of me to object longer. ” Three cheers were given for the United States, for T.R., and for Kermit. Roosevelt proposed three cheers for Brazil, for Colonel Rondon, for Lyra, for the doctor, and finally for all the camaradas . Only Cherrie had not been cheered, an omission soon taken care of, “and the meeting broke up in high good humor.”

Just above its juncture with the Dúvida, the tributary Rio Kermit plunged over a waterfall six to eight feet in height; in the pool below were a number of fish, two of which were caught and provided delicious eating. One of the camaradas , a Parecis Indian named Antonio, stated confidently that fish never came up rapids in which falls had to be jumped. The fish in the Rio Kermit indicated, therefore, that the party would find no more rapids steep enough to require overland portaging. “But the event showed that he was mistaken,” T.R. later noted sadly. “The worst rapids were ahead of us. ”

On March 19 the party halted for three days to make two new dugouts. An Indian fi shing village, from which the natives had obviously just fled, was discovered in the vicinity; and gifts—an axe, a knife, some strings of red beads—were left to show that the interlopers were friendly. During the pause the members of the expedition had plenty of time to speculate about the river they were following. There was no longer any doubt, Roosevelt concluded, that the Dúvida was a big river, one of major importance. It now seemed probable that either it must empty directly into the Madeira, near that river’s juncture with the Amazon, or it became the Aripuanã (as T.R. spelled it, “Aripuanan”), another affluent of the Madeira—although the Aripuanã had never been judged such a large river. In the three weeks since embarking on the River of Doubt the expedition had covered only about 140 kilometers, travelling two kilometers for every one made northward, with a descent of some 124 meters. A river normally describes a parabola in its course, Roosevelt thought, with the steepest descent in the upper reaches. This led him to hope that they would not have to encounter so many and such difficult rapids in the future—a hope, he wrote, “destined to failure. ”

On March 22, once more with six dugouts so that all could ride, the expedition again started down the Dúvida. Within twenty minutes out they struck rapids, a pattern that was to be monotonously repeated for the next three weeks, the men counting themselves fortunate when the rapids were gentle enough to allow them to lower the unloaded boats through the water so that they had only to carry the baggage overland. Roosevelt remained cheerful and optimistic: ”… while we were actually on the river, paddling and floating downstream along the reaches of swift, smooth water, it was very lovely.” The very rapids that were now making their navigation downstream so hazardous, he mused, one day “would drive electric trolleys up and down its whole length and far out on either side and run mills and factories, and lighten the labor on farms.” Such a rich and fertile land should not be permitted “to lie as a tenantless wilderness, while there are such teeming swarms of human beings in the overcrowded, overpeopled countries of the Old World.”


During these backbreaking weeks the six leaders had been eating only two meals a day, consuming each day the contents of one provision box packed in New York by Fiala (the camaradas carried separate rations); but now they made each box last a day and a half or even two days. Only when some large bird or monkey was shot, or a fish caught, was there really enough food. In the evenings the men from North America would sit around discussing what they would eat when they got home. Cherrie craved griddlecakes and maple syrup; Kermit dreamed of strawberries and cream; T.R. said that he would choose a mutton chop “with a tail to it!” In addition to the generally weakened condition of the entire party caused by short rations, two men were now down with jungle fever. For several days Cherrie was too weak to make entries in his diary.

At the end of March they discovered that they were crossing a range of mountains “about the height of the lower ridges of the Alleghenies. ” The river here entered a rapids three kilometers long that took them three days to portage; one kilometer below was another set of rapids that cost them an additional day. “We thought we had reduced our baggage before, “T.R. wrote, “but now we cut to the bone.” Kermit’s shoes had finally given out, a casualty of so many hours spent in the water among the sharp rocks, and he took his father’s spare pair. In addition to the clothes on his back the Colonel retained only one set of pajamas, one spare pair each of drawers and socks, half a dozen handkerchiefs, a wash kit, a pocket medicine case, and a little bag containing extra spectacles, needles and thread, gun grease, adhesive plaster, and his purse and a letter of credit to use at Manáos. T.R. still had a cot—the others were all sleeping on hammocks by then—but two tents were abandoned.

For this descent Rondon cut a trail for the camaradas to carry their burdens to the foot of the new rapids, while Kermit and Lyra, with four of the best watermen, worked the canoes down the gorge on rope. Because of the constant fear of hostile natives, someone had to stand guard with a loaded rifle. In four days, T.R. wrote of this effort, the party had “accomplished a work of incredible labor and of the utmost importance; for at the first glance it had seemed an absolute impossibility to avoid abandoning the canoes when we found that the river sank into a cataract-broken torrent at the bottom of a canyon-like gorge between steep mountains. ” Nonetheless, one dugout was lost.

On April 2 the expedition started out on the river once more, “wondering how soon we should strike other rapids in the mountains ahead, and whether in any reasonable time we should, as the aneroid [barometer] indicated, be so low down that we should necessarily be in a plain where we could make a journey of at least a few days without rapids.” For a month they had been descending an uninterrupted series of rapids. They had lost four of the seven canoes with which they had started and one of the three built en route, one man, and a dog, “which by its death had in all probability saved the life of Colonel Rondon.” The camaradas were dispirited, occasionally asking one or more of the leaders if they thought they would ever get out of the jungle alive, “and we had to cheer them up as best we could.” Reconnoitering ahead, Rondon, Lyra, and Kermit discovered yet another series of “sinister rapids.”

“Under such conditions whatever is evil in men’s natures comes to the front,” T.R. wrote of the situation as they confronted the grueling portage. “On this day a strange and terrible tragedy occurred. ” One man alone of the original sixteen camaradas had proved worthless; he was a huge, surly man of European background named Julio. He constantly shirked tasks and had been caught stealing food on several occasions. At the outset of this day’s portage one of the men accused Julio of stealing some dried meat, and a Negro corporal named Paishon rebuked him for lagging behind. Yet no one paid attention when Julio casually picked up a carbine and followed Paishon down the portage trail. A minute later a shot rang out, and three or four of the men ran back to say that Julio had killed Paishon and run off into the woods. The Colonel and the doctor tried to find the killer but shortly lost his track in the dense undergrowth; they feared he had gone amuck and would try to wipe out the entire party.

Paishon was simply and quickly buried along the portage trail where he had been slain. The expedition’s cook noted that the corporal had fallen forward on his hands and knees, “and when a murdered man falls like that his ghost will follow the slayer as long as the slayer lives.” The party could not immediately stop to pursue Julio, but three days later he appeared on the bank and called out that he wished to surrender. Roosevelt feared that if the murderer were taken he would prove a menace to the party: they could ill afford to maintain a round-the-clock guard over him, and meanwhile he would be but an extra mouth to feed. Rondon, however, felt that it was his duty to bring the man back to civilization and to justice. But meantime the canoes had swept on past Julio, he had disappeared once more into the wilderness, and the two men sent back to take the murderer never found him.

In this tense situation the party had tried to hurry the dangerous portage and had lost another canoe. Jumping in the water to help with an overturned dugout, T. R. had badly bruised his leg; the resulting inflammation, he now wrote in deliberate understatement, “was somewhat bothersome.” As luck would have it, the bruised leg was the one that had been seriously injured in a carriage accident in 1902, and Roosevelt developed what his son called “a veritable plague of deep abscesses.” Doctor Cajazeira lanced the abscesses to relieve the inflammation and inserted a drainage tube. There was “an added charm” to this primitive operation, Roosevelt observed, in the enthusiasm with which the numerous insects “took part therein.” But T.R.’s condition was not a matter to be taken lightly; concurrently he had a sharp attack of fever that completely debilitated him for the next fortyeight hours.

“The scene is vivid before me,” Kermit later wrote ofthat night, as he and the doctor divided a watch over the delirious Roosevelt. “The black rushing river with the great trees towering high above along the bank; the sodden earth under foot ; for a few moments the stars would be shining, and then the sky would cloud over and the rain would fall in torrents, shutting out sky and trees and river. ” T. R. started reciting poetry—“ In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree .…” Then he would enter into an incoherent monologue, mostly focusing on the lack of supplies; he wondered if Kermit and Cherrie were getting enough food. “I can’t work now,” Kermit heard him say, “so I don’t need much food, but he [Kermit] and Cherrie have worked all day with the canoes; they must have part of mine. ”

Colonel Rondon himself had nearly given in to despair; only that morning he had proposed that they abandon the canoes rather than attempt another portage and that the party fight its way out of the jungle on foot, “every man for himself.” When he came out of his fever, T.R. called Cherrie and Kermit to his bedside. “Cherrie, I want you and Kermit to go ahead. We have reached a point where some of us must stop. I feel I am only a burden to the party.” He had morphine in his kit and thought of ending his life there. But, he later told newspaperman O. K. Davis, he knew that his son would leave neither him nor his body in the jungle. “So there was only one thing for me to do, and that was to come out myself. ”

At this point, Cherrie later claimed, it was twenty-four-year-old Kermit who held the expedition together—working nearly naked in the water with the canoes, his legs cut and bruised and swollen with insect bites, suffering occasionally from attacks of fever himself. They finally got through the “sinister rapids” of the jungle homicide and out once more on the broad river, where the relentless sun, Kermit recalled, “hung above us all the day like a molten ball and broiled us as if the river were a grid on which we were made fast.” To a sick man like his father, Kermit knew, the heat must have been intolerable.

“How I longed for a big Maine birchbark such as that in which I once went down the Mattawamkeag at high water!” T.R. wrote of his final days on the Dúvida. “It would have slipped down these rapids as a girl trips through a country-dance.” But the pattern of brief runs on the wide river and long, laborious portagings around the numerous rapids continued through the first two weeks of April. Easter Sunday, April 12, was passed “in the fashion with which we were altogether too familiar,” the Colonel recorded wearily, but late in the afternoon of the next day “the river began to run in long and quiet reaches.” And the day after that they made fifteen kilometers; for the first time in several weeks they camped where they did not hear the sound of rapids. Fish were caught, a monkey and some birds that tasted like turkey were shot, and the camaradas gorged themselves on nuts—which unfortunately made them sick the next day. Thus it was “a sorry crew” that embarked on the morning of the fifteenth. “But it turned out a red-letter day. ”

The previous day the party had noted what seemed to be cuttings of rubber trees, perhaps a year old but very likely the work of pioneer rubbermen pressing into the wilderness. Two and a half hours out on April 15 they spied a board on a post with the initials “J. A.”—evidently marking the farthest point upriver from the Amazon penetrated by a rubberman and claimed as his own. An hour after that they came upon a newly built house in a planted clearing, and all cheered heartily. “No one was at home, but the house of palm thatch was clean and cool. A couple of dogs were on watch, and the belongings showed that a man and a woman and a child lived there and had only just left.” An hour later a second house was sighted and they were welcomed to it by “an old black man who showed the innate courtesy of the Brazilian peasant, “T.R. wrote. Civilization, however rude, had been reached; and the Dúvida proved to be what these frontier rubbermen called the Castanho, an affluent or western branch of the Aripuana, which eventually flowed into the Madeira and thus led to the Amazon. Henceforth they would be following a river that, if still not on any maps, was at least known to men of the wilderness.

“It was time to get out, ” T.R. concluded. “The wearing work, under very unhealthy conditions, was beginning to tell on every one.” Half the camaradas had been down with the fever; and although Kermit and Cherrie had recovered from their attacks of fever, the younger Roosevelt and Lyra suffered greatly from bleeding sores on their legs, sores that had developed from the bruises incurred during the river work. The Colonel, at last, could admit that he himself was in bad shape—from the fever and from the abscesses on his injured leg. But the worst was past, and the “north was calling strongly.…” At nightfall they could see the Big Dipper well above the horizon—“upside down, with the two pointers pointing to a north star below the world’s rim; but the Dipper, with all its stars.” At Sagamore Hill, he knew, spring had come, “the wonderful northern spring of long glorious days, of brooding twilights, of cool delightful nights.” Each of the three North Americans—Cherrie, Kermit, and the Colonel—“was longing for the homely things that were so dear to him, for the home people who were dearer still, and for the one who was dearest of all.”

“Our adventures and our troubles alike were over,” T.R. wrote of their last two weeks on the Rio da Dúvida. A rubberman was hired as a guide; and even though there were additional rapids to traverse, “it was all child’s play compared to what we had gone through.” Their guide could tell them what lay ahead, and trails for portaging had been blazed around the worst rapids; soon they were making fifty kilometers a day. On April 27—exactly two months after embarking on the River of Doubt—the Expedição Scientifica Roosevelt-Rondon reached the hamlet of São João. A three-day journey downstream aboard a river steamer brought them to Manáos, where they learned that the two other parties had come out safely down the Tapajós and Gy-Paraná rivers. Leo Miller later recalled that Colonel Roosevelt, by the time of his arrival at the river city, “had wasted to a mere shadow of his former self; but his unbounded enthusiasm remained undiminished.” The young naturalist was sorry that Fiala had already left for New York and could not record the arrival at Manáos on motion-picture film—as he had the expedition’s departure overland from Tapirapuan three months earlier; “the two pictures side by side would have told an interesting story.”

“We have had a hard and somewhat dangerous but very successful trip,” T.R. wired the Brazilian minister of foreign affairs, General M’fcller, from Manáos on April 30. He briefly recounted the expedition’s tribulations but then triumphantly recorded that they had “put on the map a river about 1500 kilometers in length running from just south of the 13th degree to north of the 5th degree and the biggest affluent of the Madeira.” Roosevelt concluded, “My dear Sir, I thank you from my heart for the chance to take part in this great work of exploration. ”

At Manáos, Roosevelt said goodbye to the thirteen remaining camaradas , giving each some gold sovereigns—one of which, he later learned, each man kept as a token of his journey with the famous North American. An Amazon steamer took the rest of the party to Pará, or Belém, where final farewells were said between the Brazilians and the Americans. Together with his admiration for the “hardihood, courage, and resolution” of Rondon, Lyra, and Doctor Cajazeira, Roosevelt confessed to a “strong and affectionate friendship for them”; he was glad to have “been their companion in the performance of a feat which possessed a certain lasting importance.”

“The Brazilian Wilderness,” wrote William Roscoe Thayer, a historian and Roosevelt’s friend, “stole away ten years of his life.” Corinne Roosevelt Robinson claimed that her brother returned from the trip “a man in whom a secret poison still lurked”; he was never thereafter “wholly free from recurrent attacks of the terrible jungle fever.…” Passengers on the liner Aidan were shocked by the Colonel’s appearance when he came aboard at Belém on May 7; he was thin and gaunt and subject to frequent attacks of fever. But his appetite soon picked up. At Bridgetown, Barbados, where the ship stopped, he purchased fifty books and, sitting in the sun on deck each day, read them all before the Aidan reached New York on May 19.


When the liner stopped at quarantine shortly before four that afternoon, a tug pulled up; aboard were the ex-President’s wife, Edith, and two other sons, Theodore, Jr., and Archre. Two additional tugs carried photographers and reporters. Passing in the channel was the Hamburg , which had borne the Colonel across the Atlantic in 1909 on a trip to Africa; she signalled a greeting with three whistles and disappeared into open waters. The newspapermen were dismayed to see how thin and old the Bull Moose hero looked; “Roosevelt Returns 35 Pounds Lighter,” the New York Times headlined its story about the arrival. Side by side the paper ran “before” and “after” pictures of the Colonel. The Times writer described T. R. as being “thinner and older looking, and there was something lacking in the power of his voice. His face had a hearty color, but there were lines that were not there before.” Yet, the reporter concluded, “none of the old time vivacity of manner was lacking.” Calling attention himself to the cane he was leaning heavily on, T.R. joked, ”… you see I still have the big stick.”

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