Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition
When Theodore Roosevelt retired from the presidency in 1909, he was only 50 years old. The youngest former president in American history, he was looking for adventure and for a project that would take him away from Washington, D.C., and politics. A naturalist at heart, he turned, not surprisingly, to his boyhood fascination for natural history. Three weeks after the inauguration of his successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt set out for British East Africa to hunt big game. The Smithsonian Institution co-sponsored the expedition. Many of the specimens were destined for the new U.S. National Museum building, then under construction on the Mall and today known as the National Museum of Natural History.
Roosevelt was accompanied on the trip by his son, Kermit (age 19), who served as official photographer, and three representatives from the Smithsonian: Major Edgar A. Mearns (1856-1916), a retired Army surgeon and field naturalist, J. Alden Loring (1871-1947) and Edmund Heller (1875-1939), both zoologists.
Mearns served as head naturalist and bird-collector; Heller was in charge of preparing large game animals in the field for museum purposes; and Loring was responsible for collecting and preparing small mammals. Already in Africa organizing the outfit were R.J. Cuninghame and Leslie Tarlton, both famous big-game hunters. Cherry Keaton, wildlife photographer and filmmaker, also joined the expedition to record the activities. The footage was later produced as the silent film “Roosevelt in Africa.”
"Roosevelt in Africa" clips:
- Part 3 of 4: https://memory.loc.gov/mbrs/trmp/4102s3.mpg
- Part 4 of 4: https://memory.loc.gov/mbrs/trmp/4102s4.mpg
On March 23, 1909, Roosevelt and the expedition team set sail from New York City aboard the steamer Hamburg. In Naples, Italy, they took a second steamer to Mombasa, and arrived on April 21. Two days later Roosevelt's outfit embarked on a 581-mile rail journey to Port Florence on Lake Victoria. Roosevelt later mused that naturalists would have found it “the most interesting railway journey in the world.” At the Kapati Plains station they joined up with the rest of the expedition party. Some 250 local guides and porters were employed over the course of the expedition. At various destinations they set up vast tent cities and carried the equipment and several tons of salt for skin preservation. Roosevelt's tent had a tub and a library of 60 volumes.
The expedition traveled throughout what is today southern and western Kenya, the Congo, Uganda, and southern Sudan by train, horse, camel, and a steamboat on the Nile—stopping for weeks at each destination to collect specimens. They hunted elephants on the slopes of Mount Kenya, and rare white rhinoceros in the Lado region of British Uganda. In late February 1910 they hunted eland, a species of antelope, in the Belgian Congo. They ended the expedition in Khartoum, Sudan, on March 14, 1910. Before returning to New York, Roosevelt and his son first traveled to Oslo, Norway, to collect the Nobel Peace Prize he had been awarded five years earlier.
The Smithsonian East Africa Expedition amassed a collection of 23,151 natural history specimens, totaling 160 species of carnivores, ungulates, rodents, insectivores, and bats. The mammals alone numbered 5,013 specimens, including nine lions, thirteen rhinoceros, twenty zebras, eight warthogs, and four hyenas. In addition to collecting specimens of African flora and fauna the expedition also collected ethnographic objects for the Museum. Each specimen was carefully documented by the Smithsonian naturalists to ensure its research value. It took eight years to catalogue all of the material. Ned Hollister, a zoologist and the superintendent of the National Zoo, completed the catalogue, East African Mammals in the United States National Museum, in three volumes (1918 to 1924).
Roosevelt and the expedition members also obtained live animals for the National Zoological Park—including a leopard, lions, cheetahs, and gazelles, as well as birds like an eagle, a vulture, and a buteo.
There was extensive coverage of the expedition in the press, and many political cartoons. Scribner's Magazine paid Roosevelt $50,000 to write about the journey, funds that helped finance Roosevelt's portion of the expedition costs. For a year the magazine published a monthly account of his adventures. These articles were gathered together and published as a book, African Game Trails, in 1910.
Many of the Roosevelt animals mounted for exhibition, such as the lions, the giraffes, rhinos, and zebras, remained on view for the rest of the twentieth century. In the late 1950s they were reconditioned for new diorama exhibits, as part of the exhibit modernization program taking place across the Smithsonian. In 2003 the National Museum of Natural History opened the new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, which features many new mounts and displays. Today the square-lipped rhinoceros is the only Roosevelt specimen from the expedition that remains on exhibit in the Museum.
When Roosevelt returned to the United States after his more-than-a-year-long adventure, Robert J. Collier, the publisher of Collier's Weekly, hosted a dinner in his honor in New York City. The artist Maxfield Parrish, one of the guests that evening, illustrated the title page of "Welcome home, a dinner to Theodore Roosevelt" commemorative booklet. Inside were photographs and stories from the expedition, poems, and cartoons. Included in the booklet are the menu (which featured Atlantic salmon, saddle of lamb, guinea-fowl, and stuffed Virginia ham) and the seating chart. Among the 80 guests assembled were John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, the conductor Walter Damrosch, Roosevelt's Secretary of State Robert Bacon, William Temple Hornaday, head of the New York Zoological Society and former head of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, and Edward Bok, the editor of the Ladies Home Journal.
View the entire pamphlet: "Welcome home, a dinner to Theodore Roosevelt, June 22nd, 1910, at Sherry's New York"
Listen to curator Kris Helgen talk about the skull of a man-eating leopard captured by Edmund Heller on the SI-Roosevelt Expedition.
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