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The Making of Theodore Roosevelt


The first time THEODORE ROOSEVELT went to northern Maine was in 1878 when he was twenty-one years old; just six months after his father died. He was pale and asthmatic and BILL SEWALL, his wilderness guide, had little hope for him, commenting, “Mighty piddlin’, I’d say.” But the youngster had an indomitable will, and he found the cold air worked well with his lungs as they explored the Maine woods together. They also discovered they shared a common liking of William Longfellow and together would quote the Song of Hiawatha while navigating the dense forest. On one cold night during their journeys, Theodore stated that he believed he would one day be the President of the United States.

When Roosevelt returned to Harvard he was determined to sharpen his skills and he Alice Hathaway Lee - Theodore Rooseveltspent his time working out and practicing at the firing range. He also met ALICE HATHAWAY LEE and fell madly in love with her. With the help of a friend, DICKEY SALTONSTALL, he courted Alice, taking her on picnics and social outings.  In their discussions she encouraged him to pursue politics over natural history. When he returned to Maine in February he was determined to bring back a trophy caribou for her.

Theodore found the Maine woods in deep winter to be intoxicating, especially when traveling silently by snowshoe. On a hunt with Sewall’s nephew, WILMOT DOW, he wounded a caribou and chased it until he passed out in the snow. Wilmot had been tracking Theodore and found him just as a whiteout descended. They spent the night standing close to a fire, stomping their frozen feet—and quoting Walt Whitman—and then resumed the chase in the morning.

The next day they stumbled into Island Falls, but after only one night’s rest Bill Sewall Theodore Roosevelt loaded him into a pung, or one-horse, open sleigh, and drove him deep into the woods to a logging camp at a place called The Oxbow. Here Theodore was exposed to hardened, uneducated men, and although Sewall was nervous he wouldn’t fit in, they all took a liking to him. With his father’s passing the Harvard student was now wealthy, and his peers would have been surprised to see him sharing a common bed with these men who hadn’t bathed in six months but he loved every minute of it. Theodore later claimed that it was experiences like this that allowed him to pull together the tough men that made up the Rough Riders.

The young man who returned from that trip was very different from the one his friends had previously known. He was confident, exuberant, and determined to get what he wanted. This included the Lightweight Championship Boxing Title at Harvard, and Alice Lee’s hand in marriage. Alice attended the match wearing a shawl made from a lynx that he trapped and prepared for her in Maine. He romanced her at the Lee mansion, conveniently located next to Dickey’s house at Chestnut Hill. Unfortunately, he found Alice elusive, and when he returned to Maine in the fall he still hadn’t convinced her to commit to marrying him.

On his final journey north he was determined to prove himself equal to his Maine guides. Another Maine Guide who showed young Roosevelt the ropes. Their first objective was an ascent of Mount Katahdin. The climb was a success, and even when he prevailed where a cousin and former tutor didn’t, it wasn’t enough for Theodore. He challenged Sewall to come up with something that the Mainer could do, but he—Theodore—could not.

In the end they dragged a dugout canoe up the Aroostook River for 55 miles to the Munsungen Lakes. It rained for most of the journey, but neither man would quit. While forcing the canoe up a difficult section they shouted Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Utterly exhausted, they collapsed on the shore of the lake and talked about their dreams for the future. Eventually they rode the canoe back, and finally traveled another 99 miles by canoe to the train station in Kingman. At the end of this visit Sewall commented that he would follow Roosevelt anywhere.

Back at Harvard Theodore continued to pursue Ms. Lee. Unfortunately for Theodore her parents were determined to postpone wedding plans until after her social debut. The sight of her being presented to Boston’s most eligible bachelors almost drove Theodore mad and he took to wandering the woods at night. After concluding she was no longer interested in him he sadly returned to his family home in New York, only to find her on his doorstep on Christmas morning ready to resume their relationship. She eventually consented to marry him and they wed six months later.

Postscript: Five years later, Theodore summoned Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow to New York to ask them to go west with him. They agreed, and eventually Sewall became his ranch foreman in the Dakotas.


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