How did Theodore Roosevelt almost die in the Amazon Rainforest?​

Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition: 1913-1914: 11 minutes 48 seconds

An extreme coping mechanism

How differently would we remember Theodore Roosevelt if he had died in the Amazon Rainforest? I know it sounds like some fringe alternate history scenario, but it nearly became a reality.

Theodore Roosevelt: The Bull Moose, The Rough Rider, The Monopoly Buster, the POTUS, Y’ALL KNOW WHO IT IS (sorry in advance to my non-American audience)

While known for his politics, Roosevelt was also an adventurer. At the age of 24, he spent two years in the Dakota badlands after both his wife and mother passed away on the same day. After his time in office, he went on a two-year expedition to Africa, where they collected 11,400 specimens.

After running for his third term at the age of 54 in 1912 and losing, he would then embark on his most ambitious journey yet – down an uncharted river in the Amazon Rainforest. It would become known as the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition. An expedition that not everyone would survive…

“Tell Osborn (president of the American Museum of Natural History) I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know; I have had my full share, and if it is necessary for me to leave my bones in South America, I am quite ready to do so.”

Teddy Roosevelt in a letter to Frank Chapman

Roosevelt campaigning for the Bull Moose party

Meet the boys

The Amazon today still holds many secrets. This was even more so the case in the early 20th century. Only a few large rivers had been mapped, leaving an area larger than Germany unexplored. 

Just ask Candido Rondon (48), who had explored more of the Amazon than anyone else alive, including being the first to discover the source of the River of Doubt. Rondon, a co-commander with Roosevelt, is a Brazilian hero and was in charge of setting up a telegraph line deep into the Amazon. He was famous for pacifying many Amazonian tribes, sometimes even at the expense of his own men. 

Candido Rondon (48): Was in charge of the Military Corps of Engineers Strategic Telegraph Lines Commission. His life mission was to peacefully integrate indigenous tribes into modern society. Co-commander with Theodore Roosevelt.

Rondon ordered his men to never harm an indigenous person or take sides in a tribal conflict, his famous order being “die if you must, but never kill.” Even when being attacked by hostile tribes, he would order his men to stand down. 

While this had great success and was the only reason why some tribes decided to trust him, some of his men were understandably pissed. However, he was still respected by all, including Roosevelt who would defer to Rondon despite being co-commanders.

Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Kermit Roosevelt, would also accompany the expedition. He was often described as embodying the same traits as his father. Prior to the expedition, he had already been working in Brazil for over a year. He had also just got engaged via mail (to a woman he met only a few times and hadn’t seen in a year). Kermit was head over heels for this girl, but his mother asked Kermit to accompany his father, resulting in the worst cockblock in recorded history.

Kermit Roosevelt (23): The son of Theodore Roosevelt. He had already lived in Brazil for a year working for the Anglo Brazilian Iron Company.

Candido Rondon
Candido Rondon
Kermit roosevelt
Kermit Roosevelt

A journey to another journey

On December 12th, 1913, the 150+ man expedition set out for the River of Doubt (only a fraction of these men would explore the River of Doubt while the others would traverse more well-mapped rivers). To even get to the river, it was a two-month, 400-mile journey over the remote Brazilian highlands.

The going was rough as any of the men suffered from malaria and other diseases. Tempers flared when a camarada named Julio de Lima attacked another member with a knife over a disagreement.

Camarada: Portuguese word for comrade. Used to refer to the Brazilian members of the expedition.

Supplies and rations were also already running low because, get this – Anthony Fiala, the man in charge of supplies was an adventurer as well. An Arctic adventurer. This man probably didn’t know shit about a jungle. Much of the rations were useless: olives, applesauce, mustard, and olive oil just to name a few.

Anthony Fiala: Fiala accompanied an expedition to the North Pole in 1901 It was a disaster as they became stranded and many ended up dying. He was originally supposed to travel the River of Doubt but was cut due to the lack of supplies.

Anthony Fiala meme

However, after two months, they would finally reach the source of the river. Only the Roosevelts, Rondon, another American named George Cherrie, and 18 camaradas would end up going. On February 27th, 1914, the crew would descend the river, unaware of the trials ahead…

George Cherrie (48): Was a well-known naturalist, who was a veteran of the Amazon Rainforest. He had just returned from his 25th trip to the Amazon before accepting the invitation for this expedition. 

River of Doubt
Originally there were seven Americans who were supposed to make the journey: from left to right, Anthony Fiala, George Cherrie, Father John Zahm, Theodore Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt, Frank Harper, and Leo Miller—only Theodore, Kermit, and Cherrie would end up going.

The Amazon makes Australia look like a Doggy Daycare

The River of Doubt had two extremes. It was often calm with a slow current however, it could suddenly turn into violent rapids, infested with whirlpools and waterfalls. It curved sharply in many parts and would even backtrack on itself. Visibility was also limited by the dense jungle and the river itself was murky, with no way to see what was underneath.

Now, I want you to put yourself in the shoes of the men.

You’re surrounded by things that want to kill you. Black caimans, 15 feet long, patrolled the river with piranhas lurking beneath the surface. Even worse were the insects that constantly swarmed your entire body, leaving you with painful bites all over. Termites ate through your clothes and tents, exposing you to the elements. You would often be sick with malaria, which is a parasite that causes intermittent flu-like symptoms. The rain was almost constant with temperatures hovering around the mid 80’s (29 Celsius). Not to mention lack of rations and hunger.

You’re also being followed by an indigenous tribe, who were masters of the rainforest and could easily kill you at any time. They were elusive and stayed out of sight, but left just enough evidence so you know they exist. They would later become famous for being cannibals – but more on them later.

To summarize, you’re constantly hot, wet, tired, hungry, sick, surrounded by bugs and dangerous animals with the imminent threat of dying at the hands of an uncontacted, cannibalistic tribe. Nice!

Where the fun starts

The men would hear a roar up ahead, a sound they would learn to dread the most – rapids.

The river would narrow and the velocity of the water became many times stronger. Water violently crashed against the rocks, strong enough to shatter the expedition’s dugouts. Not to mention that many rapids contained waterfalls and whirlpools. Their only option was to carry the seven 2,500 pound boats and supplies on land.

The men would hack through the dense forest, dragging the dugouts with ropes. It would take two and a half days to travel only a mile in what was expected to be a 450-mile journey. Obviously, this pace wasn’t sustainable, so they were forced to risk going through the rapids themselves.

Their first attempt proved disastrous as one dugout was lost with a camarada almost drowning. To add to the misfortune, another dugout was swept away after they set up camp. Now there weren’t enough dugouts for everyone, so the men were stranded with no way to move forward or back.

The only option was to build a new dugout. This required finding a suitable tree and hollowing it out, a grueling process that took three days. Nonetheless, the 26-foot long dugout was completed. Roosevelt praised the camaradas for being reliable and hard-working, except for Julio de Lima, who he said was always slacking. 

Despite the earlier setback, it was agreed that the better option was to keep full-sending the rapids rather than risk running out of rations. 

But then tragedy struck…

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The day they all knew…

It was March 15th, almost a month after the men embarked when the banks alongside the zig-zagged river would start to get taller. The crew couldn’t see far ahead, but they saw a waterfall and heard the roar of rapids beyond that. Rondon knew the crew couldn’t risk crossing, so he ordered that the men cross over foot. 

Despite Rondon’s orders, Kermit decided to scout ahead with his dog and two camaradas, João and Simplicio. While the rest of the crew watched, Kermit and the two camaradas paddled towards the sound when suddenly, they were caught in a whirlpool. They frantically paddled to shore, only to be caught in another whirlpool which spit them back out into the middle of the river. There was no escape now from the waterfall ahead. Roosevelt watched from the hills above, horrified as he saw his son disappear over the horizon. 

The expedition made it to the bottom of the waterfall where they saw that the dugout had been shattered against some rocks. Much to their relief, they could see Kermit and João, but Simplicio was nowhere to be seen. The crew searched extensively, but it was apparent to all that Simplicio had drowned. Rondon was furious and blamed Kermit for disobeying his orders, but Kermit wouldn’t take responsibility. 

The men now knew that survival wasn’t a given. The dog was all gucci though.

The River of Doubt has clout

Not everyone would be able to fit on the remaining dugouts and there were no suitable trees to make into dugouts nearby. Some would have to travel through the unforgiving jungle. The crew had so far only traveled 90 miles with almost five times that left. Supplies were low and hunger was setting in. George Cherrie wrote, “it was very doubtful if all our party ever reaches Manaos (closest city to the rendezvous point).” 

The expedition would finally get a break as the men found a 70-foot wide tributary. This meant that the River of Doubt was a river of importance and would have a prominent place on the map. Cheers rang out and morale was boosted. I mean, imagine going through this to only find out it’s some shitty little river. Rondon would rename the River of Doubt to the Roosevelt River or Rio Roosevelt.

The expedition posing next to a Rio Roosevelt sign (taken after the expedition)

Stranger Danger

Despite the recent boost in morale, reality was still reality. The men were often sick and hungry, as rations dwindled more and more every day. You would think hunting and fishing would be their main source of food, but the wildlife of the Amazon have adapted for thousands of years to hide from humans. The men would often struggle to find any game at all.

Rondon would go on a solo hunt with his dog. Instead of finding animals ripe to shoot, he had perhaps run into the greatest threat to the expedition – other humans. As mentioned briefly before, the expedition knew that a tribe had been shadowing them. They were elusive like the wildlife and remained out of sight until now.

Rondon’s favorite dog Lobo was shot with two arrows. Rondon fired off a couple of warning shots, but he refused to shoot the tribesmen. Despite the sound of gunfire, the tribesmen pursued. Rondon was eventually able to shake them off and return back to camp. 

Rondon later found Lobo dead with the two arrows still protruding out of his body. It looked like Lobo had tried to make it back to the camp, but had died before he could reach it. 

The tribe Rondon came in contact with would later be known as the Cinta Larga, who were famous for being cannibals. The Cinta Larga were a primitive tribe, who had not even come up with the concept of boats to traverse the river they depended on. However, they were masters of the jungle and had an ingenious method of trailblazing that allowed them to move through the Amazon like ghosts. They could have easily wiped out the expedition before they could even reach for their rifles.

Cinta Larga: An uncontacted tribe who lived alongside the River of Doubt. Their first contact with the outside world was from the expedition. Cannibalism usually happened in ceremonial practices.

Trailblazing: To make a trail in a forest, mountain, wilderness, etc. where one previously did not exist.

Every man for himself

Finally, the expedition had found trees that could be carved into dugouts. The men would have to wait several days in Cinta Larga territory for the dugouts to be built, but a divided party was even more dangerous.

Misfortune would only continue. The banks alongside the river would turn into steep hills, infested with more rapids. The men couldn’t risk crossing themselves or waste time, so they would let the dugouts run through the rapids by themselves and pick them back up at the end.  

On one occasion when they reached the end of a rapid, they found two dugouts firmly stuck in some boulders. Theodore Roosevelt was the first to jump in and waded through the river to help dislodge it, but slipped and cut his shin on a rock.

It was a relatively minor injury, but in the Amazon, any cut can be fatal. The wound soon got infected and Roosevelt’s condition would only worsen. Cherrie would write, “from that time on, he was a very sick man.” 

To make matters even worse, the steep hills would only become steeper – turning into a rapids-infested canyon. Sometimes the banks alongside the river would straight up be a vertical cliff. They even spotted a series of six waterfalls, with the last one being more than 30 feet high. Rondon gave the order:

“We shall have to abandon our canoes and every man fight for himself through the forest.”

Gorge
While I couldn’t find any pictures of the actual canyon, you can imagine the terrain looked like this, except covered with dense jungle.

The men were in tatters. Everyone except for Rondon (who was just built different) suffered from constant sickness. Their frames were slimmer and their cheeks sunken. This prospect seemed impossible to the men – and a death sentence to Theodore Roosevelt.

On all of his journeys, he carried a deadly dose of morphine. He told Kermit that he wanted to take the dose. Kermit would bluntly reply that he would bring his father back literally “dead or alive” and that if he died, he would be an even bigger burden to the expedition. 

That was not very coolio Julio

You may have noticed that I mentioned Julio de Lima a couple times for seemingly no reason.

During this treacherous journey, Julio de Lima was often slacking and was caught stealing precious rations. Not much could be done other than to verbally reprimand him. There was too much else to worry about and all hands were needed on deck. 

It had been a little more than a week after Simplico’s death when George Cherrie saw Julio grab a gun and thought that he must’ve heard a monkey. Only a few minutes later, a shot rang out and three camaradas started running back to the camp screaming that Julio had killed one of their own. 

Roosevelt, haggard and sick, sprang up, grabbed a rifle, and rushed to capture Julio. Luckily they had found that Julio had dropped his rifle while running away. The man murdered was a senior camarada named Paishon who all the men respected. He gave Julio a lot of shit (rightfully so) and apparently Julio had had enough of it. They would leave Julio to the jungle. A fate the men knew worse than death.

Julio de Lima

After a week of fighting for survival, the men finally made it out of the canyon. But then they heard a shout in Portuguese from the river bank. Astonished, they saw Julio calling to them. It had been only three days, but it was obvious that his health had declined significantly. He begged for mercy and apologized for what he had done, but Rondon only replied “it is not possible for me to stop now, and to interrupt the survey (of the river).” Julio could only watch in horror as the crew slowly disappeared from sight.

“Surely that murderer was in a living hell…  with fever and famine leering at him from the shadows, he made his way through the empty desolation of the wilderness.”

Theodore Roosevelt in his Through the Brazilian Wilderness

Julio de Lima

Only five days later on April 11th, a camarada who was out fishing saw that a vine had been cut with a metal tool, most likely by a rubber-tapper. This was the first sign of the outside world since they had embarked. 

When the demand for rubber exploded, people flocked to the sole source of it, the Amazon. It was like a gold rush, with many people settling deep into the interior.

These pioneers, called seringueiros, were the bridge between the wild Amazon and the civilized world. While some had settled along the river, no one knew which river it actually was or where the source was. Therefore, to the seringueiros, any boats coming downstream must be hostile natives.

Seringueiros: People who had traveled deep into the Amazon during the rubber boom

That is exactly what Raymundo Jose Marques thought when he saw multiple dugouts approaching him. He frantically paddled away, but all misconceptions were eventually cleared up.

To Raymundo, the men looked like zombies. Their cheeks were shallow and their bodies were skinny. The clothes they had were in tatters and any exposed skin was covered in bites, burns, bruises, and cuts. Imagine Raymundo’s surprise when he learned that a member of this haggard group was the former president of the United States of f***ing America. 

Speaking of the former president, he was on death’s door and would die if he did not receive medical attention soon. Raymundo advised the men to go further downstream to a bigger settlement.

The seringueiros at the village told the men that it would take around two weeks to reach the rendezvous point where a group of Rondon’s men were waiting for them. 

Roosevelt may not last two weeks.

Luckily some of the villagers would offer their help in traversing the rapids up ahead. Many offered food and even traded their much nicer canoes for the expedition’s shitty dugouts. This kindness may have saved Roosevelt’s life.

On April 26th the expedition saw Rondon’s men who were at the rendezvous point. They were overfilled with joy. They yelled and jeered, shooting their rifles into the sky. The journey was over, but its consequences would linger.

Rio Roosevelt highlighted in yellow

Not all endings are happy

The public celebrated the return of the former president but saw that his health had declined significantly. He had lost a quarter of his body weight and his voice didn’t have the vigor it once had. Roosevelt would still suffer from his infection which he would refer to as his “old Brazilian trouble.” Roosevelt would never fully recover and died only five years later in 1919 at the age of 60.

Kermit would go back and marry Belle. The marriage wasn’t great as Kermit often suffered from depression and financial hardships. Kermit would commit suicide at the age of 53. Rondon lived to be the oldest, dying at 92 in 1958. Brazil would name the state of Rondônia after the great man. George Cherrie would die at the age of 80.

Rondonia
State of Rondonia highlighted in red

Two subsequent voyages would be made to explore the river. The first turned back barely after they started out of fear of the Cinta Larga. The second would never be seen again, presumably killed (and maybe eaten) by the Cinta Larga. Rondon’s gift-giving and pacifism more than likely saved the men from meeting the same fate.

Only through smart decision making, strength, and sheer willpower did the men survive the four and a half month, thousand-mile journey. A testament to the extraordinary capabilities that mankind possesses. 

Timeline - Terms - Sources - Memes - Sources

September 1901 – March 1909: Theodore Roosevelt serves as president.

November 1912: Theodore Roosevelt runs for this third term and loses to Woodrow Wilson.

October 4th, 1914: Theodore Roosevelt sets out for South America.

December 12th, 1914: Roosevelt and company travel through the Brazilian Highlands to the River of Doubt.

February 27th, 1914: The expedition arrive and start their journey down the River of Doubt.

March 15th, 1914: Simplicio drowns

March 16th, 1914: Rondon encounters the Cinta Larga for the first time.

March 26th: The men discover a 70-foot wide tributary.

March 26th: The terrain of the river turns into steep hills.

March 27th: Theodore Roosevelt cuts his leg. The wound would become infected and Roosevelt would often be at death’s door.

April 3rd, 1914: Julio kills Paishon.

April 5th, 1914: The men make it out of the canyon.

April 6th, 1914: Julio calls out for help to the expedition.

April 11th, 1914: A camarada spots evidence of rubber-tappers.

April 26th, 1914: The expedition reaches the rendezvous point.

January 6th, 1919: Theodore Roosevelt (60) dies.

June 4th, 1943: Kermit Roosevelt (53) commits suicide.

January 20th, 1948: George Cherrie (80) dies.

January 19th, 1958: Candido Rondon (92) dies.

January 22, 2006: Kobe Bryant drops 81 points on the Raptors.

Camarada: The Portuguese word for comrade, was often used to refer to the Brazilian members of the Expedition

Cinta Larga: An uncontacted tribe who lived alongside the River of Doubt. Their first contact with the outside world was from the expedition. Cannibalism usually happened in ceremonial practices.

Seringueiros: People who had traveled deep into the Amazon during the rubber boom.

Trailblazing: To make a trail in a forest, mountain, wilderness, etc. where one previously did not exist.

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