Nepal! Kashmir! Siberia! Kenai! Travel in the early days of the 20th century was fraught with drama, romance and the unknown. No other American family traveled with such gusto to the most magical of places quite like the Roosevelts. Pursuers of big-game hunting, scouts for museum science collections and recordings of natural history carried both male and female members of the family around the world seeking exotic experience.
Following the death of Theodore Roosevelt in 1919, his wife, Edith, escaped her grief and memories wafting around their Sagamore Hill house on Long Island, NY by traveling abroad to the most exotic of destinations. A collection of her travel experiences along with the equally thrilling escapades of other family members dating between 1920 and 1926 were collected in the now rare book..
Today we are going to take an intimate look into the journal-style writings of four members of the Roosevelt family who dared to travel to the farthest of far-off places. So grab your pith helmets and your binoculars dear readers, as we head back 90 years to see first-hand what it was like to ride an elephant in India, chase a tiger in Bhadravati and travel across frozen ground in Siberia.
“There was so much to see and think about – so many impressions to seize and try to hold forever, as the minutes raced by, all crammed with new sights. I prayed that passing years would not blur the brightness of memory, and that this wayside magic would remain with me a treasure-store, vivid and keen, for the years ‘when we are old and gray and full of sleep.’ “ – Belle Willard Roosevelt, 1926
Heiress Belle Wyatt Willard married Theodore and Edith’s son, Kermit. In 1926, she traveled to Kashmir with Kermit, her sister-in-law Ethel and Ethel’s husband Richard Derby. She wrote Ms. Jeannie’s most favorite entry in the book entitled: The Land Where The Elephants Are…
” The long-line of elephants in solemn procession were a source of never-failing joy. There was always their preposterous conformation to ponder over; the enormous flapping ears and the ridiculous minute inquiring eyes; the strange toothless leer of the tusk-less ones; the great loose knees which turned outward with a baggy shuffle and the delightful incredible toe-nails. The whole massive gray bulk finished off by a spindle-tail with a thorny end gave such an inconsequential air to an otherwise dignified creature. The huge lumbered beasts stepped ever so carefully, a long trunk poked and felt about investigating every propitious spot before each foot was placed gently, softly with exact precision.” – B. W. Roosevelt, 1926
“Silently, alert and rigid, in anticipation we started off in single file, elephant behind elephant, in long line. The giant jungle grasses in many places waved some eight to ten feet above our heads as we stood upright in the howdahs. Below was a dense mass of lineas and thicket through which the elephants mowed their way, uprooting and tearing aside with their trunks any serious obstruction.” B.W. Roosevelt, 1926
Tragically Belle’s husband Kermit committed suicide in 1943, seventeen years after they traveled by the elephant train pictured above. An explorer from the very beginning, Kermit was a passionate hunter determined to understand the natural movements and motivations of animals, the environments they existed in and the impact they had upon culture. Nowadays with conservation hot and heavy on everyone’s mind it seems almost impossible to understand how anyone could shoot a tiger or a bear, chase down a wild pig or hunt game birds but thanks to the explorations of men (and women!) like the Roosevelts our knowledge of the natural world grew far beyond our own backyards.
“We were eager to get for the Field Museum as a representative a collection of Indian fauna as the limited time of our disposal would permit….These early morning stalks, although they netted us but little for the collection, were always a delight. You never knew what you might come across, as you slipped through the underbrush to pause at the edge of some forest-glade. The dewfall was heavy and in a half-hour you were drenched to the waist. We wore shorts so that there were no soggy trousers to cling to your knees and impede your going.” – Kermit Roosevelt, Balharshah, India 1925
The Roosevelts collected specimens for the Field Museum in Chicago which were incorporated into many exhibits within the museum including dioramas, many of which can still be seen on display today.
Its important to note that all the animals hunted during these trips were killed for scientific collections and studies. Nothing was wasted or killed in vain and if hides were all that were needed to take home than meat of the animals was given to local villagers as food source.
“To a student of “The Jungle Books,” the native nomenclature of the animals offered no difficulties, and we all felt at home chatting about Baloo the bear and bandars that swung through the trees ahead of the beaters; even Ming the bat was among those present.” – K. Roosevelt, India 1925
The Roosevelts were as well-read as they were well-traveled. Book references are mentioned over a dozen times within Cleared For Strange Ports showcasing how a good book can be just as thrilling an adventure as travel itself. Books even served as travel companions. Among the belongings of one Roosevelt safari was a 60 volume set of leather skinned classics that the Roosevelts were hoping would acquire a little bit of weathered patina upon their journey!
Safari camp set-up was explained by Belle…
“Our quarters were luxurious, a large double tent: two bathrooms for each couple; a dining tent, and a living-tent opening onto the great log fire, around which we sat after dinner under the stars.” – B. Roosevelt, India 1926
Surgeon Richard Derby married Ethel Carow Roosevelt (Kermit’s sister). When Richard traveled he not only took time to write down his thoughts on his surroundings but he also spent equal time photographing the landscape. One of the cameras he used during his travels was an Akeley motion picture camera, developed by Carl Akeley who traveled with Richard’s father-in-law Theodore Roosevelt in Africa. Richard contributed a gorgeous piece of writing in Cleared For Strange Ports about seeing Alaska in 1925…
“…and I saw the real Alaska – a country which lays its iron hand upon strong willed men and holds them in everlasting fealty, a country whose beauty and natural resources are so stupendous that man obeys its beckon and becomes its slave. Not a slavery of the soul, however, for Alaska only attracts the high-spirited romantic, developing his individuality and self reliance, and cultivating those traits which are only born of an eternal matching of wits with nature.” – Richard Derby, 1925 written on an Alaskan liner bound for Seward
Of course transportation wasn’t without its trials in these remote places. Kermit writes of his experience aboard the Trans-Siberian in 1925…
“The wash room was frozen solid, but our porter was well used to such conditions, and came in brandishing a four-foot iron poker, with its end-heated red hot. This he rammed down the pipes and circulation was temporarily restored.” – K. Roosevelt, 1923, aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway
The weather in Siberia in the winter often times reaches in the -minus 60’s to 80′ s. Indeed it was a cold January when Kermit was there…
“It is true that the Russian bundles himself up well in furs, but even so it made us shiver to see the men and women sitting chattering on the benches along the streets, apparently as comfortably and unconcernedly as if they were enjoying a bock in front of Cafe de la Pain in July.” – K. Roosevelt, Harbin, 1924
In warmer climates like India it was the locals as much as the wildlife that made quite an impression…
“The women from near-by villages came swinging along with their brass water-bowls on their heads; when they had filled these and departed, the monkeys trooped down to drink, chasing away the lean pariah dogs who retired snarling. In the trees the gaudy peacocks screamed.” – K. Roosevelt, 1925
“And we stepped into a new life which I supposed was not to be found outside of books or cinema…” – Edith, Posados, Buenos Aires, 1927
In her passage about elephants Belle described riding through jungle as mythical, extraordinary and startling. There was no telling all at once what was scurrying, slithering or silently sitting in all that lush vegetation. The jungle unfolded around her scent by scent, step by step and sight by sight.
This is exactly what Ms. Jeannie experienced reading Cleared For Strange Ports. Endlessly fascinating her Roosevelt writers explained it all – the exotic travel experience unfolded page by page in poetic prose and incredible imagery.
The Roosevelts being fellow book lovers themselves would approve of this volume in particular. It contains the best of weathered patina – loose pages, foxing, an errant ink stain, that wonderful old book smell and various smudge stained paper. It’s lived a thrilling life – just like the Roosevelts!
If you are interested in reading Cleared For Strange Ports, please visit Ms. Jeannie’s shop here. And if any readers have visited the Field Museum in Chicago, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the Roosevelt collections!