Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition

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Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition
The initial party. From left to right (seated): Father Zahm, Rondon, Kermit, Cherrie, Miller, four Brazilians, Roosevelt, Fiala. Only Roosevelt, Kermit, Cherrie, Rondon and the Brazilians would descend the River of Doubt.
Date 1913–1914
Location Roosevelt River, Brazil
Participants Theodore Roosevelt
Cândido Rondon
Outcome Successful exploration of the Roosevelt River.
Deaths 3

The Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition (Portuguese: Expedição Científica Rondon-Roosevelt) was jointly led by Theodore Roosevelt and Cândido Rondon in 1913–1914 to be the first explorers of the 1000-mile long "River of Doubt" (later renamed Rio Roosevelt) located in a remote area of the Brazilian Amazon basin. Sponsored in part by the American Museum of Natural History, they also collected many new animal and insect specimens.

Adventure and challenge[edit]

Roosevelt had originally planned to go on a speaking trip of Argentina and Brazil, followed by a cruise of the Amazon River. Instead, the Brazilian Government suggested that Roosevelt accompany famous Brazilian explorer Cândido Rondon on his exploration of the previously unknown River of Doubt, the headwaters of which had only recently been discovered. Roosevelt, seeking adventure and challenge after his recent defeat for a third term in the White House, agreed. Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore's son, had recently become engaged and did not plan on joining the expedition but did on the insistence of his mother, in order to protect his father. The expedition started in Cáceres, a small town on the Paraguay River, with 15 Brazilian porters (camaradas), the two leaders, Roosevelt's son, and American naturalist George Cherrie. They traveled to Tapirapuã, where Rondon had previously discovered the Headwaters of the River of Doubt. From Tapirapuã, the expedition traveled northwest, through dense forests and then later through the plains on top of the Parecis plateau. They reached the River of Doubt on February 27, 1914. At this point, due to a lack of food supplies, the Expedition split up, with part of the Expedition following the Ji-Paraná River to the Madeira River. The remaining party then started down the River of Doubt.


Almost from the start, the expedition was fraught with problems. Insects and disease such as malaria weighed heavily on just about every member of the expedition, leaving them in a constant state of sickness, festering wounds and high fevers. The heavy dug-out canoes were unsuitable to the constant rapids and were often lost, requiring days to build new ones. The food provisions were ill-conceived forcing the team on starvation diets. Natives (the Cinta Larga) shadowed the expedition and were a constant source of concern—the Indians could have at any time wiped out the expedition and taken their valuable metal tools but they chose to let them pass (future expeditions in the 1920s were not so lucky).

The most tragic single event was when one of the crew members murdered another. The murder was of particular horror to the group as it happened in the middle of one of the most difficult days of the journey. The victim was the leader of the camaradas (the hired help for the trip), a burly man named Paishon, that had through determination won the affections of Rondon on previous missions into the Amazon. The man who murdered him was, by all accounts, the laziest one on the crew, and he had been caught stealing precious rations on multiple occasions. Though at this time in the full throes of illness, upon hearing of the murder, Roosevelt rose from his cot to chase down the offender and execute a swift punishment with the aid of a carbine rifle. The murderer escaped the pursuing party immediately following the murder only to attempt to return three days later. He called to Rondon from the bank of the river but no one acknowledged his pleas for help.

Of the 19 men who went on the expedition, only 16 returned. One died by accidental drowning in rapids with his body never being recovered, one died by murder and was buried at the scene, and the murderer was left behind in the jungle, presumably swiftly perishing there.

By the time the expedition had made it only about one-quarter of the way down the river, they were physically exhausted and sick from starvation, disease and the constant labour of hauling canoes around rapids. Roosevelt himself was near death as a wounded leg had become infected and the party feared for his life each day. Luckily they came upon "rubber men" or "seringueiros", impoverished rubber-tappers who earned a marginal living from the forest trees driven by the new demand for rubber tires in the United States. The seringueiros helped the team down the rest of the river (less rapid-prone than the upper reaches). The expedition was reunited on April 26, 1914, with a Brazilian and American relief party that had been pre-arranged by Rondon to meet them at the confluence with the Aripuana river, where they had hoped to emerge from the tributary. Medical attention was given to Roosevelt as the group returned to Manaos. Three weeks later, a greatly weakened Roosevelt made it home to a hero's welcome in New York harbor. He would live less than five more years. Due to the trip, his health never fully recovered.[1]

The rubber men were terrified of the Cinta Larga (Long Belt) Indians that lived up the river. Since this expedition was the first to ever descend the River of Doubt, the "rubber men" at first thought they were Indians. They were so frightened of the invading Indians that a small group armed themselves and prepared to attack the expedition. Once they realized that they were not Indians at all, they provided vital food and comfort that most likely saved numerous lives, most certainly that of the former President himself.


After Roosevelt returned, there was some doubt that he had actually discovered the river and made the expedition. Even though he was still quite weak and barely able to speak above a whisper, Roosevelt, angry that his credibility had been challenged, arranged speaking engagements with the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. on May 26, and the Royal Geographical Society in London in mid-June. These appearances largely stifled the criticisms at the time.[2] To finally settle the dispute, in 1927 American explorer George Miller Dyott led a second trip down the river, confirming Roosevelt's discoveries.[3]

In 1992 Tweed Roosevelt, with the help of 20 men and women, retraced his great grandfather's journey down the River of Doubt.


  1. ^ Millard (2005).
  2. ^ Millard (2005)
  3. ^ "River of Doubt", Time Magazine, June 6, 1927.


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