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).

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 Manaus. Three weeks later, a greatly weakened Roosevelt made it home to a hero's welcome in New York harbor. His health never fully recovered after the trip. He would live less than five more years.[1]


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 a third (modern) expedition was organized and led by Charles Haskell and Elizabeth McKnight, and sponsored in part by the Theodore Roosevelt Association, the American Museum of Natural History, the National Wildlife Federation and a private trust set up by Haskell and McKnight.[4] This expedition consisted of a total of twenty persons including Roosevelt's great grandson Tweed Roosevelt, professional river guides Joe Willie Jones, Kelley Kalafatich, Jim Slade, and Mike Boyle, photographers Carr Clifton and Mark Greenburg, cinematographer Joe Kaminsky, Haskell's son Charles 'Chip' Haskell Jr. who served as the expedition's communications expert, Brazilian scientists Geraldo Mendes dos Santos and João Ferraz (ichthyologist and pharmacologist), and chiefs Oita Mina and Tatataré of the Cinta Larga tribe whose land borders much of the river. The expedition took 33 days to complete the nearly 1000 mile journey. Whereas the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition had to portage almost all of the many rapids on the river with their heavy dugout canoes, the Haskel-McKnight Expedition was able to safely navigate all of the rapids except for one which was portaged. Haskell reported that his expedition "found spots chronicled by the original team, saw plants and insects they described, and went down the rapids that crushed the dugout canoes of 1914". The expedition members were awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Association's Distinguished Service Medal for their achievement.[5] A documentary of the expedition was subsequently produced and aired on PBS called the "New Explorers:The River of Doubt" narrated by Bill Kurtis and Wilford Brimley.[6] Since this time, the expedition has inspired others to undergo its challenges such as Materials Scientist Professor Marc A. Meyers, Col Huram Reis, Col Ivan Angonese, and Jeffery Lehmann.[7]



External links[edit]