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Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition

The expedition team, 1909. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives.
The expedition team in 1909. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Kermit photographing a Damaliscus, an African  antelope, 1909. Image  from Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Kermit photographing a Damaliscus, an African antelope in 1909. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

When Theodore Roosevelt retired from the presidency in 1909, he was only 50 years old. The youngest former president in American history, he was looking for adventure and for a project that would take him away from Washington, D.C., and politics. A naturalist at heart, he turned, not surprisingly, to his boyhood fascination for natural history. Three weeks after the inauguration of his successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt set out for British East Africa to hunt big game. The Smithsonian Institution co-sponsored the expedition. Many of the specimens were destined for the new U.S. National Museum building, then under construction on the Mall and today known as the National Museum of Natural History.

Roosevelt was accompanied on the trip by his son, Kermit (age 19), who served as official photographer, and three representatives from the Smithsonian: Major Edgar A. Mearns (1856-1916), a retired Army surgeon and field naturalist, J. Alden Loring (1871-1947) and Edmund Heller (1875-1939), both zoologists.

Dr. Edgar A. Mearns, an ornithologist and  retired physician who, was selected as head naturalist and bird-collector:  [nhb-21452.jpg. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives, 1900]
Dr. Edgar A. Mearns, 1900. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
John  Alden Loring, a specialist in small mammals was charged with their collection:  [nhb-21451.jpg]. Image  from Smithsonian Institution Archives, 1900
John Alden Loring, 1900. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Edmund Heller, a zoologist in charge of collecting large mammals for the National Museum, who also took a number of photographs [SIA2008-3486.JPG]. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives, c. 1900
Edmund Heller, 1900. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt [SIA 2009-1362.JPG]. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives, 1909
Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt atop an African buffalo, 1909. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

Mearns served as head naturalist and bird-collector; Heller was in charge of preparing large game animals in the field for museum purposes; and Loring was responsible for collecting and preparing small mammals. Already in Africa organizing the outfit were R.J. Cuninghame and Leslie Tarlton, both famous big-game hunters. Cherry Keaton, wildlife photographer and filmmaker, also joined the expedition to record the activities. The footage was later produced as the silent film “Roosevelt in Africa.”

"Roosevelt in Africa" clips:

Roosevelt on a cow-catcher with (l-r) Governor Jackson, Mr. Selous (an expert big game hunter) and Dr. Mearns [TR_Scribners_Mag_pg389001.JPG]. Image from Scribner’s Magazine Charles Scribner’s Sons Vol. XLVI Oct 1909: 389
Roosevelt on a cow-catcher with (l-r) Governor Jackson, Mr. Selous (an expert big game hunter) and Dr. Mearns. Image from Scribner’s Magazine Charles Scribner’s Sons Vol. XLVI Oct 1909: 389
Roosevelt’s caravan, always headed by the American  flag, shown here at Potha. Each porter carried between fifty to sixty pounds of  tents, bedding or other provisions. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives, photo  taken by Kermit Roosevelt, c. 1909
Roosevelt’s caravan, always headed by the American flag, shown here at Potha. Each porter carried between fifty to sixty pounds of tents, bedding, or other provisions. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives, photo taken by Kermit Roosevelt, c. 1909

On March 23, 1909, Roosevelt and the expedition team set sail from New York City aboard the steamer Hamburg. In Naples, Italy, they took a second steamer to Mombasa, and arrived on April 21. Two days later Roosevelt's outfit embarked on a 581-mile rail journey to Port Florence on Lake Victoria. Roosevelt later mused that naturalists would have found it “the most interesting railway journey in the world.” At the Kapati Plains station they joined up with the rest of the expedition party. Some 250 local guides and porters were employed over the course of the expedition. At various destinations they set up vast tent cities and carried the equipment and several tons of salt for skin preservation. Roosevelt's tent had a tub and a library of 60 volumes.

Kermit Roosevelt’s photograph of the Great Pyramid of  Giza. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives, c. 1909
Kermit Roosevelt’s photograph of the Great Pyramid of Giza, 1910. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
A map showing Roosevelt’s journey around Africa
A map showing Roosevelt’s journey around Africa, 1909-10. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

The expedition traveled throughout what is today southern and western Kenya, the Congo, Uganda, and southern Sudan by train, horse, camel, and a steamboat on the Nile—stopping for weeks at each destination to collect specimens. They hunted elephants on the slopes of Mount Kenya, and rare white rhinoceros in the Lado region of British Uganda. In late February 1910 they hunted eland, a species of antelope, in the Belgian Congo. They ended the expedition in Khartoum, Sudan, on March 14, 1910. Before returning to New York, Roosevelt and his son first traveled to Oslo, Norway, to collect the Nobel Peace Prize he had been awarded five years earlier.

The Smithsonian East Africa Expedition amassed a collection of 23,151 natural history specimens, totaling 160 species of carnivores, ungulates, rodents, insectivores, and bats. The mammals alone numbered 5,013 specimens, including nine lions, thirteen rhinoceros, twenty zebras, eight warthogs, and four hyenas. In addition to collecting specimens of African flora and fauna the expedition also collected ethnographic objects for the Museum. Each specimen was carefully documented by the Smithsonian naturalists to ensure its research value. It took eight years to catalogue all of the material. Ned Hollister, a zoologist and the superintendent of the National Zoo, completed the catalogue, East African Mammals in the United States National Museum, in three volumes (1918 to 1924).

Roosevelt and the expedition members also obtained live animals for the National Zoological Park—including a leopard, lions, cheetahs, and gazelles, as well as birds like an eagle, a vulture, and a buteo.

“Meeting of Sovereigns in the Center of Africa”. From Pasquino (Turin)
“Meeting of Sovereigns in the Center of Africa,” from Pasquino (Turin)

There was extensive coverage of the expedition in the press, and many political cartoons. Scribner's Magazine paid Roosevelt $50,000 to write about the journey, funds that helped finance Roosevelt's portion of the expedition costs. For a year the magazine published a monthly account of his adventures. These articles were gathered together and published as a book, African Game Trails, in 1910.

Many of the Roosevelt animals mounted for exhibition, such as the lions, the giraffes, rhinos, and zebras, remained on view for the rest of the twentieth century. In the late 1950s they were reconditioned for new diorama exhibits, as part of the exhibit modernization program taking place across the Smithsonian. In 2003 the National Museum of Natural History opened the new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, which features many new mounts and displays. Today the square-lipped rhinoceros is the only Roosevelt specimen from the expedition that remains on exhibit in the Museum.

“The End of the Expedition”. From  Hojas  Selectas (Barcelona)
“The End of the Expedition,” from Hojas Selectas (Barcelona)
“Bwana Tumbo for Mayor”. From the Press (New York)
“Bwana Tumbo for Mayor,” from the Press (New York)
Cover of Scribner’s Magazine featuring Teddy Roosevelt’s trip to Africa. Image from Scribner’s Magazine, Charles Scribner’s Sons Vol. XLVI Oct 1909
Cover of Scribner’s Magazine featuring Teddy Roosevelt’s trip to Africa. Image from Scribner’s Magazine, Charles Scribner’s Sons Vol. XLVI Oct 1909


Kermit Roosevelt’s photograph of the Great Pyramid of  Giza. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
A cartoon of Roosevelt in Egypt in 1910, by the English artist Leonard Raven-hill. "Steady, Kermit! We must have one of these." Image from Smithsonian Institution Libraries

When Roosevelt returned to the United States after his more-than-a-year-long adventure, Robert J. Collier, the publisher of Collier's Weekly, hosted a dinner in his honor in New York City. The artist Maxfield Parrish, one of the guests that evening, illustrated the title page of "Welcome home, a dinner to Theodore Roosevelt" commemorative booklet. Inside were photographs and stories from the expedition, poems, and cartoons. Included in the booklet are the menu (which featured Atlantic salmon, saddle of lamb, guinea-fowl, and stuffed Virginia ham) and the seating chart. Among the 80 guests assembled were John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, the conductor Walter Damrosch, Roosevelt's Secretary of State Robert Bacon, William Temple Hornaday, head of the New York Zoological Society and former head of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, and Edward Bok, the editor of the Ladies Home Journal.

View the entire pamphlet: "Welcome home, a dinner to Theodore Roosevelt, June 22nd, 1910, at Sherry's New York"


Listen to curator Kris Helgen talk about the skull of a man-eating leopard captured by Edmund Heller on the SI-Roosevelt Expedition.

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LINKS

Go on your own African expedition conducted by curator Kris Helgen with Smithsonian Journeys.

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