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Rocky Mountain President

More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt took a hunting trip to Colorado. What most people don’t know: There was much more at stake during those weeks than simply riding horses and tracking bears.

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April 1905, colorado: Theodore Roosevelt had just been elected president of the United States; there was increasing turmoil in Europe; and the man known colloquially as Teddy had just recovered from malaria. And so, of course, the larger-than-life president decided to go bear hunting. It was irresponsible to go to Colorado, much less to hunt, some argued, but Roosevelt was stubborn and insistent. He left the White House, arrived in Glenwood Springs, and then he and his hunting party set up “Camp Roosevelt” in the steep, high mountains outside New Castle.

Roosevelt had been here before, and he called the Centennial State a “great, wild country,” of which he was clearly fond: “In the creek bottoms there were a good many ranches; but we only occasionally passed by these, on our way to our hunting grounds in the wilderness along the edge of the snow-line. The mountains crowded close together in chain, peak, and tableland; all the higher ones were wrapped in an unrent shroud of snow.”

Every morning, Roosevelt and his hunting companions would ride out after breakfast. He seemed to love the cold and the snow and the solitude, even if the experience did not always seem comfortable: “Each day we were from six to twelve hours in the saddle, climbing with weary toil up the mountains and slipping and scrambling down them. On the tops and on the north slopes there was much snow, so that we had to pick our trails carefully, and even thus the horses often floundered belly-deep.” For several days they hunted bears “perseveringly, but unsuccessfully.” Other Colorado wildlife caught his attention, however: the four-striped chipmunks, white-footed mice, pack rats, woodchucks, pine squirrels, Clark’s Nutcrackers, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets that sung “with astonishing power for such tiny birds.”

During the three-week foray, Roosevelt writes of switching camps, being amused by the dogs, riding over difficult terrain, and running into curious locals. Apparently, he’d been skipping lunch for months and had lost weight; he was proud of his physical stamina. The hunting finally improved, and Roosevelt’s first Colorado bear kill, as he describes it, was “a big male, weighing three hundred and thirty pounds.” Indeed, another riding companion noted that the kill “naturally put a new life and ginger into the members of the party” and put the president “in the best of spirits.”

But not all was well. One evening, Roosevelt went to bed ill; his companions woke later to find him pacing barefoot in the snow, clearly disoriented with Cuban fever, which was responsible for thousands of deaths across America at the time. Two members of his party led him inside, gave him lemon juice and quinine, and put him back into bed. They sat with him through a high fever and subsequent delusions. To make matters worse, a telegram arrived from secretary of war William Howard Taft (whom Roosevelt had more or less left in charge in Washington, D.C.) about the Russo-Japanese War. Tensions were escalating. Roosevelt telegraphed Taft back to say he was cutting the trip short, no doubt a result of his health and the increasing pressure for him to step in as a mediator in the conflict.

And then, Colorado being Colorado, a blizzard hit. In his writing, Roosevelt describes this roadblock calmly, noting that there “came a spell of bad weather, snowstorm and blizzard steadily succeeding one another.” According to other accounts, however, the storm was so serious the party couldn’t leave camp. By May 6, the group was finally able to descend to Glenwood Springs, and Roosevelt recounted the trip in typical poetic fashion: “The green of the valley was a delight to the eye; bird songs sounded on every side, from the fields and from the trees and bushes beside the brooks and…the air was sweet with the spring-time breath of many budding things.”

Despite the view of some that this trip might not have been the right thing for the time, America was falling in love with its president, and this adventure only helped to seal his reputation. His outdoorsman status increased his presence in the public’s imagination, and he continued to build on the image of himself as a once-sickly child cured by his own extreme physical program.

Today, we might call the trip a publicity stunt—not only for the American electorate, but also for the international community. One historian, in fact, argues that Roosevelt was positioning himself as “above it all,” thus oddly increasing his desirability as a peacemaker and negotiator for an ongoing Russo-Japanese war. Indeed, most of the telegrams coming in and out of “Camp Roosevelt,” often in code, were from Taft relaying various requests that Roosevelt step in as peacemaker, as when Taft wrote “…Japanese Foreign Office says they are anxious to effect peace through you.” What was happening, then, was not simply a trip to Colorado: Roosevelt was carefully considering how to play his political power.

The rest of the story, as they say, is history: In a decisive naval battle, Japan got the upper hand, which apparently brought Russia to the peace table; the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed on September 5, 1905, which ended Russia’s expansionist policy in eastern Asia and gave Japan effective control of Korea and much of Manchuria. The next year, Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize—the first American to earn the honor—for his diplomacy in the matter.

As a native Coloradan, I like to reflect on what Colorado gave Roosevelt on this trip: the gift of solitude to prepare for one of his greatest foreign-policy achievements, a snowstorm and a disease to focus him, and the ever-majestic landscape. And he gave us something, too, besides a peace treaty. He also gave us the gift of his observation and language—he was, after all, quite a naturalist. Of his final day in Colorado, he writes: “On the last day we rode down to where Glenwood Springs lies, hemmed in by lofty mountain chains, which are riven in sunder by sheer-sided, cliff-walled canyons. As we left ever farther behind us the wintry desolation of our high hunting grounds we rode into full spring.”

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