Roosevelt’s River of Doubt

Candido Rondon's and Theodore Roosevelt's River of Doubt
Theodore Roosevelt and Cândido Rondon, in 1914.

The adventure begins with two world-famous explorers and a passion for the unknown.

Roosevelt’s River of Doubt is a story about an American President, a Brazilian explorer, and an infamous – and unexplored – river in the far reaches of the Amazon rainforest.

Presented by the Consulate General of Brazil in Chicago

In celebration of Brazil’s Bicentennial year

This week’s Brazilian Minute: Theodore Roosevelt’s River of Doubt

Listen to this episode of The Brazilian Minute.

Script from Audio:

Time now for another Brazilian Minute, brought to you by the Consulate General of Brazil in Chicago.

Here’s the story about an American President, a Brazilian explorer, and the River of Doubt.

After losing his bid for a third Presidential term, Theodore Roosevelt set sail for Rio de Janeiro to join Brazilian adventurer Candido Rondon’s 1914 expedition of an unexplored river in the Amazon basin. The River of Doubt.

With provisions more suited for a New York tea-room – including imported caviar – a series of miscues befell the expedition’s 19 explorers.

Heat, cannibals, murder, and starvation took their toll. Roosevelt’s leg was severely injured and the infection led to his early death.

Today you can visit that river on Google Earth. But don’t look for The River of Doubt. You’ll never find it. Search instead for ‘Rio Roosevelt’!

With another Brazilian Minute, I’m Scott Adams.

map of Brazil, showing Roosevelt's River of Doubt, plus images from the HBO TV series, O Hóspede Americano (The American Guest).
Scenes from the four-part mini-series, O Hóspede Americano (The American Guest) starring Dana Delany as Edith Roosevelt. This docu-drama debuted on HBO Brasil on Sunday, September 27, 2021. You can watch it in English and Portuguese on Hulu and YouTube TV.

Why did Rondon and Roosevelt’s expedition fail?

But there’s more to this story of Amazonian intrigue. Let’s fill in the blanks, with a ‘day by day’ recounting.

Taking a personal pause from the rigors of his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt boarded a steamship south in the fall of 1913, to spend time with his 23-year old son Kermit, who was living in Brazil.

There, the President met Brazil’s famed explorer, Candido Rondon who invited him to join a fateful expedition in search of an unmapped river of legend, deep in the Amazon basin.

Warned of the dangers that might await, Roosevelt wrote: “If it is necessary for me to leave my bones in South America, I am quite ready to do so.”

Daily Log: Theodore Roosevelt’s River of Doubt

Day 1: After losing his bid for a third Presidential term, Theodore Roosevelt has accepted an invitation to speak in Rio de Janeiro next month. He hopes to meet up with his son Kermit after a cruise up the Amazon river. But I suspect this itinerary will soon become too pedestrian for his adventurous spirit.

Day 2: December 1913. Our Rio visit brought us an offer to join Brazilian Candido Rondon’s expedition to explore his newly-discovered river in the Amazon basin. Kermit will watch over his father’s welfare. We’ve arrived at Tapirapoan and are ready to begin the overland trek to the headwaters of the River of Doubt. Our group of 19 includes naturalist George Cherrie.

Day 3: Poor planning. That’s our first discovery. The provisions are more suited for a New York tea room. The heavy, dugout canoes will not navigate white water rapids. Our sense of exploration has become somber. How will these next few weeks unfold?

Day 4: February 27, 1914. Finally, the river! Rio de Duvida – River of Doubt – is an apt name for this powerful artery. Making less than a mile and a half in a day, we’ve jettisoned most of the provisions to lighten the floating weight of our canoes. There is no need for biscuits and marmalade in the jungle heat.

Serious consequences

Day 5. Our expedition has split up due to the lack of supplies. Half the party is trailing back to safety. The pace has slowed. Roosevelt has wounded his leg and Kermit worries over infection. And we’re building new canoes to replace those lost in the rapids.

Day 6: A battle against nature! We are besieged with insects, malaria, cannibals, and starvation diets. One of our group was murdered. Another was swept away yesterday in the river’s torrent. Dear Roosevelt is near death and we fear each day for his life.

Day 7: April 26, 1914. Fate has smiled. We’ve met up with a Brazilian and American relief party which has guided us down the rest of the river to Manaus. Roosevelt’s severely infected leg has been treated. But will he live even five more years, to reach his 60th birthday? Or will the Amazon claim his life, too? Perhaps Brazil will rename the river as Rio Roosevelt in his honor.

Read and listen to new episodes of The Brazilian Minute weekly, courtesy of the Consulate General of Brazil, in Chicago.

Dana Delaney stars as Edith Roosevelt in the HBO Brasil mini-series, O Hóspede Americano (The American Guest). You can watch it in English and Portuguese on Hulu and YouTube TV.

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