The Forgotten Surveyor on the Mountain

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Over the years I have had the privilege of receiving numerous state surveying society publications. At least once a year a photograph of a member and/or his family is depicted standing like the Sphinx with the carvings of Mt. Rushmore as a backdrop. The accompanying caption often reads, "Four surveyors and another man." This disturbs me, because I have always believed that Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt has been given the short stick. He deserves to be labeled a surveyor along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. And here is why.

At one time I subscribed to the magazine American Heritage. In the June 1973 edition, along with articles of FDR, Guildford courthouse, and female education, was an article that piqued my curiosity: "TR’s Last Adventure." Author Joseph Gardner told the story of Roosevelt’s attempt to make a political comeback (having just been defeated in the election of 1912) by going to Brazil, at the request of the Brazilian government, to give a series of talks. After reading the article I put it aside and forgot all about it until a few years ago.

It happened when I was en route to the West Coast and tried to change planes in Salt Lake City. The airport has a great Crown Room. I had made friends with the people at the front desk and whenever someone would leave a book, they would save it for me. On this occasion as I entered, I heard "Mr. Robillard, we have just the book for you." The concierge held up a copy of River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. Putting all other reading aside, I started what was to become an obsession. Once I started it, I could not put it down. The author, Candice Millard, brings forth a humanized story of an old man who was determined to prove to himself the existence of Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida, or River of Doubt, a tributary of the Amazon that had never been explored or mapped.

Accompanied on this 1913 expedition by his son Kermit and Jesuit priest and explorer, Father John Zahm, along with four other Americans, they left the United States and arrived in Brazil where they met their crew. Their mode of travel: seven dugout canoes, described as "one was small, one was cranky, two were old, waterlogged and leaky," but "the other three were good."

Using pack mules (which were eventually eaten) and having sort of a misfit group, they took off into the unknown, each person doing a lion’s share of the work. Several of the dugouts were lost in rapids. One of the porters ran into the jungle never to be seen again, and a second porter killed a member of the party and also ran into the jungle.

Throughout this entire expedition Roosevelt kept a diary and produced a map of nearly 2,000 miles of the River of Doubt." Determining their position it was simply by "dead reckoning," or deduced reckoning.

Near the end of the journey Roosevelt contracted an infection in his leg that jeopardized his life. He demanded that the crew leave him behind and continue on without him. Out of food, with no medicine and all members sick from one illness or another, the group resorted to drinking the sap from a tree the natives showed them and forged on. In order to save the expedition, Roosevelt even determined to take his own life, but was discouraged by his son Kermit who stayed with him and nursed him. Having to rely on someone else was not in his nature. It was demeaning. But with the infection in his leg and a raging fever, he knew he could not continue through the unmapped jungle and the ragging rapids. Encouraged by Kermit and Father Zahm they believed they could "run the rapids." Roosevelt still continued his map. Kermit was having bouts of malaria, but he continued to nurse his father. In his autobiography, Roosevelt wrote, "Kermit was the only man who believed we could get the canoes down at all."

With food scarce, Roosevelt started sharing his food with the workers. Later one of the survivors wrote, "His little daily acts of thoughtfulness were much appreciated and the men soon loved him." Gloom hung in the shadows of the camp and there was talk of mutiny among the men. "Under such conditions," wrote Roosevelt, "whatever is evil in men’s nature comes to the front." It was there that one member of the crew, in despair, killed a second member. At this one instance Roosevelt abandoned his character and wanted "An eye for an eye."

Eventually, Kermit basically carried his ailing father, and the map, out of the jungle. They knew they had reached civilization when they found cut vines and rubber trees.

One eye-witness to their arrival wrote: "The men looked almost inhuman. After weeks of surviving on a little more than a few bites of fish and a single biscuit each night, they were gaunt and hollow-cheeked. The clothes on their backs–the only clothing they had left­were in tatters, and wherever their skin appeared, it was bruised, cut, sunburned, and peppered with insect bites. They were filthy and wild-eyed from disease and fear, and their American commander [Roosevelt] was barely clinging to life."

After arriving in New York, a gaunt image of his former self, a reporter wrote, "I guess the Colonel will never take a trip like that again."

Roosevelt presented his map. Then the skeptics entered the picture. The Royal Geographical Society stated that he "made up" the River of Doubt. Some said the map was possibly factious.

Rather than dying on the battlefield killed by enemy action, or in some remote jungle or desert in a faraway place yet to be named, Theodore Roosevelt–president, explorer, soldier, geographer and SURVEYOR–died peacefully in his sleep on January 6, 1919.

Ultimately, Roosevelt’s own "River of Doubt" would be renamed Rio Roosevelt by the Brazilian government.

In support of nominating "Teddy" for the honorable title of "surveyor", I would like to point out the international definition of survey: A verb. To examine and record the area and features of (an area of land) so as to construct a map, plan or description.

Mt. Rushmore–An Abbreviated History
Mt. Rushmore is one of the few early national monuments that was financed by Congress. Originally a sacred mountain to the Lakota Sioux, it was known as Six Grandfathers. The Lakota believed the great spiritual and war leader, Black Elk, began his final spiritual journey to the next world from its heights. After a series of battles in 1876 and 1877, in which the treaty boundaries of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie were questioned, after giving the lands to the Native Americans in perpetuity, the federal government claimed dominance and ownership. It became part of the public domain lands to be sold. The settlers to the area could not agree on a name and referred to it on several maps as Cougar Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Slaughterhouse Mountain, and Keystone Cliffs. It was ultimately named Mt. Rushmore after Charles E. Rushmore, a prominent New York lawyer and businessman who befriended local prospectors and miners while checking on mining claim titles in the region. The idea for the monument was conceived in 1924 and the site transferred to the Commission in 1925. The original plans were to carve Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill and Red Cloud. Then Congress appropriated it first funds in 1927 with the provision the four presidents would occupy the site. At that time they contracted with Gutzon Borglum, who had just been discharged from the Stone Mountain memorial in Georgia, to create the tr
ibute. Washington’s head was the first to appear out of the rock. Funding was terminated in 1941. In the planning phases, President Coolidge insisted that, along with Washington, two Republicans and one Democrat be carved. All this time the Lakota Sioux were still seeking retribution for the broken treaty. Then in 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt suggested that the head of Susan B. Anthony be added. Appropriations were killed and required only the four faces that were started be completed. The monument was planned to bring visitors to one of the most remote areas of America.

Today the international community has helped to preserve this tribute. With the reduction of maintenance funds the German firm Alfred Karcher GmbH pressure-washed and steam-cleaned the faces as a tribute to these men.

Since its inception this tribute is still causing controversy among the Native Americans. Failing to convince the courts as to the illegality of the 1868 treaty and its subsequent results, the Lakota Sioux have decided to erect their own memorial to Chief sitting Bull, hoping to compete with Mt. Rushmore.

Bottom line, it is a noble tribute was thoughtfully presented to the American public. By sheer coincidence, not by prearranged plans, Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln were surveyors some time in their careers. My research and conclusions, however, have led me to believe that Theodore Roosevelt—Rough Rider, conservationist, man of the West, and map maker­—deserves the tribute we have given to the three other men on the mountain. Next time you visit Mt. Rushmore, or see a photograph of a surveyor with the four famous faces in the background, know that all four of those men earned the right to be called "surveyor". And consider it an honor that you are included in their ranks.

"Teddy" had four sons. Each served in the military. Three of his sons were wounded in the service to their country. Later in life, two of his sons committed suicide, adding to the personal tragedy and misery Roosevelt suffered. After his mapmaking trip to Brazil, his map was vindicated as being true and correct when modern explorers, using aerial photography, "discovered" the River of Doubt, which the Brazilian government renamed Rio Roosevelt in his honor. For more information on the expedition, Google "River of Doubt". There is a proliferation of information online, including the only known movie of the trip.
Walt Robillard, principal of World Boundaries, is a specialist in local and international land boundary disputes. He has taught at major universities, co-authored college textbooks, and is a popular presenter at seminars and continuing education courses for attorneys, surveyors, engineers and foresters.

A 2.214Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE