By Gregory Wynn
In his recently published memoir, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro recounts that an early career admonishment from an editor to “turn every page” while investigating a story was one of the best pieces of advice he had ever been given (Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, 2019, p. 11). This call to thoroughness and detail served as a guidepost for him while conducting research for his epic biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. The thrill of discovering an overlooked or misfiled source that allows a writer to connect the dots is one of the great personal and professional rewards of archival research. However, even sage advice as “turn every page” is only so sage if all the pages are there to turn. We can’t know what isn’t there.
So, when an opportunity comes along to add more pages to a historical archive it is a terrific contribution to scholarship. Harvard has made just such a contribution with the addition of ten handwritten letters from Theodore Roosevelt to his sister Anna Roosevelt Cowles—nicknamed Bamie—to the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Houghton Library. These letters have never been published, nor utilized by researchers and scholars. It’s worth noting that Theodore Roosevelt does not have a presidential library. Outside of his papers at the Library of Congress, Harvard—Roosevelt’s alma mater—holds the most significant collection of Theodore Roosevelt material in the world. This includes the Anna Roosevelt Cowles papers (TRC b MS Am 1834.1), which this addition makes as complete as perhaps they may ever be.
In the possession of the Theodore Roosevelt Association (TRA) and in a locked storage closet since at least 1954, these ten letters had been gifted to the TRA by the family of Roosevelt’s sister, the Cowles. There are stories within stories within the letters, which are perhaps one of the most significant archives of Roosevelt’s correspondence to surface since his death in 1919. I won’t spoil the desire to turn these pages by revealing any surprises. Suffice to say, few and far between are the opportunities to acquire previously unknown material of any president, especially ten detailed and intimate letters from a specific point in time.
All consisting of multiple pages, six of the ten letters are from 1885 when Roosevelt was 27 years old and immersed in his ranching life in the Dakota Territory (today North Dakota). Although it was a transformative year for him, during this period we lack much in the way of primary source material from Roosevelt himself. In fact, within Harvard’s holdings of the Anna Roosevelt Cowles papers there are no letters from Theodore to Anna in 1885. Moreover, interestingly, in a volume of letters titled Letters from Theodore Roosevelt to Anna Roosevelt Cowles 1870-1918 (1922; GEN Roosevelt R020.1.R67c3 1924), edited by his sister herself, there are no letters from 1885! The only primary sources from this year in his life have been Roosevelt’s own diaries and published writings on hunting and ranching, a few letters to Henry Cabot Lodge, and some accounts from his ranching companions.
Roosevelt biographer Carleton Putnam wrote that the events of 1885, now more fully recounted in these letters, “proved the decisive turning point in his lifelong battle for physical strength” (Theodore Roosevelt: The Formative Years, 1858-1886, Vol. 1, 1958, pp. 528-529). In a letter dated April 29, 1885, Roosevelt recounts a river crossing on horseback:
The river is now up so high as to be almost impassible; yesterday I was able to cross it in but one place, and there I had to swim my horse, through the boiling muddy current, splashing water in his face to guide him. I got pretty wet and afterwards had to strike my own line for twenty miles over broken country before I reached home and could dry myself. However, it all makes me feel very healthy and strong.
These letters are filled with Roosevelt’s often animated and humorous accounts of ranch life, round-ups, and descriptions of his surroundings during a transformative time in his life. Roosevelt himself admitted that he would never have become president if it had not been for his time in the Dakota Territory. With the acquisition of these letters, Houghton Library has now filled a critical gap in our knowledge of one of the most important parts of his life.
The remaining four letters are equally revealing and fast forward the reader to the next decade. These were written while Roosevelt was residing in Washington, D.C., in his first national-level office as the U.S. Civil Service Commissioner. These too are important additions to the historical record as they reveal his first exposure to national politics. He recounts his impressions of President Grover Cleveland, Congressional machinations, and the salon he and his wife, Edith, hosted in their home. It became famous amongst attendees from the realms of art, literature, and politics, and shaped the intellect of the future president.
At the risk of revealing one of the discoveries in the archive, one of the letters also covers the family’s years-long struggle with their brother Elliott’s (Eleanor Roosevelt’s father) spiral into alcoholism, infidelity, and mental illness, which ultimately resulted in his institutional commitment, a failed suicide attempt, and tragic death. In this letter, Theodore Roosevelt writes, “There was literally nothing to do unless we could persuade him to put himself completely in some surgeon’s hands.” It is not clear what Roosevelt was referring to with regard to a surgical procedure, but it is certainly worthy of more research.
It is worth noting that Theodore Roosevelt’s correspondent in these letters, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, was a force in her own right. While biographers have recognized her impact and role in the family, these letters provide fresh insight into her relationship with her brother. Referred to as “Bye” and “Bysie” and “Bamie,” she was born with a physical handicap—a deformity of the spine which, some biographers surmise, was a result of Pott’s disease (a form of tuberculosis). Yet, her energy was typically Rooseveltian. Her brother wrote, “Oh Energy, Thy name is Bamie” (Betty Boyd Caroli, The Roosevelt Women, 1998, p. 68). She often carried the weight of the family on her shoulders. Bamie would raise Theodore’s eldest child, Alice, for several years after his wife died during childbirth. Captivating, worldly, and gifted with a brilliant mind, Alice Roosevelt Longworth commented about Bamie that “I always believed that if she had been a man, she, rather than my father, would have been President” (Caroli, 68).
In so much as these letters provide fresh insight into the man who would become President of the United States, they also increase our awareness about a phenomenal woman who served as his muse and confidant, shaping him as much as did the American West.
Editor’s note: In addition to the letters discussed in this post that were purchased by the Library, the Theodore Roosevelt Association generously donated other important journals, notebooks, and correspondence earlier this year, as described on Houghton’s Modern Books and Manuscripts blog.
Gregory Wynn is a cyberspace defense strategist with Clear Ridge Defense in Maryland. He is a retired Marine Corps officer and a Trustee and Executive Committee member of the Theodore Roosevelt Association. The TRA is non-profit and non-partisan and was chartered by Congress in 1920.