Roosevelt wrote about the worth and glory of sport, and its responsibilities. He embraced the gospel of Progressivism, that religion of civic improvement that would fuel the legacies of all Roosevelts to come. He drew particular attention to how quickly the quality of the American angling experience was deteriorating. Some of Roosevelt’s earliest concerns, for example, involved the “streams in the neighborhood of New York that formerly were alive with trout are now totally deserted. The Bronx, famous [for]…its once excellent fishing, does not now seem to hold a solitary trout…”
By the late 1860s, Roosevelt had become the first commissioner of the New York State Fish Commission. He served as president of the American Fisheries Society for more than a decade. Along with fisheries pioneer Seth Green, he established a hatchery system to replace depleted streams. Before that point, fish and game were nothing more than objects to be eaten or sold. By approaching ideas of fisheries scientifically, he charted a path for their preservation and angling’s future.
Life in the Public Eye
Roosevelt was a larger-than-life character, with a Bohemian lifestyle at home and in public. He and his wife Lizzie had a German shepherd that dressed for dinner, a monkey that leapt about the furniture, and a cow that grazed in the backyard. They lived next door to his younger brother, Theodore, Sr. (and father to the future president). But aside from their sense of noblesse oblige, the two brothers could not have been more different. Theodore was a beloved family man; Rob was everywhere but home and the most desired after-dinner speaker in New York. Future President Theodore Jr., in the end, was a bit of both.
The public face of the relationship between the brothers had been fading for some time. Robert’s licentious behavior appears to have been the cause. At the least, it was no secret within the family. Grandnephew Nicholas Roosevelt remembered him as “vigorous, lusty and vital, an Elizabethan survivor in the Victorian Age.” In fact, just blocks from his brownstone, Robert kept a second family with three ”stepchildren,” as they were called, with Minnie O’Shea Fortesque, whom he married in 1888, a year after Lizzie’s death.
Robert Roosevelt’s estrangement from the family continued with Teddy’s political ascension, but a private connection between uncle and nephew remained: Robert advised Theodore as he began his political endeavors, even though Theodore did so as a Republican and Robert remained a Democrat. Robert’s “stepson,” Granland, served as a Rough Rider and later as Theodore’s military attaché to Japan. In private, Robert and Theodore met (Theodore even bringing his son along) to watch wildlife. But a public distance remained until Robert’s death in 1906.
Founding of the Roosevelt Ethic
For much of the twentieth century Robert Roosevelt didn’t fit comfortably into our national narratives of the Roosevelt family, or American fly fishing. That has begun to change with the recent writings from historians like David McCullough, Douglas Brinkley and Paul Schullery.
Like all the other Roosevelts to follow, this one was well ahead of his time. His fishing advice was on the money, if barbed. He rued the northwest winds, for example, and claimed that the large bright flies of his rival Thaddeus Norris worked well for uneducated trout (where Norris fished), but not for the sophisticated fish of Long Island—in a way predicting the future fly-fishing debates between the impressionists and imitationists.
More important was his part in fighting the destruction of fish and their environs—and making that cause central to the growing fly-fishing community. Roosevelt set the course for how anglers should feel about their quarry, by giving that relationship early words—one thing he surely had: “It is a burning shame, a foul blot on the character of Americans… that their only idea of the treatment of the wild game of the woods and waters seems to be total annihilation.”
He argued that sportsmen should see fish as their “fellow creatures,” a radical and critical first step. “With what a feeling of affection we look upon a beautiful fish as he lies upon the moss, the sunlight sparkling from his colors fading in death! With how deep a sadness we see his strength ebbing away, his breath growing shorter, his struggles fainter! And when he has grown stiff in death, how proudly sad we feel over a noble career cut short too soon!”
Today, the words seem maudlin, but the tribute struck the right note in the sentimental wake of the Civil War, and in a time when extinctions of wild creatures were considered inevitable.
Roosevelt’s greatest contribution might have been to reframe the scarcity of game fish as challenge, and focus on mastery of the angling process as the mark of a sportsman. He elevated fly fishing (and sport of all kinds) and argued that the angler “must look beyond the mere result to the mode of effecting it… Any unfair trick or mean advantage he must never take… no matter how provokingly the wary trout, lying motionless in the clear water, may disdain his choicest flies…he can use the natural bait, only in extreme cases and at great risk to his reputation… Therefore to his many other qualities, the true sportsman must add a thorough knowledge of fly-fishing…”
Fortunately, many have, and continue to do just that. And, these days at least some of the credit for the tradition appears to be going to the prescience of Robert Roosevelt. No doubt, he would enjoy the recognition, perhaps even be persuaded to say a few words.
Will Ryan teaches expository writing at Hampshire College. He is also a columnist with our sister publication, Gray’s Sporting Journal. His most recent book is Gray’s Sporting Journal’s Noble Birds and Wily Trout.