Review: The River of Doubt


The River of DoubtCandice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

Summary: Narrates Roosevelt’s exploratory expedition to South America, the decision to navigate “The River of Doubt”, and the harrowing journey that nearly cost Roosevelt his life.

What does one do with oneself after you’ve been President of the United States? What, especially does one do when still relatively young? This was the dilemma of Theodore Roosevelt, known to most of us for his adventures with the Rough Riders, his ascent to the presidency following McKinley’s assassination, and for his own reform-minded presidency and a foreign policy shaped by the dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Some even are aware of his failed run for the presidency as a third-party candidate in 2012. Fewer of us are aware of his journey down a never-before explored river in Brazil that nearly cost him his life, and irreversibly damaged his health.

It is this journey that Candice Millard brilliantly narrates in this work. I first discovered Millard in her later exploration of the assassination of James Garfield (Destiny of the Republic, reviewed here), in which she helps us understand what we lost in Garfield, the crazed personality of his assassin, and the botched medical care that resulted in his death. So I was delighted to return to this author’s earlier work, which did not disappoint.

I had previously read about this journey in Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt (reviewed here). Where it seemed that Morris focused mostly on Roosevelt’s battle with the infection that nearly killed him, and the urgent race to get him back to civilization, Millard gives us much more of the whole story behind the exploration, and much more about the journey both before and after Roosevelt sustained the injury that threatened his life. She sets the context of the invitation to go on an exploratory journey over a relatively safe portion of the Amazon with Catholic Father Zahm, and the decision, influenced by explorer Rondon, to explore a previously unexplored and unmapped river, known as the River of Doubt. We meet other key figures in the expedition from the failed Arctic explorer Fiala, who was responsible for poorly provisioning the expedition, Cherrie, the skilled naturalist who played an indispensable role in the expedition, the cameradas, some remarkably able and on whom the expedition’s success largely rested, and some dissolute, like Julio, who kills another expedition member, and ultimately is left to his fate in the rain forest. Finally, Millard sketches the intense personality of son Kermit, dedicated to his father’s survival, newly engaged, and trying to carve out his own identity in the shadow of his father.

She also narrates a journey that seems to go wrong from the start as overburdened animals shed needed supplies and die on the land journey to the river’s headwaters. And then there is the harrowing journey itself, running through the territory of a fierce tribe of Indians, involving repeated overland diversions because of rapids that might have been negotiated in the lightweight boats, but impossible to traverse in the heavy, unwieldy dugouts. It was during the effort to retrieve one of these that broke loose in a rapid that Roosevelt re-injured a leg injury that rapidly became infected. Between a serious infection, and malaria, Roosevelt’s life hangs in the balance, as does the survival of the expedition, short on food, all suffering the effects of disease and malnutrition.

We relive the struggle between the courageous resolve of the explorers, the dangers of attack at any moment, and the ravage of illness and infection as they struggle toward the junction with the Amazon. We learn the price Roosevelt paid for the glory of accomplishing this exploration. Millard also recounts the afterlife of the other explorers, including the sad trajectory of Kermit’s life, much like that of Roosevelt’s brother Elliot.

Along the way, we see the indomitable spirit of Roosevelt, the disregard for his own safety and life in the pursuit of great aims, and the survival of others, and the humility of being willing, as a former president, to do anything from do the laundry of other expedition members to rescue a stranded canoe, all the while pursuing habits of reading and writing for which he was famously known. We also see the driven character of a man who even in his sixth decade as a former president, still needed to test himself physically against rigors that had killed many younger men.

If you enjoy biography, narratives of exploration, or anything concerning Roosevelt, I would highly commend this riveting narrative of the exploration of the River of Doubt, and Roosevelt’s “darkest journey.

Review: Jefferson’s America

Jeffeerson's America

Jefferson’s AmericaJulie M. Fenster. New York: Crown, 2016.

Summary: An account of how Jefferson used the efforts of four teams of men comprising less than a hundred total to establish America’s hold on the lands west of the Mississippi River.

Most of us, if we remember anything of early U. S. History remember the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the explorations, up the Missouri and to the Pacific coast, of Lewis and Clark. What I didn’t realize was that while we had purchased these lands from France for $15 million, our grasp of these was tenuous, especially because of the ambitions of Spain to hold the lands west of the Mississippi. I did not realize that there were four teams of explorers and that the success of their efforts played a key role in staving off the ambitions of Spain as well as confirming the wisdom of Jefferson’s bold move in acquiring these lands. Julie M. Fenster’s account of these explorers and their expeditions showed how four teams of men with a combined total of about one hundred men, plus Sacajawea, in the case of Lewis and Clark, fended off the challenges of the Federalists and the ambitions of Spain.

The book begins with America in the 1790’s and into Jefferson’s administration, as the country sought to get on its feet, occupy the Northwest Territory, and stay out of conflicts with the superpowers of Spain, France, and Great Britain. Soon, with westward settlement, Americans were on the banks of the Mississippi. West of this was mostly land claimed by the Spanish, and the native peoples who held it first. Louisiana, and New Orleans were the place where the tension was greatest, as Americans sought to ship goods through this port, held by Spain, and then through complicated maneuvers, yielded to France, from whom Jefferson acquired the land in 1803. In truth, Spain had not given up its ambitions for the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and certainly was the dominant power in Texas and the lands to the south and west. Add to this that the purchase never decisively determined the western borders of these lands.

Jefferson faced opposition from Federalists who questioned Jefferson’s constitutional power to acquire these lands, and the wisdom of an acquisition that might lead to greater international confrontation over lands of unknown worth. This book shows how four teams of explorers led by Lewis and Clark (the Missouri), Hunter and Dunbar (the Red, Black, and Ouachita Rivers), Zebulon Pike (the upper Mississippi), and Freeman and Custis (the Red River) both asserted the presence of the United States in these newly claimed lands, and furnished, through journals and materials sent back to Washington, incontrovertible evidence of the riches of these lands. Fenster follows each expedition, including the trials faced in contending with various river conditions, negotiations with Indian tribes, the reaching of the Pacific by Lewis and Clark, and the climactic confrontation between Freeman and Custis and their forty troops with over a thousand Spanish on the Red River. Here is her description of this last:

    “Viana [the Spanish commander] started by warning Freeman that if the expedition continued, his orders were to open fire.

Freeman replied, ‘The object of my expedition was, to explore the river to its source, under the instructions of the President of the U.S.’ He request the objections in writing, but Viana refused, giving his word of honor instead. Freeman had done his duty.

    The juncture had been reached at which Freeman’s control over the situation would vanish with one more move, one more word. He agreed to leave the following day. Before turning to leave, however, he thought Viana said something in Spanish to one of his men about placing his soldiers on what had become the American side of the river. Freeman told his interpreter ‘that if a Spanish guard was placed near us they should be fired upon.’ He was offering battle to a force vastly superior. A moment went by and then Viana abandoned the idea. Freeman had done what a hundred diplomats failed to do. Spain and America had a border, and it was the Red River” (p. 342).

Fenster skillfully reproduces the vast tapestry of American exploration. She weaves in figures like General James Wilkinson, a slippery character who probably acted as a double agent on many occasions, and Aaron Burr, whose plots in the southwest eventually led to Jefferson’s unsuccessful prosecution of him. She helps us understand the personal character of the explorers including the struggle with depression Lewis faced whenever he wasn’t exploring, ending in his apparent suicide en route to Washington, though this never could be definitively proven. She portrays the drivenness of Zebulon Pike, who nearly lost his feet in the exploration of the upper Mississippi, and who later pressed on in a failed attempt that nearly cost him and his men their lives to reach the peak that bears his name. As a modern historian, Fenster also observes both the exploitation of and lack of understanding of the native peoples these explorers encountered in their journeys.

Most of all, she shows the decisive role these explorers played in confirming the United States’ hold on these lands, vindicating a president who saw the opportunity offered him even though he did not have the military to sustain a fight against France or Spain at the time. Through the reports of these explorers, the way was paved for a new wave of westward settlement, and an often besieged President was confirmed in the wisdom of his bold act and these men would ever after be known as “Jefferson’s men.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Our “Great River”


At Home on the Mississippi — Currier & Ives Print

It is 2,320 miles from its headwaters in Minnesota to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico. Its watershed covers all or part of 31 states and parts of two Canadian provinces. That watershed extends from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the western side of the Appalachians in the east. All told, the watershed covers 1,245,000 square miles. The discharge into the Gulf of Mexico varies between 200 and 700 thousand cubic feet per second. You have probably guessed that I am writing about the Mississippi River, a name which derived from a Native American word meaning “Great River.”

Water draining into the storm drain at the corner of our lot ends up in this watershed. Growing up in Youngstown, the Mahoning River was part of this watershed. So are the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers, within 5 miles of our home, which in turn receive water from local creeks, including one in our subdivision. Waters from these rivers drain into the Ohio River which in turn drains into the Mississippi.  Only during the years I lived in Toledo and Cleveland was I outside the Mississippi watershed, and then only by less than 50 miles.

I’ve been reading Julie M. Fenster’s Jefferson’s America, which is an account of how Jefferson encouraged exploration of the Louisiana purchase when he had scant resources to claim the land we had purchased from France but was still of great interest to Spain, England, as well as the native peoples living on that land. Exploration was his way of projecting an American presence, heralding the migrations, and eventual military actions to come in the future.


Mississippi Watershed

What struck me as I’ve been reading is that, by and large, this was an exploration of the Mississippi watershed. For Lewis and Clark, it began at the head of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh to the Mississippi and then up the Missouri into Montana. Eventually they made their way across the Continental Divide, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They were the most famous of the river explorers but there were others. There was Zebulon Pike, of Pike’s Peak fame who was the first American to explore the Mississippi River to its headwaters in Minnesota. William Dunbar and George Hunter explored the Ouachita River and Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis the Red River. All sent back to Jefferson reports on the geography, vegetation and wildlife of these regions. Pike, Lewis and Clark also established relationships with Native American tribes, further extending our sad history of broken promises and land grabs.

Just as the river is a central feature of our national geography, it has played a central role in our national history, from becoming a highway for transportation of agricultural crops, and especially cotton, to a point of contention as North and South fought over whether newly forming states on the west side of the river would be slave or free. During the Civil War control of the river was critical to the survival of the South and decisive in the victory of the North, particularly the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1963, which may have been as critical as the North’s victory at Gettysburg the day before.

The river has always flooded, despite flood control efforts. In the lower parts of the river, it will change course. Engineers have tried to tame it, which itself may have detrimental effects, particularly in the delta region. I had the chance to see how futile this was last December when I was in St. Louis for a convention during several days of continuous and heavy rains that flooded interstates, and some of the landing areas within a mile of where I was staying.

The Mississippi watershed reminds me of how tied together we are. What I put down the drain or even how I fertilize my lawn affects people and aquatic life downstream, even as our own water supply is affected by the towns and farms to the north of us. At one time, these were our interstate highways, and still important as transportation corridors. It reminds me of how farms, rural towns, and big industrial cities, how North and South and West are all tied together–from Appalachia and Montana to the Gulf of Mexico, and how this heartland of America is the connection that holds west coast and east, north coast and south together.