From the Fall 1990 issue of "The Columns"

Theodore Roosevelt: His Childhood Years

By Ann Marie Brogan-Linnabery

We have recently marked the 140th anniversary of the birth of Theodore Roosevelt and in doing so we naturally tend to remember his achievements as President or Rough Rider or conservationist. All three of these aspects of Roosevelt’s life however have their roots in early years as a child growing up in New York City. The fact that he was born in the largest city in the United States and to a socially prominent family only serves to enhance the already enigmatic persona that so characterized Roosevelt’s activities in his later years.

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, in a four story brownstone at 28 East 20th Street, a few blocks away from the Union Square home of his grandfather, Cornelius Van Schaak Roosevelt. Roosevelt was born into a secure and fashionable family and home. His father, Theodore Sr., was a junior partner with Roosevelt and Son, the family importing business. The elder Theodore was a seventh generation New Yorker, the first having been Klaes Martenzen Van Rosenvelt who arrived in New Amsterdam in the 1640’s. The Roosevelts were a rather static, stable family who seldom moved more than a few miles from their original homestead and who generally married to other solid Dutch families.

The Bullochs (Theodore’s mother’s family), were staunch Southerners from the heart of Georgia. The first Bulloch arrived from Scotland in 1729 and settled in South Carolina. Subsequent generations moved around the South until finally deciding to stay in Georgia, not far from either Atlanta or Savannah, in the mid-nineteenth century. By the time of Martha’s (Mittie) birth, the family tree had become so entangled that she already had numerous relatives including about thirteen siblings – whole, half and step brothers and sisters.

Theodore Sr. and Mittie met in 1850 (Mittie’s brother-in-law’s sister was married to one of Theodore’s brothers). They didn’t marry until 1853 and then moved north to New York City. Their first child Anna (Bamie), born in 1855, suffered from Pott’s disease which caused a weakening in the bones, particularly in the back.

The second child was Theodore. His birth apparently came on rather suddenly and having been told that the family doctor was ill, his father hurried to find another one. The baby arrived at 7:45 p.m. on a Wednesday night. His mother Mittie was not at all pleased with his appearance, calling him a terrapin (turtle). His maternal grandmother, Martha Steward Bulloch, thought otherwise, saying he was "as sweet and pretty a young baby as I have ever seen." Not much else is recorded about Theodore’s infancy. Within three years he was joined by a brother, Elliott, and a sister, Corrine. In addition, Grandmamma Bulloch and Mittie’s sister Anna were also living with the family. Added to this was a large contingent of servants, thus making the Roosevelt household a very busy place.

The Civil War was the first major disruption of the family routine. Tensions ran high as Theodore Sr. entertained Union officers and Lincoln Republicans in the parlor while the three Southern ladies retreated quietly to their rooms. Several of Mittie’s relatives were fighting for the Confederacy and whenever her husband was away the women would put together care packages for them. Initially, Theodore and his siblings had only a vague idea about what was happening but as the war progressed, young Theodore’s opinions decidedly favored the Union, much to the chagrin of his mother. Theodore Sr.’s decision to hire a substitute to fight in the war for him did not set well with his oldest son. It was the only fault that Theodore could ever find in his father and it has been suggested that Roosevelt’s eagerness for combat stems from his father’s avoidance of it. It is also debatable as to whether the elder Roosevelt actually wanted to join the Union Army but, due to his marriage and the standards of the day, felt compelled to decline. When the war ended the Roosevelts focused their attention on the children’s health, travel abroad and relocating to a more spacious residence.

While he was growing up there was one thing that kept Theodore distracted from the war and from his ever increasing bouts with "the asthma." Teedie, as he was called by his family, took great comfort and satisfaction in studying natural history. While on a shopping trip to the market, he discovered a dead seal in one of the stalls. He went back daily to measure and examine it and even tried to buy it from the dealer to add to his newly founded museum (dubbed by him ‘the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History’). He read endless volumes of books on birds and animals and kept careful sketches and notes of everything he had seen. In 1871, the summer before his thirteenth birthday, Theodore was given a shotgun by his father. Also at that time it was discovered that Teedie was extremely nearsighted and he was fitted with spectacles. Both the gun and the glasses, "literally opened an entirely new world to me," he later wrote. No longer would observations be limited to books or to animals that he could only capture. Now he could dissect and closely examine the specimen and its internal organs. He also took classes in taxidermy and, as Bamie remembered much to "the discomfort of everyone connected with him," he began the practice at home.

The family took an extended vacation during the summer of 1872 while their new house was being built and furnished. Mittie and the children continued to live on in Europe while Theodore Sr. returned to oversee the final plans. When they finally returned in November of 1873, the family moved into their new home at 6 West 57th Street. It was a much larger and more lavishly decorated residence. It was here that Theodore would live until his entrance into Harvard University in the fall of 1876.

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