Smithsonian–Roosevelt African Expedition

The Smithsonian–Roosevelt African Expedition was an expedition to Africa led by American president Theodore Roosevelt and outfitted by the Smithsonian Institution.[1] Its purpose was to collect specimens for the Smithsonian's new Natural History museum, now known as the National Museum of Natural History. The expedition collected around 11,400 animal specimens which took Smithsonian naturalists eight years to catalog.[2] Following the expedition, Roosevelt chronicled it in his book African Game Trails.

Smithsonian–Roosevelt African Expedition
Smithsonian Institution Archives - SIA2009-1371.jpg
Participants in the expedition. Smithsonian Institution Archives
ParticipantsTheodore Roosevelt;
R. J. Cunninghame;
Frederick Selous;
Kermit Roosevelt;
Edgar Alexander Mearns;
Edmund Heller;
John Alden Loring.

Participants and resourcesEdit

The group was led by the legendary hunter-tracker R. J. Cunninghame.[3][4] Participants on the Expedition included Australian sharpshooter Leslie Tarlton; three American naturalists, Edgar Alexander Mearns, a retired U.S. Army surgeon; Stanford University taxidermist Edmund Heller, and mammalologist John Alden Loring; and Roosevelt's 19-year-old son Kermit, on a leave of absence from Harvard.[5] The expedition also included a large number of porters and "porters, gunbearers, horse boys, tent men, and askari guards."[6] Equipment includes material for preserving animal hides, including powdered borax, and cotton batting, and four tons of salt.[6] as well as a variety of tools, weapons, and other equipment ranging from lanterns to sewing needles.[7] Roosevelt brought a M1903 Springfield in .30-03 caliber and, for larger game, a Winchester 1895 rifle in .405 Winchester.[8] Roosevelt also brought his Pigskin Library, a collection of classics bound in pig leather and transported in a single reinforced trunk.[9]

Timeline and routeEdit

Map of the route taken by the party. From the Edmund Heller Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The party set sail from New York City on the steamer Hamburg on March 23, 1909, shortly after the end of Roosevelt's presidency on March 4.[2] The Hamburg arrived at its destination at Naples, where the party boarded the Admiral, a German-flagged ship selected because it permitted the expedition to load large quantities of ammunition.[10] While on board the Hamburg, Roosevelt encountered Frederick Courteney Selous, a longtime friend who was traveling to his own African safari, traversing many of the same areas.[11]

The party landed in Mombasa, British East Africa (now Kenya), traveled to the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) before following the Nile to Khartoum in modern Sudan. Financed by Andrew Carnegie and by his own proposed writings, Roosevelt's party hunted for specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.[12]


Roosevelt and his companions killed or trapped approximately 11,397[12] animals. According to Theodore Roosevelt’s own tally, the figure included about four thousand birds, two thousand reptiles and amphibians, five hundred fish, and 4,897 mammals (other sources put this figure at 5,103). Add to this marine, land and freshwater shells, crabs, beetles and other invertebrates, not to mention several thousand plants, and the number of natural history specimens totals 23,151.[12] A separate collection was made of ethnographic objects. The material took eight years to catalogue. The larger animals shot by Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt are listed on pages 457 to 459 of his book African Game Trails. The total is 512, of which 43 are birds. The number of big game animals killed, was 17 lion, 3 leopard, 7 cheetah, 9 hyena, 11 elephant, 10 buffalo, 11 (now very rare) black rhino and 9 White rhino. Most of the 469 larger non big game mammals included 37 species and subspecies of antelopes. The expedition consumed 262 of the animals which were required to provide fresh meat for the large number of porters employed to service the expedition. Tons of salted animals and their skins were shipped to Washington, D.C.; the quantity took years to mount, and the Smithsonian shared many duplicate animals with other museums. Regarding the large number of animals taken, Roosevelt said, "I can be condemned only if the existence of the National Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and all similar zoological institutions are to be condemned."[13] Some context when considering whether the quantity of animals taken was excessive is that the animals were gathered over a period of ten months and were procured over an area that ranged from Mombasa through Kenya, to Uganda and the Southern Sudan—a distance traveled, with side trips, of several thousand kilometers. The diversity of larger mammal species collected was such that few individuals of any species were shot in any given area, and the large mammals collected had a negligible impact on the great herds of game that roamed East Africa at that time. Apologists for the Roosevelts have pointed out that the number of each big game species shot was very modest by the standards of the time: many white hunters of that period, for example, such as Karamoja Bell, had killed over 1,000 elephants each, while the Roosevelts between them killed just eleven. In making this comparison it has to be remembered that the white hunters weren’t collecting specimens for museums, but were occasionally employed by landowners to clear animals from land they wanted to use for plantations, and frequently as ivory hunter with or without hunting permit or licenses.

Although the safari was conducted in the name of science, it was as much a political and social event as it was a hunting excursion; Roosevelt interacted with renowned professional hunters and land-owning families, and met many native peoples and local leaders. Roosevelt became a Life Member of the National Rifle Association, while President, in 1907 after paying a $25 fee.[14] He later wrote a detailed account in the book African Game Trails, where he describes the excitement of the chase, the people he met, and the flora and fauna he collected in the name of science.[15]

While Theodore Roosevelt greatly enjoyed hunting, he was also an avid conservationist. In African Game Trails he condemns "game butchery as objectionable as any form of wanton cruelty and barbarity" (although he does note that "to protest against all hunting of game is a sign of softness of head, not of soundness of heart") and as a pioneer of wilderness conservation in the USA he fully supported the British Government's attempts at that time to set aside wilderness areas as game reserves, some of the first on the African continent. He notes (page 17) that "in the creation of the great game reserve through which the Uganda railway runs the British Government has conferred a boon upon mankind", a conservation attitude which Roosevelt helped sow that finally grew and blossomed in the form of the great game parks of East Africa today.

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  •'s account of the trip and review of African Game Trails with photos
  • John Alden Loring (1914). African adventure stories. C. Scribner's sons. Retrieved 21 June 2013.
  • On Safari With Theodore Roosevelt, 1909 from Eye Witness to


  1. ^ "President Roosevelt's African Trip". Science. 28 (729): 876–877. December 18, 1908. doi:10.1126/science.28.729.876. JSTOR 1635075. PMID 17743798.
  2. ^ a b "Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition". National Museum of Natural History: Celebrating 100 Years. Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History. Retrieved 20 June 2013.
  3. ^ Brian Herne, White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris (Henry Holt, 1999), pp. 8-9.
  4. ^ Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (Random House, 2010), pp. 8-9.
  5. ^ Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (Random House, 2010), p. 9.
  6. ^ a b Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (Random House, 2010), p. 8.
  7. ^ Darrin Lunde, The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History (Broadway, 2016), pp. 193-94.
  8. ^ Dan Aadland, In Trace of TR: A Montana Hunter's Journey (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), pp. 64-65.
  9. ^ Darrin Lunde, The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History (Broadway, 2016), p. 194.
  10. ^ Darrin Lunde, The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History (Broadway, 2016), p. 195.
  11. ^ Darrin Lunde, The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History (Broadway, 2016), pp. 195-96.
  12. ^ a b c "Roosevelt African Expedition Collects for SI". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  13. ^ O'Toole, Patricia (2005) When Trumpets Call, p. 67, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-684-86477-0
  14. ^ Raymond, Emilie (2006). From my cold, dead hands: Charlton Heston and American politics. University Press of Kentucky. p. 246. ISBN 978-0-8131-2408-7.
  15. ^ Theodore Roosevelt (1910). African Game Trails: An Account of the African Wanderings of an American Hunter-naturalist. Illustrated. Charles Scribner's Sons. Retrieved 21 June 2013.