Smithsonian–Roosevelt African Expedition

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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.

The Smithsonian–Roosevelt African Expedition was an expedition to Africa led by outgoing 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.

Participants and resources[edit]

The group, led by the legendary hunter-tracker R. J. Cunninghame, included scientists from the Smithsonian and was joined from time to time by Frederick Selous, the famous big game hunter and explorer. Among other items, Roosevelt brought with him four tons of salt for preserving animal hides, a lucky rabbit's foot given to him by boxer John L. Sullivan, a Holland & Holland double rifle in .500/450 donated by a group of 56 admiring Britons, a Winchester 1895 rifle in .405 Winchester, an Army (M1903) Springfield in .30-06 caliber stocked and sighted for him, Maxim silencers for the Winchester and Springfield rifles[3], a Fox No. 12 shotgun, and the famous Pigskin Library, a collection of classics bound in pig leather and transported in a single reinforced trunk. Participants on the Expedition included Roosevelt's son, Kermit, Edgar Alexander Mearns, Edmund Heller, and John Alden Loring.

Timeline and route[edit]

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 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.[4]


Roosevelt and his companions killed or trapped approximately 11,397[4] 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.[4] 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."[5] 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 employed by landowners to clear animals from land they wanted to use for plantations.

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.[6] 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.[7]

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 also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  •'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. ^ "President Teddy Roosevelt Liked His Rifles Suppressed". The Truth About Guns.
  4. ^ a b c "Roosevelt African Expedition Collects for SI". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  5. ^ O'Toole, Patricia (2005) When Trumpets Call, p. 67, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-684-86477-0
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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.