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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Historical Society & Teddy Roosevelt

In 1886, an aspiring young historian in New York wrote to Wisconsin Historical Society director Lyman Copeland Draper:

"Although personally unknown to you, I take the liberty of writing to you. I am now engaged on a work in reference to the extension of our boundaries to the southward from the day when Boone crossed the Alleghanies, to the days of the Alamo and San Jacinto.

I know of no one whose researches into, and collections of material for, our early western history, have been so extensive as your own, so I venture to ask you if you can give me any information how I can get at what I want."

The writer was 28-year-old Theodore Roosevelt who, after two years spent mourning the simultaneous deaths of his young wife and his mother, had decided to be a historian. The letter�s recipient, Draper, was 71, and had just retired from three decades spent running the Wisconsin History Society. His invaluable manuscripts did not belong to the Society, though; they were his personal property, and Draper intended to spend his retirement finally writing the books that had eluded him for so long.

�I wish,� Roosevelt continued, �to particularly get hold of any original or unpublished mss; such as the diaries or letters of the first settlers, who crossed the mountains, and their records of the early Indian wars, the attempt at founding the State of Franklin, etc. Do you know if there are any records in existence, in ms. or otherwise�? Trusting you will not think I have trespassed too far on your good nature, I am, Most Truly Yours��

In fact, Roosevelt had trespassed too far � directly onto the turf that Draper considered his own. Over the next five years, despite Roosevelt�s repeated appeals to see the papers, Draper denied him access. Ironically, the older man never wrote his books: �I can write nothing,� he once confessed, �so long as I fear there is a fact, no matter how small, as yet ungarnered� [may that be a lesson to every dissertator who reads this].

When Draper died in 1891, he left his manuscripts to the Historical Society and two years later his successor, Reuben Gold Thwaites, enabled Roosevelt to consult them during a visit to Madison. By then the future president had published the first two successful volumes of his epic work, The Winning of the West. In the next volume he thanked the Society when footnoting the manuscripts: �These valuable Draper MSS, have been opened to me by Mr. Reuben Gold Thwaites, the State Librarian; I take this opportunity of thanking him for his generous courtesy, to which I am so greatly indebted.�

Roosevelt and Thwaites became good friends. Later in the 1890s, when Thwaites was lobbying the Wisconsin legislature to build the Society�s headquarters in order to safeguard the Draper Collection, Roosevelt offered this public tribute:

�I can conscientiously say that I don�t think that in the entire country there is a single historical society which has done better work for American history than yours... Every American scholar, and in particular every American historian, is under a dept to your Society, and a debt to the State of Wisconsin, for having kept it up.� (similar support came from another future president, Woodrow Wilson).

A few years later Thwaites completed the first critical edition of the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (recently put online by the Society), and asked Roosevelt if he would accept its dedication. By then Roosevelt was President of the U.S. and deeply engaged in Progressive reforms, conservation programs, and the international diplomacy for which we would win the Nobel Peace Prize. But he wrote back accepting the honor, and when he received the books in 1906 told Thwaites it was �the kind of compliment that means much.�

We have not discovered if the two men ever met again. Roosevelt came to Wisconsin during his third-party run for the White House in 1912 as the candidate of the so-called Bull Moose (Progressive) Party. On the night of Oct. 14, 1912, while leaving his Milwaukee hotel to give a campaign speech, Roosevelt was shot in the chest by an assassin. He delivered his 80-minute address anyway, making light of the wound by declaring at one point, "It takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose." He lived another seven years with the bullet in his chest.

Twelve months later, on Oct. 23, 1913, Reuben Gold Thwaites died unexpectedly in Madison. His critical editions of the Jesuit Relations, early Western travels, and Lewis and Clark made thousands of pages of primary evidence about the West available to several generations of students. Roosevelt's popular Winning of the West series went on to help spread the ideas of another Wisconsin historian, Frederick Jackson Turner. Shortly after it appeared, when Turner was still a recent PhD, Roosevelt called attention to "a suggestive pamphlet, published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin." Turner's The Significance of the Frontier in American History.

:: Posted in Curiosities on January 25, 2007

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