Becoming Teddy Roosevelt
Before he came to Maine, Theodore Roosevelt was a dour and sickly youth. Then he met hunting guide named Bill Sewall.
- By: Andrew Vietze
(This article inspired Becoming Teddy Roosevelt, a book by Andrew Vietze that is available from our bookstore.)
It was January, 1909. Bill Sewall sat waiting at the White House, likely a little uncomfortable. He was, after all, a humble Maine Guide from the outpost of Island Falls come to pay a visit to the President of the United States, and he didn't much care for white-collar shirts. Sewall and his wife, Mary, had checked into their hotel, and had ventured across the city at the behest of Theodore Roosevelt himself. They waited a while at the home of the first family, then heard a door open followed by the president's quick footsteps. Suddenly there he was, still dressed in his riding clothes.
Roosevelt gave the Sewalls a personal tour of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that day. When they were done he asked, "How do
you like it, Bill?"
"Why, it looks to me as how you've got a pretty good camp," Sewall replied.
"It's always a good thing to have a good camp," Roosevelt said.
There were smiles all around, and Sewall was made instantly comfortable. "Never were there more welcome guests at the White House," Roosevelt would write later. The couple from Island Falls had a whirlwind of a visit to the capitol, enjoying the sort of treatment that your average Mainer didn't see every day.
"I guess we had as fine a time as anybody that ever came to Washington," remembered Sewall. "And when we seemed to attract a good deal of attention, sitting in the president's box at the theater, I told the ladies, who were rather bothered by it, that it was perfectly natural, the people had found something green from the country."
Bill Sewall was indeed green from the country. A big hulk of a man, he had been the first white baby born in Island Falls. His father, Levi, was a founding member of the tiny community along the Mattawamkeag River at the southern end of Aroostook County. A shoemaker who had migrated up from Farmington, Levi had lost everything in a fire and was carving out a new life in the North Woods.
Young Bill grew up in those forests, looking south to Katahdin. His father gave him his first loaded gun at seven, he was guiding at twelve, and by the time he was sixteen he was working on river drives. He learned much from the Penobscots living nearby, including the best way to build a birch-bark canoe. And as an adult, Bill put those skills to work as a guide, running a successful sporting camp on Mattawamkeag Lake.
He was also a lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and by all accounts a mentor and inspiration to the twenty-sixth president. Many historians count William Wingate Sewall as one of the most important people in the making of T.R., a vital influence on several aspects of his life, and someone who fostered the characteristics that would come to define Roosevelt as a man - and as a president.
Roosevelt was a sickly asthmatic when he went to Island Falls for the first of his many adventures with Sewall. He left confident and invigorated. "Bill Sewall was a model for part of what Theodore Roosevelt wanted to become," says presidential historian H.W. Brands, author of T.R.: The Last Romantic. "Maine and Bill Sewall helped T.R. become the person that he was. How much of what he became is Bill Sewall [responsible for]? Who knows? But if he hadn't known him, Roosevelt would have been a different person."
Clearly Theodore Roosevelt felt this way himself. When Roosevelt's biographer, Hermann Hagedorn, was looking for sources, people who knew him in the years before he ascended to the presidency, T.R. sent him to see his old friend the Maine Guide. "There is no one who could more clearly give the account of me, when I was a young man and ever since," Theodore Roosevelt wrote Sewall a year before his death in 1919. "I want you to tell him everything, good, bad, and indifferent . . . I have told Hagedorn that I thought you could possibly come nearer to putting him next to me . . . more than any one else could . . . Tell him everything."
Their friendship began in September, 1878. Earlier that year, Roosevelt's father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., had died. A huge figure in his son's life (T.R. called his father "the best man I ever knew"), Theodore, Sr., had succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of forty-six. It was a painful blow to his son, then a budding Harvard scholar of the sciences. Unable to focus on his studies, Teddy was in turmoil. Arthur Cutler, his friend and tutor, could see that the young man needed a getaway, needed something invigorating, and he recommended Teddy join him on a hunting trip to Maine.
As Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris notes in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt: "Arthur Cutler had hunted in the area - one of the last stands of virgin forest in the Northeast - and had suggested that Theodore might like to do the same. There was a backwoodsman there, said Cutler, called Bill Sewall . . . Huge, bearded, and full of lust for life, Sewall loved to shout poetry as he fought his canoe through white water or slammed his ax into pine trees. No doubt Cutler sensed that this magnificent specimen of manhood might satisfy Theodore's cravings for a father figure. And since Sewall was humbly born, he might rub off some of the boy's veneer of snobbism before it toughened into impenetrable bark."
Roosevelt thought it a fine idea, and he, Cutler, a cousin, and a friend boarded a train for Mattawamkeag Station, the nearest rail depot to Island Falls, a small community between Patten and Houlton. The remaining thirty-six miles through wild, woodsy country were taken by buckboard, and the tired travelers arrived at the Sewall household as dark was falling. They were shown to a room on the third floor and slept in a field bed. The next day Roosevelt's adventures began.
Both Roosevelt, 19, and Sewall, 34, remembered their early impressions of each other. Roosevelt thought the burly guide looked like a Viking - "King Olaf" he called him. Sewall wasn't quite as impressed. The asthmatic Harvard student he saw before him was "a thin, pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart."
At the beginning of their outing, Cutler took Sewall aside and asked that he go easy on the kid. As the guide remembered in his autobiography, Bill Sewall's Story of T.R., Cutler said to him: "I want you to take that young fellow, Theodore, I brought down, under your special care. Be careful of him, see that he doesn't take too hard jaunts and does not do too much. He is not very strong and he has got a great deal of ambition and grit . . . he would go until he fell."
To best keep an eye on T.R., Sewall hired another guide, his nephew, Wilmot Dow, to join him in leading the party. The group camped at the edge of Mattawamkeag Lake, where Roosevelt spent weeks tromping through the bush, shooting ducks, grouse, and rabbits in the woods nearby. Sewall found that this city boy was not quite as faint of heart as he first thought. "He wasn't such a weakling as Cutler tried to make out," he later wrote.
Indeed, by the end of the trip, Sewall's opinion of T.R. had taken quite a turn. "At the end of the week I told Dow that I had got a different fellow to guide from what I had ever seen before. I had never seen anybody that was like him, and I have held that opinion ever since. Of course, he did not understand the woods, but on every other subject he was posted . . . I could not see a single thing that wasn't fine in Theodore, no qualities that I didn't like."
Though they couldn't have come from more diverse backgrounds - one born to New York City privilege, the other to North Woods pioneers; one Harvard educated, the other taught to read at home by his sisters - they found they shared much in common. Both were avid readers. Both had sickly childhoods. Both loved life and the adventure it brought.
The following March, Roosevelt returned to Maine. Sewall met him at Mattawamkeag Station and the pair drove back to Island Falls in a sleigh, traversing the rough, snow-laden country. This time Sewall and Dow took Roosevelt up to the Oxbow region for more than three weeks of snowshoeing, visiting lumber camps, and hunting for lynx. They spent thirty-six hours chasing a caribou, but ended up bringing down a buck instead. T.R. trapped a lynx, which he had made into a rug for his then lady friend, Alice Hathaway Lee.
This particular visit gave the affluent, young socialite the opportunity to meet the men who made a living in the Maine woods. "I don't know a better or more intelligent race of men than these shrewd, plucky, honest Yankees - all of them hunters, lumbermen, or small farmers," he later wrote. A child of privilege, he hadn't spent a lot of time with people outside his socio-economic group. As author William Henry Harbaugh writes in The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt: "Theodore's contact with Sewall and other woodsmen was his one broadening influence during his undergraduate years; he otherwise consorted with his social peers."
Roosevelt visited Island Falls one more time, another autumn hunting trip. On this expedition T.R. climbed Katahdin, something he had wanted to do since he first laid eyes on the mountain. During a river crossing on the trip, Roosevelt lost a boot, but he endured, eventually scaling the hard granite of Maine's highest peak carrying a forty-pound pack and wearing only the soft-soled moccasins he'd brought along as camp slippers. Sewall was impressed (especially in light of the fact that Roosevelt's New York companions quit halfway up). Later in their journey they rode close to fifty miles to the Oxbow, where they put a boat in the Aroostook River and paddled and poled another fifty miles to the Munsungan Lake area. Roosevelt remarked that the river venture made the trip up Katahdin seem like "an absolute luxury."
Again he returned to school ebullient. As Cutler later wrote to Sewall, "It takes Theodore two hours to tell the story of the Munsungun Lake trip. And then, after all, it doesn't seem to have amounted to much, except a good hard time."
A good hard time, of course, was just what the Harvard student required. In an essay by Roosevelt titled "My Debt to Maine," he recalls, "I was not a boy of any natural prowess and for that very reason the vigorous outdoor life was just what I needed."
Sewall and Dow and Roosevelt saw a lot of each other for a few years after their time in Island Falls. Following the death of both his mother and his first wife, Alice, who was carrying their child, Roosevelt took off for the Badlands of the Dakota Territory to start a new chapter in his life - as a cattle rancher. When he did, he hired both of his old Maine Guides to work as foremen, vesting them in the operation and providing for the relocation of their families. The venture lasted two years, and the bond that the trio forged there, riding hard, building a ranch, hunting, fishing, and chasing cattle thieves, was unbreakable.
During T.R.'s presidency, Sewall was made a customs agent in Maine, and he became a member of the "Tennis Cabinet," the circle of Roosevelt's personal friends and advisors. He paid more than one visit to the "pretty good camp" at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
While Roosevelt would return to the Pine Tree State a number of times before and after he became president, he never again made it back to Island Falls. Careering and campaigning always got in the way. "There is nothing I should like so much as a tramp through the woods with you," he wrote to Sewall in a message dated 1898. "But I don't suppose I can go this fall. But it is only put off, old friend, I shall certainly be up with you some day."
Bill Sewall would outlive Roosevelt, enjoying good health until the time of his death at eighty-six. Throughout the years leading up to Roosevelt's death, the pair remained close and wrote frequently, hundreds of letters passing between them. Sewall quietly collected newspaper clippings, books, photos of Roosevelt and his adventures, turning a room on the third floor of the Sewall house into something of a shrine. His great-granddaughter, Donna Davidge, who now runs the Sewall House as a yoga retreat, says her great aunt Nancy Sewall, Bill's daughter, recalled to her a visit to T.R.'s grave. "That was the only time she ever saw her father cry."
As for Bill Sewall, he remembered their relationship in his book Bill Sewall's Story of T.R. and how proud he was of his old friend.
"I saw him once or twice again during his presidency, at the White House . . . I think he did travel in the footsteps of Washington and Lincoln, and what pleased me most about him was to see him, now that he was in power, put into practice the principles he had expressed when he was a boy in Maine. He remembered those talks that we had together, just as I remembered them. On May 28, 1912, he wrote me: `Your letter contains really the philosophy of my canvass. After all, I am merely standing for the principles which you and I used to discuss so often in the old days both in the Maine woods and along the Little Missouri. They are the principles of real Americans and I believe that more and more the plain people of the country are waking up to the fact that they are the right principles.' "
- By: Andrew Vietze