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Teddy Roosevelt, Naturalist and Public Intellectual

The following is a guest post by Alexander Salopek, a collection development specialist in Collection Services Division.

While at home due to the current circumstances, I have found myself deeply missing the Library’s collections; something close to my heart. Thankfully, I was able to work with the collections through the By the People project. By The People allows individuals to transcribe and tag digitized images of manuscripts and typed materials from the Library’s collections. The transcribers are making these materials available to those who can’t read them or aren’t fully sighted, and to make them full-text searchable. The collection I was working on was “My Great Mass of Papers”, the collection of Teddy Roosevelt’s papers at the Library of Congress. It was exciting because I was reading documents from when he was the President of Police Commissioners in New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Governor of New York. One letter particularly caught my attention and I wanted to share some of the journey it took me on.

The letter is from May 1897, while Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He wrote to the editor of Science about a letter published by Dr. Clinton Hart Merriam. It all started when Roosevelt wrote a letter critiquing a pamphlet written by Dr. Merriam. In the pages of issue no. 122 of Science, Roosevelt was effusive in his praise of Dr. Merriam’s work. However, writing from a pragmatic layman’s point of view he disagreed with Dr. Merriam’s taxonomy and nomenclature as it relates to coyotes (no. 122, p. 685). Roosevelt first discussed regional differences between Americans who live in Kentucky and those who live in New England. He then suggested the differences between the coyotes are comparable to those differences. Different habits and different diets lead to the minor physical differences, but are not particularly notable when compared to the difference between wolves and coyotes. Roosevelt then compared what he believed are different species that overlap in territory (namely brown bears and grizzly bears,  both of which he’d hunted) (no. 122, p. 687). For the last example for his argument, he compared cougars and jaguars: distinct species that are also from different habitats. He ended by stating that though he deeply respected Dr. Merriam, maybe Merriam should use less nomenclature, so laymen and students can better understand (no. 122, p. 688).

In issue no. 124 of Science, Dr. Merriam directly responded to Roosevelt’s view, using the lens of the good work Dr. Merriam felt Roosevelt accomplished with his ornithology (no. 124, p. 755). Dr. Merriam made the point that the way we scientifically describe bird species we should also use to describe mammal species, something that at this point little research has done. Dr. Merriam makes a fascinating point that the California Grizzly may be extinct without any biological samples for research (no. 124, 755). I believe this comment was meant to prod Roosevelt because of his interest in hunting; California grizzlies were hunted to extinction.

In the no. 127 issue of Science, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that he agreed with Dr. Merriam’s assumptions but also made a scientifically weak argument for why he disagreed with Dr. Merriam’s conclusions. Roosevelt asserted that he saw all these animals by hunting them and it may be because of the environment that they have different physical characteristics (no. 127, 880). He discussed what domesticated animals are able to eat and suggested that they are the same species under different environmental conditions. Dr. Merriam likely believed this theory could be refuted by looking at the different skeletal structures, so instead Roosevelt then made the argument that it would be too difficult for non-experts to understand the differences. Why would we want to fill zoology texts with all these different complex understandings that only Dr. Merriam with his expertise can understand? I did find Roosevelt’s argument unscientific, but I was surprised to find out that the current scientific consensus is that coyotes are one species with many different subspecies relating to geographic regions.

From what I can tell, Dr. Merriam did not respond, though he did review a book about species differentiation a couple of issues later (no. 132, 68-69). I also found it interesting that just a couple issues later Dr. Merriam stated he made a “stupid blunder” by misquoting somebody, which likely expressed this was an honest debate between two deeply committed naturalists (no. 135, p. 174).  Dr. Merriam is a fascinating character, almost as fascinating as Theodore Roosevelt. At the age of 16, he was the naturalist on the famed Hayden expedition, which helped secure congressional votes to turn Yellowstone into a national park. Many of Merriam’s papers are also in the Library of Congress collection.

[Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, in 1903] / From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36413

I was fascinated about when Yellowstone became a national park because I always believed that Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law. It was in fact President Grant. What President Roosevelt did was work with Congress to create the American Antiques Act of 1906 (16 U.S.C. 431), that allowed the President to declare national monuments to protect public lands from development and from looting their historical and natural treasures. This is why he is known as the Conservation President.

UPDATE: Please note that the Teddy Roosevelt Papers crowdsourcing project was limited to Library of Congress employees teleworking during the pandemic.  Members of the general public can contribute to other equally exciting crowdsourcing projects at //crowd.loc.gov/


Roosevelt, Theodore. “A Layman’s Views on Specific Nomenclature.” Science 5, no. 122 (1897): 685-88.

Merriam, C. (1897). Suggestions for a New Method of Discriminating between Species and Subspecies. Science, 5(124), 753-758.

Allen, J., & Roosevelt, T. (1897). The Discrimination of Species and Sub-Species. Science, 5 (127), 877-880.

C. H. M. Science 6, no. 132 (1897): 68-69. review.

Merriam, C. Hart. “Correction Concerning Mr. Rhoads’ Use of the Name Bassariscus Raptor (Baird).” Science 6, no. 135 (1897): 174.


One Comment

  1. Patricia. E. Rockwell
    April 29, 2020 at 11:27 am

    Really like your site!

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