Portrait of Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt (Photo: Library of Congress from unsplash.com)

Who was Young Theodore Roosevelt?

The childhood and teen years of one of the most famous U.S. Presidents of all time.

The Childhood of Theodore Roosevelt

Who was Theodore Roosevelt? 

Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States and is one of the most written about presidents of all time. Theodore was born in 1858 in New York and lived with his 3 siblings and parents. His father, Theodore Sr. was a successful businessman and philanthropist. His mother, Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt, was a proud southerner that believed in strong family values.


Roosevelt did not have an easy childhood by any means, as he battled various illnesses and poor eyesight. As a result, his mother took care of him and had private tutors come to the home instead of traditional schooling. Roosevelt was a prolific reader and had a strong desire for learning. He couldn’t go out and play with normal kids so he would dive into stories featuring big, strong heroes.

As he wrote in his diary “I was nervous and timid. Yet, from reading of the people I admired– ranging from the soldiers of Valley Forge and Morgan’s rifleman, to the heroes of my favorite stories- and from hearing of the feats performed by my Southern forefathers and kinsfolk, and from knowing my father, I felt a great administration for men who were fearless and could hold their own in the world, I had a great desire to be them.” 

In addition to being a prolific reader, Roosevelt loved nature. Being mostly confined to the indoors, he grew an appreciation for the outdoors and everything it had to offer. At the age of 8, he began what he called the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. It consisted of 12 specimens that were carefully preserved and laid out in his bedroom.

However, a year later it stirred up problems as maids around the house complained of the dead animal smell. On one occasion, Roosevelt had killed a woodchuck and ordered a housemaid to boil the animal for 24 hours. The housemaid replied, “Either I leave or the woodchuck does.” Later that year, his health began to decline, and his mother suggested that a family trip to Europe would do some good for them.

On this 377-day voyage, he stated that he “cordially hated’ it. He was homesick as he wrote in his diary “It was very hard parting from our friend” and admitted that he “cried a great deal.” Although he was physically ill and homesick on this trip, he managed to observe everything and detail it.

An entry from his time in Switzerland reads “ thirteen miles around Visp, twenty miles through the Grimsel Pass, and ascended alone the steep hill of Wallenstein.” It is 3-and 3 miles back, and came in 1 hour.” The 11-year-old Roosevelt was a methodical reporter even during his youth. A few weeks went by, and he got sicker and sicker to the point, one night on the Austrian border his father made him smoke a cigar. This old school remedy would temporarily help him as the next day he climbed the hills of Adelsberg.

A few days after his 12th birthday he would start to develop into a man. He mentions seeing a beautiful girl in Brussels, and weeks later in Paris, his mother showed him a portrait of his childhood crush. Staring at the photo he writes “her face stired up in me the homesickness and longings for the past which will come again never, alack never.”

Things would improve on this trip as he saw the beauty of the Mediterranean, his diary entries expanding as he wrote about it in awe. Weeks later he excitedly wrote about kissing the Pope's hand. Even though it was a rough trip for him, he still managed to find some happiness along the way. On May 14 1870, 377 days after they set sail from America, The Roosevelt family made their way back to New York and Teddy couldn’t have been more excited.

The fall of 1870 consisted of nature, bug hunting, and books. In addition, he underwent a thorough medical examination and the doctor recommended that he get plenty of fresh air and exercise. His father pondered what the doctor said and famously told him

“you have the mind but have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”  Teedie responded with a smirk and clenched teeth. “I’ll make my body.”

This encounter with his father inspired him to get his body into shape. He started going to a local gym, and his father built him a home gym where he would spend his free time. His sister Corinne would later write “For many years, one of my most vivid recollections is seeing him (Teedie) between horizontal bars, widening his chest by regular, monotonous motion– drudgery indeed.” 

For months, during the winter and spring of 1870-1871 Teddy would work out religiously. The results were noticeable as through the summer of 1871 he didn’t mention anything about an illness in his diary. The longest health streak he had in years. 

The Teen Years

Teddy was not your average 13-year-old. He was spending endless hours in the gym and in the books as one friend during that period remembered him as “the most studious little brute I ever knew in my life.” Tutors kept him busy as well, teaching him French, German, and Latin. A year later, the 14-year-old was given his first gun by his father.

Excited, Teddy practiced shooting his gun but discovered he wasn’t hitting anything. He thought he was a bad shot, but noticed it was a problem with his vision. Around the same time, he noticed he couldn’t read the letters on a huge advertisement billboard. He wrote in his journal “I spoke of this to my father, and soon afterwards got my first pair of spectacles, which literally opened an entirely new world to me.”

His new glasses and workout regimen did help him feel better, but he was still a weak kid. Months after receiving his glasses he got into a fight with some other kids that were bullying him and ended up humiliated. He couldn’t land one punch as the bigger kids handled him as if they felt sorry for him.

After this defeat, he realized his 2 years of bodybuilding didn’t reap big rewards yet. This was a major turning point in his life. He was sick and tired of being weak, so he decided to join what he later called “the fellowship of doers.” He trained twice as hard and began to take up boxing.

On October 16, 1872, just before his 14th birthday, the Roosevelt family went on another European tour. This time Teddy was serious about the trip and saw it as a business opportunity that could benefit his museum back in New York. During this trip, he was stunned by the beauty of Egypt and the pyramids. This trip was much better than the one prior. He was more mature, and healthier, and took a general interest in the historical artifacts and people he encountered.

On this trip, Teddy shot his first animal for sport rather than science. He would go on to kill hundreds of animals in his life while exploring the American Frontier. In addition to exploring the beautiful sites of Europe, he was also studying everything around him with intense concentration and focus. A family member at the time told his mother

“He will surely one day be a great professor, or who knows, he may become even the President of the United States.”

At this point, Teddy was 15 years old and had traveled across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. He was exposed to ancient civilizations and some of the great art and architecture of the time. Coming back from his travels his ambition was to go to Harvard in the fall of 1876, which meant he had a year and a half to prepare mentally and physically.

During this time, he was relentless in his studies. “The young man never seemed to know what idleness was “wrote one of his tutors. By the age of 17, it seems he won the battle against his years of illness. He wrote much about studying and exercising during this time and very little about the asthma or panic attacks he suffered earlier on in his childhood.

⁠Teddy ended up completing the equivalent of three years of college preparation in less than two. Finally, the years of studying and exercising paid off for him and he was accepted into Harvard. He spent his final summer before university relaxing and spending time with his childhood crush.

The quotes in this article were taken from the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.
It is the most in-depth biography about Theodore Roosevelt in my opinion and it is a Pulitzer Prize winner. For anyone that is a history buff or Theodore Roosevelt fanatic, I recommend this book.


Written By: Nathan Payonk

Author of Newsletter: Nathan Payonk