Ken Burns Classroom

Theodore Roosevelt

Ken Burns Film: The National Parks

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

Teddy Roosevelt in Yellowstone in 1903
Roosevelt camped for two weeks in Yellowstone in 1903, glorying in the chance to observe the elk, bison, and other wildlife he and his fellow members of the Boone and Crockett Club had helped protect with federal legislation. The park idea, he said, is “noteworthy in its essential democracy…one of the best bits of National achievement, which our people have to their credit.” Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


As a sickly young boy in New York City, Theodore Roosevelt learned taxidermy and started his own collection of stuffed specimens. At age 12, he donated some of them – a dozen mice, a bat, a turtle, four birds’ eggs and the skull of a red squirrel – to the American Museum of Natural History. Eleven years later, he presented 622 carefully preserved bird skins to the Smithsonian. There are more National Park Service units dedicated to Roosevelt’s life and memory than any other American.

In 1883, when he was a New York City alderman, Roosevelt took a train to North Dakota to hunt buffalo before the species disappeared. He shot a bull and had its head mounted on his wall in New York. The trip transformed Roosevelt’s life – he bought a ranch in the Dakota badlands and returned regularly to ride and hunt. A book he wrote about his times in the West was mildly panned by Forest and Stream magazine publisher George Bird Grinnell; when Roosevelt burst into Grinnell’s office to complain, the meeting ended with the two becoming lifelong friends. With Grinnell, he formed the Boone and Crockett Club, a hunters’ group of prominent Easterners, and served as its first president.

After his inauguration as president of the United States in 1901 – following the assassination of William McKinley – Roosevelt became an even greater champion of conservation. In 1903, he interrupted a national speaking tour to spend two weeks camping in Yellowstone National Park; visited the Grand Canyon and called for its protection; then went to Yosemite, where he and John Muir slept out under the stars for three nights while Muir urged him to make Yosemite Valley part of a larger Yosemite National Park.

As president, Roosevelt created five national parks (doubling the previously existing number); signed the landmark Antiquities Act and used its special provisions to unilaterally create 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon; set aside 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, and more than 100 million acres’ worth of national forests.

There are more National Park Service units dedicated to Roosevelt’s life and memory than any other American, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota, where he shot his first buffalo and set up a ranch.

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