“I could see not a single thing that wasn’t fine in Theodore, no qualities that I didn’t like. Some folks said that he was headstrong and aggressive, but I never found him so except when necessary; and I’ve always thought being headstrong and aggressive, on occasion, was a pretty good thing.” – Bill Sewall, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris
It had been just over 6 months since the most influential man in Teddy Roosevelt’s life had passed away when he met Bill Sewall. Theodore Roosevelt Sr. was the greatest man Teddy ever knew, and while the lessons his father taught him would continue to inspire him and guide him until his own departure from this world, friends of Teddy and his father were concerned about the direction he was headed. The Harvard influence and constant socializing with the upper-class were turning Teddy into something his father would not have appreciated: a pompous, affluent, arrogant, prick. Now that his father had passed, it was thought that Teddy might lose his way.
It was his tutor, Arthur Cutler, who recommended Teddy meet Bill Sewall. Sewall was a well-known backwoodsman and guide in northern Maine whom Cutler had hunted with. It was hoped that the bearded, tree-felling, canoeing, rough-living, straight-shooting, towering figure of a man that Sewall was would be a match for Teddy. He was right.
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Looks Can Be Deceiving
Judging by Sewall’s way of living and way of dressing, one may initially think that he was a simple-minded, uneducated hillbilly. However, that would never make much of a pairing for a man with the mental appetite of Roosevelt and the friendship would have been short-lived. In truth, Sewall, though simple in many respects, was a lover of nature and well versed in poetry. On the many trips down the river, through the woods, or up the mountains, Sewall and Teddy would recite their favorite verses. Though Roosevelt had heard many of the stories and poems before, they took on new meaning coming from a man who made his life on his own terms rather than from the scholars of Harvard or wealthy elites he grew up with.
“We hitched well, somehow or other, from the start. He was different from anybody that I had ever met; especially, he was fair-minded…Besides, he was always good-natured and full of fun. I do not think I ever remember him being “out-of-sorts.” He did not feel well sometimes, but he never would admit it.” – Bill Sewall on Teddy Roosevelt
When Teddy came to Maine and later in life to the Badlands of the Dakotas, he had to prove himself to nearly everyone he met. He was short, dressed funny, and had glasses which were considered a sign of weakness (both physical and character) in his day. Sewall, however, seemed to take Teddy in right away. All of the writings which I have read between the two show Sewall supportive of Roosevelt. I think this is both a sign of humility in Sewall but perhaps a clue that he may have sensed a great man in his presence.
We see Sewall’s humility and trust in Teddy when he agrees to move to the Badlands and manage a cattle ranch (Elkhorn) on behalf of the then New York Assemblyman Roosevelt. It was with some reluctance that Sewall, along with his wife and children and nephew Wilmot Dow and his family, agreed to leave the only home he had ever known, but he did.
The River Boat Thieves
In March of 1886, when Teddy was visiting his now famous Elkhorn ranch, thieves stole his small rowboat which he used to cross the river. As would be expected, Roosevelt decided to chase after the thieves on horseback. Keep in mind this is prior to being a Rough Rider. However, being that it was March and the ice on the river had just broken, there would be no sure and safe way for Teddy to cross the river. Rather than talk their friend out of the chase (after all it was just a small boat), Sewall and Dow convinced Teddy to let them build a boat and in three days’ time they would all go after the thieves. Talk about a man! What a friend, right!
That’s exactly what they did. They had some idea of who the thieves were but were not sure how well they were armed. The three men set off on the expedition and caught up with the scoundrels rather quickly. Thinking no one would be able to follow them, for they had taken the only boat within several miles, the thieves pitched camp not far off shore. Roosevelt, Sewell, and Dow snuck up on them at night as they were gathered around the campfire, tied them up, and threw them in the boat.
Roosevelt’s love for his dear friend and mentor was clear many years later and Sewall continued to inspire other men and young boys over the course of his life. In 1902, the now President Roosevelt was traveling and making re-election speeches. According to Edmund Morris:
“At Bangor, Maine, an old loyalty reawakened. “If anyone sees or knows where Bill Sewall of Island Falls, Aroostook, is,” Roosevelt yelled from the balcony of the Bangor House, “I wish he would tell him that I want him to come in and lunch with me right now.” The bewiskered woodsman who had toughened him as a teenager pressed dazedly through the crowd, and went inside to roars of applause.” – Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex