in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The Art of Manliness Podcast Episode #24: Becoming Teddy Roosevelt with Andrew Vietze

Welcome back to another episode of The Art of Manliness podcast! In this week’s edition we talk to Andrew Vietze, author of the book Becoming Teddy Roosevelt: How a Maine Guide Inspired America’s 26th President. Andrew’s book focuses on a New Englander named Bill Sewell who served as TR’s wilderness guide when Roosevelt was a young man. The relationship Sewell and Roosevelt formed had a profound impact on TR and may have even helped direct him to a career in politics. Through the biography of Bill Sewell, we get an intimate look at the formation of TR’s larger than life character.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Now, if you’ve been reading of The Art of Manliness for a while now you probably know that I’m a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt. The man led in an impressive life. He was an avid outdoorsman, an adventurer, a rancher, a rough writer, author of several books and a political powerhouse. But before he became the larger-than-life man that we know today, he was “a thin, pale, youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart” that description came from Bill Sewall, a man who’s going to become TR’s mentor a crucial time in Roosevelt’s life. It has been said if you really want to get to know a man, you should probably get to know the people who’ve had influence on him and Bill Sewall had a profound influence on a young Roosevelt. And our guest today has written a book about that explores the relationship Teddy Roosevelt and this quiet New England woodsman named Bill Sewall. His name his Andrew Vietze and he is the author of the book Becoming Teddy Roosevelt: How a Maine Guide Inspired America’s 26th President. Andrew, welcome to the show.

Andrew Vietze: Thanks very much, Brett. Glad to be here.

Brett McKay: Andrew, tell us what inspired you to write this book? It’s kind of an interesting subject. There are a lot of people who don’t–– there’s not a lot of book, I imagine, about this New England woodsman named Bill Sewall.

Andrew Vietze: Actually is not now, what inspired me, I spend about half of the year working as a ranger up in Baxter State Park which is a luminous area up in northern part of Maine, which is not far from Bill Sewall, actually is from. And I you know do all sort of ranger things that you might expect a ranger to do from rescuing people and putting our forest fires and all those kind of things and protecting the park from the people and people from the park. And what I never expected to see was be assigned to read a book. And one of my supervisors asked me to read Legacy of a Lifetime which is a book about how Baxter Park was created. And in that book, it’s the tale of Theodore Roosevelt climbing Mt. Katahdin, which is the highest mountain in Maine and the centerpiece of Baxter Park. I kind of in the back of my mind had been aware of the study but for some reason it clicked on that particular day sitting there in my ranger station reading ––you know reading the book and I figured I could probably sell that story as a–– I worked as a freelance writer for 12 months and park ranger for six, so I’m always looking for story, story ideas and I thought that I could sell that story to Down East Magazine–– a magazine about the State of Maine that I’ve done a lot of work for–– and so I did and they really liked it and a peace winning award for the magazine and for myself and it attracted a lot of interest and just Theodore Roosevelt obviously is a pretty popular character. So, in my research I was gratified that a lot of people liked it and in my research, I kind of came across a lot more than I could fit into 2500 words and so I thought, you know, maybe there’s more there and I started doing research for a book and soon enough I found that what I needed. So… and that was where the good idea came from.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, tell us a little bit more about Bill Sewall. What makes him such a unique character and how did him and Theodore Roosevelt meet up?

Andrew Vietze: Well, Bill Sewall is from Island Falls, Maine which when Roosevelt visited had something like 236 people, a really, really tiny outpost in the southern part of the Aroostook County, which is back in that time was a real wilderness area. And in fact, Sewall’s parents were the first people in Island Falls. They built the first house in Island Falls and Bill Sewall was the first white child born in Island Falls. As I mentioned in the book it really was as much of a frontier as any other place that’ll opened west at the time. And one other thing that attracted me to Bill Sewall was one of our descriptions that I read about him was of him residing in Island Falls and he was cutting down trees. I doubt there are very many of his fellow lumberman who could or would you know recite epic policy while doing their job and so that just struck me, you know, here’s a guy that’s a little bit more–– a little deeper than some of his colleagues. He was a physically huge person and he’s 6 feet 4 inches and he had hands that were you know size of Frisbees basically. He was very self-made, he never really had much of an education but read constantly. He got his first gun at age 7 and he was guiding by age 12, I mean very predacious much of the way that Theodore Roosevelt was. And at 16 he went into the woods to start cutting trees and well, all the rest of his peers were sort of drinking away their wages which is what they intended to do. He was really studying the business and by the time he was 20, he had his own crew, running his own lumber crew, which was very rare. But the Sewall House which still stands today in Island Falls, it was the house that Bill Sewall built for his parents in 1860, was sort of the center of Island Falls and I try to obtain a picture of this community and everyone who came to Island Falls as a traveler would stop there and he loved that, he loved to get perspective of people from outside, from outside of Aroostook County, people from all over the world actually came by. He was very interested in politics and what was going on all over the world. He was a character and a real-life leader. Much like Roosevelt he had sort of zeal for life that, you know, everyday he couldn’t wait to get up and put his boots on and see what kind of adventures he could get into. So… and when he went out West we’ve he was never afraid of anyone or anything. He was just a unique.

Brett McKay: And so, how do TR meet Bill Sewall, what happened there?

Andrew Vietze: Yeah, Roosevelt was a home schooled or tutored by a gentleman named Arthur Cutler who would go on to found a famous school for boys in New York. And Roosevelt was his first student and they were very close and Cutler was only a few years older than Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt Senior hired Cutler to tutor, to get young Theodore who never went to public schools and his parents didn’t want him to, they just didn’t like the idea from going to public school basically. So he was tutored by Cutler and Cutler was an avid outdoorsman much like Roosevelt inspired to be and Cutler had been on a train in Boston with a couple of Roosevelt’s cousins planning a trip to Maine. And he didn’t exactly know where he wanted to go and he bumped into this fellow on the train and he said what you really need to get up and find Bill Sewall up in Aroostook County and so Cutler did and this was two years before Roosevelt went. And he had a wonderful time up there with Sewall and two Roosevelt cousins and when they got back all he had to do was talk about Bill Sewall in Island Falls. And so for two years Theodore Roosevelt had in the back of his mind that he would really love to get up to Aroostook County and go hunting with Bill Sewall. And what happened was Roosevelt’s father died and Roosevelt’s father was a huge figure in his life, kind of a campus you know, a moral campus, he was his guide in life and the person that Roosevelt called his best friend and the man that he most admired. So when he died he was really despondent and kind of adrift and Cutler recognized that and he thought that would be a perfect time for this trip up north because he thought that Bill Sewall would be a really great male role model for Theodore Roosevelt. So in 1878 Roosevelt and Cutler and a couple of Roosevelt’s cousins took the train and off they went to go to see Bill Sewall up in Island Falls.

Brett McKay: And after these two experiences, you know this trips with Sewall, they became lifelong friends, is that correct?

Andrew Vietze: Absolutely, yeah, literally lifelong friends. When Roosevelt became President, Sewall went down and visited him at the White House a few times and they exchange letters. I think someone said that Roosevelt wrote 150,000 letters and I’m pretty sure a lot of them went to Bill Sewall because I had page through them all and they just–– they were involved a very voluminous correspondence back and forth.

Brett McKay: Talking about the relationship, what was in like? Because Sewall was considerably older than Roosevelt and was the relationship more like a father-son thing or was it was brothers, or they just kind of teacher-student, what was it like?

Andrew Vietze: It’s a kind of–– that’s a great question because it has a lot of all of those elements in it. He was–– Sewall was 13 years older than Roosevelt Bill Sewall. And like I mentioned Arthur Cutler, Roosevelt’s tutor said Sewall has a great father-figure type person in Roosevelt’s life. But I think that Roosevelt himself actually looked up to him more sort of an older brother. They’re extremely close and very good friends. But I think that he was more of like an older brother or an older brother’s friend kind of thing, very much the mentor as opposed to someone that would like discipline or you know…. He just was someone that Roosevelt really admired and wanted to be like in many ways and he always looked to him ––even when he was president he would look to him for counsel, for his thoughts or something. And one of the reasons for that is because Sewall was one of the first people that Roosevelt ever met that was sort of normal, everyday guy who was not hyper affluent and very privileged. He gave Roosevelt sort of perspective into ordinary American’s life, you know sort of pop, where he kind of got his popularism. So, a little bit of everything, really.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and there’s something you just mentioned there how Roosevelt aspired to be like Sewall, that’s something I found really interesting in your book. You do some experts from Roosevelt’s diaries and you see him constantly comparing himself to Sewall or, I guess it was a stint where they hang out much of the lumberman, they worked around for Lumberman and Roosevelt, this young man was comparing himself to these you know really strong Lumberman saying I can keep up with them even though Roosevelt was still kind of a weakling at this time. And you kind of give the sense that Roosevelt was insecure about himself and this insecurity drove him to, I guess, improve himself, would that be a correct statement?

Andrew Vietze: Yeah, I think absolutely that’s correct. He was kind of pampered as I mentioned and his parents called him sort of indulged him and he didn’t get a lot of exposure to people outside his social strata. And you know he never had schoolyard fights that we had––that a lot of us had anyway. He didn’t ever really get a chance to test himself outside, but you know his parents fear of influence until he went to Harvard. And when he went to Harvard, he went up to Maine. So, he did see Sewall and they had a ––Sewall had a nephew who was closer in age group to Roosevelt that also guided him a lot … and so Roosevelt spent a lot of time comparing himself to both Sewall and Darrel you’ll see excerpts in the diary. I didn’t shoot anywhere near as well as Sewall and Darrel or I just as far as those you know as the Mainer did today. I carried my bag the whole way. When he climb Mt. Katahdin he was the only person from–– besides his guide, the only one fellow New Yorker that was able to get up the mountain and so that really was a very huge point of pride for him and he talk about a lot when he was back at Harvard, you know, I can keep up with Mainers, I can work just as hard as the Mainers. So, yeah, he always was comparing himself. And a lot of men of Roosevelt’s age and when I say age in time period way, from that era were worried about becoming–– moving sort of rubbing into the doors that made America great in the early days. They were worried that they’re becoming too soft and too Europeanized and I think Roosevelt felt that personally very strongly because he did come from––he was a very small child, he was pampered, he was sickly and so he really, really wanted to be prove his mettle and he used Sewall and Darrel as the measuring sticks for the time there.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and what ways do you think Sewall specifically had an influence on TR?

Andrew Vietze: Well, I think Roosevelt, when he was a boy was very interested in adventure stories, you know he was fascinated by Rogers’ Rangers, Daniel Boone, Debbie Crockett, Natty Bumppo, and all these rugged, outdoorsman, adventurers and pioneers. And when he came up the Maine here he meets a guys that he thought, you know, could have stepped right out of the pages in one of those books, Bill Sewall and basically I think it was just ––I can’t say specifically like Sewall said you know you need to hold your gun this way or what not, I don’t have that kind of deep data, but what I do have is that as I mentioned that he was always comparing himself. He was always striving to be equal to Bill Sewall and … whether it was shooting or hiking or climbing, he always wanted to do as well. So, that’s as specific as I can get really.

Brett McKay: Yeah, on that–– I don’t really know, do you think Sewall had anything to do with Roosevelt, you know directing Roosevelt in the public service? Because this was the time in Roosevelt’s life when he was trying to figure out what he was going to do with rest of his life. He was thinking about being a natural historian, something he has been doing since he was a boy and he was thinking maybe doing public service. Do you think Sewall had anything to do with kind of nudging Roosevelt into the area of becoming politician or statesman?

Andrew Vietze: Yeah, he certainly encouraged this. I think probably that Roosevelt was leaning that way anyway, but in the book I mentioned a couple of incidence where they talked specifically about that. On the first one they were on Roosevelt’s third trip to Aroostook County and they were exploring Aroostook river and they’re pushing their boat up the river, which it was in the late summer so there wasn’t a whole lot of water and they ended up having to portage a lot and physically heave the boat up the river over Beaver dams and it’s a really, really rugged trip. And at night what they would do is built a shelter beside the river and sit and talk, just two of them and they had a lot of heart-to-heart. And Roosevelt talked later about one of those heart-to-hearts he was talking to Sewall about how he kind of come to this point in his life where he no longer thought he wanted to be a naturalist which is what he had always wanted to be because when he got to Harvard he found that being a naturalist would meant that you’d work in a lab with a white coat on and what he wanted to do is to be the adventurer in the field kind of naturalist. So he started to decide that maybe that wasn’t for him and he started to think about law and politics and Sewall told him like there beside the Aroostook river there the world could use more good men like him in public service and said you know there was very specific conversation about it. And they had much the same conversation when they were going their separate ways and having the badlands. Sewall ran Roosevelt’s cattle ranch when Roosevelt decided to go out and be a cowboy and there he found out that the ranch wasn’t going to fly for a variety of reasons and they decided to shut it down. They had a heart-to-heart out on the plains one night, just two of them. And at that time Sewall actually said explicitly if you go into politics and live, your chance to be president one day is good. So, I think he really did encourage him that because he did see––he really as much as Roosevelt admire Sewall, Sewall admire Roosevelt. He would say that he’d never anybody quite like him and he thought the world needed you know someone has good and smart and confident as he in public service. And so I do think yeah, he really encouraged this.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and you just mentioned about Sewall’s experience in the badlands and that he quote to TR, tell us a little bit about that because that really was kind of fish out of water experience for Sewall. I mean he came from this lush New England green, you know hills and mountains of Maine to really desert of the badlands, what was that experience like for Sewall?

Andrew Vietze: Well, it’s funny. He essentially stepped off the train and gets to the badlands and turns himself to Roosevelt this is not much of a cattle country and Roosevelt was, of course, aghast because he just spend all his money and he was trying to build, you know, the ranching venture and here’s Sewall already putting down. But he didn’t have much use for the badlands and he used to like quip that whoever called them the badlands had it about right. They were too hot for him and that were too dry for him especially and too cold, frankly. I mean it was a real extreme of temperature that up in Maine here we don’t usually see because we have the mitigating influence of the ocean. So, he was not very comfortable out there and he was never too comfortable riding horses. He used to say that the only experience he had in a question sort of way was he rode logs and he didn’t really cut into that much. What he really did enjoy though was more in getting to see this part of the country because that was the farther where he’d ever been. He’d been to New York and he’d been to Illinois and what not but he’d never been quite that far west. And he just enjoyed, they did some trips to Montana and Wyoming doing that cattle roundups. He really enjoyed that aspect of it, just getting to see what the country look like. And he also really enjoyed meeting all the people that he met, that he came across and he thought that the ranch hands from the west were much like the men that he felt comfortable with, the lumberman of Maine, you know, sort of the same guy, different job basically.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it sounds like Sewall did, you know, went out west kind of as a loyalty to Roosevelt in a sense?

Andrew Vietze: He did. I mean I think really he thought he liked more than he did and he certainly wanted to go hang out with Roosevelt some more and to help him make venture succeed, but when he got there it wasn’t long before he was riding home and you know this is not the place for me. He would tell his brother who is a little bit jealous, you know, you don’t have anything to be jealous about because we have it much nicer there in Island Falls than they have it out here. So, it was a kind of… go ahead.

Brett McKay: Oh, go ahead, go ahead.

Andrew Vietze: I was just going to say it was kind of Wild West that time you know and they and a lot of discussions with neighbors over gun barrels and I think Sewall found that kind of you know exciting. So, I think that element kind of appealed to him too, but ultimately he said that when he got home he was never happy to be home than when he returned from that trip.

Brett McKay: Yeah, now why you think Bill Sewall doesn’t get as much attention today. I mean in your book you talked about how he became this very public figure when Roosevelt was elected. I mean he was pitching you know even products, outdoor products you know as the guy, the mentor of the Theodore, President Theodore Roosevelt and then it just seems like he kind of got forgotten in history, why do you think that happened?

Andrew Vietze: Well, he really was a celebrity for a while there and he was well-known enough that they–– you know he would be in the newspaper and they’ll just have to say with Bill Sewall, they didn’t have to say the president’s guy, they would have to say anything else, just Bill Sewall. He became a known commodity and he was very early in Roosevelt’s biography, he loomed very large. In fact, I quote Hermann Hagedorn as he was among the first biographers of Roosevelt and when Roosevelt was at the end of his life Hagedorn asked him who should I speak to and he said you needed to speak to Bill Sewall of Island Falls. He knows me better than anybody else. And yet he does kind of disappear but it’s really just, it’s about the 50s through the 90s or something he disappears, because right now there is another book out, you probably heard of Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley and there’s a fairly decent chunk on Sewall in that book and Brinkley says that Maine was the place where under Sewall’s guidance where Roosevelt first found his true self or became his true self. So, it is really only the recent biographies but they were the biggest biographies so you know the best always like Mornings on Horseback and stuff. You’ll find Sewall in there but he is a very minor character.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Andrew Vietze: Yeah, I guess it’s because those books had certain things that they wanted to focus on. Mornings on Horseback was focused on the milieu that created Theodore Roosevelt, you know in New York and his family and they weren’t really as much into the outdoors I guess.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Andrew Vietze: And they weren’t written by a traveling guide maybe

Brett McKay: There we go. Well, last question Andrew, what lessons do you think men today can take from Bill Sewall on becoming better men? Because Bill Sewall sound like he was an outstanding guy, what we learn from him?

Andrew Vietze: He definitely was an outstanding guy. One he believes in very hard work and he believe in treating people, he would say using people in the right way. He was very honest, he was very–– like Theodore Roosevelt he was always aspiring to better himself and his community. For example, he use to make loans out of his own pocket to people in Island Falls that he thought were doing something that will help the community of Island Falls. He was extremely loyal as a friend which I think is pretty obvious with his relationship with Roosevelt and he really believe in what he called duty. And an example of that’ll be that he was invited by some friends to move out to Minnesota where there’re just starting lumbering operations and he could’ve made amends being like an overseer so that ––I guess an overseer is best way to put it–– help and set up Minnesota lumbering industry and he didn’t because his parents were–– their health was failing and he thought he had a duty to be there to care them. So, you know duty will be one of his nicer attributes. He was just a really decent human. I can’t find a whole lot bad to say about really and it is pretty, pretty sad because you think there’ll be really dark aspects to his personality or something but the only thing that was–– that I can see that–– you know he had an attitude towards woman and his children that was of the time, I guess. You know, he didn’t think too much of leaving his wife to go live in badlands for a year-and-a-half or two years, who even have a brand-new baby, so some people might think that was not the kind of thing to do but he really was a gentleman and a fine human being really.

Brett McKay: Yeah, well, Andrew thank you for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Andrew Vietze: Well, I really appreciate, Brett. I like your site and I don’t know if you know but Andrew comes from Old the Greek for manly.

Brett McKay: That’s right, that’s right, yeah, manly name there. Well, thanks again, Andrew.

Andrew Vietze: Thank you very much.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Andrew Vietze. Andrew is the author of the book “Becoming Teddy Roosevelt: How a Maine Guide Inspired America’s 26th President and you can find Andrew’s book at Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at and until next time, stay manly.

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