Unlike the old-world monarchies of Europe, the United States has no hereditary titles. Even so, some families have become political dynasties. We can count the Roosevelts as one such family. Along with the Adamses, Harrisons, and Bushes, the Roosevelts have produced two presidents. Indeed, in the twelve elections from 1900 to 1944, a Roosevelt appeared on eight ballots for president or vice-president. Theodore and Franklin are the most recognizable Roosevelts, but the family’s roots and branches extend from the 17th-century Dutch colony of New Amsterdam to the present day.
Despite their public image, tracing the family history has been exceedingly difficult. The early Roosevelt family left few records. Like other immigrants who came to the United States in the colonial period, the reasons they left Europe are hazy, and the jobs they took up varied. Not all Roosevelts were aldermen and wealthy tycoons, and not all Roosevelts settled in New Amsterdam. They strayed to Pennsylvania, Delaware, the Carolinas and Georgia.
Their lineage was also more diverse that commonly known. The notion that they came from purely Dutch stock is a myth. Historian Howard Beale calculated that President Theodore Roosevelt was only one-fourth Dutch.1 His ancestors came from Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, and Germany, as well as the Netherlands.
When Dr. John Gable became director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, he found the existing data on the Roosevelt genealogy deficient. In 1976, he began a comprehensive study of the family’s ancestry and hired genealogists Timothy Field Beard and Henry B. Hoff to assist. A historian by training, Gable understood the value of genealogy for scholarship and, in 1990, he published the association’s research in three issues of the TRA Journal. The entries include vital statistics as well as short biographies.2 Thirty years later, it remains the most complete account of the family and a primary point of reference for historians and genealogists.
Gable’s research continues to pay dividends. In 2018, Lt. Col. (ret.) Gregory A. Wynn, who now serves as the TRA’s vice president, began cataloguing the association’s resources at its Oyster Bay office. During that undertaking, Wynn discovered many unpublished documents and images that Gable had accumulated while researching the Roosevelt genealogy. For the first time, these documents have been made available to the public through collaboration with American Ancestors/New England Historic Genealogical Society. The TRA donated these records to NEHGS, who have digitized and catalogued them. They have been preserved and, more importantly, they are now available to scholars who can extend our understanding of the Roosevelt family by exploring these resources.
These documents highlight Roosevelt family members who normally receive little attention in popular histories. In genealogical research, however, these figures loom large. Robert Barnhill Roosevelt—President Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle—is a good example. For more than a decade, Robert lived next door to Theodore in an adjoining downtown Manhattan brownstone. Theodore’s father was a staunch Republican, and Robert was a Democrat. Politics aside, Robert cultivated a love of nature in young Theodore. He brought his nephew fishing, shared readings on naturalism, and opposed the overuse of natural resources. Robert’s children also became major players in New York City politics and the booming Gilded Age economy. Thanks to American Ancestors/NEHGS and TRA, we can learn more about Robert’s contribution to American history through the volumes of scrapbooks left behind.
Another overlooked Roosevelt that emerges in this collection is William Emlen Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin and neighbor in Oyster Bay. Emlen managed the president’s investments, as Theodore had a reputation for being a hopeless businessman. He lost a fortune in a Dakota ranching venture, and when he married Edith Carow she took over the family budget. Emlen put the family’s savings to work and ensured that the family’s earnings grew into a respectable inheritance for their children. Emlen’s children feature in the records, as well. Philip Roosevelt, Emlen’s youngest son, became close friends to all of Theodore’s children and opened a famous New York City coffeehouse called the Double R. The TRA collection includes an original letter from Philip in 1918, when he and Theodore Roosevelt’s children Ted and Kermit were together in France with the U.S. Army.
The collection also includes older, delicate records such as the letters of Cornelius Von Shaack Roosevelt (1794-1871), the patriarch of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts and source of the family’s great wealth. Known fondly as “CVS,” he bequeathed vast profits made in plate glass manufacturing and corporate banking. Another interesting document in the TRA collection is an eleven-page undated genealogy (likely from the nineteenth century) that predates the first published genealogical record of the family, which came out in 1902.
These records offer an insight into the true nature of the Roosevelt family. It is an intergenerational network, devoted to its members. To know it, one must go beyond Theodore and Franklin and Eleanor, who have hundreds of books dedicated to their contributions to society and politics already. Instead, take a look at the lesser-known Roosevelts like Robert, Emlen, CVS, and Philip, who contributed to the family’s successes perhaps even more than the famous Roosevelts. Equally, the records of the Roosevelt women fascinate. Franklin Roosevelt’s niece Helen married Theodore Roosevelt’s nephew, bridging the Oyster Bay and Hyde Park clans, just like her cousin Eleanor did by marrying FDR. Marriages outside the family illustrate the diversity within the family.
The TRA collection also encourages us to look to the future. Naturally, the Roosevelt family has expanded since 1990 when John Gable began the ancestry project. Today’s family members are leading figures in the conservation movement, banking industry, in charitable organizations, jurisprudence, and academia. Roosevelts are still in politics, as well. In 2023, eighteen-year-old Quentin Colón Roosevelt, the great-great-great grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, became an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Washington, D.C, making him the youngest elected official in capital. The family remains one of America’s most interesting, and the digitization of the TRA genealogy records brings us a little closer to their history.
1 Howard K. Beale, “T.R.’s Ancestry: A Study in Heredity,” New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 85, no. 3 (October 1954), 198.
2 “The Roosevelt Family in America: A Genealogy,” Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal 16, no. 1, 2, & 3 (1990): 1-155.