“From Freddie Osborn,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote on the back of the letter he’d received in the summer of 1875. “He was drowned the day following.”
TR saved the piece of paper all his life, and it was deposited with family correspondence at the Houghton Library at Harvard. I found it on the library’s database last year. I can’t tell you why I missed seeing the actual letter when I visited the library several years ago. It was exactly the kind of primary source material I was looking for, from someone who knew TR well in his youth, and previously unpublished.
Houghton Library, Harvard University
It was a sweet letter. Fred, 16, son of the president of a major railroad, talked of studying for his entrance exams to Princeton. He wanted Theodore to come to the Hudson highlands for a visit: to ride, drive, fish and row as much as he wanted. They would trade skins of pine-creeping and worm-eating warblers (both boys collected birds). He hoped his friend could come as soon after the Fourth of July as he could.
But tragedies intervene in our lives. As Fred dove into the Hudson River just before the holiday, a strong current pulled him under. He never resurfaced, and his body was found two days later. The boys would not explore nature together again.
In his 1913 autobiography, TR made a point to remember Fred. He was “a fine, manly fellow,” whom he could see just as plainly as in his youth. Fred’s brothers grew up to do great things, Henry as president of the American Museum of Natural History, and William as businessman and philanthropist. William named his son Fred, and there has been a Fred Osborn in every generation since.
I contacted Fred Osborn III in Garrison, who directed me to a great-grandson of Henry’s, Nat Prentice. Nat and his wife, Anita, live at Wing and Wing, the same country home Fred invited Theodore to in 1875. About a year and a half ago my daughter and I visited the Prentices there. They showed us an album Henry kept which described the history of the house; in it were pictures of young Henry, Fred, and William. There was a also photograph of a frequent visitor to Wing and Wing, John Pierpont Morgan. Morgan’s first wife was the boys’ Aunt Amelia, who died of tuberculosis. He later remarried.
Freddie and William in the 1860s. Photo courtesy Nat and Anita Prentice.
The Prentices took us to see St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, a stone structure on stately grounds, with a memorial window for Fred and his sister, Virginia. Behind the church in the cemetery are many members of the family, including Henry, William, and their parents. But neither Fred nor Virginia, who died within two months of each other, rest there. They are together with a common headstone in the East Cemetery of Fairfield, Connecticut, home of their mother’s people.
I noticed the grave of Hamilton Fish, a Rough Rider who was killed in Cuba in 1898. His story is well-known to readers of TR; and like Fred Osborn, he had ancestors and descendants with the same name.
This spring I was able to read in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, where Fred’s mother’s papers were donated by a relative. Would any of Fred’s be among them? No. His sister’s were, and his grandmother’s and uncles’.
Virginia wrote about her brothers planting peanuts on their farmland, and of Fred scattering his all over the place instead of taking time to line them up. He was just being a boy. A boy who was a good friend to another who would grow up to be president.
Garrison, New York photos by Amy Griffin.
I am pleased to say that more of the story of Fred, Theodore, and the nature club they belonged to will appear in the next issue of The Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal. Titled “The Determined Independent Study of a Boy Who Became America’s 26th President,” it is taken from two chapters of my book, The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt, which is published by Xlibris. It is available on both amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.