Place  /  Dispatch

Island in the Potomac

Steps from Georgetown, a memorial to Teddy Roosevelt stands amid ghosts of previous inhabitants: the Nacotchtank, colonist enslavers, and the emancipated.

Each year, more than 25 million visitors descend on the National Mall, according to the National Park Service. Fanning out, they encounter a circuit of imposing marble monuments dedicated to high-profile former presidents: Abraham Lincoln to the west, Thomas Jefferson to the south, and George Washington—abstractly rendered as a towering obelisk—at the center of this grassy axis. But few visitors to the capital city know about the island in the middle of the Potomac River that lionizes a president of its own.

Theodore Roosevelt Island, which the NPS calls a “living memorial” to the 26th president, is accessible only by a stately footbridge from a nearby Virginia riverbank. Visitors alight onto a dirt clearing adorned with a map shed, a garbage can, and little else. A brief tramp leads to a statue of Roosevelt, flanked by four stone slabs and anchoring a moat-encased memorial plaza. Other than this iconographic scene, the island is blanketed in woodland and swamp marsh. Its trails are more popular with runners and outdoor education groups than with tourists.

Unlike the spatial monumentality of the Mall, Theodore Roosevelt Island appears at first glance to fulfill a humbler purpose: that of a woodsy retreat from the bustling city, dedicated to the president long associated with environmentalism and the expansion of public lands in the American West. As the signer of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which enabled the executive branch to proclaim national monuments without congressional brouhaha, Roosevelt thought it his duty to serve the public by protecting natural resources, Robert Righter explains. During his eight years in office, he set aside Grand Canyon National Monument for conservation lands and expanded the number of National Forest reserves from forty-one to 159.

But Roosevelt was also a hawkish proponent of imperialism and racial domination, and the architect of the interventionist corollary allowing the United States to become a hemispheric occupying force after the War of 1898. In his writings, he extolled the frontier genocide of Indigenous people as the grounds for the ethnogenesis of the white American race. “Roosevelt’s West was a Darwinian arena,” Richard Slotkin explains in an essay on the ideological links between the president and Frederick Jackson Turner. As such, Roosevelt’s anti-Indigenous vitriol and conservationist views were of a piece. The violence of the former enabled the terra nullius theory behind the latter—and therefore undergirds the mainstream environmentalist movement of today, even in its efforts to pursue “work that disrupts the long histories of colonialism and racialization,” as scholars Joe Curnow and Anjali Helferty recently pointed out.