Thursday, June 10, 2010

Daniel Carter Beard and His Annual Pilgrimage to Theodore Roosevelt’s Grave.

Although Theodore Roosevelt was no longer president of the United States when the Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, he was an ardent booster of the organization. He was a troop committeeman of Troop 39 in Oyster Bay New York, and first council commissioner of Nassau County Council. As a former president, he was elected honorary vice president of the Boy Scouts of America. Roosevelt was the first and only man designated as Chief Scout Citizen.

“More and more I have grown to believe in the Boy Scout movement. I regard it as one of the movements most full of promise for the future here in America. The Boy Scout movement is distinctly an asset to our country for the development of efficiency, virility, and good citizenship. It is essential that its leaders be men of strong, wholesome character; of unmistakable devotion to our country, its customs and ideals, as well as in soul and by law citizens thereof, whose wholehearted loyalty is given to this nation and to this nation alone.”

For many years after his death in 1919, Scouts planted Roosevelt memorial trees and several thousand Scouts and leaders in the area made annual pilgrimages to his Long Island grave in the Young’s Memorial Cemetery of Oyster Bay. Organized under the leadership of “Colonel” Daniel Beard, National Boy Scout Commissioner and old friend of the late president, the Roosevelt Pilgrimage quickly became a spectacular and colorful annual event.

The first pilgrimage was conducted in October 1920 by National Commissioner Beard and National Office officials with the help of about 50 Nassau County Council Scouts. The next year Beard saw to it that the solemn pilgrimage took on more airs of a circus involving Scouts from all parts of Long Island, New Jersey, Brooklyn and Manhattan, men of the Camp Fire Club of America, various officials in buckskin suits, Canadian Mounties, and blooded Indian chiefs from the Ohlyea Sioux with the regalia of their tribe, “the feathers of their hats reaching the ground.” Led by a band, the boys marched to the cemetery followed by hundreds of spectators, and after a short address by Beard telling of Roosevelt’s Americanism and his pleasure at being made honorary Chief Scout Citizen of the Scouts, the band played the “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the scouts laid wreaths at the foot of Roosevelt’s tombstone. The Scout Oath was then repeated and at its conclusion Colonel Beard, kneeling, placed his wreath on the grave while the Scouts and hundreds of spectators knelt in a brief silent prayer.

The caption of a 1933 press photograph read, "Daniel Carter Beard, picturesque National Scout Commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America, about to place the wreath on the grave of former President Theodore Roosevelt, as some of the five thousand Scouts who paid their 14th annual pilgrimage to the grave today, October 21st, look on. The parade of Scouts from the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania started from the High School and ended at the grave here."

By 1936, the event had mushroomed into a stirring sight of a parade march of more than 5,000 Scouts, BSA officials, Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of Theodore Roosevelt, members of the Explorer’s Club, the Buckskin Men, the Campfire Club, the Range Riders of the West, many of them friends of the late President. Following the placing of the National Council wreath on the grave, “Uncle Dan” and BSA President Walter M. Head, Col. Roosevelt, and the veteran outdoorsmen reviewed the Scouts as each contingent came to a salute and placed their wreaths on the gate of the family plot where the former president was buried.An airplane flying low overhead dropped rose petals on the grave. During the “Ceremony of Roses” three Scouts tossed rose petals in the air as the names of Scout leaders who had recently passed away were called. Following the National Commissioner’s address, the ceremony came to a close, with four buglers blowing the Church Call, and a fifth bugler blowing “Taps.” [1]

By 1939, the entourage had swelled to 6,000 Scouts from five states, led by a mostly now propped-up 89-year old Dan Beard, who continued to lead the pilgrimage to the Oyster Bay shrine. [2]

President Roosevelt’s dictum of the strenuous life strongly appealed to Uncle Dan and in each annual address, he always quoted the late President on his doctrine of a vigorous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and intellectual strife; to preach that the highest form of success, which comes, not to the man who desires easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph. In his own words during an interview in 1941, just 10 days before his 90th birthday, Beard remarked:

“As I have said, Theodore Roosevelt was associated intimately with us when we were organizing the Scouts. He was always keenly interested. I never had to explain to him any ideas of a robust outdoor training for boys. They were his ideas also. Just before the end of his life we tried to get him to take the head of the Scout movement. He agreed, but the fates ruled otherwise. In place of saluting him as our living leader I have ever since led the annual pilgrimage of thousands of Boy Scouts to the simple grave at Oyster Bay, where our great President and my beloved friend rests. Each year we place a wreath by the headstone. In addition to the thousands of boys, my old companions of the Camp Fire Club, the original Buckskin Men, always accompany me, their ranks thinning as the years pass but their courage unimpaired. Each year as I make the short address I think how sadly we miss that loyal American, Theodore Roosevelt.” [3]

The Theodore Roosevelt Council and the Sagamore Service Troop (a group of trained adult leaders in the T.R. Council organized in 1923 to support the council’s programs) held a 150th Birthday Anniversary in 2008, with a visit to the Young’s Cemetery gravesite. Another annual Roosevelt Pilgrimage is now sponsored by The Theodore Roosevelt Association, a not-for-profit group that promotes a greater appreciation of the 26th President through research, seminars and member programs. The latest pilgrimage held in 2009 included a special Presidential Wreath sent from the White House, U.S. Navy representatives, veterans, Cub Scouts and NE Region BSA officials, school children, dignitaries, and representatives from Sagamore Hill.

[1] Boys’ Life, The Scout World by Chief Scout Executive James E. West, December issue, 1936
[2] Special to the New York Times, Times World Wide,Sunday.
[3] Quoted on the Scouting website, The Inquiry Net,

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