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July 7th, 2024
A silver pocket watch that accompanied Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898 was recently returned to the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site on Long Island after it went missing for 37 years.


A gift from his youngest sister, Corinne, and brother-in-law, Douglas Robinson, the 17-jewel Waltham watch with a hunter-style case was one of the former president's most precious possessions.


Roosevelt received the watch just before he was deployed to Cuba as a Lt. Colonel in the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry during the Spanish-American War. The inscription reads: "THEODORE ROOSEVELT FROM D.R. & C.R.R."

On May 5, 1898, President Roosevelt wrote this thank-you note to his sister: “Darling Corinne, You could not have given me a more useful present than the watch; it was exactly what I wished…Thank old Douglas for the watch – and for his many, many kindnesses.”


In addition to enduring his famous charge up San Juan Hill, the future president would take this watch with him on other well chronicled adventures, including hunting wild game in Africa and exploring the Amazon in South America.


In his 1914 book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, the former president mentions the watch in a passage about a particularly difficult bayou crossing: "One result of the swim, by the way, was that my watch, a veteran of Cuba and Africa, came to an indignant halt.”

According to the National Park Service (NPS), the valued watch "would travel with him, be damaged, repaired, and kept as a keepsake. It is likely to have accompanied Theodore Roosevelt for significant portions of his presidency, including his two inaugurations."

After Roosevelt died in 1919, the watch became a family heirloom, but was eventually donated in 1963 to the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site (the 26th president's former home) in Oyster Bay, NY.

The watch resided at Sagamore Hill until 1971, when it was lent to the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, NY. Originally called the Ansley Wilcox House, this is where then-Vice President Roosevelt took the oath of office after the assassination of President William McKinley on September 14, 1901.

In 1987, the watch went missing from the Buffalo historic site and there were no signs of it for the next 36 years. Then, in 2023, the watch turned up at a Florida auction house.

According to an FBI press release, the auctioneer realized that the watch may have belonged to Roosevelt, so he contacted the historic sites in Oyster Bay and Buffalo. Both confirmed the authenticity of the watch.

NPS, the lead investigative agency, contacted the FBI Art Crime team for additional assistance. Both the NPS and FBI confirmed that this was the watch stolen almost 40 years earlier.

"This watch was a fairly pedestrian Waltham 17-jewel watch with an inexpensive coin silver case. It's a 'Riverside' grade and model '1888' with a hunter-style case, meaning it has a lid on either side which fold and encase the dial and the movement," said Special Agent Robert Giczy, a member of the FBI Art Crime Team.

Roosevelt’s watch was returned to Sagamore Hill National Historic Site during a repatriation ceremony on June 27. Representatives from the NPS and the FBI attended.

“It is an honor to have a role in preserving American history for current and future generations to learn from,” NPS Director Chuck Sams said. “Recovering and returning this remarkable piece of presidential history, a cherished personal item of President Theodore Roosevelt, to its rightful home here at Sagamore Hill reflects the dedication and hard work of NPS and partners in the spirit of preservation.”

The watch is currently featured in an exclusive exhibit at the Old Orchard Museum, part of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, and is available for free public viewing over the next three months.

Credits: Watch images courtesy of the National Park Service. Rough Riders image by Photographer: William Dinwiddie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.