The Ballad of Sailor Bill: A Timeline of the Tortoise in the White House

In Memoriam

The flags flew at half mast, even though it was the Fourth of July.

The news had hit the Washington Press Corps that morning. They had been awoken en masse by their White House contacts, their anonymous sources, all leaking like a sieve. The reporters picked up their phones, opened their emails, expecting something big. An appointment to a vital positionl, or major policy initiative. The more cynical among them expect a new scandal or another war.

What they got was much, much worse.

The rumors naturally hit the internet with startling speed. The panic started. Followed by calm voices calling for calm, voices that were swiftly overwhelmed. Overwhelmed both by the power of panic and the fact that the rumors were being corroborated, not contradicted.

By lunchtime, a frazzled White House Press Secretary confirmed the rumors, stunning the nation. The reporter’s faces fell. For once they had all hoped their stories were wrong. They felt the hole in their hearts open.

In the Oval Office, the President hung up the phone, following a solemn call with the President of Ecuador.

The President fumed. Of all the times for this to happen, it had to happen now. In their term, on their watch. Right in the middle of some very delicate negotiations. And on the Fourth of July of all days. Even an amateur could see how bad the optics were, even if it wasn’t entirely the President’s fault. And the President was no amateur.

Yet the anger by the Commander in Chief was not solely political. It was also the anger of someone who has lost something. Something that has been around for the President’s entire life. A key institution, part of political life for lifetimes, had been lost. Fate seemed to have struck at America, right at the heart. The grief and shock felt by the common citizen was shared by their President.

With a calm, commanding, tone the President requested the plans first assembled by Jimmy Carter. Plan: Tortuga. They began to make some calls. It was a long day.

Where were you when you heard the news?

A question that had been asked after Pearl Harbor, after the Assasination of JFK, after 9/11. A question that was asked now.

“I had just woken up from sleeping in, and opened the news app.”

“I was shopping.”

“My daughter started crying and I asked her what happened.”

Reflection soon followed. What did it mean? Was there any significance to the date of the death? Why had this happened now? Of course, there would never have been a good time for this, but this moment seemed particularly hurtful.

Some, naturally, attempted to find meaning. Some pinned the blame on the President, as they had feared. It was a result of the amoral policies and criminal activities of the administration. Some alleged actual negligence on the part of the White House, and demanded full investigations. Others saw the hand of god in death.

Others took a broader view. This was symbolic of the decline of the United States of America as a whole. A reflection of a nation slouching towards Bethlehem, an empire in decline. It was fitting. He had witnessed America as it was taking its first steps towards being a global power. Indeed he had only ever come to Washington as a result of America’s influence abroad. He had seen it rise to great heights, and then decline. And now he was gone. Would the United States soon follow?

The truth of the matter was far more simple. He was old. He had had lived a long and fruitful life. He had wandered the White House for years. He had delighted diplomats and impressed politicians of all stripes. He had fathered many children. He had brought joy to many, but he had been doing it for a very long time.

In death, he commanded the respect he had earned in life. He lay in state, visited by thousands in a coffin procured by the government. The flags were lowered across the country. There was talk of burial in Arlington, he was after all a member of the United States Navy. But in the end he was to be buried where he had lived, on the grounds of the White House.

The funeral was attended by a variety of dignitaries. Bemused foreign nations observed the proceedings. The President of Ecuador attended in person.

All of the living former Presidents made the journey to Washington to see him off. But they represented only a minority of those who had known him, who had lived with them. Even the oldest among them had not even been born when he arrived.

Sailor Bill had outlived more than a dozen Presidents. Countless Senators and Representatives had come and gone under his watch. The Supreme Court had completely changed, not just in composition but in location. The only things longer older than Sailor Bill were the White House and Congress, and the parties that fought for control of things. He was a bedrock of Washington.

And he was gone.

No one lives forever.

Not even tortoises.
Oi what’s this then?

Why hello there outdated monologue. Are you speaking in an accent today?

No I’ve just always wanted to say that.

Ah, very well. Well, many moons ago I was inspired by an IRL (well, zoom) discussion of Presidential pets to think about a pet under multiple Presidents. At first I was thinking of dogs under the Bushes. But I thought of the Cats Number 10 has and then…Sailor Bill was born. In the form of a wikibox.

So he’s a tortoise who lives in the White House?

That’s the gist of it, yes. It was a hit with friends and so I thought I’d post an expanded version here.

It took you this long? And this opener didn’t seem very expanded?

Things happened. And part of the fun of Sailor Bill is slotting him into fun situations with friends. This is by no means exhaustive account of his exploits.

What is this an account of then?

Each chapter coincides with a President he served with (up until we arrive in the forbidden realm of current politics). Some are only lightly related, others more about his relationship with them.

So this is a sneaky way of doing a list?

No lol they’re all OTL, another part of the fun of Sailor Bill is that he vibes through history.
Secret Origins - Teddy Roosevelt

The Galápagos Islands were under siege. Not by a navy, no. Not even the land hungry powers of Europe had claimed them, and they had fallen into the hands of Ecuador without much dispute.

But they were still being torn apart. And none suffered more than the tortoises.

The tortoises might have ruled the islands, had they been so inclined. Instead, they merely roamed the island. Their eggs were lain, then they hatched. For a brief time predatory birds or lizards might pose some threat, but not for long, and never in great numbers. Once the tortoises grew to a certain size, they were free to wander. Eating grass, and leaves, and other plants when the fancy so took them. Living and mating. None could threaten them, not even themselves. For although the males occasionally fought over mates, their battles rarely left one so much as injured.

They were not immortal. The laws of thermodynamics remain, and nothing can last forever. There were also the risks of falls from steep hillsides and the like injuring or killing the tortoise. But, for the most part, they lived in peace.

But the humans changed that.

The tortoises did not need to eat or drink that much to survive, as evolution on the dry islands favored an ability to survive hard times. This meant that a ship could carry a tortoise with very little supplies expended. The tortoises were not used to humans and so did not fear when picked up and hauled onto the ships that passed by. And even if they had, they could not have fought back. The men that took them were mainly whalers, anxious for any sort of fresh meat.

No less an authority than Charles Darwin found the soup excellent.

By the early 1900s the whalers were fading, their geed having killed the source of their wealth. The harvesting of tortoises stopped. Had it just been the whalers, the number of tortoises might have recovered. But the whalers had not come alone.

They had brought goats, released as herds so that they could be recaptured and slaughtered later. Goats that ate the same plants the tortoises depended on. Goats that did it much more quickly. Goats that like the tortoises, had no natural predators. Goats that bred prodigiously.

But the goats were not alone.

The goats did not directly harm the tortoises like the rats did. The rats ate the tortoises. Not the big ones, but the babies and especially the eggs. And they ate the eggs at a high rate. The elders kept mating and the mothers kept laying eggs. And the rats kept eating them. On some islands, no new tortoises were being born as every year the eggs were being eaten. Had the tortoises not had such prodigiously long lives, they would have gone extinct. Some still would.

In some islands, baby tortoises were still being born. And one was, in the very early days of the 20th Century. He lived and ate, and avoided the rats. Until one day, while he was still very small, he was scooped up by a passing sailor of indeterminate nationality. The sailor did not want to eat him. But he had promised his young daughter a souvenir from his long journey. And a pet tortoise seemed like just the thing.

Of course promises often crumble when alcohol is involved. And soon the tortoise was swapped in port for some rum. Then swapped again for some leather. And so on and so forth. Indeed he was quite lucky he was never lost, eaten, or killed accidentally. But eventually he was traded to an American Sailor in Magdalena Bay.

Unfortunately for said sailor, he sailed in the Navy, and his commanding officer did not look kindly upon the smuggling of live animals upon the ship. Particularly as the USS Connecticut was supposed to be showcasing the professionalism of the American Navy. Indeed it was the flagship of the Great White Fleet, circumnavigating the globe to show American prestige.

The situation amused Admiral Robley D. Evans when he hears tell of it, and he took custody of the tortoise. It was named “Barty,” for unknown reasons. (Evans is taking a lucky guess, he had no idea how to tell a male tortoise from a female one). The tortoise was consistently fed, and grows considerably as the fleet sails north. He might have become the mascot of the Connecticut, but before he could truly settle in, Evans fell ill. When the fleet arrives in San Francisco he was forced to relinquish command. Evans, hoping to make the best of a bad situation, decided to make a gift of Barty to a man whose taste for animals in his home was well known.

President Theodore Roosevelt happily accepted the gift from the departing Admiral, and the Barty enters the White House in mid-1908. The name Barty was swiftly dropped in favor of a new one.

The name “Sailor” came naturally, coming as he did from an Admiral who found him in port. The name “Bill” came from the acid tongue of the President’s eldest daughter Alice, who made a jab at her father’s Secretary of War and heir apparent, the round and somewhat plodding William Howard Taft. Even President Roosevelt chuckled at that. And once the name got leaked to the press? The name 'Barty' was lost to history.

The newly renamed Sailor Bill was a late addition to the Roosevelt White House, and truth be told was not a favorite of the family. He was not the most well tended to by the staff. He was not neglected. They gave him leafy greens and made sure to take him inside when it was cold out. But amongst all the animals of the Roosevelt White House, he is overlooked. The photographers who adore the other pets paid him little heed. The Cabinet members and Congressmen who came to the White House gave him even less attention.

He would outlive them all.
Of course it would be Teddy. I found the tale of the ecological invasion of the islands sad, but the mental image of a little turtle being passed around like a football was more amusing.
Settling In - William Howard Taft

The naming of Sailor Bill had been an insult to the future President Taft, but in fact, it had piqued the interest of the Ohioan. Hearing of the tortoise that bore his name, Taft sought the creature out. And soon he had taken quite a liking to the creature. After his solid victory over William Jennings Bryan, he began to make plans to move into the White House

After consulting with his wife, who was somewhat amused, Taft approached Roosevelt, asking his friend if Sailor Bill might stay in the White House for Taft’s term in office. Roosevelt, who had no particularly strong connection with Sailor Bill, obliged.

And so Sailor Bill became the first Presidential Pet to remain in office over the course of a Presidential Transition.

The Taft White House was also the last one to have a cow on the premises, namely the famous Pauline Wayne. Often she and Sailor Bill would wander the White House lawn together. Pauline Wayne had achieved some press fame, she once avoided a trip to the slaughterhouse, and some began to comment on the “turtle” beside her. (The instance on tortoise would not come for some time.) At the time, Sailor Bill was still young, and although he was growing not many in the White House anticipated his full size. He was slightly easier to overlook in the early 1900s than he would become.

In the much less zoo-like atmosphere of the Taft White House, Sailor Bill was able to shine. He was the only truly exotic animal kept by Taft, garnering him more attention than before.

However, Taft had cooled on Sailor Bill during his time in office. This was not due to any offense on Bill’s Part. It was more the result of Taft’s deteriorating relationship with Bill’s original owner. Snide comments from Progressives about Taft being slow on important issues did not help the matter.

That said, sending Sailor Bill away was never an option. Returning him to the Roosevelts would be humiliating, and it wasn’t like Sailor Bill was actively bothering anyone. For the most part he wandered the White House grounds, occasionally bumping into the staff. Bill proved a remarkably calm presence in the White House, and would, with a few notable exceptions, retain his composure for all of his time at the White House.

As the Taft Presidency neared its inglorious conclusion, the First Family was faced with the prospect of moving out of Washington. And there was little desire to bring Sailor Bill all the way out to Ohio. The prospect of a return to Roosevelt remained untenable. The National Zoo did exist but had not yet entered the limelight as a premier location for animals.

It is unknown whose idea it was simply to hand Sailor Bill over to the incoming Wilson Administration. Certainly, Taft was not on any particularly good terms with Woodrow Wilson. But it was easy and gave the appearance of a happy transition. And, Taft ruely noted, it was good to have a reminder of Teddy Roosevelt’s influence in your White House. All in all, an elegant method of disposing of Sailor Bill, who was still seen as something of a White Elephant rather than a national institution.

Wilson’s acceptance of what he views as a frankly bizarre offer comes down to bemusement, more than anything else. Yes, to a man who only entered office because of a Republican split, there was some benefit to playing nice. And yes, caring for a creature from a far-off land appealed mightily to a paternalistic man like Wilson. But mostly he found it amusing. So he agreed to keep Sailor Bill in the White House.

Once was a historical curiosity. Twice was a coincidence. Thrice was a tradition.
In the Navy - Woodrow Wilson

From the USHistory.Com Section on Sailor Bill

Sailor Bill has been involved with the United States military for a very long time. He arrived in the United States aboard the USS Connecticut.

In 1918, during World War I Woodrow Wilson signed papers formally enrolling Sailor Bill in the United States Navy, as an Ensign, at the request of sailors aboard the USS Connecticut. Bill remained in Washington for the duration of the war.

During World War 2, Sailor Bill took a more active role. Franklin Roosevelt made use of Bill in speeches and posters. Bill traveled the country as a way to sell war bonds (special certificates people buy to help the government during the war). Bill never left the country, instead encouraging people at home to support the troops. After the war Bill was promoted to Lieutenant in recognition of his services.

During the Korean War Sailor Bill again played a role in advertisements from the government, although he would not be promoted.

Dwight D. Eisenhower defused a controversy using Sailor Bill. Cadets from West Point had kidnapped Bill the Goat, Navy’s mascot, before the Army-Navy Game. Eisenhower threatened to send Sailor Bill to support Navy if Bill the Goat was not returned, despite being a West Point graduate himself.

Annapolis lore claims Sailor Bill is a Navy fan for obvious reasons. West Point holds that despite his commission in the Navy, Sailor Bill was named for a War Secretary and therefore belongs to the Army. Colorado Springs claims Sailor Bill’s support largely because it doesn’t want to be left out.

In 1959, Bill made his first-ever overseas trip, visiting Army troops stationed in Germany as part of a goodwill tour. It was on this tour that Sailor Bill had the first of his two meetings with Elvis Presley, who he met in Friedberg.

In 1968 Sailor Bill had spent 62 years in the White House, reaching the mandatory retirement age for the United States Navy. The Chief of Staff for the Navy and President Lyndon Johnson agreed that Bill’s service had been “exemplary,” and the requirement was waived. Some people protested this decision, due to the controversial Vietnam War.

In 1976, during celebrations of the 100th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Sailor Bill was promoted by Gerald Ford. He became a Lieutenant Commander.

In 1991 Sailor Bill made his first visit to troops on the front when he was flown to Saudi Arabia to visit Army units participating in Operation Desert Shield. He appeared alongside Bob Hope, who designed a routine around Sailor Bill.

In 1997 Sailor Bill, along with Connecticut First Lady Patricia L. Rowland, attended the launch of the new submarine, the USS Connecticut. The original USS Connecticut had been scrapped in the 1920s.

In 2005 Sailor Bill visited troops in Japan, Korea, and the Persian Gulf. This again caused controversy in relation to the Iraq War.

To commemorate Sailor Bill’s 100th Year of Service in the Navy, he was promoted to Commander in 2018. This makes him the highest-ranking non-human in American Military History.

Officially Sailor Bill is considered ‘on special assignment to the President’ by Navy Command.

Indiana Beach Crow

Monthly Donor
In 1968 Sailor Bill had spent 62 years in the White House, reaching the mandatory retirement age for the United States Navy. The Chief of Staff for the Navy and President Lyndon Johnson agreed that Bill’s service had been “exemplary,” and the requirement was waived.
Cue Admiral Rickover arguing with the Secretary of the Navy that "If you're going to let that damned turtle serve forever then why can't I!?!"
Party Starter - Warren G. Harding

“I want that damn turtle out of the White House!” The Secretary of the Interior demanded. The President shrugged helplessly.

“Albert, I can’t help but feel you’re overreacting a little here,” Harding said pleasantly. “It wasn’t that bad of a bite. Didn’t even break the skin. He didn’t bleed at all.” Harding said, scanning some papers before him quickly, before scribbling down his signature. He handed the papers off to a secretary. Pretty girl.

“Neither of us was the one bitten!” Albert Fall snapped. “The man says that damn Sailor Bill bit him, and he says it hurt him badly.”

Harding scoffed.

“I don’t doubt it hurt at the time, but by now it has probably already faded. Why when I was young I’d whine about a little bump, but by the next day I’d have forgotten all about it.”

“We are not talking about a child here, Mr. President. We are talking about a grown man, who wants this menace out of the White House.”

“Oh please! He’s hardly a menace. He gets along famously with Laddie Boy. And he’s certainly won over the Duchess. Why, when we moved in Florence thought him ghastly, but now she thinks he’s rather sweet.” Harding said, chuckling.

Fall scowled.

“Now look a man has been injured…”

“He didn’t seem injured at the party. Did he seem injured when you spoke?”

“Well, no, but he is still very angry. Says he will not support you for reelection if you keep Sailor Bill.”

Harding frowned.

“He is rather wealthy…”

“Says he will go straight to the press about the aggressive beast you keep,” Fall said, pressing his advantage. But he had overplayed. Harding frowned again.

“Sailor Bill isn’t very aggressive. Even when the staff tries to make him go where he doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t snap at them. He just goes slow, well, more slowly than usual.”

“Well, at the moment it’s his word against the Turtle’s.” Fall insisted.

“Uh, pardon my intrusion sirs, but actually I was present. I was, ahem, performing my duties at the party, and I saw the incident.” The pretty Secretary, at least in Harding’s view, was back.

“Well then,” the President said amiably. “Tell us what you saw.”

The Secretary blushed.

“Well, the uh, the gentleman in question had had quite a bit to drink. And had stumbled upon Sailor Bill. He, the man that is, picked up a knife and, um, attempted to carve his initials into Bill’s shell. At which point Bill, uh, bit him. Although Bill didn’t seem particularly harmed.”

Fall scowled.

“He didn’t mention that,” Fall muttered.

“Well, then that settles that,” Harding declared. “Cannot fault Bill for being startled by a man with a knife coming towards him.”

“He might turn it into a broader thing about your, ahem, parties, sir,” Fall noted. “Wayne Wheeler wouldn’t be pleased.”

“And make himself the center of ridicule? Got injured trying to attack Teddy Roosevelt’s turtle?” Harding chucked. “He’ll keep quiet.”
Creature Comforts - Calvin Coolidge

Silent Cal had a secret. Well, not a secret, it was in fact quite common knowledge at the time. But over the years it has slipped through the cracks of historical memory, drowned out by his famous silence.

Calvin Coolidge was a great animal lover.

Only Teddy Roosevelt surpassed Coolidge’s menagerie in terms of official Presidential pets. Coolidge and his wife filled the White House with a great variety of animals from all over the world.

They had no less than nine dogs over the course of their time in the White House. As well as seven birds and four cats, although not simultaneously. Should an animal prove disagreeable with White House life, they were quickly sent away to a better locale.

Perhaps that is the reason Coolidge never gained a reputation for his exotic pets. With the exception of Rebecca, a Racoon initially sent to be eaten for Thanksgiving but who managed to get adopted by the First Lady, most of the truly unusual pets were not kept in the White House. Calvin and Grace seemed to have a fairly decent handle on what a feasible pet was, and when over-enthusiastic supporters gifted them animals unsuited for Washington's life, they were swiftly sent to zoos. That is what happened to the Wallaby and Duiker. Bruno the Mexican Black Bear and Tax Reduction, and Budget Bureau, the Lion twins, were similarly dispatched to Rock Creek. William Johnson Hippopotamus, known as Billy to his friends, became the ancestor to most Pygmy Hippos in America after he arrived at the National Zoo.

All of the above helps explain why so much of the modern White House apparatus surrounding Sailor Bill can ultimately be traced back to the Coolidge Administration. Sending Sailor Bill away was not yet totally unthinkable, but it was nearing that tipping point. The Coolidges instead sought to make the White House hospitable for Bill.

Prior to the mid-1920s, Sailor Bill had simply wandered around the White House grounds as he so pleased. When the weather turned cold he was herded into the building and kept near sources of warmth as much as possible. He was fed money from plants on the grounds, until landscapers complained, at which point leftover salad was added to his diet, in the hopes that he would stop trying to eat the bushes.

The White House staff had not even known what species of tortoise Sailor Bill was. It was known he had been acquired in Latin America, and some scientifically inclined observers had correctly guessed he came from either the Galapagos or Aldabra.

It was the Coolidges, or more accurately staff acting on their behalf, that confirmed Sailor Bill indeed had originated in the Galápagos Islands. This was also the first time Sailor Bill had been properly examined by a veterinarian, although an expert in reptiles could not be found, leaving the examination somewhat perfunctory.

Nonetheless, certain accommodations were made for Bill. Proper, or at least more proper, feed was brought in, branches and such from tropical climes more similar to his homeland. The first “Turtle White House” was built, complete with heated lamps, although he continued to be given free rein of the building. Planks were set out when Sailor Bill needed to go up or down stairs, to reduce the possibility of his falling.

These improvements could not have come at a better time, as, having arrived as a juvenile, Sailor Bill was now reaching maturity, which left him much larger than anyone had anticipated when he first arrived in the White House.

The enclosure, now called the “Tortoise White House,” had been upgraded consistently, and now contains more sophisticated and environmentally friendly heating lamps. The feed and areas of the grounds reserved for Sailor Bill’s regular use are now up to the standards for giant tortoises. Bill has a high-priority use of the White House Elevators, as well as his traditional planks. There has been added an Official White House Vet with authority over all Presidential Pets, but who remains closely linked with Sailor Bill.

Many of the first steps were unreported at the time and few are aware of the extent to which the Coolidges transformed the life of Sailor Bill, but the actions they took from 1923 to 1928 helped ensure Sailor Bill a long life.