Ex-Idaho Statesman reporter Rounsevelle Wildman became diplomat

Rounsevelle Wildman
Rounsevelle Wildman Provided by Arthur Hart

Rounsevelle Wildman was just 21 when he arrived in Boise in 1885 and went to work as a reporter for the Idaho Statesman. He stayed in Boise for five years before beginning a lifetime of adventure in the Far East that saw him gain international prominence, both as a diplomat and as a writer.

Wildman was born in Batavia, New York on March 19, 1864. His father, Rev. Edwin Wildman, was President of a Wesleyan theological seminary, which Rounsevelle attended before entering Syracuse University where he studied journalism.

Some accounts, notably a laudatory one in the Sacramento Daily Union of September 5, 1898, credit him with being editor of the Idaho Statesman, but we have been unable to find supporting evidence that he held that position. There is, however, plenty of evidence that Rounsevelle Wildman was a talented writer on a variety of subjects, and that he was owner and editor of the Overland Monthly magazine at San Francisco from 1894 until 1897. His book “Tales of the Malayan Coast: From Penang to the Philippines” (ca.1899) is still in print, and a children’s book “Baboo’s Good Tiger” can be read on-line.

Historian E. Charles Ash notes that Wildman served as a member of the Idaho delegation to Congress in 1889-90, and credits his efforts with achieving statehood for Idaho on July 3, 1890.

On June 2, 1890, Wildman he used his growing political influence in the Republican Party to secure appointment by President Benjamin Harrison to the position of United States Consul at Singapore. In January, 1893, Harrison appointed him U.S. Consul at Barmen, Germany, but incoming President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, appointed someone else to the position and Wildman retired from the consular service. Sultan Abu Bakar, a Malayan potentate that he had befriended at Singapore, asked him to go to Chicago and take charge of the Johor exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition. When the fair was over Wildman went to San Francisco where, as noted earlier, he owned, edited, and contributed regularly to the Overland Monthly.

When Republican William McKinley took office as President in 1897 he appointed Wildman to the U.S. Consulate at Hong Kong, and in early 1898 he was promoted to the position of Consul General. When the Spanish-American war broke out that year it brought Admiral George Dewey and the Pacific Fleet to Manila Bay in the Philippine Islands where it quickly destroyed the Spanish fleet. Wildman became deeply involved with leaders of Filipino armed forces that had been fighting for independence from Spain since 1896, especially with Emilio Aguinaldo who was elected first president of the Philippine Republic.

The 1898 Treaty of Paris marked the end of the Spanish Empire and turned over most of it, including Puerto Rico and the Philippines, to the United States. This was a bitter blow to Filipino patriots who had been fighting for independence and had created their own republic. Just to be transferred to a different foreign rule was unacceptable. On Feb. 4, 1899, fighting broke out between Philippine and American forces, including the First Idaho Volunteer Infantry that had arrived in Manila on July 31, 1898. They had enlisted to fight Spaniards and were now fighting Filipinos. The First Idaho left for home on July 30, 1899, and was warmly welcomed back in Boise.

Consul General Rounsevelle Wildman in Hong Kong had been in contact with President Aguinaldo, Admiral George Dewey and others throughout these exciting days. His papers are now in the Library of Congress, where they are accessible to scholars.

Wildman, with his wife and two children, were on board the S.S. Rio de Janeiro on their way home to participate in the inauguration of William McKinley when the ship struck rocks near the entrance to San Francisco Bay and sank in deep water, taking the lives of most of the passengers and crew. Rounsevelle Wildman, with a brilliant future ahead of him as a diplomat and a writer, was 37 years old.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.