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Black hunter, Pres. Roosevelt behind the Teddy Bear!

Holt Collier

Black hunter, Pres. Roosevelt behind the Teddy Bear!

By Audrey Peterman

      It’s Valentine’s Week when we take time to celebrate love and to honor our loved ones. Among the most beloved and trusted gifts that will be shared this Valentine’s Day is the Teddy Bear. But how many people know that that cuddly icon developed from a hunting expedition led by a Black former slave and former Confederate soldier leading President Theodore Roosevelt on his first bear hunt? You heard right – there’s a National Wildlife Refuge dedicated to protecting the place where the hunt took place and the story of what happened there in the Mississippi Delta.                         

     The Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge is named to honor the man who not only caught the black bear that started America’s love affair with teddy bears, but as a result of this trip, President Roosevelt was inspired to create the first National Wildlife Refuge and  more than 50 others in his life-time. Today there are close to 500 National Wildlife Refuges across the country, close to urban cities.    

     I was practically hyperventilating when I read the story at that my friend, author, birder, climber and nature photographer Dudley Edmondson sent to me some years ago.

     Then, as I woke up this morning to write this story, I received an e-mail from Dudley sharing that his ailing mother passed away early today. I haven’t made the trip to this site yet, but in tribute to Dudley and his family and all the lovers in our country who will see, receive, desire or think about a teddy bear today, I share this fascinating story of its history from the Refuge’s website:

“. . .In 1902 when (Holt) Collier guided President Theodore Roosevelt through the Mississippi Delta on his famous bear hunt, he could not have envisioned that both he and Roosevelt would leave conservation legacies. During his Presidency, Roosevelt would establish 52 National Wildlife Refuges.

     “Holt Collier’s reputation was well known in Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, where he was known as an expert marksman and great bear hunter. ‘The President of the United States was anxious to see a live bear the first day of the hunt,’ Collier said, ‘I told him he would see that bear if I had to tie it and bring it to him.’ The hunting party included a number of turn-of-the-century dignitaries, including Illinois Central Railroad president Stuyvesant Fish; Tobasco Sauce heir John McIlhenny; soon-to-be Louisiana Governor John M. Parker; Huger Foote, grandfather of Civil War authority Shelby Foote; and LeRoy Percy, who later became a U. S. Senator and was the great uncle of the late novelist Walker Percy.

     “During the hunt, Collier chased a black bear to the water hole where Roosevelt was supposed to be waiting in a stand. As luck would have it, and unknown to Collier, Roosevelt had vacated the stand for an early lunch, and was not present when the bear arrived at the water hole. Collier’s dogs bayed the bear in the water hole and in all the excitement, the bear turned and attacked the dogs. . .”

     The story gets more exciting at

     “The dogs and the bear fought in a ferocious chorus. It wasn’t until the bear rose to his full height that Holt noticed his prize dog caught in the beast’s mighty death grip. He clubbed the rifle and leaped into the battle. He shouted a-gain, and swung the stock of his gun through an arc that landed at the base of the bear’s skull. The bear was shaken, but he rose up, released the life-less dog and stood a head higher than Holt. With the barrel of his rifle bent and useless, Collier had only one option. He positioned himself beside the raging animal, put his foot between the bear’s legs, and dropped the lariat over his neck. The injured bear was soon tied to a nearby willow tree. Minutes later Roosevelt and Foote arrived. Roosevelt dismounted, ran into the water, and though everybody urged him to kill the bear, he declared that he would not shoot an animal tied to a tree. Roosevelt was in awe of the feat he was witness to.

     “For the entire hunt, Holt Collier was the center of attention. Sitting apart, he spoke simply and fearlessly, unmindful of any difference in social status from the powerful men about him. He told the story of his life, how he had killed white men and had gone unscathed, how he had met Union soldiers in hand-to-hand conflict, and how he fought off a band of vigilantes. His background and experience held the President’s imagination as he told stories of his years as a slave, his service as a Confederate scout, and his many years hunting bear.

     Continuing at the refuge website, “The incident was picked up by the media and publicized across the nation. Cartoonist Clifford Berryman published a cartoon in the Washington Star showing Roosevelt, rifle in hand, with his back turned on a sweet little bear. Public response to the president’s self-restraint was overwhelmingly favorable.

     “Morris Michtom, who later founded the Ideal Toy Company, saw the cartoon and asked his wife Rose to design and sew a toy bear. They displayed the toy bear in the window of their small Brooklyn, New York shop with a label: ‘Teddy Bear.’ The original bear was purchased, others were produced, and America’s favorite toy, the Teddy Bear, was born. The original teddy bear, saved by President Roosevelt’s grand-children, is now displayed at the Smithsonian.

     “Less than a year after his bear hunting trip to Mississippi, President Roosevelt created the first national wildlife refuge on Pelican Island, in Florida. During his Presidency, Roosevelt would establish 52 National Wildlife Refuges. . .”

     So as you cuddle with your favorite teddy bear this week, remember that our publicly-owned, tax-payer supported lands belong to you, and protect the places where some of the most pivotal events in our country took place. They also illustrate that things are not, and have never really been black or white, but black and white together. Happy Valentine’s, Valentine!

     (Audrey Peterman is the author of two books sharing the legacy of African Americans in the National Park System. Contact or visit


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