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The Great Bear Hunt
Historians Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley are sailing the Mississippi River aboard the steamboatDelta Queen from New Orleans to Memphis to research their upcoming book Mississippi: River of History.As they make their way to Memphis, Tennessee, National Geographic News will be posting photos and stories of the history they encounter on "Big Muddy."
Drive thirty miles north of Vicksburg along Highway 61 and you'll come
upon a historical marker in Outward, Mississippi, demarcating the most
celebrated bear hunt in American history. It stands next to a wild pear
tree in front of the Outward Store, a rickety mom-and-pop market that
specialized in catfish baskets and pickled pigs feet.
For within a couple of miles of this kudzu-choked spot near the Mississippi River, the most popular stuffed toy ever--the teddy bear--was conceived; plus a slew of apocryphal hunting stories that have masqueraded as fact for nearly one hundred years.
It all began in mid-November 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt accepted Mississippi Governor Andrew Longino's long-standing invitation to come south for bear hunting season.
Naturally, politics also played into T.R.'s decision to go. Longino was up for reelection and his opponent, James Vardaman, was a contentious white supremacist. When Vardaman heard that Roosevelt was coming to Mississippi to hunt, he denounced the president as that "coon-flavored miscegenist in the White House" and a "nigger lover" hell-bent on destroying the last remnants of Confederate culture.
The main tract of land T.R. would hunt on belonged to W.W. Magnum--a high-ranking partner in the Illinois Central who once imported monkeys to this region hoping they would learn how to pick cotton.
Camp was set up not far from the Mississippi River after a bushwhacking ride on horseback through a dense tangle of prickly i8underbrush, stunted pines and canebrake. Supplies were delivered to the camp on mules, and sleeping tents put up in a semicircle next to a huge cooking tent that had been set up the day before.
That first night, the men swapped bear stories around a roaring bonfire. T.R.'s tales of his cowboy adventures in the Wild West days usually stole the show, but in this gathering one of the star raconteurs was an African American named Holt Collier, the best bear man in the Delta, who told yarns along with Robert Bobo, a white trapper who had brought nearly 50 of his prize hunting dogs on the expedition.
When John M Parker commented that the rigors of swamp-hunting for bear might be too hazardous for a sitting president, and outraged T.R. exclaimed, "This is exactly what I want!"
The president refused to be treated any differently from the rest of the hunting party. What's more, to the shock of some in the party, T.R. treated Bobo and Collier--who had been born into slavery and were accorded the same respect as hired stable horses by most white southerners as comrades in arms.
Collier in particular interested the President. His accuracy with a Winchester was legendary throughout the Delta, and he could shoot with either hand equally well. because he knew the Mississippi Delta and the West Tennessee wilderness like the back of those hands, Collier had served as a Confederate scout for General Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War. Plantation owners bragged that Collier had a better nose for bear than a thousand of England's finest hounds did for the red fox.
It was Collier and his baying hounds that first picked up the scent of a bear on the Morning of Saturday, November 15. For hours Roosevelt tracked the animal through mud gullies and unruly thickets. Eventually convinced that the hounds had lost the scent, T.R. and company returned to camp for a late lunch. Collier continued the pursuit, and around 3:30 p.m. his dogs caught up with the old 235-pound giant.
Collier immediately bugled for the president to take part in the kill, chasing the exhausted bear into a watering hole, the dogs plunged in after it, and refused to let up.
Before long the pack had surrounded the doomed beast, lunging at it with barred fangs and yelping non-stop in a frenzy. Desperate for its life, with the sweep of a mighty forepaw the ear seized one of the dogs by the neck and crushed it to death. Collier was able to smash the bear's skull with the butt of his rifle, knocking the beast out. with a dog still gnawing at its hind legs, Collier carefully lassoed the bear around the neck and tied it to an oak tree.
Upon hearing the bugle, T.R. and his companions rushed to catch up with Collier. But the conservationist president was dismayed when he took in the gruesome scene: a dog lying dead in the dirt, two others seriously hurt, and a bloody, mangled bear tied to a tree, groaning for air.
Seemingly in unison, the hunters cried "Let the president shoot the bear." But the disgusted Roosevelt shook his head and refused to draw his Winchester. "Put it out of its misery," he ordered. One of the men pulled out a bowie knife and slit the bear's throat, after which its carcass was slung over a horse and brought back to camp.
In not shooting the bear, Roosevelt stayed true to the "sportsmen's code" of aristocratic European tradition. The code frowned on killing young bears, disdained Buffalo-Bill -style, greedy wholesale slaughter and year-round hunting as wasteful, and sportsmen sought laws to prevent "game hogs" or "slob shooters" from wiping out entire species.
The next morning, Sunday, November 11, the newspapers carried stories on the president's good sportsmanship, as shown in his steadfast refusal to shoot a captive bear. The story took off. On Monday, November 17, the Washington Post featured a front-page Clifford Berryman cartoon, 'The Passing Show," that depicted Roosevelt in his hunting regalia, with one hand holding his rifle butt on the ground and the other thrust out in a firm "No!" and a perplexed fellow hunter holding a black bear by a rope around its neck.
The caption read 'Drawing the line in Mississippi"--a double entendre that may scholars believe referred to T.R.'s fierce criticisms of the lynchings of African Americans in the South.
A middle-aged Brooklynite, Rose Mitchom, made two plush toy bears, stuffed with excelsior and adorned with black shoe-button eyes, in tribute to the president who refused to fire upon a captive bear.
The Teddy Bear became the rage in the toy business, and Mitchom made a fortune. The fad continued even after T.R. left the White House in 1908. One Toy company, eager to cash in by according incoming President William Howard Taft his own stuffed animal, designed a plush opossum marketed under the slogan, "Goodbye Teddy Bear. Hello Billy Possum."
Unfortunately, with its weird pink eyes, frightening grin, and rat-like tail, Billy Possum was one stuffed critter children refused to hug. The toy proved a disastrous flop.