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I received the photo of a black bear cub in my email the other day. The photographer was the talented Keith Benoist, who takes photos of all things in and around Mississippi, especially wildlife.
The photo was taken in the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, the cub one of the rare Louisiana black bears, presently classified as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This subspecies was once widespread across Louisiana, southeast Texas, southern Arkansas and eastern Mississippi.
This young one shares a unique lineage, because just across the Mississippi River is the location where the most famous bear hunt in American history took place, the hunt that resulted in the worldwide craze of the “Teddy bear.”
In November of 1902, an excited President Theodore Roosevelt detrained at Smedes Station in Mississippi, from where he traveled on horseback to the camp set up in the Delta wilderness by Holt Collier, the head guide of the hunt. Roosevelt was determined to take a black bear.
Collier was one of the most interesting characters ever to cross paths with Roosevelt. African-American, he was born a slave in 1846. He went on to fight in the Civil War, as a regular enlisted soldier in the Confederate army. (General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the fearsome cavalry commander and early member of the Ku Klux Klan, wanted the black teenager, noted for his horsemanship and his abilities as a marksman, to serve directly under him; but Collier chose the Ninth Texas Cavalry.) Collier was not a man to be trifled with, and engaged in several gunfights after the war, some fatal for his opponents, who were white.
His greatest renown grew out of being a huntsman for his master’s plantation. He learned to shoot as a boy, collecting blackbirds for blackbird pies, and killed his first bear at the age of 10. After the war, Collier became a professional hunter of white-tailed deer and black bears (he would take a reported 3,000 bears in his lifetime, that lasted 90 years; the story of his life can be read in Holt Collier by Minor Ferris Buchanan), selling the meat rather than working in the fields. He also became well-known as a hunting guide for well-to-do sportsmen.
Roosevelt had wanted the hunt to be a low-key, personal affair, and managed to leave much of his official entourage, including the press (except for three who would be permitted into camp with passes), back at the station. He told Collier that he must see a bear on the first day, to which the guide told the “Colonel,” as he wished to be called, that that would be easier said than done.
The first day of the hunt, Roosevelt wanted to ride with Collier and his hounds through the jungle of briars; but his hosts, concerned about his safety, persuaded him to wait on stand while Holt drove a bear past him. By midday, Collier had a bear on its way to the Colonel, who unfortunately had left his stand with his hunting companion to return to camp for lunch.
The large boar bear actually bayed up at the log where Roosevelt had been sitting, beside a waterhole. Now the bear and the dogs were in a ball in the waterhole, and one of Collier’s favorite curs was killed. Distraught, Collier waded in and struck the bear over the head with his rifle, bending the breech and rendering the rifle inoperable. He then got his lariat from his horse’s saddle and looped it around the bear’s neck, snubbing it up to a willow tree.
Meanwhile, one of the other black guides had “rushed hotfoot to camp” to fetch back the Colonel, who soon came galloping up. Collier told the Colonel not to kill the bear until he untied it, and got it separated from his dogs, while Roosevelt’s companions shouted at him to shoot.
It was then that a bemused President raised his hand and announced that he would not kill this bear. Yet he was genuinely impressed with Collier’s feat of lassoing it, and was laughing as he walked away to ride back to camp.
As for the fate of the bear, whose skull had apparently been fractured by Collier’s blow, one of Roosevelt’s hosts, who had been riding with Collier throughout the chase, said he wanted to claim the bear and took Collier’s knife from his belt and tried to stab it in the heart, to finish it off. He missed the heart, though, and the bear jumped and ran out of the waterhole, leaving Collier to end the job.
From there arose the cartoons and the story of Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a tethered bear. Stuffed bears, imported from Germany, were already popular; but it was a Brooklyn candy-store owner who first sold ones called “Teddy bears.” The success of the bears led to the creation of the Ideal Toy Company.
Roosevelt never took a bear on that hunt but would, some years later in Louisiana, hunting again with Collier and the eccentric Ben Lilly very near to where Benoist photographed the cub 106 years later.
This time he got to ride to the sound of the baying hounds and dismounted to kill the bear in a canebrake. Overjoyed, Roosevelt later sent Collier a Winchester 1886 45-70 in thanks.
The cub in the photo is certainly as cute as a Teddy bear. And the, relatively, good news is that an estimated 500 bears now inhabit Louisiana. That compares to 150 estimated 20 years ago when the bear was first listed.
Were he around, Roosevelt might flash his “bully” grin over the news.
TOM MCINTYRE is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.