Focused on Mississippi: Holt Collier and the ‘Teddy’ bear

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Without one Mississippi man, a classic toy and an even better hunting story wouldn’t exist.

Not to say we wouldn’t have had stuffed bears as a child’s toy. But they never would have been named “Teddy” had it not been for a 1902 bear hunt in the Delta, and the guide who lassoed a bear for President Teddy Roosevelt.

We lose track of our heroes over time. For instance, here’s the headstone of Holt Collier in Greenville. Born a slave in 1846. Killed his first bear by the time he was 10 years old. Probably within a quarter mile of where he’s buried. The older generations of Greenville knew him well. But by the time we came along, I never heard him mentioned.

Much later when I was doing a story about Teddy Roosevelt’s 1902 Delta bear hunt I ran across Holt Collier.

If you stop by Onward Store on Highway 61 just south of Rolling Fork you can get the whole story in photographs and souvenirs. The bear hunt happened nearby.

Roosevelt wanted to bag a Delta bear. So several influential politicians and local dignitaries arraigned for the guests and the President to meet on Smeed’s Plantation on a November day in 1902. The land no longer even vaguely resembles the hardwood jungle the Delta was a century and change ago, especially where the hunt was to take place between the Big and Little Sunflower Rivers in Sharkey County.

Now, Holt Collier was the best hunting guide in the Delta. So he and some of his friends were hired to clear a way in, and set up camp for and find a bear for the President to shoot. Well, Holt Collier found the bear but the President had grown impatient and left the hunting stand. So when Mr. Collier drove the bear within easy shooting range there was no one there to shoot it. So Holt Collier lassoed the bear until someone could go get the President. And when Teddy Roosevelt, upon seeing the tied-up bear, refused to kill it cartoonist Clifford Berryman for the Washington Post drew a cartoon of the event and toymakers started calling their stuffed bears Teddy Bears.

Now, for a long time, I thought the credit for the Teddy Bear was Teddy Roosevelt’s for refusing to shoot the bear. But you think about it, the credit REALLY belongs to Holt Collier for lassoing the bear to begin with.

So thank you, Holt Collier, for making our childhoods better, even if you didn’t know that’s what you were really doing the day you tied up the bear.

Holt Collier was a remarkable man. Minor Buchanan wrote the definitive book about Holt Collier. It’s a good read about a Delta hero who got lost in time but has come back and hopefully won’t get lost again.

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