Focused on Mississippi: The legacy of Holt Collier and the Teddy Bear

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GREENVILLE, Miss. (WJTV) – We lose track of our heroes over time. For instance, the headstone of Holt Collier is located in Greenville. He was born a slave in 1846 and killed his first bear by the time he was 10 years old. 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 President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1902 Delta bear hunt, I ran across Holt Collier.

Roosevelt wanted to bag a Delta bear. So, several influential politicians and local dignitaries arranged 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 hard wood jungle the Delta was a century 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 the 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 Collier drove the bear within easy shooting range, there was no one there to shoot it. He lassoed the bear until someone could go get the president.

And when Roosevelt saw the tied-up bear, he refused to kill it. Cartoonist Clifford Berryman for the Washington Post drew a cartoon of the event and toy-makers started calling their stuffed bears “Teddy Bears.”

Now for a long time, I thought the credit for the “Teddy Bear” was 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.

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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