Few toys have made so big an impact as the Teddy Bear. Created by the Ideal Toy Company in 1903, the plush version quickly became a must-have item. But most people don’t know that its origins come from the Mississippi Delta or that an African American hunter played an important role.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt arrived at a plantation in the forested region near the Mississippi River at the invitation of Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino. After trips hunting big game like buffalo and pronghorn sheep, Roosevelt was desperate to hunt a Louisiana black bear, an animal that had previously eluded the avid sportsman. The subspecies of the American black bear has a long legacy in the region, dating back over 12,000 years. This is the species immortalized by William Faulkner as “Old Ben,” the legendary—and doomed—creature depicted in The Bear, which is set in the state’s forests. So Roosevelt sought the expertise of a skilled local hunter.
Growing up enslaved on a plantation outside of Natchez, Holt Collier worked as a hunter on the plantation to provide meat. He killed his first bear at age 10 with his trusted 12-gauge shotgun. By age 14, he fought for the Confederate Army alongside the men of the slaveholding family, served in the cavalry, and became a military spy. By the time he met Roosevelt, the 56-year-old Collier had reportedly killed over 3,000 bears. Despite his life in the segregated South, Collier was trusted for his knowledge on the area and shooting precision.
Under pressure to please the president, Collier and his dogs tracked a 250-pound Louisiana black bear in the dense canebrake forest and told Roosevelt to wait for him to drive it to him. But Roosevelt grew tired of waiting and went back to camp for lunch. While the president was away, Collier found a bear, which attacked and killed one of his beloved dogs.
Collier was able to knock it unconscious with his gun and tie it up to a tree. But when Roosevelt returned, the president refused to kill the incapacitated bear. “It would be unsportsmanlike,” he reportedly said. Collier ended up killing the bear, adding to his large tally.
From here, the story became a national legend, appearing in a memorable political cartoon in the Washington Post. The Ideal Toy Company in New York created a plush version of the bear that Roosevelt refused to kill. They called it “Teddy’s bear,” later shortened to teddy bear. In 2002, when the teddy bear celebrated its 100th anniversary, it became Mississippi’s official state toy. One of Ideal’s original bears is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
The year after his Mississippi hunting trip, the 26th president laid the groundwork for the National Wildlife Refuge system that would ultimately protect the land where he encountered the bear. During his presidency, Roosevelt also set aside land that became five national parks, now known as “America’s best idea.”
Today, the 100,000 acres near the plantation bear his name: the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge. One refuge within the Roosevelt complex also honors Collier, the only wildlife refuge in the country named for an African American, established in 2004. After going on another trip with Roosevelt to Louisiana, Collier died in 1936, age 90. He is buried in Greenville, Mississippi.
After the bear was killed by Collier, the skull was saved, bearing the telltale dent from his rifle’s butt. It’s now a part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection in Washington, D.C., and there is also a replica in the Roosevelt Wildlife Refuge visitors’ center.
The visitors’ center, near the town of Onward, also has interactive exhibits on the wildlife of the Delta and the famous hunting trip. The center is still closed due to the pandemic, but the trails are open for visitors.
The Louisiana black bear is still present in the Mississippi Delta despite decades of deforestation and habitat destruction. The state outlawed bear hunting in 1932 and there are an estimated 500-750 bears roaming wild today. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now tracks progress in bear breeding.
“The endangered Louisiana black bear is occasionally observed on the refuge,” says Brett Moule, the project leader of the Theodore Roosevelt NWR Complex.
But outdoors lovers can also spot other creatures within the refuge’s acreage.
“Most days you can find several alligators sunning along the water’s edge,” says Moule, and there are also 200 species of bird, white-tailed deer, rabbits, raccoon, opossum, and wild turkey.
The gateway to this national wildlife refuge is the community of Rolling Fork, pop. 2,100. It was also the birthplace of blues legend Muddy Waters, and a replica of the cabin where he lived sits in the middle of town. But around every corner are bears.
Rolling Fork has 15 wooden bear statues inspired by Roosevelt, carved with a chainsaw by Dayton Scoggins on logs donated by a local lumber company. The library has a reading bear, the police station has an officer bear, and the visitor’s center has a tourist bear, complete with a selfie stick. There’s also a wooden sculpture of Roosevelt and Collier together in the town square, alongside Teddy’s bear and one of Collier’s beloved hunting dogs. All of the statues can be seen using a map from the visitors’ center.
The town even has an annual bear festival, the Great Delta Bear Affair, which brings in thousands of visitors and is sponsored by wildlife conservation groups.
“The first Great Delta Bear Affair was held in 2002 to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt where he did not kill a bear,” says Meg Cooper, coordinator of the Mississippi Lower Delta Partnership. “One of the goals of that festival was to call attention to the history of black bears in Mississippi and their current plight.” After a year off during the pandemic, it’s scheduled for October 2021.
Roosevelt is known for his role in conservation, but it wouldn’t have been possible without a hunter named Holt Collier from rural Mississippi. The teddy bear is a reminder of the Magnolia State’s role in a classic American story.
Caroline Eubanks is the award-winning author of This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern United States. Her work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Travel + Leisure, InsideHook, Southern Living, and Mental Floss.