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(For the week of February 22, 2010)
Holt Collier
by James L. Cummins

In honor of Black History Month, I thought it would be fitting to remind Mississippians of the story of how the “Teddy Bear” and “fair chase hunting” was born, and as Minor Buchanan likes to remind me, “the story of the most famous hunt that ever took place on American soil.”

In the early 1900s, Mississippi's Governor Andrew Longino invited President Theodore Roosevelt to go on a black bear hunt in the Mississippi Delta. After much preparation for the hunt, Holt Collier, an expert marksman and a freed slave from Greenville, met President Roosevelt near Onward on November 13, 1902. Several hundred African Americans greeted him, all children and grandchildren of slaves.

Collier guided President Roosevelt through the Delta on his now famous bear hunt. Knowing the President's determination to kill a bear, Collier promised the President would see a bear if he had to “lasso one with his Texas rope.” Collier put the Colonel (as President Roosevelt had asked Collier to refer to him) in a stand near a watering hole that Collier knew the bears used. Collier and his hunting dogs had pushed a bear to the spot where Collier had left Colonel, but the Colonel had already left. The bear was cornered and his hunting dogs were threatened.

Trying to defend one of his dogs from the bear, Collier hit the bear at the base of the skull with his gun. The bear let go of the dog but it was too late. As the bear went into the watering hole, Collier got his lariat off his saddle. Collier positioned the lariat so that when the bear rose his head up from drinking, Collier could drop the lariat around his neck. Collier then tied the bear to a tree. Roosevelt, a skilled sportsman in his own right, refused to shoot the bear because it was restrained. The President was in awe of the feat performed by Collier. At the camp that night, Roosevelt told Collier that he “was the best guide and hunter he'd ever seen.”

The incident drew lots of publicity, including two editorial cartoons on the front page of the Washington Post. Morris Michtom saw those cartoons and designed the Teddy Bear. Collier could not have envisioned that both he and Roosevelt would leave such conservation legacies.

Almost 5 years ago today, Senator Thad Cochran and Congressman Bennie Thompson joined together to establish the Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is located near Hollandale and encompasses 18,000 acres. The concept for the Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge was developed by Wildlife Mississippi. The Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge is the first refuge ever to be named for an African-American.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.