Mr. President Your Bear is Ready!
by Morgan Gates, Historic & Haunted Vicksburg
Vicksburg is no stranger to the men who have held the highest office in the land. Quite a few presidents of the United States have walked our streets, and, if you add to the list future and former presidents, it is even more lengthy. Andrew Jackson and Zachery Taylor were a few of the earliest. It is very likely that Abraham Lincoln did so as well while on one of his flatboat trips downriver in his youth. Ulysses S. Grant “of course”, William McKinley, and Dwight Eisenhower. In that list of incredible men of impressive credentials, my personal favorite is Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy Roosevelt was the 26th president of the United States. He was the quintessential American male specimen. Tough but fair, he hated corruption and stood up for the common man. He was a graduate of Harvard and a published author, but he was also a cowboy who owned and worked on cattle ranches. He was an amateur boxer and police commissioner of New York City –so if you ever wondered why Tom Selleck on “Blue Bloods” has T.R. ‘s portrait on the wall, that’s why. Although he never served in the Navy, he was considered an authority on Naval issues. He wrote The Naval War of 1812 which was considered a seminal work in that field. He served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under William McKinley. He gained fame in the Spanish-American War with his group of volunteers, known as the Rough Riders, and their charge up San Juan Hill! Retuning to politics he was elected Governor of New York where his straight-shooting reformist attitudes alienated the political insiders of the day and they sought a way to get rid of him. They decided to sideline him by making him Vice President of the United States (a prestigious but powerless position), but in 1901, an assassin’s bullet catapulted him into the Presidency. He loved America and was instrumental in putting us on the road toward becoming a world power. He created the U.S.’s first world class Navy during his administration. He also started digging the Panama Canal and created many new National Parks. But all work and no play makes Teddy a dull boy, so when T.R. had some time off, he loved to hunt. This passion brought him to Vicksburg in 1902.
In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt disembarked the Steamboat “Belle of the Bends” at the Vicksburg waterfront. He had come to Mississippi at the invitation of the Mississippi’s Governor, Andrew Longino. Their destination was Onward Plantation, about 25 miles north of Vicksburg. When the distinguished party reached that spot, they were introduced to their guide for the hunt. Only the best would do for the President’s hunt. Their guide was probably the most accomplished bear hunter in North America. This man had killed more bear than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone combined. His name was Holt Collier.
Holt Collier was a native Mississippian, born in 1846, as a slave. At an early age, Holt’s master had put him in charge of his hunting dogs and later gave him responsibility for keeping the slave population of the plantation well fed with meat. He killed his first bear at 10 years old. During the Civil war, he fought as a Confederate Cavalryman (Yes Virginia, there were Black Confederates--I hope I didn’t burst any bubbles with that statement). After the war, he went west and worked as a Cowboy for short time before returning to Mississippi. By the time he guided for the President, he was 56.
During the hunt, everybody in the party had received a chance to shoot a Bear except T.R. so Holt rode out alone one evening with just his hunting dogs. The dogs soon picked up the scent and the chase was on. Dogs used to hunt dangerous game, like bear, are trained to surround the animal and keep it in place by lunging and retreating just out of the bears reach, thus keeping it in place until the hunters arrive. Just as Holt rides up, the bear gets lucky and catches one of the dogs with its massive paw, killing it instantly. Angry at the loss of his dog, Holt jumps from his saddle and clubs the bear senseless, lassos it, and ties it to a tree. Moments later, he brings the President up and there is the bear, still dazed and confused and tied to a tree. "Here is you bear Mr. President shoot it!"
Roosevelt, the consummate sportsman, of course refuses to shoot the helpless bear.
The press corps, which even in those days followed the President everywhere, soon flashes the story across the nation. A political cartoonist up North redraws the scene, but not with an angry male bear, but with a cute little cub tied to a tree. A toy maker in New York gets the idea to make a stuffed bear and calls it a “Teddy Bear”!
To think it all started right here in Vicksburg!
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