Holt Collier at age 61, 1907
Holt Collier (c. 1848 – August 1, 1936) was a noted African American bear hunter and sportsman. While leading a hunt as a tracker for United States President Teddy Roosevelt in November 1902, Collier unwittingly set the stage for the event that served as the origin of Roosevelt's nickname "Teddy Bear."
Collier was born circa 1848 as a slave in Mississippi, and was the third generation to serve the Hinds family on Plum Ridge Plantation, built by General Thomas Hinds, who was a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans. General Hinds, at the request of General Andrew Jackson, had surveyed central Mississippi and chose the site for the state capital, Jackson, before settling nearby in the area which is now Hinds County.
Collier killed his first bear at age ten; thereafter, his job was to supply meat for the table of the Hinds family and field hands. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Collier’s master Howell Hinds and his seventeen-year-old son Tom, who was Collier's childhood companion, left for the war. Although told by his master that he was too young to fight, Collier stowed away on a riverboat and joined Howell and his son in Memphis.
At the Battle of Shiloh he witnessed the death of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston. Collier stayed with the Hinds men until later being given the opportunity to ride with the 9th Texas Cavalry.
After the war Collier returned home to the Hinds family. During Reconstruction, Collier was tried by a military tribunal in Vicksburg for the murder of a white man, Captain James King. The accusation may have stemmed from King's advocacy for the use of Freedmens Bureau labor on the Hinds plantation. After his acquittal, Collier left the state upon the advice of William Alexander Percy of Greenville, who was later the last United States Senator elected by a state legislature, and went to Texas where he worked as a cowboy on the ranch owned by his former commander, General Lawrence Sullivan Ross.
Upon the murder of Collier's former master Howell Hinds, Collier returned to Greenville for the funeral, and resided there the remainder of his life.
He was a noted bear hunter, and killed over 3,000 bears during his lifetime, more than those taken by Davy Crockett & Daniel Boone combined. Such was Collier's fame among big-game hunters that Major George M. Helm asked him to serve as President Theodore Roosevelt's tracker during his famous Mississippi bear hunt of 1902. The hunt was very high profile, attended by noted big-game hunters, among whom was John Avery McIlhenny of Avery Island, Louisiana, who had served with Roosevelt in the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War. Numerous reporters were among the entourage.
On that hunt, Collier and his tracking dogs cornered a large male bear. Collier bugled Roosevelt and the rest of his party to join in; however, before Roosevelt arrived the bear killed one of Collier's tracking dogs. Collier ordinarily would have shot the bear immediately, but wanting to keep the bear alive until the President arrived, he instead whacked the bear over the head with his rifle, bending its barrel. He finally lassoed the bear and tied it to a tree. When the President finally arrived, he famously refused to shoot the helpless bear, though another member of his party eventually killed it with a knife. The Washington Post and other newspapers publicized Roosevelt's compassion for the animal, and an editorial cartoon of the event by Clifford Berryman titled "Drawing the line in Mississippi" which erroneously depicted the bear as a cub, eventually gave rise to the "Teddy Bear" phenomenon, and his nickname.
Teddy Roosevelt was greatly impressed with Collier's abilities and presented him with a Winchester Rifle. He served again as Roosevelt's tracker during a Louisiana bear hunt of 1907. Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi is named in his honor. He died in 1936 and is buried in Greenville, Mississippi.
- Minor Ferris Buchanan, Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts, and The Origin of the Teddy Bear (Jackson, Miss.: Centennial Press, 2002).
- James T. McCafferty, Holt and The Teddy Bear and Holt and The Cowboys (Pelican Publishing Company, 1991 & 1993).
- Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: Harper Collins), pp. 435–442, 444, 697-700.
- Scott E. Giltner, Hunting and Fishing in the New South: Black Labor and White Leisure After the Civil War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), pp. 109-136.