Onward store is more than a convenience stop on a lonely stretch of U.S. 61.
Practically all Americans are aware that Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, was an outdoorsman and a naturalist. After all he was responsible for the founding of 52 National Wildlife Refuges during his Presidency, protecting for future generations 230 million acres of American wilderness. Immediately after leaving office in 1909 he went on an African safari and collected thousands of specimens for the Smithsonian National Museum. Roosevelti, the Latin translation, appears in the scientific names of many species of plants, fish, reptiles and mammals native to several different continents.
Asked to remember a particular Roosevelt big game hunt, though, and the vast majority of the population can only recall one, an otherwise unnoteworthy expedition, except for the fact that the President didn’t shoot anything.
In the Fall of 1902, during his second year in the White House, T. R. received an invitation from Govenor Andrew Longino of Mississippi to go bear hunting. Eager to do some polliticking as well (Longino was up for re-election), he arrived in Mississippi a month later.
In the interim a locally famous bear hunter and guide, Holt Collier, had been enlisted, sworn to secrecy, and sent out to find a suitable bear camp for the hunt. Collier was an interesting enough fellow in his own right. Though born into slavery, he had served as a Confederate scout under Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War. His exceptional skills as a horseman and marksman were well known. He would later kill over 2000 black bears, hunt grizzlies in Alaska, and tend race horses in Texas.
Collier was arrested and exonerated more than once for murder. He outgunned an outlaw in a close-quarters gunfight in one case, and it was never quite proven he was the person who intervened in a fight between a young Union soldier and Holt’s beloved old master Colonel Howell Hinds. The soldier was killed, and likely Collier would have hanged except for the intervention of some of the landed gentry among Colonel Hinds’ friends.
He also hunted again with Roosevelt in 1907 in Northeastern Louisiana. The President killed a bear this time, describing the exploits in the January, 1908 edition of Scribner’s Magazine, which featured an article “In the Louisiana Canebrakes” by Theodore Roosevelt, illustrated with the four period photos seen on this page. Despite all this publicity, the event is largely forgotten.
The President’s 1902 bear hunt started on the morning of November 14th, attended by not a few local and national dignitaries. The future governor of Louisiana, John Parker, Huger Foote, whose grandson Shelby would become a noted Civil War author, John McIlhenny, heir to the Tabasco sauce fortune, and President of the Illinois Central Railroad, Stuyvesant Fish formed part of the hunting party. A local trapper named John Bobo brought a seasoned pack of 50 bear dogs, but Holt’s pack of hounds picked up the first scent. His dogs ran their prey into a slough and began to suffer a terrible mauling from the bear, a 235 pound male. Holt is reported to have knocked the animal unconscious to save his beloved bear dogs and then tied the bear by the neck to a tree.
He later recalled President Roosevelt had insisted that he “must see a live bear the first day.” Collier claimed to have told him he would tie one up and bring it to him if he had to, but “he would see that bear”. Since the bear wasn’t fit for travel, Holt did the next best thing. He blew his hunting horn for the rest of the party to join him.
When Roosevelt and the others arrived, the President was offered the opportunity to claim his trophy, but he refused to shoot the tethered, wounded animal. Roosevelt was the product of an aristocratic hunting tradition. Under this “true sportsmen’s code”, the taking of young animals or any animal which did not have a sporting chance is forbidden. Collier claims to have led John Parker into the water to stab the bear and put it out of its misery. Though not uneventful, the hunt was unsuccessful from Roosevelt’s point of view, and he saw no reason to document it in writing as he did so many others.
The press went wild over the story of President Theodore Roosevelt, Holt Collier and the bear, and it soon traveled across the country in news stories and cartoons. Roosevelt’s refusal to kill this defenseless animal was seen as far more newsworthy than if he had killed a state record! It was widely reported, prompting Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman to produce a cartoon entitled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi”.
Perhaps, since Berryman was a political cartoonist, the depiction of the President refusing to shoot a captive black bear in a deeply Southern state was a way to symbolize T. R.’s abhorance of the racially motivated lynchings taking place at the time. Whatever the reason, the cartoon was reproduced in many newspapers, often redrawn by local artists, with the bear growing younger and more cub-like with each new version. This misrepresentation created an illusion which persists to this day.
A state historical highway marker stands in front of the Onward Store, about two miles from Smede’s farm where the hunt took place. Another plaque, identical in shape, was placed at Live Oak Cemetery on South Main Street in Greenville, MS where Holt Collier is buried. His headstone is a 21st Century installment to the story, put in place in 2004 by several interest groups, both black and white. The gravesite was located after years of research by Minor Ferris Buchanan, who wrote the book Holt Collier, His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts, and The Origin of the Teddy Bear (Centennial Press, August 1, 2002).
Though now surrounded by apartments, businesses, houses and intersections, Live Oak Cemetery is located on the site of the old Plum Ridge Plantation, where Holt Collier grew up and hunted bear.
Four months after Roosevelt left Mississippi, he quietly signed an executive order establishing Federal protection over an embattled sea and shore bird rookery in Florida. Pelican Island Federal Bird Reservation was born, the first time the federal government had taken land under its control solely for the protection of wildlife.
In January, 2004, Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge was established as part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It was the first time a National Wildlife Refuge had been named for an African-American.