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Most people probably know that the teddy bear, that little stuffed animal so dear to so many children, has something to do with Teddy Roosevelt. Most, I'll bet, don't know the details, including the fact that a black Confederate played a key role in the affair.
It's all detailed in a new book, a biography of a remarkable Mississippi slave who became celebrated as a hunter, a soldier and a lawman. The title is simply "Holt Collier," the author is a lawyer named Minor Ferris Buchanan, and the publisher is Centennial Press in Jackson, Miss.
Holt Collier was born a slave and followed his master into battle during the War Between the States, first as a camp servant. His prowess with a rifle and a pistol, however, soon allowed him to be soldier, if unofficially. When his master returned home, he gave Holt a choice of which unit to serve with, and he chose the 9th Texas Cavalry. He rode and fought with the cavalry during the remainder of the war and immediately afterward got involved in several shooting scrapes during the Reconstruction.
Collier moved to Texas and became a cowboy, later served as a lawman and finally returned to the Mississippi Delta, where he became renowned as a bear hunter. That's why, in 1902, he was chosen to be the guide when Teddy Roosevelt came down for a bear hunt. Roosevelt was insistent that he get the first shot. He said he had to get a bear and might have to leave early.
Collier stationed the president in a stand and went off with his pack dogs, promising to drive a bear past Roosevelt. He did, but it took longer that he had anticipated, and Roosevelt, never a patient man, had left the stand and returned to camp.
Collier at first didn't know what to do with the bear, but he lassoed it and tied it up while a companion went off to the camp to fetch Roosevelt. The president came and looked at the bear but declined to shoot because it was tied up. There happened to be three journalists in the camp, and they made a big deal of the bear-hunt story. Pretty soon, editorial cartoonists joined in and had a field day.
Cliff Berryman, who later won the Pulitzer Prize, got into the habit of using a bear as a comic relief in some of the cartoons about the president. Of course, the bear was always depicted as a cuddly cub. In the meantime, several companies began producing stuffed bears for children, but the most successful was Morris Michtom, who parlayed the popularity of teddy bears into a company worth millions by the time of his death in 1938.
Holt Collier earned some national attention. Roosevelt sent him a rifle as a gift and invited him to go on an African safari. Collier declined and lived out his life in the Delta, calling it quits in 1938 at the age of 90. Shelby Foote, the author of "The Civil War: A Narrative," said that Collier was one of the legendary characters of his (Foote's) youth.
Buchanan has done a fine job of research and lets his source material do most of the talking in this book. There are no polemics or special pleadings. Just the story of a most remarkable man, a pioneer in one of America's last wilderness areas. It will be hard for most modern folks to accept the affection and loyalty Collier felt for his former master, but such things happened. Human beings are far too wonderfully complex to fit the ideological stereotypes so popular today. The several white men he shot to death in gunfights would never have called him an Uncle Tom.
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