Teddy bears will be purchased in untold numbers this Christmas season as gifts for children, both around the country and around the world. Ever stop and wonder why? There’s a story behind this ubiquitous bear that few people know; it’s a true-life bear-hunting tale with a happy ending for all involved — including the bear.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), America’s 26th president, was our most natural-resources-minded chief executive — and an avid big-game hunter. It was in December 1902, early in his first term as president, that “Teddy,” as he was sometimes called, happened to be on a bear-hunting trip to Mississippi.
Guiding the president for several days was Holt Collier, the most famous bear hunter in the state. Born a slave, Collier was now a freed man who made much of his living by bear hunting. He and his pack of top-notch hounds were said to have taken more than 3,000 black bears.
But even as talented a hunter as Collier was, he was having trouble finding a bear for Roosevelt, and no doubt feeling the pressure to produce. After several days, Collier’s hounds finally cornered a large male bear and the guide blew his hunting horn, an audible signal for Roosevelt to come to Collier’s location as quickly as possible.
Before Roosevelt could arrive, though, the bear killed one of Collier’s hounds. Collier normally would have shot and killed the bear at that point during a hunt, but wanting to keep it alive for the president, he lassoed the bear and secured the rope to a tree. When Roosevelt arrived and discovered that the bear was tied, however, he refused to shoot it, stating that it would be “unsportsmanlike to do so.” He said that such an act would violate his belief in a newly evolving hunting ethic at the time known as Fair Chase.
The press quickly picked up the story, which found its way to the Washington Post and other large Eastern newspapers. Accompanying the story was a black-and-white cartoon sketch titled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” picturing Roosevelt refusing to shoot a cub bear being restrained with a rope around its neck.
The account was read by tens of thousands of Americans, likely helping them form a positive opinion of their new president. The story also gave Morris Michtom, a candymaker from Brooklyn, New York, an idea. Michtom asked his wife, a seamstress, to fashion a stuffed toy bear that children might like. His idea was to name the bear in honor of the president — Teddy’s Bear — and sell replicas of the bear in his candy shop.
But first, he wanted to get permission from Roosevelt to use his name, so he wrote him a letter.
The president responded that he was flattered and had no objections to the proposal. But he added that he didn’t think associating his name with the bear would make much difference. Roosevelt couldn’t have been more wrong. Sales quickly took off, with Michtom eventually founding the Ideal Toy Company as a result.
Demand has remained strong ever since, and in 2002, a century after the bear’s creation, Mississippi named the teddy bear its official state toy. An interesting side note is that in 2004, a 2,200-acre National Wildlife Refuge within the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Mississippi was named for Holt Collier.
So, if you plan on giving a teddy bear to a young person this Christmas, don’t forget to tell the backstory.
Or, on second thought, maybe not. I can remember receiving a teddy bear when I was a young boy, many, many years ago. Had I heard the story then, I probably would have spent the rest of the day stalking Teddy and shooting at him with my new Red Ryder BB gun — an activity my mom would definitely not have approved.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, and all the best in your 2023 outdoor adventures.
W.H. “Chip” Gross is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.