Teddy Roosevelt, the Teddy Bear and the Deep South

Black Bear Cubs
Louisiana black bear cubs at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge.
(Photo: USFWS)

The story that led to the creation of the teddy bear toy unfolded more than a century ago when President Theodore Roosevelt visited west-central Mississippi and northeastern Louisiana. This photo essay tells that story and celebrates the conservation impact Roosevelt had on that part of the nation. 

Mount Rushmore
(Photo: Department of the Interior)

Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Mississippi and Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana are steeped in history and folklore. They honor the wildlife conservation legacy of the 26th president of the United States and founder of the Refuge System, Theodore Roosevelt. 

Holt Collier
(Photos: USFWS and Jimmy Smith/Creative Commons)

The refuges also honor Holt Collier, a widely admired African American outdoorsman of the 19th century. Collier was born a slave, fought for the South in the Civil War and became a hunter/guide extraordinaire. “He’s reported to have killed more bear than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone,” says Theodore Roosevelt Refuge Complex project leader Mike Rich. “I believe TR said that he was the best hunter he’d ever seen.” Read more

Black Bear
Louisiana black bear. (Photo: Pam McIlhenny)

The refuges also celebrate the animal that inspired the teddy bear. In November 1902, Collier guided President Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Mississippi. When Collier cornered and stunned a Louisiana black bear for the President’s benefit, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear. After the incident was publicized nationally in an editorial cartoon, a New York store owner created a stuffed toy he called “Teddy’s bear.” Read more

Tensas River Refuge Hunter
Hunter at Tensas River Refuge. (Photo: Pope Video Productions/D. Johnson Films)

The refuges also preserve the rich hunting heritage of the Deep South. In October 1907, Collier guided President Roosevelt on a second bear hunt, this one in northeastern Louisiana near the Tensas River. Today, hunting is still a popular tradition. Tensas River Refuge alone attracts approximately 75,000 hunters annually, which is a great boost to the local economy.

Panther Swamp
(Photos: Renee Tressler and USFWS)

Theodore Roosevelt Refuge Complex comprises seven refuges, including the only refuge named for a president and the only refuge named for an African American. The three largest of the seven refuges are Yazoo, Panther Swamp and Hillside National Wildlife Refuges. Yazoo, established in 1936, is Mississippi’s oldest national wildlife refuge. It is home to a healthy population of American alligators.

Mathews Brake
(Photos: Renee Tressler)

Three other refuges in the complex are Mathews Brake, Morgan Brake and Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuges. “I think Mathews Brake is our most picturesque refuge” of the seven, says project leader Rich. Mathews Brake Refuge, which provides habitat for more than 30,000 ducks each winter, is known for duck hunting. A brake, by the way, is a natural wooded wetland area or thicket.

Mississippi Delta Scenes
(Photos: USFWS and Creative Commons)

The seventh refuge, Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge near U.S. Highway 61, is currently closed to the public. However, it is scheduled to house a new visitor center that will be a “Gateway to the Mississippi Delta,” says Rich. The visitor center will be a showcase not only for the seven refuges but for all federal lands in the Mississippi Delta region, which stretches north from near Vicksburg to the Tennessee border.

Mississippi Delta Scenes
Theodore Roosevelt at Louisiana’s Breton National Wildlife Refuge in 1904. (Photo: Courtesy of Harvard College Library)

The visitor center’s groundbreaking is scheduled for late this fall. Compared with many refuges, its exhibits will be “a little bit different because it’s a historical event, not just biology or refuge information,” says Rich. Because the 1902 hunt in Mississippi occurred less than a year before Roosevelt founded the Refuge System in 1903 – an era when America was just beginning to focus on protecting wildlife – exhibits will honor Roosevelt on a grand scale. All told, Roosevelt established more than 50 national wildlife refuges.

Mississippi Delta Scenes
Mississippi Delta residents fishing in 1939. (Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress)

The exhibits also will: provide a virtual tour of the refuges and other nearby federal lands; stress the importance of the refuges to migratory birds along the Mississippi Flyway; honor Collier’s remarkable life; and recognize 8,000 years of Native American heritage in the area. The center will be along U.S. Highway 61 in Rolling Fork, MS, just south of the Onward Store, which celebrates the legend of the teddy bear.

Louisiana Black Bear
Louisiana black bear. (Photo: Pam McIlhenny)

The exhibits also will feature the Louisiana black bear, which once roamed plentifully across Mississippi, Louisiana and east Texas. By 1992, there were as few as 150 Louisiana black bears in the wild because of loss of their bottomland hardwood forest habitat and human-related mortality. That year, the bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Louisiana Ecological Services office, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Black Bear Conservation Coalition and private landowners have helped the bear recover. Those partners have restored bottomland hardwood forest habitat that the bears need to survive. To establish new bear populations or increase the genetic diversity of existing small populations, state and federal wildlife biologists also have relocated bears from Tensas River Refuge, where they thrive, to Bayou Cocodrie, Bayou Teche and Lake Ophelia National Wildlife Refuges, the state of Louisiana’s Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area and elsewhere.

Cindy Dohner with Louisiana Black Bear
Southeast Region Director Cindy Dohner with Louisiana black bears cubs. (Photo: USFWS)

All of that cooperation has paid off. In March 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the Louisiana black bear has been removed from the threatened and endangered species list. Today, an estimated 750 bears live across the species’ current range, and successful recovery efforts are enabling breeding populations to expand. Consequently, the bear, which is the state mammal of Louisiana, is not likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future.

More Information

To learn more, check out:

Compiled by Bill_O'Brian@fws.gov, September 7, 2016