The story that led to the creation of the teddy bear occurred more than a century ago when President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting central west Mississippi and northeastern Louisiana.
This article tells that story and celebrates the impact Roosevelt had on this part of the nation.
Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex (in Mississippi and Louisiana) and Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge (in Louisiana) are steeped in history and folklore.
They protect wildlife and honor the legacy of Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States and founder of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
These havens in Mississippi and Louisiana also honor Holt Collier, a widely admired 19th-century African-American outdoorsman. Collier was born into slavery, fought for the South in the Civil War, and after gaining his freedom became an exceptional hunter/guide. Reports from his time credited him with more bear kills than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone claimed. Roosevelt is said to have thought Collier the best hunter he had ever seen.
The shelters also celebrate the animal that inspired the teddy bear. In November 1902, Collier led President Roosevelt on a hunting expedition in Mississippi. According to the story, when Collier cornered and drugged a Louisiana black bear in favor of the President, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear. After the incident was nationally publicized in an editorial cartoon, a New York City store owner created a stuffed animal he dubbed “Teddy Bear.”
The refuges also preserve the rich hunting heritage of the Deep South. In October 1907, Collier led President Roosevelt on a second bear hunt, this time in northeast Louisiana near the Tensas River. Today, hunting is still a popular tradition. The Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge alone attracts about 75,000 hunters annually, giving the local economy a big boost.
The Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex includes nine refuges, including the only refuge named after a President, the only refuge named after an African American, and the oldest in Mississippi
Learn more about the National Wildlife Refuge
. The largest of the nine refuges are Panther Swamp, Saint Catherine Creek and Hillside National Wildlife Refuges. The oldest, Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, was established in 1936 and is home to a healthy population of American alligators.
Four other refuges in the complex are Holt Collier, Mathews Brake, Morgan Brake and Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuges. “Each offers the visitor its own unique beauty and sense of wonder. I’ve seen thousands of snow geese soar overhead at Morgan Brake National Wildlife Refuge, a 16-foot alligator at Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, and a variety of waterfowl and shorebirds at Saint Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge,” says project leader Brett Moule at Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Mathews Brake Refuge, home to more than 30,000 ducks each winter, is known for duck hunting. A horsefly, by the way, is a natural wooded wetland or thicket.
The ninth refuge, Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge, is located off US Highway 61. Its lands and waters are currently closed to the public, its new visitor center “serves as a way for visitors to step back in time while listening to an address by President Roosevelt or interacting with many of the exhibits,” says Moule. The visitor center, which is still in the final stages of development, will be a showcase not only for national wildlife refuges, but for all states in the Mississippi Delta region, which stretches north from near Vicksburg to the Tennessee border.
“What sets the visitor center apart is that its exhibits allow the visitor to experience the history of the Mississippi Delta and to be among many of the region’s animal and plant species,” says Moule. Because Roosevelt founded the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1903—an era when America was just beginning to focus on wildlife conservation—exhibits honor Roosevelt in a big way. All told, Roosevelt established more than 50 national wildlife sanctuaries.
The exhibits also offer a virtual tour of the refuges and other nearby states; emphasize the importance of migratory bird sanctuaries along the Mississippi Flyway; honoring Collier’s remarkable life; and acknowledge the region’s 8,000-year Native American heritage. The visitor center is located off US Highway 61 south of Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Rolling Fork celebrates the legend of the teddy bear every October around the Great Delta Bear Affair.
Exhibits also include the Louisiana black bear, which once roamed abundantly throughout Mississippi, Louisiana, and East Texas. By 1992, there were only 150 Louisiana black bears left in the wild due to loss of their lowland hardwood forest habitat and human-caused 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 has The Louisiana Ecological Services Office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the The US Department of Agriculture, the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, and private landowners have helped the bear recover. These partners have restored the lowland deciduous forest that the bears need to survive. To establish new bear populations or increase the genetic diversity of existing small populations, sState and federal wildlife biologists have also relocated bears from the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, where they thrive Bayou Cocodrie, Bayou Teche and Lake Ophelia National Wildlife Refuges in the state of Louisiana Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area and elsewhere.
This cooperation has paid off.
In 2016, the Louisiana black bear was removed from the threatened and endangered species list. Today, an estimated 750 bears live in the species’ current range, and successful restoration efforts are allowing breeding populations to expand. As a result, the bear, Louisiana’s state mammal, is unlikely to face extinction anytime soon.