Excerpts from the Prologue
now famous Mississippi bear hunt involving President Theodore Roosevelt and
a hunting party of old friends and hunting comrades officially began on November
13, 1902, at Smedes Plantation in Sharkey County, Mississippi. Though the hunt
had been planned at high corporate and governmental levels for months, its success
was wholly dependent upon the skill and performance of Holt Collier, a fifty-six-year-old
former slave. The extraordinary efforts of Collier to make that hunt a success
by single-handedly capturing a large wild black bear is alone worthy of considerable
attention. The fact that the popular president was in the hunting party and
that it was widely reported in the national press made the event no less impressive.
Almost forgotten now, Holt Collier was recognized nationally during his lifetime as a remarkable figure in the history of the Delta region of Mississippi. From the perspective of many, including modern African Americans and possibly his own contemporaries, Collier’s loyalties and his life story must be baffling and difficult to accept. In these more enlightened times his values and motives seem difficult to fathom.
ranks and taboos of caste and class were suspended on the hunt, especially in
such interior and frontier regions as the Mississippi Delta. At least temporarily,
a man’s skill and courage were the only criterion for acceptance. In this
gentleman’s pursuit Holt Collier was able to earn the respect of others
and establish his own reputation as a giant among men. He earned honor as a
hunter and guide irrespective of race. “Though the South had its gentlemen
hunters like Wade Hampton, all down the line of its social ranks it had devotees
of the sport. The small farmer, the frontiersman, the poor white—and frequently
the Negro—all were hunters....In many localities certain Negroes or Indians
were numbered among the expert nimrods of the community, and their society was
at times apparently courted. Long before the advent of Jack Johnson and Willie
Mays, hunting was a factor which promoted integration.” In the Mississippi
Delta and perhaps throughout the entire South, no hunter was equal in skill
or courage to Holt Collier.
The bear hunt in the jungle swamps of Mississippi that November day in 1902, newsworthy though it was at the time, is but one episode in the larger context of Holt Collier’s life. The Roosevelt hunt merely draws us into the larger picture that is the remarkable life of this legendary figure. This is his story.
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