Of all of the well-documented hunting exploits of President Theodore Roosevelt, it is ironic that the most famous of his storied adventures was an unsuccessful black bear hunt in the swamps of Sharkey County, Mississippi.
On November 14, 1902, Roosevelt traveled from the White House to Mississippi to settle a border dispute between Mississippi and Louisiana. While there, he went on a hound-hunting trip in the Yazoo Delta. Noted as a hellish place to hunt with dense briars and endless swamps, the hosts for the hunt were concerned for the President’s safety. Much to Roosevelt’s disappointment, they insisted to have him stay in camp until a bear was treed or at bay. Roosevelt’s omission from the actual chase was unsettling to a man who prided himself on living the hardy life – the tougher the hunt, the better.
Once the guides and hounds had exhausted a small bear after a long chase, the other hunters tied a rope around the bear’s front end, dragged him out of the mud hole he was using to escape the dogs, tied him to a tree, and sent for the President. When Roosevelt arrived on the scene, he refused to kill the defenseless bear.
The next day, political cartoonist Clifford Berryman drew a cartoon showing Roosevelt refusing to hurt the helpless bear. The cartoon’s caption “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” referred to both the border dispute settlement and the hunting incident.
This cartoon sparked the imagination of the country and of a shopkeeper in Brooklyn, New York, who asked his wife to make two plush stuffed bears for display in his shop’s window. The popularity of the novelty critters quickly caught fire. To link the stuffed bear phenomenon with Roosevelt, the shop owner asked the President for permission to call his creation “Teddy’s Bear.” Roosevelt said yes, and the Teddy Bear was born.
To the benefit of the hunting and conservation of our wildlife resources, as well as our hunting heritage, something else was also born in this Mississippi swamp. By not caving in to the common practice of the time, a president with an inborn passion for the hunt itself defined the rules of ethical engagement. On his own, self-imposed terms, Roosevelt later finished the hunt as a more active participant in the chase, forever defining the concept of “fair chase.”
Having already formed the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887, Roosevelt was now searching for a way to separate legitimate hunting that was wrongfully being associated with commercial market hunting, which had no code of ethical conduct, just killing the most by the easiest and most affective means possible. Roosevelt was also looking for a way to draw more sportsmen of that era into the conservation movement. The concept of true sportsmanship through the tenets of fair chase provided this separation from for market slaughter and united more sportsmen for conservation. This same sportsman’s code would later become the foundation for the game laws we have to this day.