By Robert L. Moncrief
MADISON COORDINATOR’S NOTE: Since this article contains so many details of the hunt it is believed that R. L. Moncrief must have actually interviewed Ben Lilly who was on the hunt. It is reasonable to assume this since Moncrief was working for the Madison Parish School District and Lilly’s daughter, Mrs. Eisley, also worked for the district. RPS email@example.com
This article was found in the Robert L. Moncrief Collection and was contributed by Stephen Moncrief of Oxford, Mississippi.
News that the President was coming to Louisiana for a bear hunt spread rapidly and was received joyously by the people of Tallulah, Lake Providence and other communities of North East Louisiana. Never before had they been visited by such a great personality as Teddy Roosevelt, President of the Unites' States, and it was said that he would spend two full weeks camping and hunting in the delta.
Colonel Roosevelt, as he liked to be called, loved to hunt and had shot big game in many parts of tie world. But he seemed to be especially anxious to kill a black bear in the canebrakes of Louisiana after the fashion of the old southern planters who followed the bear with horse, hound and horn.
The president's special train arrived in Lake Providence on Saturday morning, October 5. 1907 and despite a steady rain, thousands of people had gathered to welcome and hear him speak. He was introduced to the crowd by the late Congressman Joseph E. Ransdall of Lake Providence. His speech was brief, but he was tendered an ovation which lasted several minutes, then his train was off again for the hunting grounds.
About 15 miles north of Tallulah the president's private car stopped and was side-tr4cked at a place called Stamboul - now known as Roosevelt. It was raining hardy but the president and his party immediately mounted their horses and rode west. With him were John N. Parker of Louisiana, who five years later would be Roosevelt's vice-presidential running mate in a campaign that would split the Republican Party wide open and bring about the election of Woodrow Wilson.
Later still Parker would be elected governor of Louisiana. Other members of tile hunting party were John A. McIlhenny from Avery Island, Louisiana, Surgeon-General Rixey of the United States Navy, and Dr. Alexander Lambert. Also with them were guides and some of the best hunters of Northeast Louisiana.
The hunting grounds which had been chosen for the president to kill a bear was an area along the Tensas River near the old Monticello Road crossing. This was a famous cotton-hauling road, before the coming of the railroad, in the southern part of East Carroll Parish. Their camp was pitched deep in the hardwood forests on the banks of Tensas River. At that time little of the timber had been cut and Roosevelt marveled at the giant trees that grew everywhere. Later he wrote, "Wherever the water stands in pools, and by the edges of the lakes and bayous, the giant cypress loom aloft, rivaled in size by some of the red gums and white oaks. In stature, in towering majesty, they are unsurpassed by any trees of our eastern forests; lordlier kings of the green-leaved world are not to be found until we reach the sequoias and redwoods of the Sierras."
Thick undergrowth covered much of the area. Palmettos grew thickly in places. Canebrakes stretched along the slight rises of ground, extending for miles forming one of the most striking and interesting features of the country. The bamboo-like canes, growing fifteen to twenty feet high, were often so dense and close together other growth was choked out. These canebrakes were the refuge of bear, deer and other hunted animals, but they were almost impenetrable to a man on horseback, and it was often necessary for a man on foot to cut his way through with a heavy bush knife.
Across this almost impenetrable jungle, crews of men had, in preparation for the hunt, cut trails in order for the hunters to more easily ride or walk from one area to another and be able to see their quarry. The plan was to have men and dogs go into the jungle of canebrakes, find the bears and chase them out to the crossing where the hunters would be waiting.
On the morning after the president and his companions reached camp they were joined by Ben Lilly, considered by many who knew him to be the greatest hunter in Louisiana, if not in the whole country. Roosevelt describes him as a full bearded man with gentle blue eyes and a frame of steel and whipcord; a man almost completely indifferent to fatigue and hardship who equaled Cooper’s Deerslayer in woodcraft, hardihood and simplicity.
Later the president wrote of him: ''The morning he joined us in camp, he had come on foot through the thick woods, followed by his two dogs, and had neither eaten nor drunk for twenty four hours, for he did not like to drink the swamp water. It had rained hard throughout the night and he had no shelter, no rubber coat, nothing but the clothes he was wearing, and the ground was too wet for him to lie on; so he perched in a crooked tree in the beating rain, much as if he had been a wild turkey. But he was not in the least tired when he struck camp; and though he slept an hour after breakfast, it was chiefly because he had nothing else to do, inasmuch as it was Sunday, on which day he never hunted nor labored. He could run through the woods like a buck, was far more enduring, and quite as indifferent to weather, though he was over fifty years old. He had trapped and hunted throughout almost all the half-century of his life, and on trail of game he was as sure as his own hounds. His observations on wild creatures were singularly close and accurate. He was particularly fond of the chase of the bear, which he followed by himself, with one or two dogs; often he would be on the trail of his quarry for days at a time, lying down to sleep wherever night overtook him; and he had killed over a hundred and twenty bears.”
Late in the afternoon of the same day the party was joined by two other experienced hunters: Clive and Harley Metcalf, planters from Mississippi, who brought with them their pack of bear hounds. The pact: was under the immediate control of Holt Collier, a 60-year old negro who had been a bear hunter for half a century and had killed or assisted in killing, more than three thousand bears.
The black bear, once very plentiful in the delta country of Northeast Louisiana, was the favorite game of many hunters. Since bears do not go into their dens until about the end of January, it is during the early winter months they are hunted. There is plenty of food at this time of year and they are usually fat, feeding on grapes and berries of all kinds, and acorns and pecans. By December, a full-grown bear might weigh twice as much as he did in August when food was scarce.
A big bear is cunning and dangerous to dogs, but only in exceptional cases, according to experienced hunters, is the black bear, even when wounded, dangerous to men. A big full-grown bear is usually not afraid of dogs and will kill any dog that cores close enough. A bear will, however, often run before a pack of hounds and may at times tree.
Roosevelt wrote that during his hunt in Louisiana the Metcalfs told him, "how they had once seen a bear, which had been chased quite a time, evidently make up its mind that it needed a rest and could afford to take it without much regard for the hounds. The bear, accordingly, selected a small opening and lay flat on its back with its nose and all its four legs extended. The dogs surrounded it in frantic excitement, barking and baying, and gradually coming in a ring very close up. The bear was watching, however, and suddenly sat up with a jerk, frightening the dogs nearly into fits. Half of them turned back somersaults in their panic, and all promptly gave the bear ample room.
The bear, having looked about, lay flat on its back again, and the pack gradually regaining courage once more closed in. At first the bear, which was evidently reluctant to arise, kept them at a distance by now arid then thrusting an unexpected paw toward them; and when they became too bold it sat up with a jump and once more put them all to flight."
On Monday, October 7 the party made its first hunt. The president with one companion was put upon a stand to wait until a bear could be jumped and driven toward him. The rains had softened the ground and experienced hunters said this would make it easier to track and find game. Soon the driver arid dogs succeeded in jumping an old bear and a young one. The negro drivers could have killed them but the orders were that no one was to shoot until the colonel had his chance.
It is not easy to chase a bear, fighting dogs through miles of tangled undergrowth, and make him go in the direction that may be desired by the hunters. The young bear got away and crossed a slough followed by some of the dogs. It was impossible to drive the big bear past the Colonel arid it also finally got away ending the first day's hunt.
For several days Roosevelt and his party hunted the canebrakes along the Tensas River but without success. Ben Lilly believed that the bears were leaving the country because of too many men, too many dogs - about 50 in number now - and too much noise. If Lilly had been told to go out and kill a bear and bring him to camp he probably would have had little trouble in doing so but for him and a pack of hounds to drive a bear by the president's stand for a shot was something much more difficult. Ben Lilly would have simply gone in to the forest alone with one or two dogs, found the trail of a bear and followed it. If night came on before he caught up with the bear he would have made camp and followed the trail again next morning until he had brought the animal to bay.
A week went by and still the president of the United States had not killed a bear. Ben Lilly now took complete charge of the hunt. Camp was changed from Tensas River to a beautiful spot on Bear Lake in Madison Parish several miles south of the first camp: Here they were joined by Dr. Miller and Major Amaker of Lake Providence.
The weather had turned cool and was ideal for hunting. From the new camp they hunted as steadily as from the old. They found signs of bear and sometimes jumped one only to have him slip away without the colonel getting a shot. One morning the hounds chased a bear for three hours without any of the hunters ever seeing it. It managed to get away after the dogs were completely tired out. Another morning the dogs ran a big bear out of the canebrakes into Bear Lake where it swam across and got away. A couple of young bears had been killed by other members of the party but every one wanted the president to get a shot.
Deer were plentiful around the camp but the hunters killed only what they needed for food for dogs and men. The president himself using a powerful 45-70 rifle, made a most difficult shot through the undergrowth to kill a fine buck. He hunted wildcats, fished and swam in Bear Lake and seemed to enjoy horseback riding through the forest. At night he like to sit about the campfire and listen to the "tall tales" of the hunters.
The president had now spent more than ten days in the forests; the time was rapidly approaching when he would have to return to Washington, yet he had not killed a bear. His hosts were getting anxious, Ben Lilly, Holt Collier, and others had tried hard to drive the game in his direction but it was becoming increasingly clear that with miles of canebrake to choose from it would never be easy to force a bear past any given point.
Finally it was decided to try a different strategy; instead of the president going to a given stand and remaining there until the bear came to him, he would move through the forest with the sound of the dogs and try to come up with the bear before he could slip out of the area.
It was arranged that Mr. Clive Metcalf should ride with the president, while Mr. Harley Metcalf and others went with Holt Collier and a great pack of hounds into the canebrake for a final route-up.
Just before the hunters were to ride out the next morning they were joined by Mr. Ichabod Osborne and his son Tom, two Louisiana planters, who brought six or eight bear dogs with them. The whole party rode out and leaving the president with Clive Metcalf, plunged into the thickest cane. About six miles away the dogs struck the cold trail of a bear that they had left the day before. Patiently they tracked the animal and finally jumped it.
In spite of every thing they could do the bear ran in the wrong direction. Without stopping to fight the dogs it continued to run until the cane grew thin, then not wishing to break cover the bear turned back and started toward the president who, with Clive Metcalf, was listening to the far off notes of the hounds.
Once the dogs were completely out of hearing, they galloped desperately around the edge of the cane following in the direction the pack had gone. The president must have remembered his days as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War as their horses leaped logs, plunged through bushes, and dodged in and out among tree trunks. He later wrote: "We had all we could do to prevent the vines from lifting us out of the saddle, while the thorns tore our hands arid faces." For two hours they rode, now at a trot, now at a run, now stopping to listen for the dogs. Occasionally they could hear the hounds and off they would go racing through the forests toward the point for which it seemed the bear was heading.
At last they came upon one side of a canebrake on the other side of which they could hear, not only the pack, but the yelling of Harley Metcalf, Tom Osborne, and others who were trying to keep the dogs after the bear in the thick cane. The president and Clive Metcalf galloped forward toward the spot as far as they could go. Then throwing themselves from their horses they plunged into the thick canebrake. They could tell that the bear was at bay but as they fought their way through the thick cane it began to move again, making what Clive Metcalf celled a "walking bay". He was able to determine, however, the bear’s probable course and led the way to a spot near which he thought the bear would pass.
Then the president crouched down with his rifle cocked and ready. Peering through the cane he could suddenly make out the dim outline of the bear coning straight toward them. In a few seconds the bear came closer, walking upright and turning now and then to look back at the nearest dogs. As the bear moved to within about twenty yards it could be seen distinctly and the president fired for behind the shoulder. The bear fell forward but as the dogs came running up he fired a second shot, breaking the spine at the base of the neck and the hunt was over.
The remainder of the day was spent in getting the bear to camp, taking pictures of the president and other members of the party and in celebrating the success of the hunt. After another day of rest the hunters began to get ready for breaking camp. Roosevelt rode back to his private car and paid a visit to the plantation home of Mr. and Mrs. Leo Shields nearby. He expressed his deep appreciation of the hospitalities extended him while in Louisiana and at 10 o'clock, Monday morning, October 21; he boarded his special train and waved goodby to a large crowd which had gathered to see him off.
A few minutes later, Roosevelt's train reached Tallulah and he spoke for about ten minutes from the rear platform of his private car. He referred to his recent hunt and thanked the people for permitting him to enjoy his pastime undisturbed: He spoke of the fertility of the soils saying that this area is unexcelled by any region on earth and that with the danger from overflow entirely avoided, there was no region of greater possibilities.