The popular story is that Teddy Roosevelt, in a moment of supreme mercy, decided not to kill a small bear which thereafter lived happily ever after. As with most all political fables, the story is only partly true, with those who made it up cherry picking the proper information to enhance their candidate’s political image. In almost all cases, in fact, Theodore Roosevelt was free and easy with his rifle in hunting wild animals, and kept exact records of the results of his hunts, cataloging the large numbers of birds, bears, wolves, mountain lions, etc. that he did away with. Roosevelt, on the other hand, did begin American wilderness preservation on a grand scale, including Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. Some have suggested that he did this because of his guilt about the large number of animals he killed, but this is somewhat unfair, because Roosevelt enjoyed the beauties of nature from an early age, often surprising guides who found him inordinately cheerful even when camping out in the worst conditions of rain and cold.
The teddy bear incident occurred when Roosevelt was on the hunt for black bears in Mississippi. Unlike in the western US, bears were hard to find for the President. A tracker spent two days unsuccessfully hunting for them, and the Presidential Party began to get frustrated. Finally, when the tracker was away from Roosevelt, he spotted a black bear and gave chase. The quarry proved elusive, however, and the tracker’s dog had to pursue the fleeing bear into a lake. The tracker himself took part in the capture, and struck the bear on the head with the butt of his hunting rifle to subdue him. Unfortunately this did grave injury to the cranium of the bear, and the quite persistent tracker chained him to a tree so that Roosevelt could finish him off upon his arrival. President Roosevelt, of course, did not find the option of executing a gravely injured bear who was chained to a tree appealing, and let the poor bear off to attempt survival in the wild.
Often stories that originate in rumors do no good to the person or persons that the rumor is about, but such is clearly not the case here. The story, on the other hand, skilfully constructed by Roosevelt’s handlers, led to a far more complimentary tale that was favorable to the President, and millions of small children (and some adults) who treasure their Teddy Bears.