The Story of Teddy Bears And A Lesson in Questioning Everything

Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be the hero.

African Proverb

There have a been a few events in the news recently that triggered me to think of how the story of the teddy bear toy came about. Here’s the story, pieced together from a series of articles:

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt embarked on a bear hunting trip in Mississippi as a guest of the presiding governor. There were other guests but Roosevelt was by far the most prominent on the expedition. As the journey continued, Roosevelt became the only trekker who had not caught a bear despite his eagerness to catch one on day one. Roosevelt’s assistant on the trip (a born slave, confederate cavalryman, and bear hunter) found a bear on his behalf and tied it to a tree. In the process of being captured, the bear did what bears do and fiercely fought this capture, killing one of the hunting dogs. To subdue the bear, the assistant bludgeoned the animal in the head and Roosevelt was summoned to complete the kill. The President refused to shoot, but his rationale was not altruistic or based in empathy for the poor bear that only hours ago, was minding its own business. Roosevelt viewed shooting the captured bear as unsportsmanlike.

Political cartoon by Clifford Berryman

Political cartoon by Clifford Berryman

News spread of this “noble act” of his refusal to shoot the bear and the story quickly made it in the nation-wide papers. The story caught the eye of a candy shop owner in Brooklyn who created stuffed animals with his wife. It inspired them to make stuffed toy bears and name them after the President. The Teddy Bear was born.  

Fast forward to today, I think when most of us see a teddy bear, it conjures up feelings of childhood and innocence. A cute plush animal with big eyes and a plump, round belly. Somehow, over time, the gruesome story of an aggressor morphed into the story of a nobleman worthy of being named for this lovable toy. Roosevelt was made a hero in the unfortunate situation he actually created. How many times have we seen this in history? Even in our current news headlines?

This event happened so long ago but the unintended lesson applies today. It reminds me to be a bit more discerning about what I hear and not jump to conclusions or take what I hear for granted.  I’m certainly guilty of jumping to conclusions only to find out a story I perceived as truth was actually completely different from what actually happened. The story reminded me that it’s always a good practice to question what I hear and have a healthy curiosity for who the story is coming from, why it’s being told the way it is, and what the teller has to gain.

Oh, and if you’re curious like I was about what happened to the bear, from what I can gather, the poor bear was eventually killed anyway. I suppose it was the merciful thing to do after everything the noble crew put it through.

Smithsonian Article (2012)


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