Teddy Roosevelt got barely a mention. Paul Rainey fared considerably better, but it was Robert Bobo who was the premier bear hunter in Mississippi according to James T. McCafferty.
McCafferty, a former New Albany resident, returned here this past Thursday to talk about his latest book, “The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South.”
He was guest speaker for the monthly Museum Moments program.
McCafferty evidently became interested in bear hunting at an early age and the sport in the last half of the 19th Century was not for the faint of heart.
Hunters traversed the large Delta areas on horseback, using dogs, but also having to enter thick cane breaks to finish off a bear with a knife. Pistols frightened the dogs so it was not wise to try to shoot a bear with a pistol; the dogs would be liable to run away upon seeing a pistol leaving the hunter with a wounded but very much alive bear.
McCafferty first heard about Bobo through knowing his great-great-grandson in the fifth grade. The school friend had talked about the history of bear hunting passed down from his ancestor.
Many years later McCafferty got interested in James Gordon, the owner of Lochinvar in Pontotoc, and talked with current owner Dr. Tutor. He began collecting old magazine and other stories on bear hunting in the South but put that aside to do other things.
“I intended to write about several bear hunters but then I thought about Jack (his friend),” he said. He gathered more information and eventually had more than enough for a book on Bobo alone.
“Bobo joined the Confederate Army at age 14,” McCafferty said. He fought at Brice’s Crossroads but came home after the war at age 18 penniless.
Coahoma County was often flooded but Bobo was able to get in a dugout canoe and paddle around to tell where the high ground was by cane breaks. Cane won’t grow on low, wet ground, he said, and Bobo was able to buy enough high ground to create a plantation.
The cane breaks were large and thick and the trees huge – eight to 12 feet in diameter, so you had to hunt from horseback and be handy with a cane knife.
“He used mixed-breed dogs; the others were too specialized,” he said. There were trailing dogs and fighting dogs but something like a bulldog was no good because it would latch on to the bear and the bear would kill it.
“Bear hunters usually kept a bear to train their dogs,” he said. “Paul Rainey had three. You also had to have a horn to call the dogs.”
Most hunters preferred to use a shotgun but Bobo had a ’92 Winchester .44-.40 with a 33-inch barrel- shorter than usual to be better suited for use in the cane breaks.
As noted, although the pistol might be safer to finish off a bear, most used knives.
Bobo was famous throughout the country thanks to national magazine articles and it is even said that the notorious James Gang hunted with him. McCafferty said although most associate the gang with the Wild West, they actually operated more in the Midwest and South. “One had a farm in Kentucky. They owned race horses and raced them in New York,” he said.
Gang members were supposedly going to Louisiana to buy land and go straight but when they got to the Delta they found a race track, began racing but some skullduggery occurred resulting in a gunfight.
Theodore Roosevelt was indeed invited to go on a bear hunt in Mississippi with Bobo as a guide but Bobo by then was too ill to go and died before Roosevelt had left the state, McCafferty said.
McCafferty did deal with the Roosevelt story in a previous book, however.
The famous story of Holt Collier is told in his children’s book, “Holt and the Teddy Bear.” He describers how Collier was chosen to guide President Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting trip into the Delta and the classic story of how Collier convinced the President not to shoot the bear, thus the inspiration for the “Teddy” bear.
Now that he has written about Bobo, McCafferty is working on a book about Paul Rainey.
“It’s kind of a continuation of Bobo,” he said. “I like Bobo better but Rainey is kind of the last of the bear hunters.” At one time there were more bears than beavers in the Delta – the bears could climb trees to get away – but the numbers could not be sustained as hunting increased.
McCafferty, who has a law degree, now lives in McComb. His time in New Albany was spent here when he was in high school.