“About eight miles out from the Bobo home, the party entered a stand of ‘magnificent timber – oak, ash, hickory and gum – and came upon the slightest of rises in the landscape of the type that passes for a ‘ridge’ in the Delta country.
“The first real canebreak Hough had even seen sprawled across it. He described the growth as ‘like a million cane fish poles set on end, so densely that it seemed a mouse could not crawl between’ them. Trees grew among the cane but not as close together as the surrounding woods. Thickets of interlocking brush choked the few cane-less pockets. It was a jungle such as Hough had never seen in all his life.”
Anyone who has ever driven along U.S. Highway 61 through the Delta region of northwest Mississippi has had to wonder how the country must have appeared before much of the farmland was cleared between Vicksburg and Memphis.
The few photos of the region that remain from the turn of the nineteenth century probably don’t do the landscape justice, judging from the description above provided by James T. McCafferty in his book, “The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South.”
McCafferty, an attorney and writer who has lived in Mississippi most of his life, attended elementary school in Clarksdale, Miss., and later the University of Mississippi Law School with Jack Bobo, the great-great grandson of Robert Eager Bobo, the bear hunter depicted throughout the book.
But McCafferty, who says he never dreamed he would one day write a book about Jack Bobo’s ancestor, had other serendipitous moments in his writing career that led him to a storehouse of knowledge about the elder Bobo and a Delta landscape that most of us can only imagine.
In February, 1987, Field and Stream, a magazine that had purchased several outdoor articles by McCafferty, reprinted a story by Col. James Gordon, a Confederate Army veteran, writer and bear hunter who had lived in Pontotoc, Miss., a few miles from Oxford where McCafferty was living at the time.
“I had always been interested in history, and I began researching Gordon’s life and discovered the many articles he had written about hunting in nineteenth century Coahoma County, Miss.,” said McCafferty. “All the talk of bear and panther I had heard growing up came back to me, and I determined to learn more about the old days in the Delta.”
In collecting Col. Gordon’s writings, McCafferty discovered the big three outdoor magazines of the era: Turf, Field and Farm; The American Field; and Forest and Stream. Pouring through the bound volumes and microfilm available through inter-library loan, he discovered and recorded a treasure trove of bear hunting stories. (Such a feat would be impossible today, he says).
In the late 1980s, McCafferty came across a reference to R.E. Bobo in an article by a hunter/writer from Indiana. While hunting along the Sunflower River in Coahoma County, the writer reported meeting R.E. Bobo, who he described as an “enthusiastic hunter” who owned a pack “of the very best bear dogs.”
Post-Civil War era
McCafferty was intrigued and learned from Jack Bobo that Robert Eager Bobo was an ancestor. McCafferty subsequently met Jack’s father, the fourth Robert E. Bobo and received more information about the family and permission to copy some of the photos that appear in the book.
The demands of his law practice forced McCafferty to give up his pursuit for several years, but four years ago he returned to his files and discovered he possessed a tremendous amount of material on Robert Eager Bobo.
“Bob Bobo may well have been the most written about bear hunter of the latter nineteenth century,” says McCafferty. “In the five years between 1892 through 1896, at least nine major magazine articles appeared in the sporting press entirely about Bobo and his bear hunting. Eight of them were written by Bobo’s friend, Chicago writer Emerson Hough.”
Because of the quantity of writings by Hough about Bobo and the Mississippi Delta much of the book is told from his perspective. Hough clearly was an admirer of Bobo, a feeling shared by Bobo who persuaded his son, Fincher Gist Bobo, to delay his wedding by two days because Hough had not arrived for the festivities.
Hough recounts riding on bear hunts with Bobo and a group of friends and employees on horseback through canebrake so thick the only way they could determine the location of the bear and other groups of hunters was by the barking of the dogs.
Although Bobo owned and managed a flourishing plantation headquartered at Bobo just south of Clarksdale in Coahoma County, bear hunting was more than a recreational pursuit – he is reported to have killed 304 bear in one year – it was almost an obsession, according to McCafferty.
'Teddy Bear' hunt
One of the interesting side notes in the book is the story about the role Bobo played in the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt to a bear hunt in the Mississippi Delta – which resulted in the coining of the name “Teddy Bear,” after the president reportedly refused to shoot a small bear.
“The stories about Robert Eager Bobo described a dauntless man who, after coming home as a boy from the Civil War with little more to his name than the clothes on his back, carved a profitable plantation and a logging business out of a wilderness,” McCafferty writes. “Through hard work and enterprise, he built a life and prosperity for himself and his progeny that has persisted now for five generations.”
The Bear Hunter is available in hard back in Memphis, Tenn., at Booksellers at Laurelwood and in Mississippi at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Square Books in Oxford, Turnrow Books in Greenwood, the Press-Register office in Clarksdale, Lagniappe Gifts in Greenville, Bay Books in Bay St. Louis and Maple Street Books in New Orleans. Information on direct purchase from the author can be found in his Bear Hunter Facebook page. It is also available in Kindle format from Amazon.com.