Holt Collier, Mississippi
Collected by the Federal Writers Project, Works Progress Administration
Holt Collier -- Was born in Greenville in 1848, died in Greenville August 1st, 1936, and he was through almost his entire life a remarkable colored citizen of Washington county. He was an ex-slave and a Confederate soldier. He did a great deal for the uplift of his race. He achieved great distinction as a hunter of big game, killing bear all over the country, some on grounds where Greenville homes and public buildings now stand. He gained notice by being in the hunting party of President Theodore Roosevelt, when he came to Washington county in quest of this sport. Holt Collier in relating this colorful incident in his life said: "The President of the United States was anxious to see a live bear the first day of the hunt. I told him he would see that bear if I had to tie it and bring it to him." Collier made good his word. Before the day ended the President had seen the gay old bruin. Upon his return to Washington Mr. Roosevelt sent to Holt a rifle duplicating the one he had used on the hunt, and which Holt had so admired.
Too feeble to rise unaided from his stout oak rocking chair, Holt Collier, nonegenarian, ex-slave and Washington county's most colorful citizen, sits in his own little home on North Broadway.
For many years Holt's erect and sturdy figure was a familiar sight on Greenville streets. A stranger would have noticed his bearing, his dark face with iron gray mustache and Vandyke beard and the broad-brimmed felt hat he always wore. Now, the wide hat, similar to those worn by officers in the Confederate army, shades his failing eyes when he sits on the little porch of his home watching the passersby.
Holt Collier was born in Jefferson county in 1848; he lived there only a short while, however, because he was brought by his master, Howell Hinds, son of General Hinds, to Washington county when he was only a small boy. Holt's master, to whom he was devoted, traveled back and forth to the old home in Jefferson county; to New Orleans, to Louisville and to Cincinnati and Holt always accompanied him in the capacity of juvenile valet. Traveling at that time was done mostly by boat, and Holt recalls quite a number of the boats that plied the river in the halcyon days of the steamboat.
At the age of twelve, Holt was sent with his master's sons to Bardstown, Kentucky. All the boys were expected to attend school, but Holt's love of hunting caused him to "play hookey" while the others studied. He often hid his gun in the spring house, returned for it later and slipped away to the fields and forest to hunt instead of going to the school room. Though Mr. Hinds never succeeded in having the boy educated in books, he, however, trained Holt to be honorable, truthful and trustworthy, and this training was evident throughout his life.
Holt tells us that at the time when the Civil War began, he was living on Plum Ridge, the Hind's plantation, south of the present city of Greenville. Mr. Howell Hinds, later Colonel Hinds and always spoken of by Holt as "The Old Colonel", and his son, Tom, were making ready to join the Confederate forces. When Holt Collier, then only fourteen years of age, learned of his master's preparations for departing, he asked to go with them. To Holt's great disappointment, however, his master and Tom agreed that the little colored boy was too young to enter the army. "I begged like a dog, but they stuck to it -- 'You are too young'", Holt relates.
In front of Old Greenville, seven steamboats were waiting to transport the volunteers from the surrounding country to Memphis; from there they were to be sent to training camps. During the afternoon the "Old Colonel" and Tom left for Old Greenville, prepared to join the men already gathered on the river bank. Night came; the dense forest and the cypress brakes between Plum Ridge and the little town of Greenville became very dark. Through this darkness, the young colored boy made his way toward the river and its flotilla of steamboats. Arriving at the village, he loitered at the store of a Jewish merchant, Mr. Rose, and at a propitious moment, he slipped aboard the "Vernon", climbing up the back of the boat to the kitchen where he hid himself. While Holt was in hiding, a man entered the kitchen and beckoning him to come near, Holt won the man's sympathy and aid in carrying out his plan to follow his master to the army. Arrangements were made for Holt to occupy a small room adjoining the kitchen and the cook, whom Holt had seen on the "Vicksburg", proved friendly. "He hid me during the trip and told me when to get off at Memphis," Holt tells. The soldiers from the boat having gone ashore, the cook thought that the time was ripe for Holt to make his appearance. Leaving the shelter of the "Cook-house", he climbed up the high banks at the Memphis landing to find his master standing with a group of officers, among whom were General Bedford Forrest and General Breckenridge. No more was said of Holt's youth and he went into training at Camp Boone; it was in Tennessee. Be served as a soldier and did not go as a body- servant to Colonel Hinds.
After drilling for a time at Camp Boone, he was sent with his company into Kentucky. His first taste of war came in a fight at a bridge over Green River and there he met his "Old Colonel" again. During the four years conflict, he served with the Texas Cowboys, Ross' Brigade and was under Colonel Dudley Jones at the close of the struggle. After the surrender, he returned to Washington county with his master and Tom Hinds.
About that time he began to achieve distinction as a hunter. He killed bear all over the county, some of which were killed where Greenville homes and public buildings now stand.
Quail matches were the fashion then and at various times Colonel Hinds pitted his man, Holt, against such sportsmen as Major Keep of Mayersville, Mississippi, Jeff Brown and Major Lawrence of Louisville. In a noted match with Mr. Lomax Anderson of Lake Village, Arkansas, Holt won for Colonel Hinds a purse of one thousand dollars in gold.
When the Carpetbagger regime was in full swing, Holt was involved in serious trouble connected with the killing of a Yankee soldier. Be was arrested on suspicion and but for the persistent efforts of Colonel W. A. Percy, would most like have paid the supreme penalty.
To this day he has never told who killed the Union soldier, but those who are informed about those troublous times, have their own opinion, which they never put into words. The trouble arose over a difficulty between the soldier and Colonel Hinds. During the dispute, the Colonel, though a much older man, knocked the youngster down several time, each time following the aggression of the younger man. Finally the thoroughly angered young man drew a knife on his unarmed opponent, but a by-stander prevented his using it. Such conduct, especially when the aggressor was a much younger man, was considered an insult and Holt regarded it as such.
Holt tells that on one occasion, during Reconstruction days, he, the only negro among 500 white men, marched up Washington Avenue under fire, as a protest against the insults to the white men and women of Greenville. Several times he was taken to court because of his participation in acts of this kind.
After the tragic death of his beloved master, Holt traveled for some time with a race-horse stable and later worked on the race-horse farm of Captain James Brown near Fort Worth, Texas. There he met Frank James brother of the celebrated Jessie James. Thence he traveled into old Mexico and later hunted "little bear" in Alaska. Seeing the world did not wean Holt from his old home in the Mississippi Delta and after a few years of wandering, he returned to Greenville.
Having killed 2212 bear, after which he says, 'I just quit counting", Holt and the famous pack of dogs, which he had trained, were known by hunters and sportsmen, not only in the Delta but in other states. When the great bear hunt for President Theodore Roosevelt was planned, it was quite natural that Mr. John M. Parker of Louisiana chose Holt to select the hunting grounds and lead the chase.
"One day Major Helm came to me", says Holt, "and said: 'If you can get things ready in a month and not let anybody know what you're doing, President Roosevelt will go hunting with us'. I got things ready; found a beautiful campin' place. I was boss of the hunt. Along came the President with a car-load of guards, but he left all but one of 'em in the car. Anyway he was safer with me than with all the policemen in Washington. The President was a pleasant man; when he was talking he'd stop every little while to ask other people's opinion. Sometimes he asked my opinion about something, and he talked to me about as much as he did to anybody else; he had a thousand questions to ask. We sat on a log to talk and in ten minutes, thirty-five people were sitting on the log. It was going to be a ten day hunt, but the President was impatient. 'I must see a live bear the first day,' he said. I told him he would if I had to tie one and bring it to him. Mr. Foote made fun of me. The President looked doubtful, but Mr. Percy and Major Helm said I could do it."
Holt tells that he got on the trail of a bear fairly early next morning. In following the dogs, he left the party far behind; at noon or shortly after, the bear headed for the lake where the chase had started. The rest of the party were to meet him there. "We got to the lake", he continued, "and the bear went right into the water. The party had returned to camp. I followed the bear into the lake with my Texas rope on my arm. I slicked up the rope with the blue mud from the bottom. I had one dog in the water with me; he tangled with the bear and they went under. I kicked the bear and he stuck his head up. While he was shaking the water from his eyes, I dropped the rope over his head, moved back about ten feet or so, and tied it to a tree. The bear was old, but he was fat; he had gray hair on his paws and head, and he had two big black teeth. That bear killed several fine dogs for me."
The pack Holt was using was one for which he had been offered a thousand dollars, but he had kept them.
"I went to camp and brought 'em down to see the bear. I had tied it but wouldn't take it to the President like I'd said I would. When they all got there the President ran into the water, and I said to him, with my head down, 'Don't shoot him while he's tied.' Everybody tried to get him to do it but he couldn't. Some of the other gentlemen wanted to shoot the bear, but I knew the dogs would rush in and get killed before the bear died, so I told 'em if they gave me fifteen hundred dollars for the dogs they could have the bear. They didn't want him after that.
The President had seen his bear and everybody was getting ready to go back to camp. One of my best friends, Mr. John Parker, came up to me and said, 'Holt, I want that bear; how can I get him? I told him to follow me and I'd show him. Be followed me into the water. I teased the bear out to the end of his rope and put my hand on his back; he couldn't get at me, but everybody thought I was crazy. I told Mr. Parker to take the knife out of my belt and stick the bear. I put my finger over his heart, where I wanted him to stab him.
When the knife went in, the bear jumped. Mr. Parker nearly pushed me on top of the bear, trying to get out of the lake and left me to pull the knife out of the bear he had stabbed.
Back in camp that night the President told me I was the best guide and hunter he'd ever seen. Mr. Foot didn't laugh at that either."
Upon his return to Washington, Mr. Roosevelt sent to Holt a rifle just like one he had used on his hunt and which Holt had admired.
Holt recalls with pleasure that he was in company with Major George M. Helm when he killed his first bear and another pleasant recollection is that "I taught M. LeRoy Percy how to shoot quail".
During his long life Holt has been closely associated with many of Washington county's leading citizens and speaks more correctly than the average negro. An article published in the "The Literary Digest" several years ago, quoted him as talking like the ordinary corn-field negro, which is far from correct.
Holt's most thrilling tale is of a hunt when his dogs found a bear in the huge trunk of a fallen tree and went in to get it. Trained dogs being too valuable to lose, Holt determined to go in to their rescue. Be wore soft, fine hunting boots ordered especially for him by his friend Mr. J. C. Greenley, who kept a men s furnishing store. Dropping down he began to make his way into the log against the protest of his white friends, one of whom in his zeal caught his foot to deter him. Wriggling his foot from the boot he made his way, knife in mouth to the tangle of bear and dogs. The bear passed him as it made its way out of the log and Holt stabbed it with his left hand and was slashed by the bears claws, but he saved some of his dogs. Only twice in his long hunting career was he clawed by a bear.
This master hunter tells that sixty years ago this country was a hunter's paradise. It is fascinating to listen to his tales of gun and woods. He gave a list of animals in Washington county 60 years ago, as follows: bear, deer, raccoon, opossum, fox, wild hog, wild-cat, pole-cat, mink, weasel, otter, beaver, squirrel, rabbit, field rat, meadow mouse, chipmunk, panther, and wolf.
Birds he mentioned were: wild turkey, quail, woodcock, dove, snipe, plover, rail, wild geese, wild ducks of many kinds, pelican, swan, crane, heron of many kinds, flights of parakeets, wild pigeons, rice birds, starlings, blackbirds, cedar birds, mocking-birds, bluebirds, flickers, yellow- hammers, yellow-bill cockoos, kingfishers, catbirds, swallows, wood-peckers, martens, thrush, butcher-birds, wrens, jaybirds, and robins only in the winter. (They now nest here and spend the summer.)
For a few years after the Civil War and certainly before, there were great numbers of wild pigeons. Colonel Hinds made a habit of bringing from his old home in Jefferson county, pine knots to be used for out-of-door lighting and for night hunting, and these lighted knots were used in securing pigeons. Holt would accompany Tom Hinds to a pigeon roost and beat the birds from the low branches with fishing poles. It was only a short time before they would have a buggy full of the birds.
Everyone has heard that the pigeons would perch so thickly on the tree limbs that often a good sized limb would be broken by their weight. So ruthlessly were these birds slaughtered that today they are extinct.
The U. S. government offers a good price for a single specimen, but none are to be found.
Soon no one will be left to tell of the days before the war from his own recollection and very soon the oldtime faithful slave, so interesting, so picturesque will have vanished from the south as completely as the pigeons of which Holt tells.
(Greenville Times, July 9th, 1881)
A white man named Stacks was killed at Dr. Washburn's store on the Bogue Phalia River, Wednesday morning, the 6th instant, by Holt Collier, a well known colored man, under the following circumstances.
Holt had started out on a bear hunt, when he was met by a constable, who told him that he had just passed a man who he believed from the description was the man who recently killed the two young Lotts, at Floyd, Louisiana. The constable requested Holt to ride to Washburn's ferry and stop the man should he attempt to cross there, while the constable would watch for him at another ferry near by.
Holt rode on to Washburn's store, and there found the man, sitting on his horse in front of the store, with a Winchester rifle in his hand. Holt knew him as a man who some three years before had lived in the neighborhood, and was known as Stacks. Dismounting from his own horse, and keeping his gun in his hand, Holt approached the man and spoke to him. He also knew Holt, and they entered into conversation. Holt asked him to let him see the rifle, and it was handed to him. He put it down leaning against the gallery. Then, keeping between the rifle the man, who still sat on his horse, Holt told him that he had a warrant for him for the murder of the young Lotts.
A man standing on the gallery by the rifle told Holt to let the man go - that he was a poor man, and had killed a rich man who was trying to bulldoze him. The man himself swore he would not be arrested and attempted to ride over Holt, forcing him all the time towards the gallery where the rifle stood. Holt is a very active and courageous man and baffled the efforts to ride him down. The man, while pressing Holt toward the gallery, kept calling upon the man standing by the gun to give it to him. And when near enough to receive it, the man raised the gun by the muzzle and passed it over Holt's head, breech foremost to Stack, who threw it to his shoulder and attempted to shoot Holt. But in the excitement as he was bringing the gun down, it struck the horse's head, causing him to swerve, when Holt, realizing his own peril, fired, and Stacks fell from his own horse dead, with his rifle cocked but undischarged in his hands.
Holt immediately came into town and surrendered himself, and after examination by Justice O'Bannon was discharged from custody.
Stack's body was also brought here and buried. He had a bowie knife upon his person, and 60 odd dollars in money, some of it Louisiana bank money, besides some Confederate money. Upon the pocketbook containing the money was written: "A.M. Key Pocketbook". This is said to be the name of a man living in Carroll Parish, where the killing of the Lotts occurred. Stacks crossed the Mississippi River at Gaines' Landing, Arkansas, and came into this county last Friday. He was a man of a very bad reputation. A photograph of him has been sent to Floyd, La. for identification.
Since Holt's death about ten days ago the following material has been given me by Mrs. T. A. Holcombe, who felt an interest in Holt and from time to time saw him. From her various conversations she had gathered considerable information on which she had planned to base a sketch of his life. She talked with him when he was stronger and better able to give details of his early life than when I saw him recently. Mrs. Holcombe visited him in the hospital where he spent the last week or ten days of his life, and was able at times to minister to his comfort and happiness. Having long been interested in him, he naturally told her more than he would have told in one interview, especially when one considers how feeble he was when I saw him last.
In the interview I am sending in I have incorporated some material which I remember from tales I heard him tell several years ago and prior to my undertaking the collecting of historical data. The last interview was not nearly so full as might have been desired so to make it of much interest. Therefore I had to add to it from other sources.
When I last talked with him he was very feeble and was easily overcome by emotion, especially when talking of his Old Colonel and some very lovely white lady who lived at Bardstown, KY in whose charge he was placed when as a boy he was sent there to go to school.
Enclosed you will find account of his death as published in the local paper. The Commercial Appeal also carried a notice of his death last week which was published again in the Sunday edition.
(Some Interesting Incidents in Holt Collier's Life as Told to Mrs. T. A. Holcombe)
During troublous times after Civil War, on one occasion Col. Hinds and a party of white men were riding about 12 miles north of Greenville when they realized that they had run into an ambush. Setting spur to their horses they dashed for safety. Col. Hinds horse stumbled, pitching him off. Holt riding ahead, looked back and Col. Hinds signaled him to ride on, but he wheeled and dashed back to his old master's rescue. Col. Hinds was running with his arms elevated above his head when Holt came abreast of him and without stopping his horse, reached down and jerked Col. Hinds up onto the horse with him, thus saving his life.
During the war Holt was in the company with Mr. J. C. Burrus of Bolivar county and on one occasion the two were in a cane-brake riding toward a slough when suddenly they realized that they were surrounded by the enemy. Mr. Burrus felt that all hope of escape was gone, but Holt was more optimistic. Hastily he revealed his plan of escape and the two made a wild dash through the slough firing two pistols each and shouting with all their might the "Rebel yell". So swiftly did they pass through the line and so completely did they deceive the enemy that they made good their escape.
"I am black, but my associations with my Old Col. gave me many advantages. I was freer then than I have ever been since and I loved him better than anybody else in the world. I would have given my life for [him]," said Holt with tears rolling down his withered cheeks.
"When my Old Col. left to join the army, he left me sitting on the fence crying and begging him to let me go with him. He said, 'No, you might get killed. I said I've got as good a chance as you. He left me sitting there watching him go across the fields to Old Greenville to catch the boat. That night I ran away and went to Greenville where I saw the artillery being loaded on a boat. After dark I slipped aboard. At Memphis when we were about half unloaded I marched across the gang-plank to shore. Mr. Thomas (Hinds) saw me and turned and called, 'Father look yonder.' My Old Colonel looked at me and took off his hat and smoothed his hair back with his hand and said, 'Thomas, if we both go to the devil that boy will have to go along, I said, 'I got as good a chance as you.' It seemed to me that all the soldiers in the world were there. There were General Breckenridge, old Gen. Clark from Jefferson county, Gen. Bragg, General Wirt Adams and General Bedford Forrest. We were sent to Camp Boone in Tennessee and from there to Ky. One moon-light night we were ordered double quick to Mulger Hill, to beat Col. Rousseau of the Northern army to that place. When we reached Bowling Green my folks shot down the Union flag flying at the top of a hill and Lieut. Marschalk climbed the pole and cut down the staff. We started on, but the Unions had torn up the railroad track and we had to stop and fix it before we could go on. That is why Col. Rousseau beat us to Mulger Hill. We reached Green River Bridge and entrenched on a mountain and had a skirmish with Col. Rousseau who fell back and we returned to Bowling Green where we went into winter quarters. The weather was the coldest I ever felt. Because of my being an expert with a gun and a horse and my knowledge of the woods, Gen. Forrest talked with Capt. Evans to whose company I had been assigned when we left Camp Boone, about my enlisting as a soldier. They asked permission of my Old Colonel and he called me to him and told me to choose for myself. I said 'I will go with Capt. Evans' cavalry. I loved horses and felt at home in the saddle. I was in Gen. Ross' Brigade, Col. Dudley Jones Regiment and Capt. Perry Evans co. 9th Texas Regt. My Old Col. gave me a horse -- one of three fine race horses he had brought from Plum Ridge. He was a beauty, iron-gray and named Medock. After leaving Bowling Green it was a long time until I saw my Old Colonel again.
In the spring the union forces drove us back to Iuka and from there to Chattanooga where we went into battle. We retreated through Tennessee into Alabama fighting every step of the way.
News that my Old Colonel had been wounded came through the lines to Mr. Thomas (Lieut. Thomas Hinds). He came to me and said, 'Holt can you go to my father? I can't go.' I got a pass from Capt. Evans and left that night. Riding night and day I reached the home of a relative of the Colonel's. I hid my horse in a cane-brake nearby and slipped up to the house after dark. Miss Eliza, the Colonel's cousin let me in and showed me where he lay. I went in and when he saw me he waved his hand for everyone to leave the room. I went over and knelt down by his bed and put my arms around him and hugged him close. He began to cry and said, 'Holt, I am badly hurt, but I believe I will pull through.' I said, 'You must; I can't live if you die.' After awhile the family came in and we talked until day-break. I was treated like a royal guest by Miss Eliza and the others. She made me a couch beside the Colonel's bed and I slept there during my stay. I never left the house and the family were on guard all the time I was there. The Federals were thick as hops and I began to get uneasy. On the fourth night I told my Old Colonel good-bye.
My horse, hearing me coming, nickered which frightened me, but I reached the lines in safety. I did not see my Old Colonel again until we met on the battle-field of Shiloh. He said 'Holt, I have worried a heap about you.' I said, 'Yes sir, I got as good a chance as you. The soldiers were falling thick and fast, but I was never hit once. General Albert Sidney Johnston, in command of the Confederate troops was riding a big white horse when a bullet struck him in the thigh, severing an artery. I was only a few yards away at the time. Six soldiers carried him to the shade of a tree where he died in a short while. We retreated to Corinth (to protect an important connection with the Trans-Mississippi Division) and Capt. Evans Company was detailed for scout duty along the Mississippi River and up near Old Greenville. We did a heap of good too; saved our folks property and ran the Unions out. During that time I did a great deal of scout duty. The whole country was a wilderness and if our boys got lost I could always find the way out. I had been raised in this part of the country and had hunted in the woods all my life.
"Well Mam, when the war was over we went to Vicksburg and were mustered out under General Kirby Smith of Texas.
"After I came home I had a heap of trouble. The Federals were garrisoned at Greenville (the new town of that name) and they arrested me four times. At that time the country was under military rule and I had to go to Vicksburg for trial.
Nugent stood by me through thick and thin. I will never forget them, my old white friends - they are all gone now. Col. Percy and Col. Hinds went with me to Vicksburg for the trial. Col. Percy told them if they put me in jail he wanted a cot put beside mine for he was going to jail with me.
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