WootBot


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This month sees the long-awaited return of the award-winning period drama Mad Men to the nation’s cable TV schedules, once again bringing us back to a simpler time when men were men, ties were skinny, and Scotch was breakfast. The Mad Men era was a golden age for misinformation, of course. Back then, it was generally believed that smoking was invigorating, seatbelts were unnecessary, massive nuclear stockpiles would guarantee world peace, and white guys with accurate set shots were the world’s best basketball players. But even after fifty years of debunking, plenty of midcentury misconceptions still linger with us today, as Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings reveals in his latest series of “Debunker” columns. He’ll tackle the 1950s this month and move on to the 1960s in April.

Fifties Myth #3: Davy Crockett Wore a Coonskin Cap During His Frontier Days

In 1954, Walt Disney began airing a broadly fictionalized version of the life of American folk hero Davy Crockett on his Wednesday night ABC series Disneyland. Unexpectedly, the mini-series became a smash hit. Its theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” hit the top of the Billboard charts, and every boy in America wanted to wear the same headgear that buckskin-clad actor Fess Parker wore as Davy: an authentic coonskin cap. Ten million of these caps were sold by the time Crockett-mania subsided, enough to cause a worldwide shortage in raccoon pelts.

You probably assumed that the real Davy Crockett never actually “kilt him a b’ar when he was only three,” as his theme song suggested, but would you be surprised to learn that the coonskin cap was historically bogus as well? Fur caps were common hunting gear in Crockett’s day, but they were made from all kind of animals, including beaver, sable, and fox, not just raccoons. There’s no evidence that David Crockett (he never signed his name “Davy” in life) ever wore a coonskin cap during his days as the “King of the Wild Frontier.” In the only portrait ever painted of Crockett in his hunting clothes during his lifetime, he’s wearing a boring old felt campaign hat. Most historians date the coonskin myth to 1831, when actor James Hackett starred in a Broadway hit called The Lion of the West, in which he played a fur cap-wearing frontiersman-turned-Congressman called “Captain Nimrod Wildfire,” obviously a parody of Crockett. The cover of an 1837 edition of Davy Crockett’s Almanack purports to show the frontiersman in a fur hat for the first time—but the portrait was actually borrowed from a Nimrod Wildfire stage poster! And the hat appears to be a bobcat anyway.

There are at least three eyewitness accounts of Crockett wearing a coonskin cap on his fateful final journey to the Alamo, but all were recorded decades later, when the legend of a coonskin-wearing Davy was already deeply embedded in myth. One comes from Crockett’s youngest daughter, who also misremembers the rifle her father took with him on the trip, so her account is particularly suspect. Why do the only historical mentions of Davy’s cap (legit or not) come from the end of his life, years after his frontier days were done? Some of Crockett’s biographers have speculated that Crockett started wearing a coonskin cap during his time in Congress, just to capitalize on the larger-than-life public image created by Hackett’s performance. Sounds like the king of the wild frontier was the king of astute political branding as well.

Quick Quiz: What state did Davy Crockett represent during his three terms in Congress?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr user twm1340. Used under a Creative Commons License.

 

RWoodward


quality posts: 58 Private Messages RWoodward

Tennessee, 9th district.

codex


quality posts: 9 Private Messages codex

Does this really qualify as 1950s trivia? Granted, the misinformation it's based on was largely popularized during the 1950s, but the subject--and the original seed of misinformation--both date to the nineteenth century.

"My work here is done. Pedant-man, AWAAAYYYY!!!!!"

My work here is done. Pedant-man, AWAAYYY!!!

RenoDavid


quality posts: 3 Private Messages RenoDavid

So his daughter (and two other people) remember him wearing one and he definitely wore one while serving in congress? Seems to be pretty good evidence to me. That she got his gun wrong doesn't mean much. She was a young and who's to say he didn't use a different gun after he left? Maybe something happened to the one she saw. Maybe he traded it for a different one. Stuff happens. Assuming he started wearing the coonskin hat because of a stage play seems really far fetched to me. And he did it for marketing purposes? A lot of assumptions being made. It seems to be popular to rewrite and reimagine history without any real evidence to dispute what was accepted before.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

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codex wrote:Does this really qualify as 1950s trivia? Granted, the misinformation it's based on was largely popularized during the 1950s, but the subject--and the original seed of misinformation--both date to the nineteenth century.



That is an excellent point!!! And by "excellent," I mean "completely obvious and adding nothing substantive"!

Tennessee is correct, as in "born on a mountaintop in."

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

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RenoDavid wrote:So his daughter (and two other people) remember him wearing one and he definitely wore one while serving in congress?



Er, no. Read again. There are three eyewitness accounts of a coonskin cap during his legendary trip to the Alamo...but none contemporaneous. (This is a pretty huge deal in history.) Crockett's biographers say there's *no* evidence he wore a coonskin cap during his frontier or Congress days.

*If* he actually was wearing a coonskin cap later in life, it came after the well-attested Wildfire parody, which is why some historians think Crockett might have embraced the myth. The fact that the only drawing of Crockett wearing a fur cap during his lifetime turns out to be a re-purposed Wildfire poster is pretty telling, I think.

It seems to be popular to rewrite and reimagine history without any real evidence to dispute what was accepted before.



People who work in history know that "what was accepted before" is, in general, full of bunk. If there are primary sources attesting to Davy's coonskin cap trademark, feel free to provide them. You'd turn the scholarship on its ear.

gossamerica


quality posts: 19 Private Messages gossamerica
whoiskenjennings wrote:(he never signed his name “Davy” in life)



So maybe he signed his name "Davy" in death? Is that when he started wearing a Coonskin Cap, too? Was there a Zombie Davy Crockett? Man, this has "awesome TV series" written all over it...