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.