I'm reasonably convinced that David (Davy) Crockett never wore a "coon-skin-cap". I believe he wore the skin of the bobcat, or known then as the American Wildcat. Only two drawings were ever made of the legendary frontiersman which illustrated his clothing, and either one or both of these depict the cap as being that of the rufus-lynx. The first portrait of Crockett was rendered by John Gadsby in 1834 while Crockett was in Washington. The cap, which would not be considered significant until more than a century later, is seen being held in Crockett's right hand.
While Gadsby probably made no effort in abstraction concerning Crockett's cap, it can be viewed in two different ways, it may have been a dark felt brimmed hat, or it might have been a round fur cap with a short tail and a an obvious dorsal stripe. Whichever it is, it most definitely isn't raccoon.
The second image of Crockett appeared in a periodical published in 1837 called "Almanack Of Wild Sports In The West". Released the year following Crockett's death, the artist depicted him wearing a fur cap, and the tail is clearly that of the bobcat.
In 1889, some fifty years after Crockett's death, another painting was made by Virginia artist William Henry Huddle showing Crockett dressed in his noted buck-skin garb and holding a cap made from what might appear to be the skin of a raccoon. Whether Huddle painted a raccoon skin or intended for it to look like one is questionable.
Born in Wytheville Virgina and briefly educated in Germany, Huddle was well known for the remarkable detail in his portraits. I believe in his endeavor for authenticity, he obtained the skin of a wildcat for his model, but mistakenly acquired the pelt of the wrong feline. Rather than the American wildcat, Huddle painted the skin of the European wildcat Felis silvestris with the long flowing raccoon type tail. Huddle may have obtained the actual pelt itself, or patterned his painting after illustrations of the foreign feline. In either case, I believe his intentions were to illustrate a cat-skin rather than a raccoon, and I believe this was influenced by a stage play entitled "Lion Of The West".
Through the 1830's, the American actor James Hackett portrayed a model of Davy Crockett in James K. Paulding's stage play. Hackett's character, Nimrod Wildfire was repeatedly noted as wearing a "wildcat-skin-cap", but never a raccoon. By special invitation, Crockett attended one of the performances, and he and the actor playing Wildfire purportedly bowed to each other indicating that Crockett endorsed the realism of the character.
Other than Paulding's character Nimrod Wildfire having worn a "wildcat-skin, and Wildfire being a surrogate Davy Crockett, only two very vague references were ever recorded concerning Crockett's cap. After the famous battle of the Alamo in 1836, Sergent Felix Nunez , a member of the Mexican Army reported having seen Crockett during the historic battle. " I saw a tall American of rather dark complexion who had a long buckskin coat and a round cap without any bill made of fox-skin with it's long tail hanging down his back."
Another survivor of the Alamo, Susanna Dickenson, wife of the slain Captain Almaron Dickenson also reported seeing Crockett as he lay dead. " I saw Colonel Crockett's body by the stockade fence, his peculiar cap by his side."
Little may be deduced from Susanna Dickenson's remarks concerning the cap, but Sergent Nunez's description hardly fits that of a raccoon pelt. Having seen the tail, as he claimed he did, he assuredly would have seen the noticeable rings of a raccoon. Instead, he described the fur as that of a fox, which would discount the likelihood that it was raccoon, however, he might have easily confused the color of the rufus or red-lynx with that of the red-fox.
More than a century later, the author Donna Ingham would write the fictional experiences of Angeline Dickenson, daughter of Susanna Dickenson who was also present at the Alamo with Crockett. Concerning Crockett's cap, she wrote : "She already had a wooden doll whittled by Davy Crockett, that funny man from Tennessee who made her laugh when he tickled her with the tail hanging from his fur cap ,sometimes coon-skin, sometimes fox-skin." Interestingly the author refers to both raccoon and fox, suggesting that Crockett packed one of each prior to his journey from Washington to Texas.
Another author, Alex Scomatoff also wrote that Crockett "never wore a coon-skin cap", even though he never elaborated or provided any authority to support his conclusion.
In his youth, David Crockett was employed as an apprentice hat maker in Virginia, for whatever material his cap was fabricated, he most likely constructed it himself. If the cap was in fact wildcat skin, rather than raccoon skin, how might this misconception have begun ? I don't believe it began in the 1800's, or even through the first half of the 1900's.
On December 15th 1954, Walt Disney Productions presented a three part television series loosely based on the exploits of Davy Crockett, and featuring the American actor Fess Parker in the starring role. His character Davy Crockett, wore buckskin clothing, carried a flintlock rifle named Betsy, and wore a fur cap that was obviously the skin of a raccoon. The series and character became immensely popular with American audiences and started a merchandising frenzy almost immediately. Everything from Davy Crockett lunch-boxes to toy action figures were sold in profusion. One of the most popular items of all was the Davy Crockett coon-skin-cap.
Lou Lispi, Art Director for Walt Disney Productions commented on the sudden interest in the new Crockett: "In 1955, we were all Crockett happy, wearing our coon-skin-caps everywhere, even to bed." In the same year, the price of raccoon skin suddenly leaped from a mere 25 cents per pound, to a staggering $8.00. Since 1955, the coon-skin cap has been associated with Davy Crockett, and eventually Daniel Boone, as Fess Parker would also portray that character in a 1960's television series.
Since there were no references prior to 1955 of Crockett's cap being raccoon, the question is raised as to how Disney productions made that observation. The most probable answer would be the Huddle painting from 1889, whether Huddle intended for the image to be raccoon or wildcat, Disney apparently believed it was raccoon. Ringed and very similar to the raccoon tail, the wildcat Felis silvestris' tail is slightly smaller than the more robust tail of the raccoon. The rings are also less pronounced, and this is somewhat apparent in the Huddle painting.
William Henry Huddle was highly praised as one of the more talented artists in his era, he was also criticized for a similar mistake when he painted General Sam Houston as having been wounded in the wrong leg. Some seventy years after the Crockett portrait, Disney's misapprehension of the cap held in his hand has since caused that erroneous conclusion to be seemingly perpetuated.
For Crockett or Daniel Boone, would such legendary figures have elected the skin of a raccoon as head wear ? It would seem unlikely, as a practical garment, the raccoon pelt would offer little in the way of comfort or protection from the elements. The raccoon itself, is neither a water or cold weather animal. As a matter of esteem, both the trappers of the 1830's, as well as the American Indians wore items of clothing to celebrate their hunting achievements. There would be no prestige in wearing the skin of the slow and harmless raccoon, known to the Tuscarora Indians as "Rio-sorta", or "one who scratches with his hands."
While Crockett purportedly boasted that he could whip his weight in wildcats, he never mentioned raccoons, so that hardly seems the appropriate pelt to adorn his wardrobe. The American wildcat presented a different challenge altogether, being elusive and ferocious when cornered, killing such an animal would be considered a hunting accomplishment. Considered a "trickster" by the Indians, various talismans were carved and covered with it's pelt known as the "cauhauneana", to act as protection against the beast. The panther pelt, called the "caunerex", was used for robes and capes, but that larger feline was never regarded as a threat.
The lynx pelt, known as the "chac-kaune", was also utilized in clothing, but the cat was considered timid and reclusive. The aggressive bobcat was perceived as a much different animal, and this is best evidenced from this early drawing from 1835.
Very likely drawn from a verbal description, the artist depicts the cat with ghastly features and an almost demonic face. To capture and kill such a hideous beast would undoubtedly be cause for celebration.
In conclusion, I believe Mr. Huddle's minor mistake in painting the wrong cat, and Disney perpetuating that mistake in cinema has forever created the illusion of both Boone and Crockett wearing coon-skin caps. Whether my speculation is true or otherwise, the state of Tennessee has avoided the controversy completely.
A statue of their hero David Crockett was erected in his hometown of Lawrenceville. Held in Crockett's hand is neither wildcat or raccoon, but instead shows a felt brimmed stetson hat.
North Carolina July 2003
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