Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about theater and whether they are true or false.
THEATER URBAN LEGEND: The idea that Daniel Boone wore coonskin caps came from an 1822 theater production about Boone.
Actor Fess Parker portrayed both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in popular television series (the latter was a mini-series), with both characters wearing coonskin caps.
Crockett came first and made coonskin caps big business in the United States and the United Kingdom, with it becoming practically a staple of young boys, but Boone continued the trend with the hit 1960s TV series.
Here is Parker as Boone…
(click on the image of Boone to enlarge)
The problem was that while Crockett definitely did, in fact, wear a coonskin cap (at least a times), Boone hated them. He wore felted beaver hats. He felt that coonskin caps for “uncivilized.”
And the weird thing is, we really don’t know exactly how we got from “Boone hated coonskin caps” to “Boone wore coonskin caps all the time,” which was part of the Daniel Boone myth well before Fess Parker started to play him on television.
In 1820, Boone sat for the artist Chester Harding. Harding made a series of portraits of Boone. Harding is the only artist who ever painted Boone while Boone was alive and therefore, his drawings are the basis for pretty much every other artist afterward. The thing is, the only full-length painting he did of Boone was destroyed over a century ago.
Luckily, we have an engraving from a couple of years later by James Otto Lewis of the famed 1820 Chester Harding full-length portrait of Boone.
Do note the hat. It is clearly a felted beaver hat.
The legend is that the coonskin cap misconception began when the famous actor Noah Ludlow portrayed Boone in a minstrel show in 1822 where Ludlow performed the soon-to-be-classic song “The Hunters of Kentucky.” As the story goes, unable to find a beaver hat, Ludlow substituted a coonskin cap, and a myth was born.
The problem is, Ludlow actually wrote an autobiography, and here’s how he described that show:
As soon as the comedy of the night was over, I dressed myself in a buckskin hunting-shirt and leggins, which I borrowed of a river man, and with moccasins on my feet and an old slouched hat on my head, and a rifle on my shoulder, I presented myself before the audience.
So I think it is fair to say that it is still a mystery as to how, exactly, Boone went from hating coonskin caps to being forever identified with them.
My guess is that he was just conflated/confused with Davy Crockett, who DID like coonskin caps. The Daniel Boone TV series was basically just a Davy Crockett riff, after all, as Boone and Crockett did not have a whole lot in common, as far as their respective approaches to the frontier went (Crockett was much more of a “rough and tumble” guy, while Boone liked to be considered a trailblazer for civilization). But I can’t say for sure.
Just that it wasn’t Noah Ludlow’s fault!
The legend is…
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is email@example.com