by Gary Foreman
by Gary Foreman – (Volume 36, Issue 3, <i>Go Ahead<i>)
It now stands alone as the quintessential icon of the American frontier, yet very few can say for certain where or how the ubiquitous coonskin cap actually originated so that it would become such a prominent symbol of our pioneer heritage. At closer examination, it appears more likely that the press and imaginative writers gave the coonskin cap certain notoriety with the public that was not experienced by the men who really lived in the wilderness. Even the famous Daniel Boone, who has often been illustrated wearing such a cap, actually despised the contraption and refused to wear such an arrangement on his head.
The same may be held for David Crockett. Except for the half-dozen references by eyewitnesses who saw the Colonel wearing a “coonskin cap” or “peculiar cap,” there is but one other description (from Sketches) of him prior to November of 1835 wearing anything other than the typical gentleman’s hat of the period. Nor are we certain what Crockett’s coonskin cap may have looked like. But fur caps did exist and were often appreciated–especially in cold weather. We do know that certain versions of this headgear–made of coonskin, as well as fox, and wolf—were worn since the early-eighteenth century. Often referred to as a “Canadian Cap,” it was a combination of trade wool for the skullcap with a fur band sewn around the entire circumference at the base. An animal tail or tuff could be attached at either the center top or at the very back. There is even a portrait of Benjamin Franklin wearing a fur cap. Illustrators in the early nineteenth century often supported the literary works of James Fenimore Cooper and Timothy Flint with frontiersmen adorned in coonskin caps. By the time James Hackett took the stage in 1831 as Colonel Nimrod Wildfire in The Lion of the West, the public had accepted the fur cap as the official signature of a man who could “whip his weight in wildcats.”
However, a glimpse of Colonel Crockett’s possible appearance with such a headpiece may have been presented by F.O.C. Darly’s 1850 illustration for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneer. Actually showing contemporary hunters of the post-Crockett era, the rifleman on the far left of this line and stippled drawing sports a fur cap complete with ear flaps, visor, and tail. By this time, hunter’s caps were often outfitted with turn-down flaps and leather visors and there are numerous descriptions and varieties to contemplate. But the most famous version of this cap will always belong to actor Fess Parker who sported the unique headpiece in his film and television portrayals of both Boone and Crockett over a fifteen-year period. And it is this appearance that has forever secured a special image in our minds of this American icon.