"My father, Daniel Boone, always despised the raccoon fur caps and did not wear one himself, as he always had a hat." -- Nathan Boone, My Father, Daniel Boone, The Draper Interviews with Nathan Boone, edited by Neal O. Hammon [Editor's Note 12/29/04]


“Daniel Boone Was a Man, a Big Man …”…. But He Never Wore a Coonskin Cap!

by Gene Ray, Dan & Becky’s ggggg-grandson

Although the stereotype exists in some characterizations even to this day; Daniel Boone did not wear a coonskin cap!  Like many other long-hunters of his day, Daniel wore a wide-brimmed felt or beaver hat, much like the Quaker style hats worn by men in Pennsylvania where he was born and spent his early years.   Applying only a modicum of logic, one can easily understand why he would not have chosen a fur cap of any kind.  As a hunter Daniel spent months in the woods, in all manner of weather.  When you think of aiming and firing a .50 caliber long-rifle with either the sun in your eyes or rain running down your face, the image of a coonskin cap on one’s head should dim considerably.

So, how did such an image originate and what has kept it alive for the past 150 years?  As famous as Daniel Boone was in his lifetime and continues today, he wasn’t that much different in exploits from several other early explorers of what was then the “western frontier.”  Men such as James and Robert McAfee, James Harrod, Simon Kenton, Thomas Bullitt, Hancock Taylor, James Douglas and James Smith all explored what would become Kentucky, many of them before Daniel ever set foot in the state.  What Daniel Boone had that none of the others had (to anywhere near the same degree) was a good public relations agent – a roll that continues by others even to this day.

In 1783, John Filson was a 30-year-old schoolteacher from Pennsylvania, with a romantic notion of the West.  Leaving Pittsburgh on a barge, he struck out down the Ohio River to Kentucky. There’s fairly solid evidence that one of his objectives was land speculation in the new territory, a “profession” that was widely held by those early settlers fortunate enough to have the necessary cash. 

In his book Daniel Boone John Mack Faragher describes Filson as, “…an unlikely pioneer, and he comes down to us a folk stereotype, the pedantic schoolmaster, a character perfected in Washington Irving’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane.  The stories people told about him made him seem the fool --- tumbling clumsily off his wagon, being swindled in trade by an old trapper who passed off muskrats as beaver, the butt of crude frontier jokes and pranks.”  Nevertheless, Filson persevered in his quest to seek out prominent men and interview them for his book about Kentucky.

The cover of Daniel Boone, A Little Golden Book (1956) by Irwin Shapiro, probably reflects a much more accurate image of Daniel.

Filson met and spent considerable time with Daniel Boone and his family.  No doubt Daniel took the opportunity to regale Filson with stories of his rich adventures over the previous 15 years in the Kentucky wilderness.  One can almost imagine the wide-eyed Filson frantically scribbling notes as Daniel described the early settlement of Boonesborough, the capture of Jemima Boone, Elizabeth and Frances Callaway by Indians or his own capture and short lived existence with the Shawnees. 

In May of 1784 Filson left Kentucky to arrange the publication of his book.  Printing of The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke – to which is added An Appendix, Containing The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon was announced on October 22, 1784 – Daniel’s fiftieth birthday.  The first edition of some 1,500 copies was only moderately successful in America; however, when the book was translated into French and German, Daniel became an overnight sensation, celebrated in Europe as a true “natural man.”   Later editions in England and Ireland led to an even larger image of Daniel Boone.

Although there were many critics of Filson’s work, Daniel is reported to have described events in the book as “All true!  Every word true!  Not a lie in it!”  Regardless, by the late 1780’s Daniel Boone was an international celebrity.  A more serious biography of Daniel came in 1833, 13 years after his death, with the publication of Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky by Timothy Flint.  This work was also laced with wild exaggeration of Daniel’s life and adventures.  One such story had Daniel swinging on vines through the woods in a Tarzan-like maneuver to escape the Indians who had just killed his brother Edward.  However the book served to further propel his legendary status.

 

The television series “Daniel Boone” starring Fess Parker, Patricia Blair and Dallas McKennon (who attended the Oregon reunion last summer) aired on NBC on Thursday nights at 7:30 and ran from 1964 to 1970.  Parker and Blair are pictured here on the August 21-27, 1965 issue of TV Guide.

This pen and ink illustration of Daniel Boone is from Daniel Boone and the Hunters of Kentucky (1854) by W. H. Bogart.  The impression he wore a coonskin cap probably originated with such an early depiction.

While there may have been pen and ink illustrations in Flint’s book, I do not have a first edition copy and can not share what they may have been.   However, I do have a first edition of Daniel Boone and the Hunters of Kentucky by W. H. Bogart (1854) and in keeping with the “natural man” image Daniel is illustrated with a fur cap.  Possibly this is where the coonskin cap image first originated.  Countless books (many written for children) have been published about Daniel Boone since Filson’s early effort; regrettably some continue to portray him wearing such headdress.  Currently I have nearly 50 books relating to Daniel and continue adding to my collection.

Surprisingly, a more accurate image of what Daniel probably looked like is illustrated on the cover of the 1956 Little Golden Book Daniel Boone, by Irwin Shapiro.  Of course many people still remember the television series “Daniel Boone” that aired from 1964 to 1970 starting Fess Parker.  Parker, who earlier portrayed Davy Crockett in another television series, kept the coonskin cap image alive.  He also helped confuse many regarding these two historic people.  I’ve told more than one person that, “No. Daniel Boone did not die at the Alamo.” 

The television series theme song entitled “Daniel Boone” was written by Vera Matson and Lionel Newman.  Can you remember the tune?  Sing along…

“Daniel Boone was a man.  Yes a big man.

With an eye like and eagle and as tall as a mountain was he.

Daniel Boone was a man.  Yes a big man.

He was brave, he was fearless and as tough as a mighty oak tree.

From the coonskin cap on the top of ol’ Dan to the heel of his rawhide shoe

The rippin’est roarin’est fighten’est man the frontier ever knew.

Daniel Boone was a man.  Yes a big man.

And he fought for America to make all Americans free.

What a Boone.  What a wonder.  What a dream comer truer was he.”

Few people in American history have enjoyed the legacy that Daniel Boone has, and there is no doubt he deserves much of the honor and awe he’s received.  He was, after all, a true frontiersman and an explorer who exhibited a degree of courage, intelligence and tenacity few men possessed.  But we must remember that a good deal of what’s perceived as accurate history is not.  For a century and a half hyperbole, rumor and Hollywood make-believe have all contributed to this amalgamation of how we perceive Daniel Boone. 

But please, as you think of him, don’t envision a coonskin cap!

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