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In North America, raccoons have been hunted mainly for their hard-wearing, water-repellent fur, as well as to prevent them from destroying farmers' crops.
[13] As early as the 17th century, so many raccoons were killed that a tax was imposed to prevent their wholesale slaughter. During that period of time, it was estimated that more than a million raccoons were killed each year for their fur. [14] American colonists made not only coonskin caps, but overcoats and sleigh robes from raccoon pelts. Much later, in the 1920s, raccoon skin overcoats would come back into vogue with college men, e.g., with Yalie's megaphone crooner, Rudy Vallee. [15] After the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), North Carolina agreed to cede its westernmost lands in payment for Revolutionary War debts; however, the people of that area determined to establish their own government instead -- designating it the State of Franklin (for Benjamin Franklin) or Frankland (meaning land of free men). Raccoon pelts were then used for hard currency. Governor John Sevier's secretary was paid a wage of 500 raccoon skins a year, while members of the assembly received three raccoon pelts a day. Eventually, the State of Franklin became Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett's state of Tennessee (1796). [16] "In regard to the magnitude of the fur trade," engineer and historian Gen. Hiram Chittenden (1858-1917) confessed, "it is difficult to give definite numbers." He then provided a statistical table in his book, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, that offered some kind of tabulation by Indian Agent John Dougherty. In 1832, beaver skins were worth $4 each, buffalo skins $3, otter skins $3, raccoon skins 25¢, deer skins 33¢, and muskrat skins 20¢. During a 15 year period -- 1815 to 1830 -- Dougherty estimated that 25,000 beaver skins worth $1.5 million were taken, compared to only $45,000 for 12,000 raccoon pelts. With raccoon skins worth only one-sixteenth the value of beaver, is it any wonder that a Mountain Man like Jedediah Smith (1799-1831) was willing to brave the heat of the Mojave desert and the wrath of the Mexican government in southern California twice -- 1826 and 1828 -- in his quest for beaver pelts? [17] In the United States, the Whig party of the 1830s-1840s adopted the fierce, durable, and witty raccoon as its emblem. [18] The American Mountain Men of the trans-Mississippi fur trade of the thirty-seven years from 1807 to 1843 were especially occupied with trapping beaver in the Rocky Mountains, but by the 1840s, raccoon pelts had overtaken the beaver as the dominant animal skin in the American fur trade. [19] Fort Bonneville on the banks of the Green River in Wyoming was the site of the last Rendezvous for the Mountain Men -- in 1840 -- as the beaver skin hat fell out of favor for the less expensive silk hat, which was popularized by Prince Albert in the 1840s. [20]

The Grand Teton
Picture source: National Park Service

The Teton Range
Picture source: National Park Service

In time, raccoons have made their imprint upon American folklore and popular culture, becoming truly Americana in their symbolism, as seen in the coonskin caps of Daniel Boone (1734-1820) and Davy Crockett (1786-1836). In particular, both frontiersmen were portrayed by Fess Parker in television roles. He began by playing Davy Crockett for Walt Disney's Disneyland TV [21] -- "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter" (December 15, 1954); "Crockett Goes to Washington" (January 26, 1955); "Davy Crockett at the Alamo" (February 23, 1955); "Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race" (November 16, 1955); and "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" (December 14, 1955). Then, as Daniel Boone for NBC, Fess Parker was seen again donning the coonskin cap from 1964 to 1970 for the "Daniel Boone" television series (Thursday nights at 7:30). [22] Even John Wayne played a coonskin cap wearing Col. Davy Crockett, where he acted, produced, and directed the big screen production, "The Alamo" (1960). [23] John Wayne, with co-stars Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie and Laurence Harvey as Col. William Travis, memorialized the events in which Davy Crockett and some 189 to 257 Alamo defenders died in their part of the Texas War of Independence from the Mexican government of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836 -- after a thirteen day siege. [24] Whether or not either Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett actually wore a coonskin cap, it is estimated that Disney made more than $100 million on Davy Crockett merchandise -- including coonskin caps -- during the several months after Fess Parker's debuted as Davy Crockett with his coonskin cap (1954). [25] During the height of the Davy Crockett merchandising boom of 1955, the price of raccoon skin went from 25 cents per pound to $8. [26]

One of Daniel Boone's many descendants, Margy Miles, offers this perspective of her ancestor's coonskin cap: "Daniel Boone never wore a coonskin cap. As a matter of fact, he actually stated that he had a strong dislike for them but he did wear a style of rawhide shoes as stated in the [NBC television series] song. His son, Nathan, stated, 'My father, Daniel Boone, always despised the raccoon fur caps and did not wear one himself, as he always had a hat.'"
[27] The image of Daniel Boone with a coonskin cap was a progressive work -- begun by illustrators, such as the picture of Daniel with a plain fur cap in the book, Daniel Boone and the Hunters of Kentucky (1854), by William Henry Bogart. [28] Adding the trademark ringtail of the raccoon would come, but later, as an artistic license. And, as the Daniel Boone legend with the raccoon skin hat would grow, it would merely illustrate the line in John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance" (1960): "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." [29] A testament to Fess Parker's endearment to his Baby Booming audience is the confusion that Daniel Boone with a coonskin cap died at the Alamo. No, Davy Crockett died at the Alamo. Fess Parker merely wore a coonskin cap in his portrayal of "Davy Crockett at the Alamo" (1955). And later, Fess Parker cinched our confusion, when he stoked our admiration for a fair playing, coonskin cap wearing Daniel Boone on the long running NBC television series, "Daniel Boone" -- complete with an Oxford-educated Indian friend, Mingo (played by Ed Ames). Based upon the best, first-hand testimony of Nathan Boone -- Daniel Boone's youngest son -- to archivist Lyman C. Draper in 1851, Daniel Boone did not wear a coonskin cap. [30] To complete our Fess Parker portrait of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett wearing a coonskin cap, we can listen to the testimony of Sergent Felix Nunez of the Mexican Army after the Battle of the Alamo (1836), who reported seeing Davy Crockett wearing an animal skin hat with a tail, i.e., "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." [31] A picture of Davy Crockett in a fur cap -- without the familiar ringtail -- appeared in 1837 in an Almanack of Wild Sports in the West. William Henry Huddle painted a picture of Davy Crockett (1889) -- fifty-three years after Crockett's death -- complete with buckskin garb and holding a fur cap with the familiar ringtail. Perhaps this was the tail of a raccoon, or possibly it was the tail of a wildcat. More than likely, in 1954, when Disney interpreted the painting of Davy holding an animal skin cap dangling a ringtail -- dark tipped and four or five black or dark brown rings -- it seemed reasonable to wardrobe Fess Parker in a coonskin cap. The rest, as they say, is history. Oh, you can even purchase a coonskin cap online from Fess Parker at the Crockett General Store! [32]

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