Daniel Boone’s Hat

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, June 7, 2017. On this date in 1769, Daniel Boone first laid eyes on the physical place that would become synonymous with his name.

Daniel Boone’s First Sight of Kentucky

“After a long and fatiguing journey through a mountainous wilderness, in a westward direction, on the seventh day of June following, we found ourselves on Red River,” he recalled, “… and, from the top of an eminence, saw with pleasure the beautiful level of Kentucky.”

Describing that landscape on a subsequent day, he noted the picturesque forests and valleys of his adopted state this way:

“Not a breeze shook the most tremulous leaf. I had gained the summit of a commanding ridge, and, looking round with astonishing delight, beheld the ample plains, the beauteous tracts below. On the other hand, I surveyed the famous river Ohio that rolled in silent dignity, marking the western boundary of Kentucky with inconceivable grandeur. At a vast distance, I beheld the mountains lift their venerable brows, and penetrate the clouds.”

Do those sound remotely like the words of a backwoods pioneer with little formal education — at least one not named Lincoln? If not, there’s a reason. Those passages were committed to paper by transplanted Delaware schoolmaster John Filson, who wrote one of America’s first as-told-to books. It was a big seller, too.

Although Filson was genuinely taken with Boone, he had a vested interested in building him up. After he moved “West,” as Kentucky was then known, Filson became a land speculator. Lionizing Daniel Boone as the great pacifier of that land was a way to convince whites to set aside their qualms about the native Shawnee and cross the Alleghenies.

In this way, the legend of the great explorer and Indian fighter in the coonskin cap spread far and wide. Except that Boone always wore a felt hat, with a wide brim. Why wouldn’t he? His people were Quakers, and it’s the kind of headgear they favored. Besides, it was more practical in rain or sun than a brimless animal skin with a tail.

Daniel Boone left Pennsylvania for the same reason his parents and grandparents had left England: religious intolerance. Daniel Boone’s father, Squire Boone, belonged to the Religious Society of Friends, a Protestant sect known then, and now, as Quakers.

Squire Boone lived in the southwestern England village of Bradninch, but sought the free air of the colony founded by William Penn, himself a Quaker, and he sailed at age 17 to this new world. He married a Quaker woman named Sarah Morgan, whose people had emigrated from Wales. In Pennsylvania, the Quakers were free from the yoke of the Church of England. Too free, as it turns out, to suit the Squire and Sarah Boone and their 11 children.

Two of the older Boone children married non-Quakers, and were shunned by the decidedly unfriendly Society of Friends. Squire Boone apologized to the community the first time, but not the second and when he got the cold shoulder himself, the elder Boone packed up his clan and set out with their worldly belongings for the wilds of North Carolina.

Although the sixth Boone child, Daniel, never regularly attended church services again, he did identify as a Christian and had his own children baptized. Then again, Daniel Boone wasn’t much for high society.

He preferred reading the Bible (and novels such as “Gulliver’s Travels”) by the campfire in the wilderness. He fought in the French and Indian War, married Rebecca Bryan, and fell in with a frontiersman and fur packer named John Finley, who regaled him with tales of the Ohio Valley.

In Kentucky, Boone made his reputation as a hunter and warrior. He fought the Shawnee, and the British during the Revolutionary War. On July 5, 1776, the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia, one of Boone’s daughters and two other teenage girls were carried off by an Indian war party. Daniel Boone’s subsequent rescue of the girls caught the imagination of James Fenimore Cooper and was incorporated into a famous novel 50 years later (and a 1992 movie version).

It was Walt Disney who brought Daniel Boone to 20th century American children. He was played by Fess Parker, who also played Davy Crockett for Disney — both characters appearing in that ubiquitous coonskin cap that every baby boomer boy in the 1950s and early ’60s seemed to have. Boone himself never wore such a garment, however, so where did it come from?

That mystery was solved by Boone biographer John Mack Faragher, who traced the myth to an influential 1820 portrait of the famous frontiersman. In the days before photography, the public formed a mental picture of its heroes from paintings, and artist Chester Harding produced a full-length depiction of Boone with the kind of clothes our hero actually wore: leggings, moccasins, and a practical long-sleeved shirt. In his hand Boone held his cap, a brimmed hat probably made of beaver felt. The painting didn’t survive, but another artist, James Otto Lewis, made a similar engraving that immortalized the scene. Except that one day, an actor named Noah Ludlow, who had been hired to play Boone in a show designed to help Ludlow sell prints of the engraving, couldn’t find a beaver hat in his wardrobe. Noah Ludlow was a trouper, not a museum curator, who knew the show must go on. Like any actor worth his salt, Ludlow extemporized: He donned a coonskin cap he happened to own.

Thus, a generation of theater-going and art-buying Americans became enamored of a Daniel Boone with leggings, a hunting rifle, moccasins — and a coonskin cap. For what it’s worth, Davy Crockett probably didn’t wear one, either, although Tennessee senator and two-time presidential candidate Estes Kefauver certainly did — while campaigning for president in New Hampshire in the 1950s.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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