Davy Crockett, R.I.P.

To a generation of American boys of the 1950s and 1960s Fess Parker was the symbol of wilderness, first as Davy Crockett and then as Daniel Boone, always with the coonskin hat and the flintlock long rifle.

And now, Fess Parker has passed away at the age of 85 in Santa Barbara, California, owner of a resort and a winery. Here’s the info from his own page:

Beloved American Icon
Fess Parker, Passes Away
March 18, 2010

Fess ParkerSanta Barbara County, CA  – Actor, developer and vintner Fess E. Parker, Jr passed away today, March 18th, 2010, at his home in the Santa Ynez Valley. Mr. Parker was 85 years old.

Born in Fort Worth, TX and raised in San Angelo,  Fess served in the United States Navy during WWII and then returned home to Texas to graduate from the University of Texas-Austin in 1950. He was honored as a distinguished alum of the university in 1969.

A desire to act took Fess to California in the early 50’s where hard work and great good fortune led him to be cast in Walt Disney’s “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” co-starring the late Buddy Ebsen. While under personal contract to Walt Disney, Fess made numerous pictures for the studio including the prequel “Davy Crockett and the River Boat Pirates” as well as The Great Locomotive Chase” and “Smoky.”

A successful television career in the 1960’s followed with NBC’s long running “Daniel Boone” show co-starring his friend and neighbor Ed Ames.

The early 70’s found Fess eager to explore the business world as a real estate developer in Santa Barbara, CA. [MORE]

You may not recognize him without his trademark coonskin cap, which every boy of my generation owned at one time or another:

Parker as Disney’s Crockett with rifle “Betsy.”
This inspired many NRA members to purchase
flintlocks and believe themselves to be rugged
American outdoorsmen of the 1820s

i. Kilt Him a Boor, When He Was Only Three …

The craze for Crockettiana grew so fierce in those Hula Hoopy daze that Sen. Estes Kefauver was seen wearing one, his kind of “Michael Dukakis in the tank” moment.

Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee (D)

Wikipedia takes up the tale, so you can see how far we’ve progressed from those halcyon days of McCarthyism [Emphasis added]:

In the 1952 presidential election, Kefauver decided to offer himself as a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Campaigning in his coonskin cap, often by dogsled, Kefauver made history when, in an electrifying victory in the New Hampshire primary, he defeated President Harry S. Truman, the sitting President of the United States. Although Kefauver would go on to win twelve of the fifteen primaries that were held that year, losing three to “favorite son” candidates, primaries were not, at that time, the main method of delegate selection for the national convention. Kefauver, therefore, entered the convention a few hundred votes shy of the needed majority. In the 1952 Democratic Party presidential primaries, Kefauver received 3.1 million votes, while the eventual 1952 Democratic presidential nominee, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, received only 78,000 votes. Yet “the Kefauver campaign for the nomination in 1952 became the classic example of how presidential primary victories do not automatically lead to the nomination itself.

Whether Disney influenced Kefauver or vice versa, Kefauver sought to cash in on the 1955  Disney Davy Crockett craze when he ran again in 1956, losing again to Adlai Stevenson and leaving the lasting legacy of the shameful censorship of American comic books by virtue of his committee’s giving credence to a twisted little psychopath named J. Frederic Wertham.

These were the Ugly Americanisms coiling under the waters of the 1950s Heroic Mythologies of the Davy Crocketts and Daniel Boones. How the West was “Won” and the raft of cowboys (good) against indians (bad) movies that so obsessed us, even as the Joe McCarthys and John Birchers were tolerated and even celebrated.

None of which Fess Parker had anything to do with, but can never be disentangled from. He was a moment in the zeitgeist, thrown together with some of the worst characters that America has ever produced, in one of the worst lies ever sold to the American people. (Which I’ll get to in a moment.)

Which I bring us because it’s important to understand that Fess Parker was just kid born in Fort Worth who became a big TV star, and that one of the characters he played was seen as archetypal by American politicians wishing to spread the fantasy version of American History even while we grappled with the ugly realities of America. When Daniel Boone went off the air in 1969, the homespun frontiersman-as-Knight narrative had utterly been abandoned by Americans of that generation. Daniel Boone and his faithful Indian Sidekick (Ed Ames, playing Tonto) killing those awful Redcoats and other, ungrateful* Indians who were upset about White settlers expropriating their land seemed naive, childish and absurd. Or even (shudder) racist.

[* Or, in the anachronistic words of another 1950s American narrative-spinner:

I don’t care to discuss the alleged complaints American Indians have against this country. I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man.


But let’s suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages – which they certainly were not. What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their ‘right’ to keep a part of the earth untouched – to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen?

Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it’s great that some of them did

[Ayn Rand at West Point, on March 6, 1974: See “Ayn and the Indians” for more.]

In the 1950s of Davy Crockett and Estes Kefauver and Joe McCarthy, that might have been accepted without question. By the 1970s, it was not, nor is it an acceptable form of racism to this very day.

Yes, I’m wandering a bit, but it has taken a lifetime to separate myself from these well-meaning but wrong and ultimately toxic myths drilled into me from earliest childhood. There is a point to this, and to questioning the good White settler and his faithful Indian sidekick caricature.

ii. Live by the Crockett, Die by the Crockett

It was not Daniel Boone’s fault. Nor was it Fess Parker’s fault. But, having lived by the Crockett, he died by the Boone. (A much less nuanced character, by the by. Disney’s Davy Crockett served, as did the historical Crockett, in the U.S. Congress, albeit in Disney’s case, a showcase for Disney’s increasingly right wing view of the “Magic Kingdom” that would eventually enforce its “family fun” with a virtual police state in Disneyland opened in 1955.)

So, in 1970 — possibly because having been stereotyped as a figure that was no longer in demand in the antihero Hollywood of the ‘Seventies — Fess Parker moved to Santa Barbara, where he spent the remainder of his life building and running hotels and a winery.

Davy Crockett moved into the waiting room for mythological characters and most of what anybody remembers is Crockett at the Alamo, the last man to go down, swingingh his beloved “Betsy’s” rifle butt at the short little faceless Mexican armymen who were storming the old Mission.

Disney: Davy the last to Die at the Alamo

To a generation of boys, that image is iconic in the same way that the death of Achilles, or the hanging of Nathan Hale, or the assassination of President Lincoln was to earlier generations. It is deeply burnt into the soul, as Scooby Doo seems to be to a current generation. We hear about an “impressionable age” and to boys of a certain age, Davy’s death at the Alamo left an indelible impression. Myself included.

It was so powerful, in fact, that John Wayne’s attempt to cash in on its cachet with his self-produced “Alamo” was a big money loser for Wayne. Parker starred in the 1955 King of the Wild Frontier, and Wayne’s movie came out in 1960. While, for some mysterious reason, it garnered a nomination for “Best Picture” it remains a hideous bit of preachy political nonsense, and John Wayne as Davy Crockett replaying the “swinging the rifle” scene seems and seemed an obscene parody of the “pure” Davy Crockett of five years earlier.

As do most of the “Alamo” movies made since.

Because, whether we realize it or not, the story of the “Alamo” that is remembered for the cry “Remember the Alamo!” is a story carefully UNremembered.

The Texans had revolted against the Mexican government because the Mexican government had outlawed slavery. Pure and simple.

Now, generations of Texas historians and “Lost Cause” revisionists have managed to successfully plant the hideous lie that Santa Anna was a tyrant on the level of King George III, and that the story of Texas independence is a grand and glorious tale, with Davy Crockett as the maraschino cherry on top of this horsefeathers sundae. (Sprinkled with Texas Nuts).

Because this is a very American story, where myth and fact, fantasy and historical distortion are all mixed up in a toxic brew where the truth finally becomes meaningless and only the myth remains.

iii. Not to praise Fess Parker, but to Bury Him …

Fess Parker was a likeable actor who spoke words he did not write in movie fantasies he had no hand in, wearing clothes provided by a studio whose purpose was to make money by selling tickets. He didn’t write the songs that were wildly popular, like “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and is remembered, in that warp of our celebrity culture, as somehow an amalgamation of Davy and Daniel, of Boone and Crockett.

He is not responsible for that. He was at the center of a 1950s cultural fad, and when that time had passed, he wisely moved on to another, more lucrative career.

I salute the man, but not the myth. I celebrate those early childhood memories, but now with the understanding that they were bunk, and yet, strangely, in perfect keeping with the historical Davy Crockett himself, who may well have actively encouraged his own myth, which has overshadowed the reality:

One tale tells how Crockett greeted a crowd on his way to Congress. He bragged, “I’m that same David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle; can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning, and slip without a scratch down a honey locust [tree].”

Davy Crockett’s Almanac, of Wild Sports in the West, Life in the Backwoods, & Sketches of Texas, a jest book, printed the text of a speech Crockett supposedly made to Congress. While there is no evidence whatever that the speech is authentic, it suggests the image of Crockett promoted by the “Crockett Almanacs,” published annually for years after his death …

In point of fact, Davy Crockett was a sort of intolerant old-time teabagger:

By December, 1834, Crockett was writing to friends about moving to Texas if Van Buren were elected President. The next year he discussed with his friend Benjamin McCulloch raising a company of volunteers to take to Texas in the expectation that a revolution was imminent.

Big mistake, that.

And Daniel Boone was, again, more myth mixed with reality:

Boone remains an iconic, if imperfectly remembered, figure in American history. He was a legend in his own lifetime, especially after an account of his adventures was published in 1784, making him famous in America and Europe. After his death, he was frequently the subject of tall tales and works of fiction. His adventures—real and legendary—were influential in creating the archetypal Western hero of American folklore.

Even after his death:

Boone died on September 26, 1820, at Nathan Boone’s home on Femme Osage Creek [Missouri]. His last words were, “I’m going now. My time has come.” He was buried next to Rebecca [Boone], who had died on March 18, 1813. The graves, which were unmarked until the mid-1830s, were near Jemima (Boone) Callaway’s home on Tuque Creek, about two miles (3 km) from present day Marthasville, Missouri. In 1845, the Boones’ remains were disinterred and reburied in a new cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Resentment in Missouri about the disinterment grew over the years, and a legend arose that Boone’s remains never left Missouri.

According to this story, Boone’s tombstone in Missouri had been inadvertently placed over the wrong grave, but no one had corrected the error. Boone’s Missouri relatives, displeased with the Kentuckians who came to exhume Boone, kept quiet about the mistake and allowed the Kentuckians to dig up the wrong remains. There is no contemporary evidence that this actually happened, but in 1983, a forensic anthropologist examined a crude plaster cast of Boone’s skull made before the Kentucky reburial and announced that it might be the skull of an African American. Black slaves were also buried at Tuque Creek, so it is possible that the wrong remains were mistakenly removed from the crowded graveyard. Both the Frankfort Cemetery in Kentucky and the Old Bryan Farm graveyard in Missouri claim to have Boone’s remains ….

As usual, the reality is much more interesting than the cartoonish stereotype that emerged in popular imagination. Fess Parker played the cartoon version, it ought to be added, although that’s not his fault, at all. He was an actor, not a legendary frontiersman, although I doubt that anyone can tell the difference between an actor and his role anymore.

So, let us celebrate the facts, and mourn the passing of a former actor and, seemingly, a nice guy. Who proved that playing a legend makes one a sort of legend himself, assuming that Walt Disney makes enough money on the proposition.

But let’s get back to that coonskin cap craze for just a moment; Davy Crockett might be remembered for it, but it was a particularly popular form of American headgear long before the Declaration. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin, that old P.R. man, made a point of wearing his coonskin cap in the Court of Versailles, while he procured an alliance with France that ultimately led to victory in the War of Independence (or, if you like, the Revolutionary War.)

Now, note that Franklin NEVER would have worn such a country bumpkin cap in Philadelphia, but he recognized how to exploit the popular prejudices of the French imagination and exploited them as skillfully as Disney would in the 1950s with Fess Parker: vox populi, vox dumb.

I myself once owned a coonskin cap, but I never quite got the hang of wearing them:

Still can’t

RIP Daniel Boone. RIP Davy Crockett (even if he died fighting for a malignant and ignoble cause). And RIP Fess Parker, hotelier and vintner.

It took me living in Hollywood for a decade and a half to be able to differentiate them.



UPDATE: Just saw this. The ever-loony Andrew Malcolm in D.C. blogging for the LA Times inadvertently manages to validate everything I’ve said above:

The problem for many of us is that we cannot separate Davy and Fess or vice versa. Nor, frankly, do we want to.

And then launches into a political snark about Davy Crockett versus Andrew Jackson. I think we all know who won that one. If not, take a look at a $20 bill. Crockett doesn’t seem to be there.

UPDATE #2Another lost soul can’t differentiate between the actor and the screenwriter. If you can’t separate reality from fictional fantasy, what chance do you have at political analysis? Or, perhaps: “I’m hypnotized and damn proud of it.” Next, I suppose, it will be “Life Lessons Learned from Trigger.”

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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4 Responses to Davy Crockett, R.I.P.

  1. Jeanne says:

    A very important correction … Ed Ames did not play the role of “Tonto” … he played “Mingo”. Tonto is from the “Lone Ranger” show.

    Best regards,

  2. Keats says:

    Ed Ames played “Mingo” in Daniel Boone. Never “Tonto.” Just FYI.

  3. Keats says:

    Oh Jeanne, you beat me to it!

  4. I actually know that Ed Ames* played Mingo. If you know who Daniel Boone was on TeeVee, I had hoped that you would surely know who Tonto was — IIRC, played by Jay Silverheels. (Who was a Canadian Mohawk.)

    The mistake was intentional, but thanks for the catch. (Nice to know that somebody’s paying attention.)

    The whole “absolution for stealing a whole continent” shtick of the “Injun” sidekick goes at least as far back as Natty Bumppo’s sidekick Chingachgook+ (Pronounced “Chicago” I think; see Twain).

    [* Ed Ames became world-famous outside of the Boone series for his inadvertent demonstration of the Russian-Jewish American Indian tomahawk crotch disablement throw on the old Johnny Carson Tonight Show — and for his singing as one of the Ames Brothers in the 1950s.]

    [+ Chingachgook later became a US Navy motorboat in 1917 and then exploded.]