Boone, Crockett All a Crock?

Pioneers and frontiersmen (and, yes, frontierswomen, too) were the backbone of westward American expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, though most of their names have been lost to history. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett must have had backbones stronger than the rest, as their names stand out to this very day. Often they are paired, like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It helped (or didn’t help, depending on your point of view) that the same actor, Fess Parker, played buckskin-clad Crockett in the five-part serial Davy Crockett (1954–55) on ABC-TV’s Disneyland and then buckskin-clad Boone in 165 episodes of the NBC-TV action-adventure series Daniel Boone (1964–70). Yet the real-life Boone was born more than a half-century before Crockett, lived 36 years longer than him and neither met nor corresponded with Davy.

Daniel Boone, born in southeastern Pennsylvania on Nov. 2, 1734, fit the bill of the quintessential pioneer. In 1769 he blazed the first known trail from North Carolina into eastern Tennessee. In 1773 he made the first attempt to settle Kentucky (originally part of Virginia). In 1775 he cut the Wilderness Road from Tennessee and, after crossing the Kentucky River, founded Fort Boonesborough. Finally, in 1799 he moved with family and friends from Kentucky to the part of Spanish Louisiana that would become Missouri. Boone died west of the Mississippi, near present-day Defiance, Mo., on Sept. 26, 1820.

David Crockett, born in northeastern Tennessee on Aug. 17, 1786, was a frontiersman extraordinaire. He learned backwoods survival skills, fought in the Creek War (see Paul Andrew Hutton’s article “‘We Now Shot Them Like Dogs,’” in the December 2019 Wild West), held political office in Tennessee and Washington and ultimately headed for frontier Texas. He died west of the Mississippi, on March 6, 1836, while defending the Alamo.

Two genuine American heroes, right? Hold your wild horses, says Gregory Michno. In his cover article, “Half Horse, Half Gator and All Hogwash,” the writer argues the “mythical frontier of straight-arrow, sharpshooting riflemen never existed,” adding that the frontiersmen’s contemporaries “ascribed to a different mythology than that popular among the Walt Disney–influenced baby boomer crowd of the mid-20th century.” Crockett’s death at the Alamo made him much more of a hero than he ever was in life, Michno asserts, and though the popular mythmaking continues, the baser frontier traits of Crockett, and Boone before him, “offend 21st century sensibilities.”

Hutton—who participated in the coonskin cap craze and has since written many articles about Crockett, as well as the 2001 History Channel documentary Boone and Crockett: The Hunter Heroes (with screenwriter Dan Gagliasso)—has an entirely different take on the pair. “It is difficult to overstate the fame of both Boone and Crockett in the 19th century, long before their 20th century film and TV incarnations,” Hutton says. “Boone was our frontier founding father—the Western Jefferson—an American Moses who led the people into their promised land. In many ways it was Boone who cemented our claim to the Western country at the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Few Americans have ever been as famous as Boone, thanks to hundreds of writers. Crockett inherited the mantle of America’s greatest frontiersman from Boone, although he represented different values. Both were ‘hunter heroes’ and Indian fighters, but Boone was the Jeffersonian child of the Enlightenment on the frontier, while Crockett came to symbolize Jacksonian democracy and the ‘rise of the common man.’ Boone and Crockett remain central figures not only in American history but also in the development of our national culture and character.” That’s certainly the flip side of Michno’s debunking tale about frontiersmen, epitomized by Daniel and Davy, and all the mythmaking “hogwash” that has ensured their legacy. I suspect on this historical issue, as with so many other issues today, people find fence-sitting near impossible. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire wrote the 2014 historical novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly, and his Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 is due out in July 2019. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories. His article about frontier baseball in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America, earned him a 2015 Stirrup Award.