Portraying an American Original:
The Likenesses of Davy Crockett
FREDERICK S. Voss*
THANKS TO THE SCORES OF LATE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ARTISTS WHO
sought to record George Washington's physical features for pos-
terity, virtually any American today can readily conjure up an accurate
mental vision of what our first president looked like. Thanks in large
part to Civil War photography, much the same can be said of Abraham
Lincoln. But for a somewhat lesser light, Col. David Crockett of West
Tennessee, that is almost certainly not the case, and when Americans
call up a picture in their minds of this most colorful of our frontiers-
men, more often than not they tend to envision a tall, rough-hewn man
built along the lines of Hollywood actor Fess Parker-decked out in
fringed buckskin, his hunting rifle at the ready, and wearing a coonskin
cap (fig. 1).
The reason for this phenomenon, of course, is clear to anyone who
was of remembering age in the mid-195os. For it was Fess Parker-
dressed in the manner just described-who in 1955 portrayed Crockett
in Walt Disney's television and movie recreation of Crockett's life and,
in the process, stimulated the juvenile appetite for "authentic" Crockett
headgear that sent the wholesale price of raccoon tails soaring by 2,000
percent. Parker's performance enriched the coffers of Disney Studios
enormously and at the same time revitalized Crockett as one of our so-
ciety's most enduring, larger-than-life western legends.' But Parker's
* Frederick S. Voss works at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washing-
ton, D.C., where he is Historian for the Permanent Collection and Curator of the TIME Collec-
tion. His recent publications include John Frazee, Sculptor (1986); "Honoring a Scorned Hero:
America's Monument to Thomas Paine," New York History, LXVIII (April, 1987); and Man of
the Year: A TIME Honored Tradition (1987). This article grew out of an exhibition he and James
Kelly of the Tennessee State Museum curated in 1986, marking the 2ooth birthday of Davy
Crockett and the 15oth anniversary of his death.
STime, May 23, 1955, PP. 90-92. For the most recent account of the impact of Walt Disney's
Crockett see MargaretJ. King, "The Recycled Hero: Walt Disney's Davy Crockett," in Michael A.
Lofaro (ed.), Davy Crockett: The Man, the Legend, the Legacy, 1786-1986 (Knoxville: University of
Tennessee Press, 1986), 137-158.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 91, July 1987 - April, 1988. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101211/. Accessed November 29, 2015.