The “King of the Wild Frontier” Once Killed a Bar(tender’s) Reputation

Davy Crockett’s tales – truthful, enhanced or fabricated – have perpetuated the antics of Tennessee’s colorful history maker. Brush aside the accumulated cobwebs of tall tales and he still emerges as a fascinating folk hero.

Many of us remember the thrilling “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” television era of the mid 1950s. We watched him on our small snowy TV sets as a brave, witty hero that was bigger than life because, after all, he killed a bear) when he was only three?

Crockett competed with such compelling figures as Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston who were also well-known fellow Tennesseans. He set the formula for humorous political campaigning, which Senator Alben Barkley and other colorful politicians eventually employed in their heyday.

While Crockett held Andrew Jackson as his hero in his early political life, he later fell out with “Old Hickory” and thereafter referred to him sarcastically as “The Hero.” Davy was equally gifted in handling himself in hunting affairs and in congressional debates. He once shouted: “Sirs, I do not consider it good sense to be sitting here passing laws for Andrew Jackson to laugh at; it is not even good nonsense.”

Perhaps the most fascinating of Crockett’s lore is the occasion that made him and the coonskin cap synonymous. It happened during Davy's first campaign for Congress when the mountain man was trudging from one crossroad to another stumping for votes. Voters welcomed the candidates because of the traditional treats expected and, according to Crockett, found political discussions very dry without refreshments. For understandable reasons, stumps in the vicinity of taverns attracted the largest crowds.

As Davy told it, he approached the tavern owned by a Yankee gentleman whose name was Job Snelling where a fair crowd of people had accumulated anxiously waiting for him. Crockett mounted the stump and spoke only briefly before his listeners’ tongues became parched and they demanded the traditional refreshment.

Davy led the crowd into the tavern completely aware that he did not have enough money in his buckskin jeans to cover the indulgence. He depended on receiving credit from Snelling until he learned that Snelling supported his opponent. After refusing to put the drinks on the cuff, the politician plunged into the woods where he spotted, took down and skinned a raccoon. Knowing that the skin was legal tender and the accepted exchange value was a quart of the beverage known as “panther juice,” Crockett returned to the tavern. He tossed the coonskin on the bar and commanded his quart. The reluctant tavern keeper was forced to comply with his request and Davy's potential voters quenched their thirst. Davy returned to the stomp and renewed his speech.

It wasn't long before the cry of indulgence once again interrupted the proceedings. Returning to the tavern, Crockett spied the tail of the coonskin sticking out between the logs of the crude bar. In Crockett’s words, “I touched the tail and it seemed to follow my hand.” Crockett slapped the skin on the bar and called for another quart of the brew. Unaware that he had been scammed, the tavern keeper complied again. In his autobiography, Crockett wrote that he successfully repeated the trick several times. The caper delighted his backwoods audience when they learned what had happened.

The story of the coonskin trick permeated the hills like wildfire, probably being embellished with each utterance. Crockett attributed his poll victory to the mirth the story caused. In later years, the remorseful frontiersman offered to pay Snelllng for the beverages, but the tavern keeper generously declined compensation.