Walt Disney's 1950s television adaptation of the Davy Crockett legend catapulted the coonskin-capped frontiersman into a national role model who has had an enduring appeal for both academic historians and popular culture producers and their audiences through the end of the twentieth century. The marketing frenzy surrounding the Crockett fad represented the first real mass-marketing campaign in American history, promoting a new way of marketing films and television shows. Many baby boomers can still recite the lyrics to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" and have passed down their treasured items, such as Crockett lunch boxes, to their children.
One of the legendary American heroes whose stories dramatize American cultural values for a wide popular audience, the historical David Crockett was born on August 17, 1786, near Limestone, Tennessee. He went from a local folk hero to national media hero during his lifetime when the Whig party adopted him as a political party symbol in the early nineteenth century. He served as commander of a battalion in the Creek Indian War from 1813 to 1814, was a member of the Tennessee state legislature from 1821 to 1824, and was a member of the United States Congress from 1827 to 1831 and again from 1833 to 1835. He was renowned for his motto "be always sure you are right, then go ahead."
The myths surrounding Crockett began as the Whig party created his election image through deliberate fabrication so that they could capitalize on his favorable political leanings. His penchant for tall tales also made him a folk legend rumored to be capable of killing bears with his bare hands and of performing similar feats of strength. Even his trusty rifle, "Betsy," achieved fame and name recognition. Crockett was one of the several hundred men who died defending the Alamo from Mexican attack in March of 1836 as Texas fought for independence from Mexico with the aid of the United States. His legend quickly emerged as a widespread public phenomenon after his heroic, patriotic death at the Alamo. His tombstone reads "Davy Crockett, Pioneer, Patriot, Soldier, Trapper, Explorer, State Legislator, Congressman, Martyred at The Alamo. 1786-1836." His symbolic heroism and larger-than-life figure soon found its way into such popular cultural media as tall tales, folklore, journalism, fiction, dime novels, plays, television, movies, and music. Historian Margaret J. King has called him "as fine a figure of popular culture as can be imagined."
Disney understood the ability of popular culture to manipulate popular historical images and the power of the entertainer to educate. Disney took the Crockett legend and remade it to suit his 1950s audience. Disney planned a three-part series (December 15, 1954's "Davy Crockett Indian Fighter," January 26, 1955's "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress," and February 23, 1955's "Davy Crockett at the Alamo") to represent the Frontierland section of his Disneyland theme park. Aired on the ABC television network, the series helped ABC become a serious contender among the television networks and catapulted Disney's Davy Crockett, little-known actor Fess Parker, to stardom. The American frontier spirit that formerly had been embodied by Daniel Boone now immediately became associated with Davy Crockett. Walt Disney himself was surprised by the size and intensity of the overnight craze: King quotes him as having said, "It became one of the biggest overnight hits in television history and there we were with just three films and a dead hero." Disney quickly rereleased the series as feature film Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) in order to cash in on the Crockett craze. The weekly television show, which aired on Wednesday nights, also spawned Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956), which was made from two of the television shows, including the Mike Fink keelboat race story.
Disney's interpretation of the Crockett legend arrived soon after television enjoyed widespread ownership for the first time and leisure activities began to center around the television. Disney proved the powerful ability of television to capture and influence wide audiences. Television programmers and mass advertisers discovered sizable new markets in the children and baby boom audience who quickly became infatuated with all things Crockett. The promotional tie-in has enjoyed widespread success ever since the first young child placed Davy's coonskin cap on his head so that he could feel like Davy Crockett as he hunted "b'ars" in the backyard. Raccoon skin prices dramatically jumped practically overnight. Hundreds of products by various producers quickly saturated the market as Disney was unable to copyright the public Crockett name. Guitars, underwear, clothes, toothbrushes, moccasins, bedspreads, lunch boxes, toys, books, comics, and many other items found their way into many American homes. Many producers simply pasted Crockett labels over existing western-themed merchandise so as not to miss out on the phenomenon. Various artists recorded sixteen versions of the catchy theme song "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," which was originally created as filler. It went on to sell more than four million copies.
The legendary Davy Crockett was born of a long tradition of creating national heroes as embodiments of the national character, most in the historical tradition of the great white male. Disney's Davy Crockett was a 1950s ideal, a dignified common man who was known for his congeniality, neighborliness, and civic-mindedness. He was also an upwardly mobile, modest, and courageous man. He showed that God's laws existed in nature and came from a long line of American heroes who represented the national ideal of the noble, self-reliant frontiersman. It was men such as the legendary Davy Crockett that led the American people on their divinely appointed mission into the wilderness and set the cultural standard for the settlements that would follow. Some detractors, however, felt that some of Crockett's less refined qualities were not the American ideals that should be passed on to their children. This led to a debate over the Disney Crockett's effectiveness and suitability as a national hero. King terms such controversy as exemplary of the volatile encounter among mass media, national history, and the popular consciousness. Disney's Davy Crockett, and the many popular Crocketts that went before, are central figures in the search for how American historical legends have affected what Americans understand about their history and how this understanding continues to change over time.
—Marcella Bush Treviño
Cummings, Joe, and Michael A. Lofaro, eds. Crockett at Two Hundred: New Perspectives on the Man and the Myth. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1989.
Hauck, Richard Boyd. Davy Crockett: A Handbook. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
King, Margaret J. "The Recycled Hero: Walt Disney's Davy Crockett." In Davy Crockett: The Man, the Legend, the Legacy, 1786-1986, edited by Michael A. Lofaro. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
Lofaro, Michael A., ed. Davy Crockett: The Man, the Legend, the Legacy, 1786-1986. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1985.