The phrase to be barking up the wrong tree means to be pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action—cf. also origin of ‘gone coon’.
In Americanisms, Old and New. A Dictionary of Words, Phrases and Colloquialisms peculiar to the United States, British America, the West Indies, &c., &c., their Derivation, Meaning and Application, together with Numerous Anecdotal, Historical, Explanatory, and Folk-Lore Notes (1889), John S. Farmer explained:
The expression arose in this way: the Western huntsman found that his prey gradually became more and more wily and cunning in eluding pursuit, and frequently he and his dogs were at fault, supposing they had “treed” their game when in reality, especially in the case of opossums and squirrels and such-like animals, it had escaped by jumping from the boughs of one tree to another. The dogs consequently were left barking up the wrong tree.
One of the earliest instances of the phrase confirms this origin. It is from Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee (1833), attributed to the American lawyer and author James Strange French (1807-86). (The American folk hero, frontiersman, soldier and politician David ‘Davy’ Crockett (1786-1836) wrote A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee (1834) to correct the wrong impressions produced by this book, the author of which was unknown to him.) The author of Sketches and Eccentricities writes that Crockett has been elected to the state legislature and has just presented a bill, which is opposed by one Mr. M——l, who alludes to him “in rather disparaging terms”; the author pretends that Crockett later described his own reaction in the following manner:
“I told him that he had got hold of the wrong man; that he did n’t know who he was fooling with; that he reminded me of the meanest thing [sic] on God’s earth, an old coon dog, barking up the wrong tree.”
Hare skins and raccoon skins were used as means of payment; the author of this book writes that “four hare skins are equal to a ’coon skin” and that “though profuse in his liberality, the colonel boasted of his economy, saying, when alone he never spent a ’coon skin, but always carried hare skins to buy half-pints”. The author also tells the following anecdote:
Colonel Crockett, while on an electioneering trip, fell in at a gathering, and it became necessary for him to treat the company. His finances were rather low, having but one ’coon skin about him; however, he pulled it out, slapped it down on the counter, and called for its value in whiskey. The merchant measured out the whiskey and threw the skin into the loft. The colonel, observing the logs very open, took out his ramrod, and, upon the merchant turning his back, twisted his ’coon skin out and pocketed it: when more whiskey was wanted, the same skin was pulled out, slapped upon the counter, and its value called for. This trick was played until they were all tired drinking.
According to the author:
In the canvass of the congressional election of 18—, Mr. ***** was the colonel’s opponent—a gentleman of the most pleasing and conciliating manners—who seldom addressed a person or a company without wearing upon his countenance a peculiarly good humoured smile. The colonel, to counteract the influence of this winning attribute, thus alluded to it in a stump speech:
“Yes, gentlemen, he may get some votes by grinning, for he can out-grin me, and you know I ain’t slow—and to prove to you that I am not, I will tell you an anecdote. I was concerned myself—and I was fooled a little of the wickedest. You all know I love hunting. Well, I discovered a long time ago that a ’coon could n’t stand my grin. I could bring one tumbling down from the highest tree. I never wasted powder and lead, when I wanted one of the creatures. Well, as I was walking out one night, a few hundred yards from my house, looking carelessly about me, I saw a ’coon planted upon one of the highest limbs of an old tree. The night was very moony and clear, and old Ratler was with me; but Ratler won’t bark at a ’coon—he’s a queer dog in that way. So, I thought I’d bring the lark down, in the usual way, by a grin. I set myself—and, after grinning at the ’coon a reasonable time, found that he did n’t come down. I wondered what was the reason—and I took another steady grin at him. Still he was there. It made me a little mad; so I felt round and got an old limb about five feet long—and, planting one end upon the ground, I placed my chin upon the other, and took a rest. I then grinned my best for about five minutes—but the cursed ’coon hung on. So, finding I could not bring him down by grinning, I determined to have him—for I thought he must be a droll chap. I went over to the house, got my axe, returned to the tree, saw the ’coon still there, and began to cut away. Down it come, and I run forward; but d—n the ’coon was there to be seen. I found that what I had taken for one, was a large knot upon a branch of the tree—and, upon looking at it closely, I saw that I had grinned all the bark off, and left the knot perfectly smooth.”