Americana: Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier


This patriot needs little introduction because he is the one of the best known historical figure and folk hero in American history …

Davy Crockett_03David “Davy” Crockett [August 17th 1786 – March 6th 1836] was a frontiersman, soldier and politician. He was dubbed the King of the Wild Frontier and legendary tales followed after his death and even during his lifetime. He was a representative for the state of Tennessee in the US House of Representatives, served in the Texas Revolution and died at the Battle of the Alamo.

Growing up in the eastern part of Tennessee, he gained a reputation for storytelling and his hunting prowess. After being commissioned as a colonel in the militia of Lawrence County, Tennessee, he was elected to the Tennessee state legislature in 1821. In 1826, Crockett was elected to the US Congress, where he strongly opposed many policies of popular President Andrew Jackson, especially the Indian Removal Act, which caused his defeat in the 1834 elections. Angered he departed to Texas a Mexican governed state and in early 1836, he became a part of the Texas Revolution and was killed at the Battle of the Alamo in March of 1836. He was a living legend to Americans that became popularized in tales in almanacs and subject material for stage plays.

Born in Green County, Tennessee, close to the Nolichucky River, near the community of Limestone, a replica of his birthplace cabin can be seen at the Davy Crockett State Park. His lineage was Irish, English, Scottish, and French Huguenot ancestry and his family name was derived from Monsieur de la Croquetage, a captain in the Royal Guard of the French king, Louis XIV. The family converted to Protestantism and, as Huguenots, they fled French persecution in the 17th century to Ireland. Davy Crockett’s great-grandparents immigrated to New York from Ireland around 1708. The great-grandmother and son were killed by Native Americans in North Carolina. David Crockett was named after his paternal grandfather who was killed in 1777 at his home by Cherokee natives led by Dragging Canoe. David’s father was one of the Overmountain Men who fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain during the American Revolutionary War. In the early 1790s, the Crocketts moved to Morristown and built a tavern there. Today a museum is on the site and has a reconstruction of that tavern. [Crockett Tavern Museum]

Davy Crockett_07Davy Crockett wrote his autobiography, filled with adventure, hardship, and travel. He would go hunting with his older brothers, becoming an accomplished sharpshooter. At 13-years-old, he was sent to school, but dropped out to run away from home to avoid being beaten by his father for playing “hooky” from school. He was not attending school because on the fourth day in school, he “whupped the tar” out of a school bully, left school out of fear of retribution from the bully’s friends and punishment by the teacher. The teacher wrote to Crockett’s father to ask why his son did not attend school. David told his father the truth, but the father was angry because he had traded goods in exchange for his son’s education had gone to waste, so refused to listen why he had beaten the bully. Crockett ran away from home and spent three years roaming from town to town where he furthered his experience as a woodsman, hunter, and trapper.

David Crockett returned home close to his 16th birthday, stopping at his father’s tavern for a meal without notice. His older sister, Betsy, was the first to recognize him crying out, “Here is my lost brother!” The family was overjoyed to see him return. The father was in debt to Abraham Wilson for $36, so he hired Davy to work off the debt and another $40 debt to John Kennedy. Thankful, Davy’s father, John Crockett told he was free to go where he wished after the debts had been paid. Acquiring a friendship with Kennedy and his good work, he hired Davy to work for wages.

During this period, Crockett became engaged to Margaret Elder, but the marriage never took place. The bride-to-be changed her mind and married someone else. At age 19 and heartbroken, Crockett felt he was only  born for hardship, misery, and disappointment. The contract of marriage was preserved by the Dandridge, Tennessee courthouse.

Davy Crockett_03Just before his 20th birthday, on August 14th, 1806, Crockett married Mary Polly Finley in 1812. The couple moved to Franklin County because game had become scarce in the area and the settlement established at Beans Creek was named Kentuck by Davy Crockett in 1813. After Polly’s death, Crockett married a widow named Elizabeth Patton in 1815 and had three children: Robert, Rebecca, and Matilda.

In 1838, Davy’s son, Robert Patton Crockett went to Texas to administer his father’s claim after his death and Elizabeth went to Texas where she died in 1860. Davy’s other son, John Wesley Crockett became US Congressman from Tennessee, serving two terms between 1837 and 1841.

Davy Crockett enlisted in the 2nd Regiment of Tennessee Volunteer Mounted Riflemen on September 24th, 1813, as a scout with a contract for 90 days, serving under Colonel John Coffee in the Creek War, marching into what is present day Alabama. In 1814 he reenlisted under Captain John Cowan and Davy was made a lieutenant colonel of the 57th Regiment of Tennessee Militia on March 27th, 1818.

On September 17th, 1821, Crockett was elected to the Committee of Propositions and Grievances. He lost his first run for Congress in 1824, but ran again in the next election and served in the House of Representatives in 1827 as a supporter of Andrew Jackson. Apparently, he realized he could not support Jacksonian policies, so he became an Anti-Jacksonian in 1829. He supported the rights of squatters who were barred from buying land in the West without already owning property. He also defied Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. This cost him his reelection in 1830; however, he won again when he ran for office in 1832.

Davy Crockett in Dime NovelIn 1884, a book was written by a dime novelist, Edward S. Elis, who recorded a speech, entitled Not Yours to Give, where Crockett was critical of his Congressional colleagues who wanted to spend taxpayer dollars to help a widow of an US Navy man who had lived beyond his naval service. The proposal died in Congress because of Crockett’s explanation that the Constitution did not allow Congress to give charity. The Register of Debates do not contain transcripts of speeches made on the House floor as described by Ellis, so authenticity of it is questionable. It is a part of the Crockett lore that made him a legend. James R. Boylston debunked the Not Yours to Give speech in the November 2004 issue of The Crockett Chronicle. However, even today the legend continues as the following YouTube video presents:

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While in Washington, Davy Crockett became a member of the Freemason. Before leaving for Texas, he left his masonic apron to the Weakly Lodge in Tennessee for safekeeping. It remains as part of Davy Crockett memorabilia.

Back in Tennessee wrote to his friends in 1834 that he would move to Texas if Van Buren was elected President. On November 1st, 1835, after taking care of family business, Davy departed with three other men to explore Texas. His youngest child, Matilda, wrote that she remembered the last time she saw her father:

He was dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap, and carried a fine rifle presented to him by friends in Philadelphia … He seemed confident the morning he went away that he would soon have us all to join him in Texas.

Crockett traveled to Jackson, arriving there with 30 armed men instead of three, where he gave a speech from the steps of the Madison County courthouse, and then rode off to Bolivar, where he spent the night at the residence of Dr. Calvin Jones and a crowed saw him off the next morning. He arrived in Memphis in the second week of November with much less than 30 men, and ferried across the Mississippi River the following day to continue his journey through Arkansas on horseback.

Crockett and company arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas on November 12th, 1835. The local newspapers reported that hundreds of people swarmed into town to look at the legendary figure. A group of citizens put on a dinner in his honor that night at the Jeffries Hotel. Crockett mostly discussed Texan independence with some Washington politics sprinkled in.

Crockett arrived in Nacogdoches, Texas in January of 1836 with 65 men who signed an oath before Judge John Forbes to the Provisional Government of Texas for six months. Each man was promised 4,600 acres of land as payment. Crockett sold two rifles to Colonel O’Neal for $60. In 1854, his widow received a payment certificate for $24 from Texas. On February 6th, 1836, Crockett and five other men rode into San Antonio de Bexar and camped outside town. Later they were greeted by James Bowie and Antonio Menchaca, and taken to the home of Don Erasmo Seguin.

Davy Crockett arrived at the Alamo on February 8th 1836 and on February 23rd, a Mexican army led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna surprisingly arrived and initiated a siege. The artillery kept up a nearly constant bombardment. As the siege continued, William Travis, commander of the Alamo, sent many messages asking for reinforcements. Part of a reinforcement group broke through the Mexican lines and reached the Alamo. On March 6th, 1836, the siege ended when the Mexican army attacked just before dawn while defenders were sleeping. The final fight began and non-combatant like Susannah Dickinson, gathered in the church for safety. According to Dickinson, Crockett stopped at the chapel to say a prayer before running to his post. When the Mexican soldiers breached the north wall, most of the Texans fell back to the barracks and chapel. Crockett and his men were too far from the barracks to take shelter, and were the last group to be caught in the open. Men defended the low wall in front of the church, using their rifles as clubs and wielding knives. After a volley by the Mexican soldiers, they charged with bayonets and pushed the few remaining defenders back toward the church. The Battle of the Alamo lasted about 90 minutes. When all defenders were killed, Santa Anna ordered his men to take the bodies to a stand of trees and stack them together with wood piled on top. That evening the bodies were burned.

A legend during his own time, he died to defend Texas at the Alamo. However, weeks after the battle, stories circulated that Crockett was among those who surrendered and then executed. Ben, a former American slave who was a cook for Santa Anna’s officers, stated that Crockett’s body was found in the barracks surrounded by no less than sixteen Mexican corpses, with Crockett’s knife buried in one of them. Most people tend to believe the eyewitness accounts. In 1955, Jesús Sánchez Garza self-published a book entitled La Rebelión de Texas proclaimed to be the memoirs of José Enrique de la Peña, a Mexican officer at the Battle of the Alamo. No editor or publisher provided authenticity, nor did the author disclose where he got the documents of de la Peña.

Schools and a national forest have been named after Davy Crockett, as well as the M28 Davy Crockett Weapon System, a small nuclear weapon system for strategic warfare that can be fired from a light vehicle or a shoulder-mounted launcher.

In the 1950s, the legend of Davy Crockett was reborn along with his coonskin cap. The TV show by Walt Disney starring Fess Parker brought the folk hero to the homes of American youth. In the seventh season of the Discovery Channel series MythBusters, Tory Belleci was able to duplicate the legendary Crockett shot of sticking an axe into the crook of a tree trunk with blade facing out and firing at the edge that split the bullet in two. Proof that Crockett could have performed that legendary feat due to his experience and skill. Fess Parker, TV series star and Tennessee Ernie Ford sang The Ballad of Davy Crockett that hit the Top Ten chart.

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Several films were made starring the frontiersman character.

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