I wonder if the San Antonio Missions would have become a World Heritage Site had it not been for Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo. And I wonder if the Alamo would have been remembered if it were not for one of its heroes.
Davy Crockett’s 229th birthday is August 17. Now that the Alamo is a World Heritage Site, it is time to take another look at the man, the myth, the hero to some, and the villain to others: David Crockett.
Crockett was born in 1786, one of nine children, to a veteran of the American Revolution. He could not read or write until he was 18 – but this was not unusual for the time.
As a child in the ’50s, I was bitten by the Davy Crockett bug like millions of other kids across the globe. But we were not the first generation to make a super star out of Crockett.
He became famous in his own lifetime, not so much for his astute roles as soldier and legislator, but for his larger-than-life exploits popularized by stage plays, almanacs, and dime novels. Even after his death, he continued to be credited with acts of super-human strength and mythical accomplishments.
Did Crockett really wrestle a bear, ride an alligator, or lasso a tornado? Did he eat a Native American he had killed so he could gain his strength? Let’s take a look at the myths and the facts. Let’s take a look at the “Ballad of Davy Crockett,“ which was a Top 10 single four different times by four different singers.
“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.”
True. Crockett was born in what’s now Greene County, Tennessee, a nice part of the woods. I was driving to Washington, D.C. back in 2000 when I saw the sign, “Boyhood home of Davy Crockett.” In Texas, such a sign would indicate the home was yards away, maybe a mile or two. But in Tennessee, it meant a 15-mile exploration involving multiple turns – but it is well worth the trip.
“Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.”
The caretakers at the Crockett Tavern dress in period clothing and speak in the manner of the 18th century. The guide talks of bears, bees, bedbugs, and other critters that made life interesting on the frontier. No doubt young Davy listened to many itinerant hunters and traveling salesmen who visited his father’s stagecoach stop.
“I’m half-horse, half-alligator and a little attached with snapping turtle. I’ve got the fastest horse, the prettiest sister, the surest rifle and the ugliest dog in Texas. My father can lick any man in Kentucky … and I can lick my father. I can hug a bear too close for comfort and eat any man alive opposed to Andy Jackson,” Davy Crockett said in the 1955 Disney film.
The parody he inspired, Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, said something like the quote above in the 1831 play in New York, “The Lion of the West.” A similar statement was attributed to him in the 1833 unauthorized biography, “Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee.”
Although Davy the legend could wade the Mississippi River or whip his weight in wildcats, David the man could not. He attempted to dispel some of these tall tales in his book, “A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee,” published in 1834.
“He fought single handed through the Injun war,
Till the Creeks was whipped and peace was restored.”
Some armchair historians bemoan the fact that Crockett was an Indian killer. He did serve as a rifleman in 1813 after the Fort Mims massacre became a rallying cry in the war against the Creek people. As the War of 1812 dragged on, Crockett utilized his expert marksmanship and supplied wild game for soldiers.
“And while he was handling this risky chore,
Made himself a legend, forevermore.
Davy, Davy Crockett the man who don’t know fear.”
Part of his untold legend is his success in business and politics. In 1817, the Tennessee Legislature appointed him Justice of the Peace. In 1818, he became town commissioner of Lawrenceburg and also was elected lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Militia. By 1819, Crockett felt the need to tend to his growing family and multiple businesses and he resigned from his state offices.
“When he lost his love, and his grief was gall,
In his heart he wanted to leave it all,
And lose himself in the forest tall,”
Crockett had three children before his wife died in 1815. His second wife had two children and together, they had three more.
“But he answered instead, his country’s call.
Davy, Davy Crockett, the choice of the whole frontier”
Always a storyteller, Crockett used his anecdotal oratory skills to win a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly in 1821. Once elected, he championed the cause of impoverished farmers.
“He went off to Congress and served a spell.
Fixin’ up the government and laws as well.”
By the mid-1820s, Crockett was in the U.S. House of Representatives, still fighting for settlers to get a fair deal.
“Took over Washington, so we hear tell,
And patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell.
Davy, Davy Crockett, seein’ his duty clear.”
Crockett no doubt visited Philadelphia. His daughter Matilda described 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.”
When I visited Philly in the early ’90s, the guide at the Liberty Bell claimed to never have heard the song and knew nothing about Crockett’s visit there. Ah well, though the patch in the Liberty Bell may be legend, the coonskin cap is not.
“When he come home, his politickin’ done,
The western march had just begun.
So he packed his gear, and his trusty gun,
And lit out a grinnin’ to follow the sun.
Davy, Davy Crockett, Leadin the Pioneers.”
Crockett had already split with his old commander, General Andrew Jackson, now president (1829-37). I believe Crockett was on the presidential track but for his opposition to Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, also known as the Trail of Tears. Indeed, he was the only member of the Tennessee delegation to vote against it. It takes a hero to stand up for an unpopular cause.
After Crockett lost his re-election in 1835, he told his former constituents, “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”
“His land is biggest, and his land is best,
From grassy plains to the mountain crest
He’s ahead of us all in meeting the test,
Followin’ his legend right into the West”
A North Texas legend has it that Crockett went west from Arkansas up the Red River. In one of his letters, Crockett wrote that he sampled the nectar of bees at a campsite he named Honey Grove. But the trail down to San Antonio was dangerous so he circled back east and came in on Texas 21, The King’s Highway.
There is no doubt he died at the Alamo. Some say Crockett and others surrendered but, even so, memoirist José Enrique de la Peña recounted in his diary that “these unfortunates died without … humiliating themselves before their torturers.”
Crockett loved his family. He stood up for what he believed. He supported the little man. He believed Native Americans were treated unfairly. He died in a battle against Santa Anna, one of the world’s worst dictators. A child of the American Revolution, Crockett was the last of a breed.
Though Crockett died at the Alamo, his legacy holds on. In a Rivard Report article, the first UNESCO representative to speak in support of the Missions as a World Heritage Site explained why he remembered the Alamo.
“I am of a generation that has Davy Crockett as a hero,” Amb. Khalil Karam, the representative from Lebanon, quipped. “Now we know that the Alamo has these other Missions.”
The man, the myth, the legend, lives on.
“Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wide Frontier
King of the Wild Frontier.”
*Featured/top image: Crockett epitomizes the “Spirit of Sacrifice” on the downtown cenotaph by sculptor Pompeo Coppini. Photo by Don Mathis.