Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free,
Raised in the woods so's he knew ev'ry tree,
Kilt him a b'ar1 when he was only three.
– The Ballad of Davy Crockett, lyrics by Tom Blackburn, music by George Bruns
America in the 1950s: land of upward social mobility, land of the Red Scare2, land of civil religion and historical myth. It was also the land where millions of little boys perched before their black-and-white televisions, waiting for the Indian to disappear as the set warmed up, wearing the coonskin caps they'd begged Santa for – complete with ringed tail, of course – humming the theme song above in anticipation of an episode in the first mini-series in media history3. Davy Crockett's legend was reborn.
In that legend, of course, were what Mark Twain, himself legendary, had called 'some stretchers'4. David Crockett did not kill a bear when he was three – he was eight, by some accounts, it was a bear cub, and he soon realised his mistake when the mother bear came after him. But he was the sort of hero any boy or girl5 could be proud of: woodsman in a time when the frontier was just west of the Cumberland Gap, soldier in the War of 18126, two-term Congressman, entertaining storyteller, and – last but not least – Alamo martyr.
The legend of Davy Crockett has occupied the American imagination for almost two centuries. But the man himself is more interesting than his legend. His family history, from the Court of Versailles to Cork to the American frontier, is an illuminating American journey. His own life – one of self-reliance, honesty, and determination against odds – sheds light onto what it was like to grow up in the early American republic.
Antoine de Crocketagne and His Heirs
Crockett's ancestry begins in France, where Antoine Desasure Perronette de Crocketagne (b 1643), second in command to the household troops of King Louis XIV, made the serious mistake of becoming a Protestant. In 1672, shortly after the birth of his first son, he had to flee the country with the other Huguenots. After a brief stay in England, he settled in Cork, Ireland, where his other children were born – including, in 1676, Joseph Louis, the direct ancestor of Davy Crockett. Possibly to avoid drawing attention to himself as a Frenchman, possibly because the Irish couldn't pronounce the moniker, de Crocketagne changed his name to Crockett. Joseph Louis Crockett married a girl from Donegal, and the two of them emigrated to Virginia in around 1708.
Joseph Louis' great-grandson John fought in the decisive Battle of King's Mountain in the War of American Independence. While John and his brothers were away, their family was killed by Indians, with the exception of two small brothers and a sister – who was scalped, but survived. John and his family crossed the Great Smoky Mountains into the Tennessee territory, where John became a magistrate, commissioner of roads, and eventually a mill owner and tavern keeper. In 1786, his son David was born as the fifth of nine children in a log cabin7 near the Nolichucky River – not, perhaps, quite on the mountain top8, but certainly in the hill country9.
King of the Wild Frontier
At the end of the 18th Century, Tennessee was the western frontier. The territory, which stretched from the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the fertile banks of the Mississippi in the west, has been described as a veritable paradise – deep woods, plentiful game, fertile farmland. In those days, the chestnut-filled woods provided ample fodder for livestock, fish crowded the streams, berries dripped from bushes in early summer. New settlers were coming, and there was opportunity for hard-working men and women.
The frontier had its dangers, as well – Indian relations were touchy and tribal wars always a possibility. The local wildlife was not entirely of the benign variety. Aside from poisonous snakes, there were bears to watch out for, and the 'painter' or mountain lion, whose chilling cry meant that it was too late, the creature had already stalked you and found its prey10.
In 1790, the first US census revealed that one-half the population was under the age of 16. David grew up fast in a country where children did not remain children long. At 12, he went on an extended cattle drive to Virginia, and did not return home for two years. At 15, he worked to rescue his father from a crippling debt11. At 16, determined to educate himself, he contracted to work for two days a week in order to study the remaining four – in this way he obtained the 100 days of schooling that made up the sum total of his formal education. Before he was 20, he was married and beginning a family.
For Crockett, hunting was not a sport. It was food, and clothing, and a living when times were hard, which was often, as he was unlucky in business. The year his first bid for Congress failed, he had better luck in the woods – he shot 105 bears that winter.
The dangers Crockett faced in his life were many - in the wars, hostile Indians and the British; in peace, bears, malaria, and raging rivers (he almost drowned in the Mississippi once, and he lost all the barrel staves he'd hoped to sell). In the end, the political dangers may have proved the most deadly.
Fixin' Up the Government
Let your tongue speak what your heart thinks
– David Crockett
As a woodsman, Crockett was a legend in his own time. As a politician, he was an engaging raconteur. He won his first election, not by making speeches, but by telling stories. A likeable man, his quick wit was notorious – when his opponent's speech was interrupted by the cackling of guinea hens, he claimed that they were saying 'Crockett! Crockett!'
Washington insiders of the day were alternately alarmed and amused at the invasion of frontiersmen who followed Andrew Jackson12 into the capital. Universal (white) male suffrage had brought a new breed of politician – war heroes, savvy, commonsense fellows with none of the aristocrat about them. Crockett cut quite a figure there – but he couldn't completely follow Jackson.
Crockett said what he thought. And what he thought was that Jackson was wrong about a lot of things – giving land to speculators instead of common men, forcing the Cherokee out of their homeland, high-handedly wielding power to suit himself and his cronies, spending money that belonged to the people. Crockett said, 'It was expected of me that I was to bow to the name of Andrew Jackson... even at the expense of my conscience and judgement. Such a thing was new to me, and a total stranger to my principles.' When it was clear that failure to toe the party line might cost him his seat in Congress, he said, 'I would rather be beaten and be a man than to be elected and be a little puppy dog.' When he lost his bid for re-election, he told his constituents, 'You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.'
Following the Sun
We must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living.
– David Crockett
We know Crockett went to Texas. He went there with the other Jackson opponents. He was in the Alamo13 along with Bowie and Travis. What we don't know is how he died there – some said he surrendered and was executed by Santa Anna, but most believe the story that he died fighting, surrounded by Mexican corpses, his knife buried in the body of the last enemy soldier. Antoine de Crocketagne, lieutenant of the king's guard, would have expected no less of his kin. We would expect no less of a legend.
Even in his own day, Crockett was legendary – partly fueled by word of mouth, partly by his own engaging personality. Two years before his death, he published his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett. In his book, Crockett related, in a natural style that would be the envy of many a better-educated writer, the most hair-raising adventures as if they were everyday occurrences – which, to him, they were:
I worked on with my hands till the bears got fat, and then I turned out to hunting, to lay in a supply of meat. I soon killed and salted down as many as were necessary for my family; but about this time one of my old neighbours, who had settled down on the lake about twenty-five miles from me, came to my house and told me he wanted me to go down and kill some bears about in his parts. He said they were extremely fat, and very plenty. I know'd that when they were fat, they were easily taken, for a fat bear can't run fast or long. But I asked a bear no favours, no way, further than civility, for I now had eight large dogs, and as fierce as painters; so that a bear stood no chance at all to get away from them. So I went home with him, and then went on down towards the Mississippi, and commenced hunting...
In 1836, Davy Crockett was gone, his ashes scattered in Texas, whither most of his family went shortly after to claim their land grants from a grateful new Republic. The bears breathed more easily, and the painters crept once again undisturbed through the Tennessee woods – but the legend lived on.
And down through the days, small children would don their coonskin caps and run through their dull suburban neighbourhoods brandishing their cap-guns, dreaming of the time when their staid world of brick and mortar was a green wilderness and a log cabin a perfectly fine family home, singing the song about the 'king of the wild frontier' and wishing they were 'huntin' b'ars with Davy'.
For Further Reading
A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is available for reading online. Warning: the other book on the same site, Colonel Crockett's Adventures in Texas, is a clumsy fiction penned by a Philadelphia lawyer to capitalise on Crockett's fame.