By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Last September, I wrote a Sweethearts post about the State Fair of Texas. While visiting the fairgrounds with my family, we saw an exhibit about Texas heroes. Among the heroes included in this exhibit was the now legendary Davy Crockett.
My journey led me to the one historical resource that I found most intriguing and trusted for accuracy, an 1834 autobiography written by Crockett himself. One of the first things I noted was that he never went by the nickname “Davy”, but used David Crockett throughout his lifetime. The nickname, right along with the coonskin cap and notion (as popularized by the Disney theme song) that he killed a bear when just three years old, have become part of the mythology connected with this man.
When I read the story of Crockett’s life written by his own hand, I soon learned that even in 1834 he was aware that stories were being told about him that just weren’t true. Some were exaggerations about his appearance and preconceived notions about his intelligence, or blatant lies being perpetuated by political rivals. In the preface of his book, ‘A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee’, Crockett made a point to state why he chose to write a book about himself. “A publication has been made to the world, which has done me much injustice; and the catchpenny errors which it contains, have been already too long sanctioned by my silence.” He then conveys that he is aware of a curiosity about him, which when compounded by the erroneous statements about him as a person made him more of a caricature than a human being.
I must confess that 176 years after his death, I also wanted to get a peep at him—but beyond the larger than life folklore and misty myths. I wanted to get to know DAVID CROCKETT – the real man who lived and died – from boyhood to adulthood. I wanted to see beyond the image of a coonskin cap wearing mountain man that has become iconic imagery, and feel as if I were sitting down and talking with him in person. I felt I was able to do that by his reading his words about his life.
Ask any Texan and they will proudly tell you that Davy Crockett was a famous frontiersman and one of the valiant heroes who fought and died at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. There is even a famous painting of him brandishing his rifle “Betsy” like a club at soldiers of General Santa Ana’s army because he had no more ammunition.
Yet, even this image, so deeply embedded in the minds and hearts of many Texans—and even portrayed in several motion pictures on the subject—has been subject to scrutiny by historians and scholars over the years. Although I can well understand the historical significance of the battle and its moment-by-moment sequence of events, does it really matter at what time and how Davy Crockett died? The fact remains Col. David Crockett fought bravely, just as he had done many times throughout his life—and died a true hero. In my opinion, the focus should not be on how he died, but rather how this man lived.
David Crockett was the fifth of six sons born to John Crockett and Rebecca Hawkins on 17 August 1786. His father, of Irish heritage, also served as a soldier in the American Revolution. After the war, John Crockett settled in eastern Tennessee, along with his parents and siblings. Those were dangerous, brutal times, and both of John Crockett’s parents were killed in their home by Creek Indians. John Crockett’s brother, Joseph, was wounded in the attack, but escaped. However, a younger, disabled brother named James was taken prisoner. His fate would not be known until “seventeen years and nine months” later when John Crockett, and his elder brother William found him. They purchased their younger brother from an Indian trader, and James Crockett was returned to relatives. In 1834, when David Crockett wrote his autobiography, his Uncle James was alive and living in Cumberland County, Kentucky.
John Crockett was a farmer and very poor. In addition to their six sons, John and Rebecca Crockett also had three daughters. There is no question the family endured harsh, difficult lives in the wilderness of Tennessee. However, it should be noted that when David Crockett cites his earliest childhood memory, it had nothing to do with killing a bear as a toddler.
Rather, Crockett states: “…to show how soon I began to be a sort of a little man, I have endeavoured to take the back track of life, in order to fix on the first thing I can remember.” He then shares with the reader his earliest memory of playing with his four older brothers by a riverbank, along with a 15-year old neighbor boy. The older boys left David on the shore as they went out on the river in his father’s canoe. David (who recalls being too young to even wear breeches at the time) watched—not at all happy they had left him behind. He recollected watching them then steer themselves into great danger, and how a neighbor saw the canoe headed toward the rapids and proceeded to strip and jump in the river to save them. The neighbor was able to intervene and bring the frightened boys (with their father’s canoe) safely back to shore. Yet, even the sight of the life-threatening drama did not ease young David’s indignation. Rather, he felt they got what they deserved for leaving him behind on shore.
This is not only the first memory Crockett shares, but conveys his stubborn streak and desire for adventure very early in childhood. This desire for adventure would become a constant thread in David’s life. Because they were extremely poor, struggling to survive, the Crockett children worked with their father from an early age on the family farm. Schooling was not possible at this time for them. However, like most men, John Crockett wanted to improve his situation in life and provide better for his family.
When David was about seven, the family moved to the mouth of Cove creek where his father joined with a business partner to build a mill. In his book, Crockett related, “They went on very well with their work until it was nigh done, when there came the second epistle to Noah’s fresh, and away went their mill, shot, lock, and barrel. I remember the water rose so high, that it got up into the house we lived in, and my father moved us out of it, to keep us from being drowned.“
The Crockett family next moved to Jefferson County, where John Crockett opened a tavern on the road from Abbingdon to Knoxville (pictured).
Thinking the work experience might help his son learn an occupation, especially since at 12 years of age David Crockett still could not read or write, his father allowed the Dutchman to hire his son just for the journey. Having never lived away from his parents, young David left on a four hundred mile journey by foot with someone he’d never met before. “I set out with a heavy heart,” David Crockett wrote. He conveys that though the journey was not of his choosing, he did it out of obedience to his father. There was just one problem. When the journey ended, the Dutchman persuaded David to stay with him. The continued offer of employment was confusing to the 12-year old. As to the dilemma he faced, Crockett wrote: “I had been taught so many lessons of obedience by my father, that I at first supposed I was bound to obey this man, or at least I was afraid openly to disobey him; and I therefore staid with him…”
Still, the boy longed for home, despite the brave front he showed his employer. And a month later, chance offered him an opportunity to go home. David happened to see three wagons while playing by the road near his employer, and recognized the drivers. He struck up a conversation with them and when he learned they were going to Knoxville, he told Mr. Dunn of his situation and that he wanted to go home. Mr. Dunn told him that they would be spending the night at a tavern seven miles distance,and that if David could get to them by the next morning, they would take him home. Mr. Dunn further added that if David was scared, he would protect him. Such acts of kindness from people who often helped David Crockett in his life was something he never forgot, and would have a profound effect on the compassionate man he would become.
The longing to be back home with his parents was so strong, that David returned to his employer’s house and gathered his meager belongings, stowing them under the head of his bed. “I went to bed early that night, but sleep seemed to be a stranger to me. For though I was a wild boy, yet I dearly loved my father and mother, and their images appeared to be so deeply fixed in my mind, that I could not sleep for thinking of them.”
Three hours before dawn, this 12-year old boy began his trek—in a blinding snowstorm—to reach Mr. Dunn seven miles away by the designated time. Here is our next insight to David Crockett the man. From an early age, he possessed courage and determination. When he set his mind to something, he did it. “I had not even the advantage of moonlight, and the whole sky was hid by the falling snow, so that I had to guess at my way…”. He continues, “…the earth was covered about as deep as my knees; and my tracks filled so briskly after me, that by daylight, my Dutch master could have seen no trace which I left.”
He reached the tavern in time, and Mr. Dunn treated him with care and kindness. “My heart was more deeply impressed by meeting such a friend, and ‘at such a time’, than by wading the snow-storm at night, or all the other sufferings which my mind had endured.”
David Crockett returned to the warm embrace of his family; in the fall, he attended a country school for the first time in his life. However, four days later, David had an altercation with a much bigger, older boy. Having taken just about as much as he could, David waited in the bushes and when the bully was walking home from school, he leapt out and began to give the older boy ‘salt and vinegar’. Thus, is unveiled the next aspect of David Crockett’s personality. He’d always had a longing for education, and recognized that he lacked book learning. However, he deeply resented when people assumed that because he was poor and had no formal schooling that he was not intelligent.
It would be several years before David returned home again. He traveled from Tennessee to Baltimore, and worked for farmers, waggoners, and even a hatter in Virginia. He even came close to becoming a cabin boy on a ship bound for London. There’s that love of adventure again. And, without question, he had a strong work ethic. But once more he missed his loved ones. Not knowing what type of welcome he would receive, or if his father was still angry with him, a now 15-year old David Crockett entered his father’s tavern with a group of waggoners who had stopped for the night. But he’d grown up so much, no one recognized him. So, in silence, he sat and watched his family—soaking up the sight of them again. It was not until everyone was called to supper, and he sat down at the table, that his eldest sister recognized him. Just like the parable of the Prodigal Son, she jumped up and ran and hugged him, exclaiming, “Here is my lost brother!”
Crockett wrote of the incident as follows: “The joy of my sisters and my mother, and, indeed, of all the family, was such that it humbled me, and made me sorry that I hadn’t submitted to a hundred whippings, sooner than cause so much affliction as they had suffered on my account.”
While home again, he worked hard to help his father, and even indentured himself to two different men to pay off debts his father had owed. Not long after these notes were paid, David developed his first crush on a pretty Quaker girl, the niece of his last employer. When he learned she was engaged to another man, he felt his lack of schooling was an impediment to proving his worth as a prospective suitor for any woman. He contracted to work for another Quaker man who kept a school a few miles away. In exchange for going to school four days a week, David worked the other two days to pay his board and the cost for schooling. The total of six months learning he received during this time would be the only schooling David Crockett ever had.
He eventually became engaged to a beautiful but conniving female who two-timed him and promised to also marry another man. He became very depressed and began to think there might be something wrong with him. He even confided to some neighbors, a Dutch widow and her daughter, about his fears. The kindly daughter told him if he would come to a reaping scheduled very soon, she would introduce him to the “one of the prettiest little girls” he would ever see. Although skeptical, David attended and brought several friends with him. Not only did he find Mary “Polly” Finlay more beautiful, she was "sweeter than sugar". He courted her and they married on 12 August 1806.
A daughter named Margaret would be born in 1812. Then, on 29 August 1813, Chief Red Eagle and his Creek warriors attacked Fort Mims and massacred over 500 men, women, and children. Thus began the Indian Wars, and David Crockett volunteered to fight in the militia. His young wife begged him not to go. She was now a stranger in a part of the backwoods country where they lived, and had no family or friends there.
“It was mighty hard to go against such arguments as these”, Crockett wrote, "but my countrymen had been murdered, and I knew that the next thing would be, that the Indians would be scalping the women and children all about there, if we didn’t put a stop to it. I reasoned the case with her as well as I could, and told her, that if every man would wait till his wife got willing for him to go to war, there would be no fighting done, until we would all be killed in our own houses; that I was as able to go as any man in the world; and that I believed it was a duty I owed my country."
He returned home after the war ended, and worked his farm. But, tragedy would pierce his heart on 11 Jun 1815. Crockett writes, “Death, that cruel leveler of all distinctions,--to whom the prayers and tears of husbands, and of even helpless infancy, are addressed in vain,--entered my humble cottage, and tore from my children an affectionate good mother, and from me a tender and loving wife.” He goes on to poignantly share his emotional turmoil, devastation and his need to trust in God, “whose ways are always right, though we sometimes think they fall heavily on us; and as painful as is even yet the remembrance of her sufferings, and the loss sustained by my little children and myself, yet I have no wish to lift up the voice of complaint. I was left with three children; the two oldest were sons, the youngest a daughter, and, at that time, a mere infant.”
Unable to bear the thought of “scattering his children”, Crockett realized he needed to marry again. His second wife was Elizabeth Patton, a widow whose husband had been killed in the Indian Wars. She also had a son and daughter, close in age to Crockett’s children. David and Elizabeth would remain married until his death in 1836, and have three children together: Robert Patton Crockett, Rebecca Crockett, and Matilda Crockett.
Crockett would eventually relocate to Shoals Creek for 2-3 years. Since there was no law in this deep backwoods area, the need to establish a form of government found David Crockett appointed one of the magistrates. This position eventually led Crockett to the state Legislature, and eventually to Congress. Without question, the rise of David Crockett from an illiterate, uneducated backwoods frontiersman to a popular and respected member of Congress was a remarkable journey. He was truly a man of the people, and felt a serious obligation to those people who believed in him and voted him into office. As a result, he cared not for party loyalties but followed his own conscience and sense of right and wrong. In fact, it was ultimately this innate honesty and strength of character which made him stand up against the Indian Bill of President Andrew Jackson.
[Pictured: President Andrew Jackson]
Other members of Congress even told Crockett he would be ‘ruining himself’ since the Indian Bill was a “favourite” measure of the president.
In 1834, Crockett wrote: “I told them I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure, and that I should go against it, let the cost to myself be what it might. I voted against this Indian bill, and my conscience yet tells me that I gave a good honest vote, and one that I believe will not make me ashamed in the day of judgment.”
When his term ended, Crockett left Washington, D.C., and went home to Tennessee. Almost immediately, measures were taken by the media, politicians, and “pin-hook lawyers” to try and discredit him, his character, and destroy his political future. He writes in his autobiography that to go against President Jackson at that time was, “considered an unpardonable sin”.
It is ironic to compare the media manipulation and corruption we so often find common in politics today and the striking realities of its existence and influence in the early part of the 19th century. All too often we tend to look through rose-colored glasses on the past. We fail to realize there were men even then who cared more for power and political careers than the best interest of the nation they were elected to serve and protect.
Today, President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Bill is remembered for its cruel persecution of Native Americans, and the shame it brought to the United States. In what became known as the “Trail of Tears”, the president’s ‘favourite’ Indian Bill ordered the “forced relocation” of Native American Indians from their home lands to the Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma). Many died from exposure, starvation, and disease. In fact, 4,000 of the 15,000 members of the Cherokee nation died on the journey.
Ultimately, it was a combination of many things that led David Crockett to Texas in 1836. He had become disgusted with Washington, D.C., and the corruptive partisan politics that all too often had little regard for what the people of the United States wanted. And when we remember his strong work ethic, love of adventure, and determination to provide a better life for himself and his family, clearly, the promise of adventure, opportunity, and freedom in a new frontier beckoned him to Texas.
David Crockett was 49 years old when he died during the Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836. Without question, he died a hero, fighting with honor to the very end. But, it is important to also remember him as a flesh and blood man—just like the other men at the mission. He knew poverty and hunger, and had fought for survival most all his life. Whether walking knee-deep in snow to get home, working as an indentured servant to help his beloved father, or years later braving icy, swollen rivers to feed his family and neighbors in the dead of winter. It was the sum total of his hopes, dreams, beliefs, and lifetime experiences that ultimately brought David Crockett to Texas.
A devoted son and brother, he was also a trusted friend and caring human being. A loving husband and father, he experienced joy and heartache, as well as the worry, fear and determination to do whatever was necessary to provide for his family. He was a patriot who loved his country and was ever willing to fight and die for freedom. At the same time, he was not afraid to stand his ground—alone, if need be—and disagree with the President of the United States when he knew something was unjust and wrong. He faced numerous struggles, illness, and adversity with a positive attitude, determination to persevere, and good humor. He was a self-taught man who repeatedly proved his insightful intelligence and wit. He loved and respected nature, as well as the elements. Most of all, he was a man of faith who believed the principles of honesty, fairness, and compassion—especially toward those in need—were of greatest value in a man’s life.
Thank you for stopping by and reading my post about the ‘real’ David Crockett. I hope you enjoyed it, and truly appreciate your taking the time to visit. ~ AKB
A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee (1834) by: David Crockett
[Entered according to the Act of Congress, in the year 1834, BY DAVID CROCKETT,
In the Clerk’s Office of the District Office of the District of Columbia]