DAVID CROCKETT—SOUTHERN INDIVIDUALIST
By Roger Busbice
As recent biographer Buddy Levy has emphasized, David Crockett of Tennessee was the quintessential American hero: Frontiersman, scout, hunter, explorer, soldier, farmer, legislator, failed entrepreneur, popular congressman, unpopular congressman, a walking legend, and, ultimately, a martyr to the cause of liberty. Crockett was a quick-witted, self-educated, humorist with a fondness for whiskey and an appreciation for literature. While he was himself the source of one of the great myths of American folklore—a myth mixed with a generous dollop of truth—he was, above all, a realist who knew that life is indeed “nasty, brutish, and short” and that one has an obligation to simply do one’s best. His motto, “Be always sure you are right, then go ahead” was not only a personal guidepost but can still serve as excellent advice for individuals and nations today.
David Crockett was literally “born on a mountaintop in Tennessee” near Limestone Creek in 1786. The Scots-Irish Crockett family was typical of the “over the mountain” frontier stock who were populating what would soon become the state of Tennessee. They were dirt poor, constantly in debt, and separated by a vast gulf from the refinements of civilization. Education was haphazard and, to young David, seemed both boring and confining. Playing hooky seemed logical to a boy living in the wilderness who loved to hunt. David’s father, John Crockett, however learned of the incipient rebellion against schooling just after downing some potent home-distilled whiskey and charged after his son armed with a club. The adolescent David wisely fled from home and embarked on a series of part-time jobs which took him as far as Baltimore.
Three years later, deciding that it was safe to come home, David returned to east Tennessee and slipped into the small family tavern which his father now operated. Eventually recognized by a sister, he was welcomed back into the fold and soon began working to help his father pay off numerous debts. In his limited spare time, David used a borrowed rifle to hunt in the wooded ravines and on the hilltops near his home. As his skill increased, his range expanded and soon David knew every hill and hollow in his part of Tennessee. Deer, rabbits, and squirrels fell to his marksmanship on a regular basis. David Crockett’s game of choice, however, was bear and many are the stories of his prowess as a bear hunter. Many of what are perceived to be legends of his hunting ability are in fact fundamentally true accounts of extraordinary skill and courage mingled with a bit of showmanship. One example will suffice: Later in life, and in a different region of Tennessee, David’s hunting dogs surrounded a huge and ill-tempered black bear. Wounded, the bear retreated into a deep and narrow ravine just as darkness fell, and Crockett had no choice but to go in after him. Unable to use his rifle, he jabbed the bear with an impromptu cane spear and then, as the dogs distracted the animal, he carefully felt for the infuriated bear’s shoulder. Locating his target, Crockett used his hunting knife to stab through the animal’s heart.
In 1806, David Crockett married the love of his life Polly Finley and the couple set out on their own. Moving into the south-central area of Middle Tennessee, the Crocketts followed the economic prospects provided by game and by farming. Eventually, they settled in Franklin County, Tennessee near Bean’s Creek and close to Paint Rock in what is now Alabama. Crockett had begun his efforts in the realm of self-improvement and was slowly honing his reading skills. Familiar with the exploits of another hunter, Daniel Boone, he named his cabin and property “Kentuck” or, more colloquially, “Kaintuck”.
The Crockett home was, of course, perched on the edge of the ever-expanding American frontier. Settlers pushing westward had entered the lands of the Creek Indians who lived primarily in central and southern Alabama and along the western border of Georgia. As always, the waves of settlers cared little for the treaties and agreements that had previously “guaranteed” Indian rights and property. The Creeks, deeply disturbed by the influx of American pioneers, were also influenced by the brilliant rhetoric of the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh who declared that only a militant confederation of tribes could stop American aggression. In late August, 1812, Creek warriors led by William Weatherford and known as the “Red Sticks” attacked and massacred over two hundred settlers and militiamen, including many fellow Creeks, at Fort Mims on the Alabama River near Mobile. What the Americans called the Creek War, a southern sub-division of the War of 1812, had begun.
Tennessee became the “Volunteer State” as thousands joined the militia or independent ranger companies to avenge Fort Mims. Among the Tennessee volunteers was David Crockett who soon found himself with his compatriots in the forests and marshes of northern Alabama. Joined by militia from other Southern states, by friendly Creeks and Cherokees, and by a small number of United States Regulars, the Tennesseans were commanded by Andrew Jackson whose slightly disguised hatred of Indians was only superseded by his completely undisguised hatred of the British. Crockett and many of his friends and neighbors served as scouts and foragers for the American army which seemed to be eternally short of provisions. His hunting ability was considered remarkable and his ability, and that of his fellow frontiersmen, to provide for large numbers of soldiers enabled many to survive the campaign.
Crockett was disturbed by much of what he experienced during the Creek War. As Levy and others have pointed out, as a frontiersman with a conscience, he had a natural sympathy and empathy for the Creeks and the other tribes. Crockett generally viewed the Indians as independent-minded hunters who merely wanted to be left alone with their families and friends to live as they had for generations. He regarded them as individuals who were fighting, with great courage, to preserve what little they had. In short, Crockett considered the Indians to be much like himself.
Furthermore, David Crockett found the apparent tyranny and absurdity of army life to be unsettling. Andrew Jackson, while a “man of the people”, was hot-tempered and dictatorial. “Old Hickory” brooked no opposition and permitted no contradictions and considered simple disagreement to be tantamount to treason. Many of Jackson’s officers did not pretend to hold any egalitarian sentiments and, instead, thought of themselves as an American aristocracy destined to command—and to govern—by virtue of birth, wealth, and privilege. To David Crockett this ran counter to everything he felt and everything he believed. The Creek were decisively defeated at Horseshoe Bend in 1814, and Crockett and many of the other Tennessee volunteers then marched westward to assist Jackson at New Orleans but arrived too late to participate in the battle.
Crockett eagerly returned to his cabin but his homecoming was tragically marred by the death of his wife Polly in 1815. Needing a mother for his children and a manager for his farm and various business enterprises, he married Elizabeth Patton, a widow with two children, the next year. In 1817, they moved west to Lawrence County where Crockett became a prominent member of the community. He served as a justice of the peace, became a colonel in the local militia, and built a grist mill and a distillery. In 1821, he was elected as a member of the Tennessee state legislature.
However, in a Southern Calvinist sort of way, the Crockett family seemed predestined to much bad luck. Floods destroyed both mill and distillery and, like his father before him, Crockett was plagued by debt and bankruptcy. The family abandoned their homestead and moved to West Tennessee where David Crockett sought a new beginning. In what became Gibson County, he was again elected to the legislature, and soon earned a name for himself as the spokesman for “squatter rights”. Crockett, above all, wanted to secure land ownership for the people of the frontier and to halt the development schemes of the land speculators and the professional politicians. His genuine concern for the common man, and his recollections of the Creek War, eventually made Crockett a bitter enemy of Andrew Jackson’s quasi-populist political machine.
Meanwhile, in the words of Buddy Levy, David Crockett was truly becoming one of the very first American celebrities. His business failures were forgiven by a public that was increasingly entranced by the burgeoning legend of “Davy Crockett the hunter, the marksman, and the Indian fighter”. In the aftermath of the War of 1812 and, especially, the dramatic American victory in the Battle of New Orleans, a new sense of nationalism permeated the country. There was a thirst for heroes—the more uniquely American, the better. Andrew Jackson benefited from this developing creation of an American mythology and, even more so, did David Crockett. Unlike Jackson, however, he not only was born poor, he remained poor. Crockett was self-taught, self-reliant, and self-confident. He was an individualist but he clearly recognized his role and his duties in the community. He was “a born story-teller” and the proverbial “life of the party” but, most importantly, his stories and tall-tales were matched by his deeds.
Crockett the man and Crockett the myth merged in the American psyche. In a broad sense, Crockett would open the door to the romance of the “Wild West”, and in their dreams children throughout North America and Europe would envision deep and dark forests where danger and adventure were ever present and heroes protected the weak from evil. In a more specific sense, Crockett recognized the political advantages inherent in becoming a legend in his own time. In 1826, he was elected to the United States Congress as the “Gentleman from the Cane”—the representative of the back country. Reelected in 1828, Crockett crusaded for a land bill that would enable squatters and settlers on the Tennessee frontier to secure ownership of the land they had claimed from the wilderness and defended against Indians, outlaws, and speculators. Time after time, however, the Andrew Jackson “Democrats” cut the ground out from under Crockett’s proposals. Jackson and his allies were speculators themselves and had no desire to see a genuine “democracy of ownership” take root in the west.
When Jackson became president, Crockett, true to his sense of fair play, strongly opposed the Indian Removal Act by which Jackson intended to steal the lands of the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Creek, the Choctaw, and the Seminole for the benefit of his political allies. Crockett’s defense of the tribes, and his enmity to Jackson, was decidedly unpopular in his congressional district but he remained faithful to his own motto: “Be always sure you are right, then go ahead.” In keeping with his belief that Jackson was a morally-corrupt power-seeker, Crockett also opposed the president on the crucial issue of the Bank of the United States which made him one of the primary targets of Jackson’s vindictiveness.
The Indian Removal Act passed in spite of Crockett’s opposition and the result was the infamous “Trail of Tears”. The Bank of the United States was destroyed by Jackson and his allies and corruption became the order of the day. Crockett’s Land Bill seemed forever doomed and the Tennessee congressional delegation avoided association with the “Gentleman from the Cane”. The new anti-Jackson Whig Party offered Crockett support and encouragement but he was never an “organization man” and found that while he agreed with the Whigs on Jackson, he disagreed with them on certain “town versus country” matters. Moreover, the Whigs were not a major factor in Tennessee politics while Andrew Jackson and the Democrats most assuredly were.
In 1830, Crockett was defeated for reelection. Disappointed but unbroken, he concentrated on trying to improve his family’s financial situation by covertly and overtly promoting books, articles, and theatrical performances loosely based on his life as a frontiersman.
Politically, the growing “Crockett legend” paid dividends and he was again elected to Congress in 1832. While his resurrected Land Bill went down to defeat once more, Crockett enhanced his reputation as a defender of common sense and individual liberty with a number of speeches. On one occasion, as a recent article in Liberty magazine described, David Crockett rose to oppose a bill which would have provided federal money to assist the widow of a naval officer. Then, as now, there seemed to be a general assumption that somehow government was supposed to give money to those “in need”. Crockett correctly pointed out:
We have the right as individuals to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money….We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as charity.
As he later elaborated, government is not and should not be a quasi-parent. Individuals should certainly practice charity in their daily lives and through their places of worship, but government was not intended by the Founding Fathers to be a “golden calf” of entitlements, a “cash cow” for the needy and the greedy. In short, David Crockett of Tennessee instinctively understood that a “nanny state” is not charity but corruption and would not help but harm a free society.
Crockett published his official autobiography under the (slightly abbreviated) title A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett in 1834. It was a “publishing event” for the time and there was a triumphant book tour of the East. Supplemental books followed and a David Crockett Almanac was well underway when Crockett was defeated in his 1835 campaign for reelection. Earlier, he had unhesitatingly declared that if the Jacksonians ousted him from Congress, he would join his friend Sam Houston in Texas. Unlike virtually all politicians, Crockett was a man of his word. When the results were in, he informed his constituents, “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”
David Crockett and a few friends and relatives began their journey in late October, 1835. In January, they formally joined the Texas militia which was being mobilized as the Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna prepared to invade the province. Less than a month later, Crockett and his small company entered San Antonio where they were warmly received by James Bowie of Louisiana and William Barrett Travis of Alabama who were, in effect, joint commanders of the fortified mission known as the Alamo. Crockett and his men became part of the Alamo’s small garrison knowing full well that the odds were against them. When Santa Anna’s massive army arrived, it was obvious that there would be neither help nor mercy for the volunteers fighting for the independence of Texas. Crockett, Bowie, Travis, and the others stayed at their posts and fought to the death in the final battle on March 6, 1836. As Travis had promised, during the siege, in his letter to the American people, there was no “surrender or retreat”, and, as always, David Crockett had been true to his word.
In this modern age when heroes are rock stars and basketball players, it is important to note that the men in the Alamo, the men of the American frontier, were not perfect but, by God, they really were heroes. When push came to shove, they sacrificed their lives for the cause of liberty. Perhaps the best definition of a hero is someone who knows that all is lost, knows that he will die, but who fights anyway and dies willingly for something greater than himself. David Crockett of Tennessee was such a hero.
This article, by Society Member Roger Busbice was originally presented at the American Studies Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2006.
Notes Concerning further reading:
Davy Crockett, His Own Story, a autobiography by David Crockett, published in 1834 (reprint available)
American Legend: The Real Life Adventures of David Crockett, by Buddy Levy, published in 2005.
Other recent books that might be of interest:
Three Roads to the Alamo, by William C. Davis, published in 1998 (parallel biographies of David Crockett, James Bowie and William Barett Travis)
David Crockett: The Lion of the West, by Michael Wallis, published in 2011.