Monday, August 17, 2015

Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier

He wasn't born on a mountaintop in Tennessee (it was the Republic of Franklin then) nor did he kilt him a b'ar when he was only three; he was eight. But Davy, Davy Crockett, was better than the song. He hunted bears, fought for his people in politics, and fought and died for freedom itself at the Alamo. He was pure populist who knew firsthand the problems the poor faced. He fought alongside Andrew Jackson on the battlefield, and against him at the ballot box -- and won.

Born on August 17, 1786, in what is now Limestone, Tennessee, Crockett's family were poor white settlers looking for land on which to build a better future.

During the Revolutionary War, Crockett's father fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain in North Carolina as part of an Appalachian regiment known as the Overmountain Men. The battle was the Patriot response to British Major Patrick Ferguson's demand that they lay down their arms. The Overmountain Men used the steep slope of the mountain to their advantage, as they suffered 29 killed but killed 10 times as many British and American Loyalists. This caused Cornwallis to quit North Carolina.

Davy was named for his paternal grandfather. Crockett's father taught him to hunt when he was eight. Life on the frontier was rough and the family frequently had to move on. For example, Crockett's father invested in a gristmill, which a flood wiped out. In 1795, Crockett's father declared bankruptcy and lost everything. He built a tavern. When Crockett was 12, his father hired him out as an indentured servant to help pay his bills.

But Crockett was a lively character. His father taught him to hunt at eight and he became a prolific bear hunter with his legend likely enhanced by his storytelling. Running for Congress in 1834, Crockett wrote, "Bear Hunting in Tennessee," a delightful tale of hunting bears with his dogs complete with a confrontation with a bear and one cold, cold night.

"I suffered very much that night with cold, as my leather breeches, and every thing else I had on, was wet and frozen. But I managed to get my bear out of this crack after several hard trials, and so I butchered him, and laid down to try to sleep. But my fire was very bad, and I couldn't find any thing that would burn well to make it any better; and I concluded I should freeze, if I didn't warm myself in some way by exercise. So I got up, and hollered a while, and then I would just jump up and down with all my might, and throw myself into all sorts of motions. But all this wouldn't do; for my blood was now getting cold, and the chills coming all over me. I was so tired, too, that I could hardly walk; but I thought I would do the best I could to save my life, and then, if I died, nobody would be to blame. So I went to a tree about two feet through, and not a limb on it for thirty feet, and I would climb up it to the limbs, and then lock my arms together around it, and slide down to the bottom again. This would make the insides of my legs and arms feel mighty warm and good. I continued this till daylight in the morning, and how often I clomb up my tree and slid down I don't know, but I reckon at least a hundred times," Crockett wrote.

In all, he killed 105 bears that year.

We had a better Congress when you had to kill 105 bears to get in.

But he first served the nation by joining Jackson's Tennessee Militia following the Fort Mims massacre in Alabama on August 30, 1813, which triggered the Creek War against the Creek Indians. Jackson later took the unit (and a little bacon and a little beans) to New Orleans where they fought alongside the pirate Jean Lafitte and the Choctaw Indians against the British. But that was one battle Crockett missed.

After the Creek War, Crockett moved his family to Lawrence County, Tennessee, where he held his first public office on the commission that set the county lines. In 1817, the state appointed him a justice of the peace and the next year, the troops elected him lieutenant colonel of the 57th Regiment of Tennessee Militia.

His political career took off when, at age 35, the people elected him to the Tennessee legislature where he became a supporter of William Carroll, a man of the people who stood tall against the special interest groups.

Carroll was Jackson' right-hand man in the Battle of New Orleans, but after a business setback -- Carroll was part of a group that brought the first steamboat to Nashville -- the General Jackson -- Carroll took on the state's political elite, which now included Jackson. Crockett sided with Carroll, who won 32,290 votes to 7,294. He would run for governor five more times -- unopposed. No one has served longer as governor of Tennessee and likely no governor was more beloved. His land tax reform benefited small farmers and he worked to make county offices elected instead of appointed. This was part of the state's new constitution passed in 1834. Oddly enough, he ran for governor a seventh and final time after its passage and lost, 41,970 to 31,205.

Meanwhile, Crockett's own political career was strictly populist. He fought for tax relief for the poor and also to straighten out the state's convoluted land grant program which always seemed to benefit the elites at the expense of poor. He knew the problems they faced. Days after the election in 1821, a flood of the Tennessee River wiped out Crockett's businesses. His father-in-law bailed him out of his debts.

Crockett used humor and tall tales on the campaign trail. He could parody an opponent to great effect. He had plentiful charm and charisma.

After an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1824, the people elected him in 1826 on the Jacksonian ticket, but two years later he ran and won as an anti-Jacksonian candidate -- in a year in which Jackson first won election to the presidency. Crockett opposed Jackson's efforts to relocate Indians in the South to reservations west of the Mississippi, a move that opened Indian lands to the growing of cotton.

Crockett lost the next election, won the one after that, and lost again. In 1835 he packed up and moved to Texas. He liked Texas. On January 9, 1836 he wrote a daughter back in Tennessee: "I would rather be in my present situation than to be elected to a seat in Congress for life."

Five days later, Crockett enlisted in the Texas militia. He was 49. On February 23, 1836, Santa Anna lay siege on the Alamo. On March 6, 1836, Crockett was among the last Texians to die in the Battle of the Alamo. A former American slave named Ben, who was Santa Anna's cook, said that Crockett's body was found in the barracks surrounded by "no less than 16 Mexican corpses," with Crockett's knife buried in one of them. I believe it. What do you expect from a man who fought bears?

He was a simple man. Surrender was not part of his vocabulary.

As lyricist James W. Blackburn wrote more than a century after Crockett's death:
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
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wide Frontier
King of the Wild Frontier. 

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. There's a nice monument to Crockett in Ozona, Texas.

  2. Grist mill wiped out--The Perils of Hydro-Power!

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