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American frontiersman and politician, David “Davy” Crockett became during his own lifetime a celebrity and folk hero, particularly to Americans living in the newly settled midwestern regions of the country. Although he is known chiefly for his exploits as a hunter and soldier, Crockett’s major contributions included political efforts to get free land for frontier settlers, relief for debtors, and an expanded state banking system for Tennessee.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Poverty and Lack of Education in the Early Years
Davy Crockett, the son of John and Rebecca Crockett, was born on August 17,1786, in Hawkings County, East Tennessee. John Crockett failed as a farmer, mill opera tor, and storekeeper. Because of continuing poverty, Davy’s father put him to work driving cattle to Virginia when he was twelve years old. Returning to Tennessee in the winter of 1798, Davy spent five days in school. After a fight there, he played hooky until his father found out and then, to escape punishment, ran away.
Crockett worked and traveled throughout Virginia and did not return home for nearly three years. After deciding that his lack of education limited his marriage possibilities, he arranged to work six months for a nearby Quaker teacher. In return Crockett received four days a week of instruction. He learned to read, to write a little, and to ”cypher some in the first three rules of figures.”
In 1806 Crockett married Mary Finely. Frontier farming proved difficult and unrewarding to Crockett, who enjoyed hunting more than work. After five years he decided to move farther west. By 1813 he had relocated his family to Franklin County, Tennessee.
Shortly after this move, the so-called Creek War began. During the summer of 1813 a party of frontiersmen ambushed a band of Creek Indian warriors in southern Alabama. Settlers in the area gathered at a stockade called Fort Mims. The Native Americans attacked on August 30, 1813, found the garrison undefended, and killed over five hundred people. Within two weeks frontier militia units gathered for revenge, and Crockett volunteered for three months’ duty that year. In September and October he served as a scout. During the famous mutiny against Andrew Jackson in December, Crockett was on leave, and reports that he deserted the militia during the Creek War are unfounded. He served again from September 1814 to February 1815. During this campaign Crockett was a mounted scout and hunter; apparently his unit encountered little fighting.
In 1815 Mary Crockett died. Within a year Crockett remarried. While traveling with neighbors in Alabama to examine the newly opened Creek lands during 1816, he contracted malaria and was left along the road to die. But he recovered and returned to Tennessee, pale and sickly, much to the surprise of his family and neighbors who thought he was dead. He has been quoted as remarking about his reported death, ”I know’d this was a whopper of a lie, as soon as I heard it.”
A Rising Political Star
Davy Crockett had grown to manhood in a backwoods area. He experienced the crudeness and poverty of the frontier squatter and later used this knowledge in his political campaigns. A master storyteller, the semiliterate Crockett proved a formidable political campaigner, as well as the personification of the characters in the frontiersmen’s ”tall tales” of that day. Emerging primarily from American frontier life, tall tales have become foundational elements of American folklore, emphasizing both the humor and strength needed in an individual who would survive difficult wilderness living.
In 1817 Crockett was a justice of the peace and the next year was serving also as a county court referee. In 1818 his neighbors elected him lieutenant colonel of the local militia regiment, and that same year he became one of the Lawrenceburg town commissioners. He held this position until 1821, when he resigned to campaign for a seat in the state legislature. During the campaign Crockett first displayed his shrewd ability to judge the needs of the frontiersmen. He realized that their isolation and need for recreation outweighed other desires. Therefore, he gave short speeches laced with stories, followed by a trip to the ever-present liquor stand—a tactic well received by his audience, who elected him. Having grown to manhood among debt-ridden squatters, Crockett proposed bills to reduce taxes, to settle land claim disputes, and in general to protect the economic interests of the western settlers. Settling the American West was a large concern of the nineteenth century, with many settlers venturing west under the allure of land ownership. Life was extremely difficult under frontier circumstances, but it produced romantic and exaggerated images of adventure and independence.
When the legislative session ended in 1821, Davy went west again, this time to Gibson County, Tennessee, where he built a cabin near the Obion River. Two years later he was elected to the Tennessee Legislature. This victory demonstrates his improved campaign techniques and his realization that anti-aristocratic rhetoric was popular. Again he worked for debtor relief and equitable land laws.
Crockett in Washington
During 1825 Crockett ran for Congress; he campaigned as an anti-tariff man, however, and the incumbent easily defeated him. Two years later Crockett won the election. Throughout his congressional terms he worked for the Tennessee Vacant Land Bill, which he introduced during his first term. This proposal would have offered free land to frontier settlers in return for the increase in value which they would bring about because of their improvements.
In 1829, although he opposed several of President Andrew Jackson’s measures, Crockett’s campaign for reelection as a Jacksonian was successful. But during his second term in Congress, Crockett grew increasingly hostile to Jackson. He opposed the president on issues such as land policy and the Second National Bank. Crockett especially opposed Jackson’s Indian removal policies, the movement in the nineteenth century to purchase land from Native American tribes in the American Southeast under questionable circumstances, and he would become well-known for his congressional debates on this issue. Crockett was defeated in the election of 1831. Two years later he regained his congressional seat by a narrow mar gin. By 1834 he had become such an outspoken critic of Jackson that Whig Party leaders used Crockett as a popular symbol in their anti-Jackson campaigns.
In 1835 Crockett co-authored, along with Thomas Chilton, his autobiographical Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee. At around the same time, several other purported biographies and auto biographies of Crockett appeared. Their purpose was to popularize him and to show that not all frontiersmen supported the Jackson administration. These literary efforts failed to sway most of the voters, and Crockett was defeated in 1835, ending his congressional career.
During his three terms in Washington, Crockett tried to represent the interests of his frontier district. In doing so, he became enmeshed in a dispute with the Tennessee Jackson forces. The continuing fight with this group not only prevented him from making any lasting legislative contributions but also ended his political career.
Death at the Alamo
In 1835 Crockett and four neighbors headed into Texas looking for new land. By January 1836 he had joined the Texas Volunteers and within a month he reached San Antonio. In the first week of March, he and the other defenders of the Alamo died during the siege and capture of that fort. The Battle of the Alamo was part of the war for Texas independence, and although leader Sam Houston ordered Colonel William Travis to surrender the mission to the Mexicans, Houston instead enacted the famous standoff between the Texans and Santa Anna’s Mexican troops. No Texas soldier survived the thirteen-day siege, and the fight led to the famous battle cry ”Remember the Alamo.” Popular tradition places Crockett as one of the last defenders who died protecting the bedridden Travis during the final assault. However, Crockett was in fact one of the first defenders to die, alone and unarmed.
Works in Literary Context
Davy Crockett’s adventures gave him a legendary status during his lifetime and beyond. From real-life exploits to exaggerated tales, Crockett stories have circulated throughout American culture.
Contemporary Stories and Tall Tales
Crockett was known as the ”coonskin congressman” because of his many stories about hunting raccoons and bears. He loved to tell tall tales that showed him as stronger, smarter, braver, and a better shot than anyone else in the land. The stories grew more fantastic after his death, thanks largely to a series of adventure books featuring Crockett as the hero. In these tales, he climbed Niagara Falls on an alligator’s back, drank the entire Gulf of Mexico, twisted the tail off a comet, and outsmarted a businessman. He also traveled the world performing marvelous feats of daring and skill. In many ways, Davy Crockett is America’s own celebrated hero, whose deeds and adventures compare to those of legendary ancient warriors such as Achilles and Beowulf.
Stories about Davy Crockett have continued throughout the twentieth century. Television shows like the 1950s’ ABC series Davy Crockett, Indian Tighter and the 1988 The New Adventures of Davy Crockett appeared, as well as movies like Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. These media representations not only encouraged a generation of children to start wearing coonskin caps, but they also captured the larger-than-life American figure Crockett embodies. Crockett’s legendary status continues to help define the myth of American rugged individualism.
Works in Critical Context
A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee. The only work critics agree that Crockett himself authored, with the help of Thomas Chilton, emphasizes humorous, folksy stories over serious, accurate historical accounts. Historian Vernon Louis Parrington wrote in 1927 that Crockett’s work ”is the great classic of the southern frontier” and it ”exhibits the honesty, the wit, the resourcefulness, the manly independence of a coonskin hero.” While many readers use Crockett’s narrative as an accurate accounting of his life and experiences, Joseph J. Arpad chooses to read the text as a piece of literature. Arpad suggests that although the writing ”may appear credible and real” it is really ”an imaginative story told by Crockett to satisfy America’s desire for a romantic frontier hero.” Richard Boyd Hauck agrees, claiming that Crockett used the right amount of literary style to make his readers believe him, with his ”genius” being his ”clear understanding of how best to evoke his audience’s sense of values.”
- Arpad, Joseph J. ”Introduction.” A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee. Edited by Joseph J. Arpad. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1972, pp. 7-37.
- Burke, James W. David Crockett, the Man Behind the Myth. Facsimile ed. Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1984.
- Cobia, Manley F., Jr. Journey into the Land of Trials: The Story of Davy Crockett’s Expedition to the Alamo. Franklin, Tenn.: Hillsboro Press, 2003.
- Derr, Mark. The Frontiersman: The Real Life and Many Legends of Davy Crockett. New York: William Morrow, 1993.
- Hauck, Richard Boyd. Crockett: A Bio-References. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.
- Lofaro, Michael A. The Man, the Legend, the Legacy, 1786-1986. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
- Lofaro, Michael A., and Joe Cummings, eds. Crockett at Two Hundred: New Perspectives on the Man and the Myth. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.
- Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 2. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927.
- Heale, M. J. ”The Role of the Frontier in Jacksonian Politics: David Crockett and the Myth of the Self-Made Man.” Western Historical Quarterly 4 (1973): 405-423.
- Stiffler, Stuart A. ”Davy Crockett: The Genesis of Heroic Myth.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 16 (1957): 134-140.
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. David Crockett. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/ biodisplay.pl?index=C000918.
- The Handbook of Texas Online. Davy Crockett. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/CC/fcr24.html.
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