Monday, August 17, 2015

Second Only to Elvis: David Crockett of Tennessee

By Myers Brown

Storyteller, frontiersman, congressman, soldier, scout, “King of the Wild Frontier,” and “The Lion of the West" David "Davy" Crockett was born on this date in 1786 in Greene County.

Portrait of David Crockett (1786-1836) painted by S.S. Osgood. Portrait from waist up. He wears a dark suit, vest and necktie with a white collar that meets his jawline. Sideburns facial hair. Writing at bottom with signature and inscription: I am happy to acknowledge this to be the only correct likeness that has been taken of me.
Image: Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA)

Although not “born on a mountain top” as a famous song about him alleges, he was born near the mountains in the Nolichucky River Valley. His father was a local magistrate and tavern keeper. The tavern experience possibly ingrained in young Crockett the importance and power of storytelling and lighted a flame of adventure. As a young boy, he ran away from home for nearly 30 months, returning home in 1802. He married “Polly” Finley in Jefferson County in 1806.

Like so many Tennesseans of his era, Crockett decided to push south and westward, settling in Lincoln County in 1811. The attack on Fort Mims and the outbreak of the Creek War in August 1813 occurred while Crockett was living in Franklin County. Word of the massacre spread quickly and Crockett, along with thousands of other enraged Tennesseans answered the call to put down the Red Stick threat. Crockett wrote in his autobiography: “For when I heard of the mischief which was done at the fort, I instantly felt like going, and I had none of the dread of dying that I expected to feel.”

Assigned to General John Coffee, he served as a scout and often reconnoitered miles beyond the regular troops. He apparently only fought in one pitched battle, at Tallushatchee in November 1813.

"Battle of Tallushatchee" - General John Coffee led mounted Tennesseans to their first victory over the Red Sticks at Tallushatchee, Alabama, on November 3, 1813.
Image: Answering the Call: Tennesseans in the War of 1812.

After the conclusion of the Creek War, Crockett returned to Franklin County. His wife, Polly, died there, and he went through a time of financial hardship. He soon remarried, and with his second wife, Elizabeth, decided to relocate, this time to Lawrenceburg. Although operating a mill and holding several local offices, Crockett was noted for his long absences from home on extended hunting expeditions. Nevertheless, he was affable and rode the wave of the rise of the common man to win election to the Tennessee General Assembly, serving two terms.

By 1825, he moved to Gibson County and ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost that election, but two years later defeated two other opponents and took his seat in Congress in 1827.

The presidential election of 1828 saw fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson elected to the White House. Increasingly, Crockett distanced himself from the Jackson administration. Crockett stood alone among the Tennessee delegation in his opposition to the Indian Removal Act and viewed many of Jackson’s policies as being detrimental to the poor and middle class.

While in Congress, Crockett received national notoriety as a frontiersman and storyteller and served as the model for the lead character in the popular play, "The Lion of the West." which gave birth to the mythology surrounding him. The play’s popularity prompted the publishing of two books detailing the life and adventures of Colonel David Crockett. These were followed by several almanacs and books with Crockett as the hero that were more fiction than fact.

The Crockett Almanac, 1839, Library Special Collection. The Crockett Almanac was a wildly popular magazine mass-produced between 1835 and 1856. Most of the papers were published AFTER 1836, the year of Crockett’s death during the Texas War for Independence.
Image: Tennessee Myths and Legends exhibit.

The Crockett legend grew - yet was not influential enough to prevent his reelection defeat in 1831. Two years later, his popularity revived and the voters sent him back to Washington. In 1833, Crockett once again found himself in Congress.

Crockett found sympathetic allies amongst the Whig Party who hoped to capitalize on his popularity. Unofficially he was discussed as a viable anti-Jackson candidate for the presidential election of 1836 and even toured the eastern states to garner support.

Unfortunately for Crockett, his opposition to Jackson and his affiliation with the Whigs did not sit well with his constituents back in Gibson County and he lost his reelection bid to Adam Huntsman. Prompted by his defeat, Crockett told a constituent, “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”

Crockett and a small party of friends departed for Texas in November 1835. They arrived in the middle of an open revolution against the Mexican government. The Tennesseans found themselves near San Antonio de Béxar in February 1836 just as the Mexican army under President and General Antonio López de Santa Anna arrived. The Texans fell back into the Alamo for defense. Crockett rose to the occasion and kept the morale of the defenders as high as possible under the circumstances. However, most of the defenders died in the final Mexican assault.

How Crockett died has also become part of the myth. He is often portrayed as going down swinging and fighting to the last. In reality, Crockett probably was among a handful taken as prisoners and executed at Santa Anna’s orders.

Nationally known in his own day, ironically the zenith of Crockett’s notoriety came nearly 168 years after his death. Indeed, thanks to Walt Disney’s television series and two feature films, a coon skinned cap festooned character only slightly reflecting the real man made Davy Crockett perhaps the most recognizable Tennessean among Americans, especially elementary school aged boys. Thousands showed up to witness the mythical hero portrayed by Fess Parker as filming took place in Nashville in 1955. Throughout the nation in the 1950s and early 1960s, the only more recognizable Tennessean may have been Elvis Presley.

Fess Parker with the Clement family, 1954, Frank Goad Clement Papers. Fess Parker, star of Disney’s Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, outdoors at the Executive Residence posing with Gov. Frank G. Clement and his young family. Parker holds a replica of Davy’s signature coonskin cap.
Image: Tennessee Myths and Legends exhibit.

So, why nearly 230 years after his birth does he remain among the most famous Tennesseans? Well, it probably has to do with the fact that so many people find something within Crockett to which they can relate. He was a common man who, thanks to history and mythology, was amazingly heroic. With little formal education he rose to national prominence and, faced with almost certain death, he chose to fight. He struggled with making ends meet like so many of the working class and he preferred to be off hunting, fishing, or on an adventure rather than working. Who wouldn’t want to go down fighting like the Davy of legend?

Visit the Davy Crockett page in our online exhibit “Tennessee Myths and Legends” to see other images from our collection and learn more about this Tennessee legend.


  • In addition to our online exibit, the Library and Archives catalog has dozens of titles related to David Crockett. Browse through those titles HERE.

  • Our Library for Accessible Books and Media (LABM) also has numerous titles related to Tennessee’s “King of the Wild Frontier,” including a historical novel, Hearts of Hickory: A Story of Andrew Jackson & the War of 1812, by our former State Librarian, John Trotwood Moore. Visit the TSLA’s LABM section of our website to learn more about accessing this title and others in our collection.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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