Note: I discuss David Crockett in greater detail in the follow-up to this post, A Portrait of Grandfather David.
It seems to me that when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, even as one radical social change after another was setting in motion the disaster of the present, a certain core culture and way of life continued relatively unchanged for most people. As I look back upon my own childhood in small-town America during that period, I imagine that it was not so different from the 1950s. Our fathers worked and we kids ran around the neighborhood watched by our mothers as they did housework. We played many of the same games our parents had played. Not only that, 1950s culture itself was still present on TV and radio.
For instance, my childhood image of frontiersman and Alamo hero David Crockett (1786-1836) came directly from the “Davy Crockett Craze” of 1954-55 (1), which started with a Disney movie and its theme song “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” It was characterized by phenomenal sales of merchandise, most notably the coonskin caps worn by small boys. The “craze” died down within a year or so, but I myself remember running around with a coonskin cap and watching the movie on TV in the early 1970s, so Crockett obviously remained in the culture to some extent.
What about Crockett appealed to Americans so? Undoubtedly it was the way he embodied the “frontier spirit” of America. Long after the frontier was settled, well into the 20th century, Americans saw their national character as being derived from the frontier experience: the restless craving for discovery, the ambition to build a new and better life in a new land, the courage and rugged individualism, and sometimes the crudeness and base acquisitiveness of those who led the westward expansion of our nation. From Westerns and books like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series the word “frontier” may be associated more with late 19th century images, but of course it expresses a central theme for all pre-20th century U.S. history.
Crockett’s 1834 autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Col. David Crockett, Written by Himself (2), is a fast-moving episodic account of the high points of his life, peppered with dialect and folk humor. Its full title summarizes the contents: Life of David Crockett, the original humorist and irrepressible backwoodsman: comprising his early history; his bear hunting and other adventures; his services in the Creek war; his electioneering speeches and career in Congress; with his triumphal tour through the northern states, and services in the Texas war. To which is added an account of his glorious death at the Alamo while fighting in defence of Texan independence.
The book was written to promote Crockett’s political career. It consists almost solely of episodes, told in an amusing style apparently capturing something of the charm of Crockett’s public speeches. According to James Shackford, the Narrative is almost certainly ghostwritten, since it contains deliberate “backwoods” dialect and errors different from those that appeared in Crockett’s letters. However, the material is considered highly reliable, suggesting that Crockett checked the material and approved the final contents. Shackford (writing at the time of the Crockett craze) considers the narrative a forgotten classic of American literature, depicting the life of a real-life frontiersman who became overshadowed by a myth.
In today’s myth-debunking climate, Crockett the man may actually be faring better than in the 1950s. A newer children’s book, David Crockett: Sure He Was Right (3) , for instance, is a reasonable recreation of Crockett’s autobiography, though largely omitting the Indian fighting and bear hunting that gives his story most of its flavor. But we have lost the legend. Crockett is, after all, a White Man With A Gun. He killed bears, he killed Indians, and he killed Mexicans, activities essential to the creation of our country but which our liberal society, seeking to incorporate groups such as these (including the bears) as fully privileged citizens, finds shameful and ugly.
While American traditionalists will have no trouble rejecting the political correctness that leads to the expunging of figures like Crockett from history, it may still be hard to love him the way previous generations did. Indian fighting is central to Crockett’s character, even if he only spent a few years at this activity. In retrospect, the removal of the Indians seems like a sad inevitability at best, and in cases like the Cherokee removal, a cruel atrocity, not something to be celebrated wholeheartedly. Shackford lays out the problem in the opening passages of his biography:
The frontiersman was history’s agent for wresting land from the American Indian. How often – and how well – did he play his bitter role! Pursued by civilization which crowded him too closely behind, he arrived inevitably at the “final” boundary set by the latest Indian treaty. In front of him lay the rich wilderness and the trail of the retreating game upon which his very life depended. Pushed from behind, pulled from in front, he moved on inexorably into Indian territory.
Just as inexorably, the Indians resisted his encroachment. Angered by this betrayal of their established rights, they attempted to enforce the white man’s treaties in the only way they knew, by attacking the invaders – by pillage, burning, and scalping. Then came a new “war,” and a new treaty. Always the new treaty gave legal sanction to the latest accumulation of lands illegally acquired by these frontiersmen. No power on earth short of overwhelming physical force could have made them retrace their steps and abandon their “improvements” and the wild game on which they lived. Then the cycle would be renewed: new encroachments upon the new treaty, the inevitable massacres, the consequent accommodating treaty, – and new encroachments. So dwindled the hunting grounds of the redskin. (p. 3)
Elsewhere Shackford exhibits a very contemporary and, as we are seeing in the 21st century, unworkable liberalism in his assessment of the lessons of American history, something I will return to in a subsequent post. For now, I would like to consider, based purely on personal perceptions, the role of the Indian in white American identity.
It is part of the American tradition to be fascinated with the Indian and to seek to emulate the perceived bravery, discipline, and honor of the aboriginal American peoples. For instance, when I was in the Boy Scouts there was a society called the Order of the Arrow (which still exists) with an initiation rite that was supposed to emulate a manhood ritual of the Indians. More broadly, there are, of course, the names of sports teams and so forth that were understood to express the warrior spirit. I have talked about Crockett in my boyhood but in fact I was much more an “Indian” kid, doing my best to make Indian weapons and running around half-naked in a loincloth. In fact I generally sided with the Indians in my mind.
We cannot deny that America was created as a country by Europeans who claimed the land essentially for the reason that they wanted it, and could take it. Yes, this also meant the spread of Christian civilization, but we can hardly claim this was done for the Indians’ sake! It is a good thing for Americans to reflect on this aspect of their nations history.
However, contemporary discussions of the Indian problem are twisted by anti-Americanism. First, whites are judged by today’s standards, as if they were a 21st century army marching in to exterminate Stone Age people. In fact most Americans prior to the 20th century lived by the sweat of their brow, many died young, and all were dependent on the support of family and neighbors to survive. Society was violent, with wars fought and murderers hanged and duels and violence of all sorts common. In this context the settlement of the continent – at one’s own risk – was perfectly legitimate. From the European point of view Indian ways were backward and Indian societies were not “countries.” Further, many whites strove to find a humane and just solution to the Indian problem. In the end, sheer demographic force made the European settlement of the continent inevitable. The U.S. government broke its promises, but it had made promises it had not the power to keep.
Second, Indians are romanticized, as we can see in any contemporary movie that portrays them. Forgotten are the incredible cruelty they were capable of and the ongoing warfare between tribes and clans.
Finally, precisely the wrong lesson is derived from the conquest of America: that to atone for driving out the Indians, we must open our society up for the rest of the world to colonize. To the contrary, the American experience showed that Indian assimilation into white society didn’t work. Is it not madness that we now import whole “tribes” just as alien as the Indians into our society en masse? What kind of “Indian wars” are we setting up for the future?
In the next entry I will discuss some particulars of Crockett’s life and autobiography. Interested readers may be able to read it electronically on the University of Michigan Library website at:
(2) Crockett, David, Life of Col. David Crockett, Written by Himself, Philadelphia: G. G. Evans, 1860. This version includes an account of Crockett’s death at the Alamo.
(3) Shackford, James Atkins, David Crockett: The Man and the Legend, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1956.
(4) Wade, Mary Dodson, Davy Crockett: Sure He Was Right, Austin, Eakin Press, 1992.