David Crockett, Indians, and Us

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:

http://www.umdl.umich.edu/.

(1) http://www.geocities.com/toppsgreen/01FrontPage.html.

(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.

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17 Responses to David Crockett, Indians, and Us

  1. Californian says:

    One lesson is that when it comes to clashes of civilization, there are winners and losers. This is a point that the current multicult craze tries to pretend does not exist.

    We need to remember this to avoid the fate of the Indian. Life is struggle, and so is civilization.

  2. Great post. I look forward to the next part.

    As for the liberal charge that we have to give up our country to atone for what was done to the Indians, I usually ask them: ‘were the Indians wrong, then, to fight against the White colonists? They were xenophobic, then, weren’t they?’ This is usually followed by silence or ‘but..but that was different.’
    You are right that we still have to deal with this aspect of our history; it is now being used against us.
    -VA

  3. stephenhopewell says:

    Californian,

    Yes, the idea that we “won” the continent and that kindness to the Indians and other minorities should be pursued as a matter of decency, was once commonplace. Now we are supposed to destroy our nation.

    VA,

    Thank you for the feedback and the link! And you provide a good reply here to those who use the Indians to attack our civilization.

  4. Buck O says:

    Just a side note. What a memory! When I was six years old I wore a coonskin cap while sitting in the ‘peanut gallery’ on the Pick Temple TV show in Washington DC circa 1955.

  5. stephenhopewell says:

    Wow, you were there when it happened! Hope you enjoy Part II.

  6. a Reader says:

    If you will do your research you will find that much of the land settled by whites was purchased from the Indians, not stolen from. Wikipedia notes that the Cherokees were paid $5 million for their land in the Southeast, a huge amount of money in those days: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_New_Echota The treaty of New Echota also allowed any Cherokee who wanted to stay in the Southeast to do so, if they preferred. One wonders what happened to the original $5 million.

  7. stephenhopewell says:

    Thank you for the link. It fascinates me that there are still Cherokee who never left.

    I would never use the word “stolen.” I see the white settlement as legitimate, obviously! My whole blog is about resisting our “giving our land away,” as it were. Still, even the Wikipedia article makes it clear that the Cherokee were cutting a deal under duress. Anyway my main purpose was to talk about Crockett, which I didn’t fully get to until my follow-up article. Crockett himself was against the Cherokee removal.

  8. a Reader says:

    No problem. The Winthrops and the Mass. Bay Colony also purchased land from the Indians BTW. I think you will find it fairly common in US history. Americans always preferred to pay for land rather than take it outright. True, some of the payments were made “under duress” but the constant refrain that we “stole” the land was false. Also, Indians had rights to claim land under the Homestead Act, same as whites, but most preferred not to farm.

    Intermarriage in the South amongst Cherokee and other natives and white settlers was rather common BTW. Many famous Southerners have/had some native ancestry including Elvis Presley.

  9. Helen T. says:

    My what interesting things I find in my late night wonderings. Husband’s Grandmother’s maiden name was Crockett (her line goes back to a brother of Davy’s). I think my husband is part Native American & that it comes from that branch of the family but I have not found anything that proves my theory. I did read where some Cherokees were traveling with some Crocketts when some Crocketts moved into MO. My husband’s family came from MO to KS.
    Somone in the family has a very old copy of Davy’s book if it has not been lost.
    On another note I am part Cherokee & I can tell you that my family is not part of the organized tribe because some of them were not living in what is now OK when the Dawes roll was “formed”. My grandfather (who was in OK) was told that the “little problem” could be solved with a certain amount of money (the story is repeated by another family member in the OK pioneer stories). Plus if anyone is really curious just read the things that Angie Debo wrote. A lot of Indians were cheated out of what was really due them by either “whites” or their fellow red men. Oh, the judge who could fix our “little problem”
    had the last name of “Springer”. Just thought that should be good for a laugh now & then.
    Helen T.

  10. stephenhopewell says:

    Thanks for sharing the interesting family stories, Helen. I see some of the problems have not been resolved to this day!

  11. Helen T. says:

    Well it used to really worry me that I could not find anything about one of my GreatGrandmothers (Paternal line). I finally said this mystery is a really good one
    & it will never be solved. If we are part Native American we can only go so far back
    because of the lack of records…………….just a fact that I have finally accepted.
    Now we have a chance for some answers with DNA but it does have it’s limits. It is more fun searching for info on “the ones who went before” than it ever was playing hide & seek as a child (I’m 70+). So many things are discovered…………..a relative on Dad’s side dropped dead while preaching (traveling preacher I believe) in a little church that my Mother’s family (about 5 generations back) helped start in early MO. No one (now alive) knew that our families had crossed paths back in MO. All my friends who search family history can tell interesting stories. Maternal Grandmother always said that she was NOT Indian. She was “Black Dutch” according to her.
    But our MtDNA seems to tell a different story :-)
    Helen T.

  12. G says:

    I am DEEPLY offended and enraged by this misguided article. I am enrolled with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and I also happen to be a distant cousin of Davy Crockett. Your words are just racist, historically inaccurate (the land was actually wrested from Indians through EXTREMELY shady and deceitful measures or brutal force) and attempts to justify genocide. Classless.

  13. stephenhopewell says:

    G, I’m honored to have a reader from the Cherokee Nation, but I can’t see evidence in your words that you read my article. I am for the fair treatment of Indians and of Indian history, but I’m not for destroying the (primarily) white American nation. I also admire David Crockett, who was an Indian fighter but who also opposed the Cherokee removal.

  14. Gloria says:

    “To the contrary, the American experience showed that Indian assimilation into white society didn’t work.”

    What are nuts? what nonsense are you saying? The cherokees did EVERYTHING possible to adapt to the white society. Their assimilation was being very successful. It was only the racism and greed of white settlers who caused it to fail. They were forcefully removed from their lands by the goverment just because white people wanted their lands. If it “didn’t work”it was not their fault.It was the settler’s fault.

  15. Gloria says:

    Shameful Event: The Usurpation of Land from American IndiansIt was one of Hitler’s inspirations for the Holocaust. How to get it done properly. You don’t start with force immediately. First you pretend to strike deals with the race you want out of your way. Then you double-cross them when the time is right, but don’t make the double-cross obvious. Keep them confused as to why you would renege, and guessing as to whether you really have. Until it’s too late for them to stop you.In order to “appease your own people,” as it were, and not have a rebellion, you inform them over and over, years after years, that the race whose land and property you’re taking is primitive and violent, and that you’re not really causing them any harm. The Holocaust isn’t the only time this has happened.And although the United States certainly didn’t engage in wholesale slaughter of the Indians, of the degree of the Holocaust, the U. S. government did, for centuries, uphold the principle of expanding the nation’s borders until reaching an ocean, whether or not this expansion came at anyone else’s expense.The most infamous instance of this is President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Seminole and Chickasaw tribes were forced off their lands in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, and required to move to what is now Oklahoma. Neither the President nor any other white person seemed able to understand why they did not want to leave. Some did of their own accord, but most were finally forced to pick up and move, and were forced to do so on foot. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee Nation was not subject to Georgia’s state law, only national law.But nevertheless, the Indian Removal Act passed in Congress by a single vote. Abraham Lincoln opposed it, as did David Crockett, who argued that America had no more right to take the Indians’ land than the British had to take America’s land.With the Act in place, the states in questions were allotted 7,000 armed militia to force the Indians out. 13,000 Cherokee were herded in concentration camps in the freezing cold, where 2,000 to 8,000 of them died from cholera, famine and exposure. This went on from 1831 to 1847. All told, 19,500 Creek, 4,300 Chickasaw, 12,500 Choctaw, 2,833 Seminole and 20,000 Cherokee were forced to walk to Oklahoma, a distance of no less than 200 miles for the Chickasaw and Choctaw, and up to 1,000 for the Seminole. Thousands died en route. The practice was euphemized by white politicians at the time as “manifest destiny.” Hitler called it “lebensraum,” “living room.” No President has ever apologized for the Indian Removal Act. It is now called the Trail of Tears, and it is one of many times America forced Indians off their land.

    • stephenhopewell says:

      Thank you for the comments. The post (written a long time ago) was an effort to look at history honestly; many Americans have, through our history, acknowledged the injustice done to the Cherokees and others. At the same time, I support the existence of the country that was created as a result of European settlement of the Americas, and want Americans to keep it and not sell it off to be colonized by foreigners.

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