A Portrait of Grandfather David

Myth and History

I wrote last week that even for those who reject political correctness, it may be difficult to love David Crockett as he was loved in the past. Having worked through a biography of Crockett since then, I no longer feel any need to distance myself from him. That such a man lived, and died, as he did in the early years of our nation is a wonder to be cherished. Here is how the people of Tennessee reacted to his martyrdom at the Alamo:

When the news of the massacre in the Alamo reached Nashville, Tennessee, the writer well remembers seeing adult men and women shed tears on account of the death of David Crockett. None ever knew him personally, who did not love him; none who were familiar with his public career, that did not admire him. The whole people of the state were then, as now, proud of him. (1)

James Shackford’s biography includes an appendix entitled “Portrait of David Crockett,” which tries to ascertain what Crockett looked like. Paintings of Crockett clearly conjure up a single individual with a real personality: the long, parted hair, high forehead, prominent nose, boyishly twinkling eyes, and cheerful demeanor are common to all. But perhaps Crockett’s portraits, like Shakespeare’s, reflect a graphic tradition as much as first-hand experience. Even Crockett’s grandchildren remembered hearing little about what the man looked like. The problem of reconstructing someone’s appearance struck me as symbolic of the problem we Westerners face today in recovering a workable heritage. How much vanishes with the passing of even one generation!

How do we begin a portrait of Crockett? An obvious approach is to talk about how the historical man differs from the myth, though even the myth is largely forgotten. First, there is Crockett as the primitive backwoods man, a child of nature, born in a cabin, killing bears with his bare hands, and so forth. Second, and related, is Crockett of the “tall tale,” as

…an American Hercules – wading the Mississippi, steering an alligator up Niagara Falls, straddling a streak of lightning, wringing the tail off a comet, and kicking the sun loose from its frozen axis. With his pipe-smoking pet bear Death Hug and his singing buffalo Mississip, [roaming] the West, and sometimes far beyond, in search of adventure. (2)

Third is Crockett the backwoods Congressman, reporting naively to Washington to serve the ordinary people of his state, and there battling the sophisticated Eastern politicians representing moneyed interests. This is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Finally there is the heroic martyr for Texan independence, as played by John Wayne in 1960’s The Alamo, blowing up the powder magazine of the besieged mission before succumbing to his wounds.

All of these myths do reflect something of the historical Crockett, not least because he encouraged the creation of such legends in his own time to promote his political aims and to make money – not that he was famously successful at either.

David Crockett, Novelist

There is truth to the image of Crockett as a teller of tall tales. His fame and his political success owed much to his charisma as a public speaker. He had Ronald Reagan’s quality of appealing to the people with down-home, simple, amusing stories, and like Reagan could be accused of using this charm to avoid discussing issues. In his autobiography, Crockett portrays with exaggeration his ignorance of politics at the time of his first campaign for the state legislature, seeing that as something that would please, not trouble, his constituents: “It now became necessary that I should tell the people something about the government, and an eternal sight of other things that I knowed nothing more about than I did about Latin, and law, and such things as that.” (3) He then describes a speech in which he lured the crowd from his opponent by entertaining them:

But the worst of all was, that I couldn’t tell them any thing about government. I tried to speak about something, and I cared very little what, until I choaked up as bad as if my mouth had been jam’d and cram’d chock full of dry mush. There the people stood, listening all the while, with their eyes, mouths, and years all open, to catch every word I would speak.

At last I told them I was like a fellow I had heard of not long before. He was beating on the head of an empty barrel near the road-side, when a traveler, who was passing along, asked him what he was doing that for? The fellow replied, that there was some cider in that barrel a few days before, and he was trying to see if there was any then, but if there was he couldn’t get at it. I told him that there had been a little bit of a speech in me a while ago, but I believed I couldn’t get it out. They all roared out in a mighty laugh, and I told some other anecdotes, equally amusing to them, and believing I had them in a first-rate way, I quit and got down, thanking the people for their attention. But I took care to remark that I was as dry as a powder horn, and that I thought it was time for us all to wet our whistles a little; and so I put off to the liquor stand, and was followed by the greater part of the crowd. (4)

So Crockett was indeed a storyteller. However, he was not exactly a teller of tall tales, if that means lying, bragging, and spinning stories from nothing. As the above passage shows, he enjoyed portraying himself in a humorously self-deprecating manner. And his 1834 Narrative appears to be mainly accurate. Perhaps there is exaggeration in the astonishing number of bears he claims to have killed (105 one year, with help!). His encounters with Indians and other adventures are fantastic but not unbelievable.

A similarly charming tale is that of his first courtship at about age 19:

[Though] I have heard people talk about hard loving, yet I reckon no poor devil in this world was ever cursed with such hard love as mine has always been, when it came on me. I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl, whose name the public could make no use of; and I thought that if all the hills about there were pure chink, and all belonged to me, I would give them if I could just to talk to her as I wanted to; but I was afraid to begin, for when I would think of saying anything to her, my heart would begin to flutter like a duck in a puddle; and if I tried to outdo it and speak, it would get right smack up in my throat, and choke me like a cold potatoe. (5)

Crockett’s tale of youthful love, rejection, hurt pride, and eventual success at finding a mate is as sweet as any a novelist could make up.

The paradox of Crockett’s homespun stories is that they would not exist for us had they not been compiled and published by other, more literary, men. Crockett has three major “autobiographies”: the Narrative of 1834, which seems to be his work down to the fine details, though in the language of another; an 1835 account of his political tour of the eastern states, almost entirely ghostwritten by Whig politicians; and an 1836 account of his adventures in Texas, a hoax written to cash in on his death at the Alamo. The 400-odd page Life I referred to last week combines these three works, ranging from highly authentic to completely fictional. Thus was the unlearned Crockett a collaborative novelist of sorts.

The Frontiersman Builds a Nation

Crockett’s political career, as state legislator and then congressman, may seem an odd fit with his genuine backwoods background. That someone as unsophisticated as Crockett could be elected to Congress disturbed Tocqueville, who wrote “(Tennesseans have elected…) an individual named David Crockett, who had received no formal education, could read only with difficulty, had no property, no fixed dwelling, but spent his time hunting, selling his game for a living, and spending his whole life in the woods.” (6) Yet viewed within its own milieu, Crockett’s career path looks natural enough. Living in the woods was not an antisocial life, since survival depended on cooperation with neighbors. From that base Crockett began to rise in society, beginning with military service under Jackson and an appointment as local justice of the peace. Evidently Crockett had a talent for arbitrating disputes and the like. So what if his writing skills remained frozen at the grade-school level?

We are progressing very Slow with business owing to the great party Sperit that exists here on the great political question the old hickory is like the dimond in the hill of no value until it is Rubed and poliched So with Genl Jackson the harder they Rub him the briter he Shines…. (1827) (7)

It struck me as I read that Crockett’s political career fits perfectly with his career as frontiersman, because the function of the frontiersman was to tame and occupy the land so it could be added to the nation. When we modern folk go camping and exploring, we may feel we are re-living the frontier experience, but the purpose of a real pioneer (whether he knows it or not) is not temporary escape from civilization, but to domesticate and civilize it and destroy it as frontier.

This is shown by the fact the Crockett’s primary political project from start to finish was the Tennessee Land Bill, which he was never able to get passed. Crockett shaped the bill to protect the right of squatters in western Tennessee to purchase their land from the federal government at an affordable price. His devotion to this cause alienated him from the Jacksonian “democrats” of his state and eventually made him the public enemy of Jackson. Like Crockett, these Tennessee politicians tended to favor expansion of land, internal improvements, and low tariffs, but they were also beholden to wealthy planters and land speculators who backed Jackson financially. Shackford theorizes that Crockett cut a deal at some point with Whig politicians to act as an anti-Jackson spokesman, a move which destroyed his integrity and turned him into a political tool. He even links Crockett’s hatred of Jackson to his death in Texas, since it aligned him against Jacksonite Sam Houston, leading his group to disobey Houston’s order to evacuate the Alamo. (8)

Crockett’s move to Texas after electoral defeat represented not an abandonment of politics but an attempt to resume his career as frontier politician: he would settle his family in a rich new land and once again run for office. He joined the militia because “…all volunteers is entitled to vote for a member of the convention or to be voted for, and I have but little doubt of being elected a member to form a constitution for this province. I am rejoiced at my fate.” (9) He had no expectation of becoming a martyr. What exactly happened at the Alamo, of course, remains unknown. Shackford was convinced that Crockett died early in the final attack, while Michael Lofaro, in a new introduction to the book, gives evidence for the story that Crockett was one of a group of survivors who surrendered and were ordered killed by Santa Anna.

Crockett and the Indians: Sometime Foe, Sometime Friend

Last week, I took a detour on the issue of the Indians, not dealing specifically with the experience of Crockett, who fought Indians in the Creek War of 1813-14. Crockett is simply matter-of-fact in relating the horror of what happened in the battle of Tallussahatchee in 1813. His tone is certainly not especially sympathetic to the Indians: 

We pursued them until we got near the house, when we saw a squaw sitting in the door, and she placed her feet against the bow she had in her hand, and then took an arrow, and, raising her feet, she drew with all her might, and let fly at us, and she killed a man, whose name, I believe, was Moore. He was a lieutenant, and his death so enraged us all, that she was fired on, and had at least twenty balls blown through her. This was the first man I ever saw killed with a bow and arrow. We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it…. (10)

In later passages, Crockett states that he has no taste for war, and is glad he is finished with fighting, hardly coming off as an enthusiastic Indian fighter. Later, Crockett gained a reputation as a friend of the Cherokee, opposing the Indian Bill for their removal of 1830 in a moving speech that he may or may not have actually delivered (he reported to his pro-removal constituents that he had opposed the bill but did not supply the speech). Shackford is skeptical that Crockett was a lover of Indians, seeing the speech as a Whig composition designed primarily to harm Jackson by fanning up eastern pro-Indian sentiment. However, observing no particular hatred for Indians in Crockett’s autobiography (he got along well with those on his side), and knowing his willingness to stand against his political colleagues, I wonder why the sentiments of the speech should be presumed not his own? Crockett stated that the Cherokee were recognized as a sovereign nation by the United States, and that

[i]t had never been known that white men and Indians could live together; and in this case, the Indians were to have no privileges allowed them, while the white men were to have all. Now, if this was not oppression with a vengeance, he did not know what was…. He knew that he stood alone, having, perhaps, none of his colleagues from his state agreeing in sentiment. He could not help that. He knew that he should return to his home glad and light in heart, if he voted against the bill. (11)

Crockett’s skepticism that Indians and whites could live together does not preclude an attitude of sympathy and understanding. Interestingly, the conflict between the harsh western/southern position on Indian removal and the more sympathetic and sentimental eastern position seems to parallel the incipient clash over slavery. Crockett appears to stand somewhere between the east and the west in this regard.

What is Our Next Frontier?

Crockett’s significance to us is in his embodiment of the life of the American pioneer. Men like Adams and Jefferson helped create our systems and institutions, but men like Crockett physically and politically subdued the land that would become the bulk of our territory. Whatever the flaws of such men may have been, Crockett’s courage, persistence, love of life, honesty, and humor exemplify the good qualities that went into the building of our nation.

The question being asked in 1956, still not long after World War II, was: where do we go next? Shackford saw the issue as follows:

By the very act of conquering geographical barriers, man created a different sort of world and set himself upon a new and entirely different sort of quest. Having learned to live with, then master, all physical frontiers until he reduced the world to one small demesne, man must now learn to live with and to master the frontiers of the human mind, heart, and spirit until he reduces that demesne to one home. Man’s new frontier is the spiritual frontier of universal brotherhood where all men are their brother’s keepers. Not until he masters this frontier will man make a home of his narrowed world.

[Crockett] grasped the philosophy of the new spiritual man who judges a people intrinsically in terms of their inherent worth and their divine potential in a universe where all are the sons of God and where all before God are of inalienable value and entitled to equal dignity and justice. (12)

I suggest that the subsequent 50 years of American history, during which we have thrown our borders open to mass non-Western immigration, systematized racial discrimination against the founding population, and presumed to take responsibility for the welfare, defense, and livelihood of every nation on earth, show us that Shackford read the lessons of David Crockett’s life incorrectly. We need to focus less on Crockett’s democratic spirit and more on his cause, which he ultimately died for, of securing land for his people. Towards the end of his life, defeated by what he saw as a corrupt, moneyed, political machine, he feared for America’s future. His words reflect his own personal bitterness towards Jackson, but are still germane today:

I am gratified that I have spoken the truth to the people of my district regardless of the consequences. I would not be compelled to bow to the Idol for a seat in Congress. During life I have never known what it was to sacrifice my own judgment to gratify any party, and I have no doubt of the time being close at hand when I will be rewarded for letting my tongue speak what my heart thinks. I have suffered myself to be politically sacrificed to save my country from ruin and disgrace, and if I am never again elected I will have the gratification to know that I have done my duty…. (13)

(Here I have corrected the spelling and punctuation.) May we learn from the sacrifices of the men and women who built our nation and stop squandering what they gave us for the false ideal of a borderless global utopia. Then we can take revenge for David and send our false leaders tumbling from power and into oblivion.


(1) Quoted in Shackford, James Atkins, David Crockett: The Man and the Legend, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956, p. 238.

(2) Paul Andrew Hutton, “Introduction,” David Crockett, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, xxxvii-xxix.

(3) Crockett, David, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, 139.

(4) Crockett, Narrative, 141-2.

(5) Crockett, Narrative, 47-8.

(6) http://www.comedyontap.com/pantheon/crockett/crockett4.html.

(7) Shackford, p. 89.

(8)  This theory is criticized by Thomas E. Scruggs in “Davy Crockett and the Thieves of Jericho: An Analysis of the Shackford-Parrington Conspiracy Theory,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 19 (Fall 1999), 481-98.

(9)  Shackford, 216.

(10) Crockett, Narrative, 88.

(11) Filler, Louis, and Allen Guttmann, The Removal of the Cherokee Nation: Manifest Destiny or National Disgrace? Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, 1962.

(12)  Shackford, 251.

(13)  Shackford, 205-6.

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6 Responses to A Portrait of Grandfather David

  1. Terry Morris says:

    I like what I’ve read so far, and I appreciate the amount of research put into the articles on Davy Crockett. I’m going to add The Heritage American to my blogroll.

    All the best,

    -Terry

  2. stephenhopewell says:

    Thank you, Terry, it’s an honor.

  3. […] 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. […]

  4. Stephen – This is good stuff. You are doing a great job.
    -VA

  5. stephenhopewell says:

    VA, glad you enjoyed it. Especially since this one took a lot of work!

  6. […] purchasing sections of the pristine forest at $2 an acre at the terms of the Land Act of 1800. Like David Crockett, Ohio settlers started by slaughtering the amazing profusion of wildlife that was available for the […]

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