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Looking for the Real Davy Crockett

Published: August 13, 2011

Davy Crockett came onto the national stage at a time when the country was looking for legends. The young Congressman from Tennessee was happy to step into the role of the rugged, high-spirited backwoodsman. Soon newspapers were carrying tales of his mythical exploits, like this item from the Dec. 31, 1831, Post.

Col. Crockett happened once to be travelling in a steamboat when, discovering the vessel went too slow for his calculation, he ordered the boat ashore, took it up under his arm, and trudged off through the woods at the rate of ten knots an hour. It is said, he was so well pleased with this performance, that he grinned the bark off three large trees in succession.

Davy Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman photo from wikipedia

Unfortunately, all the tall tales and comic speeches attributed to Crocket have obscured the facts of his life. He was born in poverty and received minimal education. He enlisted in the Tennessee Militia during the Creek Indian wars. His popularity, combined with a skill in hunting that kept his troops fed, enabled him to leave the service as a lieutenant colonel. It also helped him win election to Congress in 1827. Defeated the next term, he was re-elected in 1833, lost again, and decided to head west to Texas.

As Crockett became known in Washington, newspaper writers and editors fastened onto him as the embodiment of the pioneer spirit. Crockett didn’t seem to mind. In fact, with his talent for story telling, he probably contributed to his own legend. Soon Crockett stories, comic pamphlets, and Crockett almanacs were appearing throughout the states. They were full of humorous folk takes like this one found in an 1833 Post.

As I was walking out one night, looking carelessly about me, I saw a racoon planted upon one of the highest limbs of an old tree. I though I’d bring him down, in the usual way, by a grin. I set myself but, after grinning at the ‘coon a reasonable time, found that he didn’t come down. I wondered what was the reason. I took another steady grin at him. Still he stuck there. It made me a little mad; so I felt round and got an old limb about five feet long. Planting one end upon the ground, I placed my chin upon the other and took a rest. I then grinned my best for about five minutes, but the ‘coon hung on.

Illustration from "Davy Crockett on the Track" serial from the Post .

I determined to have him. I went over to the house, got my axe, returned to the tree, and began to cut away. Down it come, and I run forward, but the ‘coon was nowhere to be seen. What I had taken for one was a large knot upon a branch of the tree—and upon looking at it closely, I saw that I grinned all the bark off, and left the knot perfectly smooth. [May 4, 1833]

Later that year, the Post offered this account of Crockett’s dinner at the White House.

I walked all round the long table, looking for something I liked. At last I took my seat just beside a fat goose, and I helped myself to as much of it as I wanted. But I hadn’t took three bites when I looked away up the table [where] a man was talking French to a woman on t’other side of the table. When I looked back again, my plate was gone, goose and all.

I cast my eyes down the table, and sure enough I see a man walking off with my plate. I says, “Hello, mister, bring back my plate.” He fetched it back in a hurry.  Says he, “What will you have, sir?” And says I, “You may well ask that, after stealing my goose.”

I then filled my plate with bacon and greens; and whenever I looked up or down the table, I held on to my plate with my left hand.

This time, it seems, the stories went too far, and the Post published Crockett’s request to set the record straight.

Mr. James Clark, a member of Kentucky who sat opposite to Mr. Crockett at the dinner table, declares his behavior was “marked with the strictest propriety.”

But the temptation to embellish Crockett stories seemed hard to resist. When the Post reported a speech by Crockett, it gave him a backwoods dialect, even giving his spoken word folksy misspellings.

I know a good many things has been said about me, but one half of ‘em is not true. You see me, I’m but a plain man, and have got no education to boast of. Thirty-four years ago, I visited this ‘ere same city. I was then only thirteen years of age, and had jist got education enough to spell “baker”—that was the biggest word I ever spell’d in them times.

But when the Post reported another speech by Crockett the same year, it hardly sounds like the same man.

I am travelling for my health, without the least wish of exciting the people in such times of high political feeling. I do not wish to encourage it. I am unable at this time to find language suitable to return my gratitude to the citizens of Philadelphia. I am almost induced to believe it flattery. This is new to me, yet I see nothing but friendship in your faces; and if your curiosity is to hear a backwoodsman, I will assure you I am ill prepared to address this most enlightened people.

"The Fall of the Alamo" by Robert Jenkins wikipedia.org

In 1836, however, man and myth intersected when Crockett joined the doomed garrison of Texans at the Alamo. In death, more than in life, Crockett became a legend. And, as we know, legends never die, as the Post suggested in 1840.

The Story of Colonel Crockett being alive, and a captive in one of the Mexican mines, is being revived. An extra of The Austin Gazette contains a letter written to the editor by an American in Mexico, giving the particulars of an interview which the writer had with Crockett, in the mine where he is a captive.

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  • Jerry Cowling

    I am the great great great grandson of David Crockett and also am a storyteller. Never let facts get in the way of truth and never let truth get in the way of a good story. That’s my quote, not his, but I think he would agree with it. I have just finished writing a novel about Crockett when he was a 14-year-old runaway boy and when he was a 50-year-old man trying to figure out what to do with himself after being defeated for Congress.

  • Dann

    This is quite enlightning, confirming my disbeliefs of all Mr Crocketts exploits, sort of like the fabels of Paul Bunion. Ha!

    Keep up the good work , we enjoy your magazine.

  • Charles Neumann

    Very interesting, reading notes about Davy Crockett written in the Post during his lifetime. Thank You.

  • Ima Ryma

    John Wayne played Davy Crockett and
    Directed too “The Alamo.”
    Wayne wanted all to understand
    That battle in his movie show.
    Crockett did give a Wayne made speech.
    Republic, he liked that word’s sound.
    A word meaning freedom could reach
    Into peoples’ lives all around.
    The movie shows Crockett died well,
    Leading the Texans to defend
    The Alamo until it fell.
    Crockett was blown up in the end.

    Davy Crockett, hero, will reign
    In part because he was John Wayne.

  • Evelyn

    I am related to Daniel Boone’s wife as I do Family History and discovered their story! I fell proud that I have a ancestor who was well known and liked and a great man and family!