David ‘Davy’ Crockett: The man, the myth

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Davy Crockett painting. Photo courtesy Ben Wilson/Shacklett's Photography


Polly’s tearful pleading could not stop him. She stood in the doorway of their wilderness hut pointing to their two small children. Trying to gain her composure, she wiped the tears from her eyes with her soft white apron. It had been so hard to love a man with such unyielding independence. Once more she begged,

“Please do not leave us here alone again, David. I don’t think I can live like this any longer!”

Nothing could sway this man of destiny. David Crockett, for the mere love of adventure, left his wilderness home to follow the march with General Jackson to fight the Creeks. They had opened up hostilities and attacked Fort Mimms, Aug. 30, 1812. David was one of the first to volunteer with the Tennessee Volunteer Militia.

David’s self-determination and vanity were attributes that were likely the result of surviving in the backwoods. Leaving his wife and two small children in a hostile, isolated environment demonstrated that David was truly driven by his exploits. Although David was insensitive to his family, he demonstrated thoughtfulness and kindness to his soldiers. Once, while he was commander of a battalion in the Creek War, without hesitation, he spent his last dollar to buy a blanket for a shivering soldier.

David was assigned to Captain Jones’ Mounted Volunteer Militia. He went to Beatty Springs where he crossed the Tennessee River into the Creek nation to go in as a spy. He and his partner, George Russell, returned to report to Commander General Coffee. There David crossed the Tennessee River at Muscle Shoals to go hunting and killed a bear. These and other hunting escapades were later exaggerated, although he was once successful in killing more than 105 bears in six months. It was these tales that would firmly establish his reputation as a hunter and Indian fighter. Most of these stories were told and promoted in taverns and around campfires by David, himself, popularizing him as the true “King of the Wild Frontier.”

David fought in the Battles of Fort Strother and Talledega, took part in the Florida Expedition, and then rejoined General Russell to do battle with the British. He participated in a fierce battle of Tallussahatchee on Nov. 14, 1814.

David never thought a man was superior to him, nor was one so humble that he looked down on in condescension. All men were equal in his eyes. This was by no means motivated by moral or political conviction. It was simply a part of his nature. Perhaps his French Huguenot lineage running deep in his veins and consciousness drove his passion.

Consequently, he was not afraid of expressing his opinion. After becoming very hostile toward General Andrew Jackson over his harsh treatment of the Tennessee troops, Crockett, along with his Tennessee volunteers, attempted a ‘walkout’ after their enlisted time had expired. His dislike of Jackson would follow him throughout his life.

Upon his return to Franklin County in 1815, he found his wife, Polly, dying. Polly Findley Crockett was buried in a cemetery overlooking Bean’s Creek near their homestead, “Kentuck.” Within a year, David married a widow, Elizabeth Patton, who also had two small children of her own.  David and his family moved to Lawrence County, Tenn.

David became instrumental in laying out that county and selecting the county seat at Lawrenceburg in 1819. He was one of the first commissioners and justices of the peace in Lawrence County. In addition, he ran a water-powered grist mill, powder mill, and distillery in the area of the county. (This is now Davy  Crockett State  Park). His political career was launched by being elected Colonel of his regiment. From that time, David was known as Colonel Crockett.

Up until the Civil War, Murfreesboro played an important role in the political climate of Tennessee. As the state capital was transferred to from Knoxville to Murfreesboro from 1819-1826, many important meetings convened with identifiable names who would later gain prominence on the national scene ­— names like Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Sam Houston, and of course, Davy Crockett. At the time, the slogan was popularized, “As Goes Rutherford so Goes Tennessee.” With the influence that our community had on the political climate of the nation, it could also be said, “As Goes Rutherford/Murfreesboro so Goes the Nation.”

In 1821, Crockett was elected to the state Legislature when the state capital was at Murfreesboro (1819-1826). David traveled to Murfreesboro where the Legislature would convene for about six weeks using the first Rutherford Courthouse to accommodate the meeting of the General Assembly. The courthouse served as the seat of the state Legislature until 1822 when the structure burned down. It moved to the First Presbyterian Church on Vine Street until 1826. All members traveled by horse back and were accommodated by taverns or families in town.

It seemed that one rather long-winded, sophisticated individual had a definite personality clash with the common-place man, David Crockett. This particular polished gentleman with his refinement and ruffles bantered back and forth over an issue. He dubbed Crockett, “the gentleman from the cane”, in other words “the sticks.”

In those days this demeaning term meant you were ignorant and unrefined. This insult prompted Crockett to mock and mimic him until the man could no longer control his rage. Their fury continued without regard to decorum. Members of the Legislature began to shout, “Order, Order!”

At a critical moment, Crockett reached out his hand, took hold of the unsuspecting man’s ruffles, stripped them from his shirt, and threw them on the floor. The man was stripped of his pride and ruffles. To add to the humiliation, they were hung on a nail in the hallway of the Courthouse to the amusement of the members.

After his term of office, he returned home to Lawrence  County. Shortly after, a flood and a powder explosion destroyed his business, returning him to the poverty that accompanied him his entire life. In the spring of 1822, he moved his family to Gibson County and built what would be his last home in Tennessee. When he returned to the Legislature in 1823, he introduced a bill to form Gibson County.

Many in Gibson County could identify with Crockett. Although his behavior was quite eccentric, he gained the respect of many frontiersmen in the area for his quick wit and charismatic spirit. Many would sit around fires for long hours in the local taverns listening to his exaggerated exploits. His mastery of the vernacular, coupled with common sense, made him a natural storyteller with the power to command his audience and parody his opponents. Although he had only six months of formal education, he was quite verbose and never timid to say what he thought. It was then he quoted his famous motto, “Be always sure you’re right then go ahead!”

Using the rough embellished images of himself as a soldier and hunter, his popularity continued to peak all around the country. In 1823, he visited Philadelphia and was presented his famous long rifle, “Betsy” which contained the following inscription:

“Presented to the Honorable David Crockett of Tennessee by the young men of Philadelphia.”

This inscription is on the barrel in gold, and near the sight of the “Go Ahead” motto, which is in silver.

In the state Legislature, he became a champion for the common man and the rights of impoverished farmers of Tennessee. He introduced the Land Bill in a form which would allow those who homestead the land to buy it at a very low price.

When he was elected to Congress in 1828, this passion for helping the ordinary citizen continued to impact his whole Congressional career. By 1829, this intensified the break with fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, who was by now President. He broke ties with Jackson and became a member of the Whig Party for the remainder of his political career.
David Crockett’s insite on government could be wisdom for us today. He once vehemently admonished Americans to,
“Remember that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take everything you have.”

Since his death at the Battle of the Alamo, March 6, 1836, it has been difficult to separate the man from the myth. Without hesitation, David, “Davy” Crockett was a true American hero and legend in his own time. For this, his memory should be cherished and maybe even a bit “embellished”.

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