David Crockett grew up in the poverty-stricken frontier regions of eastern Tennessee, where his father operated a tavern. His formal education was limited to a six-month period during which he worked two days per week for the village schoolmaster in return for board and four days of schooling. Crockett’s manuscript letters prove that he learned basic literacy in the one hundred or so days he attended school, although his spelling was always erratic and his grasp of grammatical rules was uncertain. On August 14, 1806, shortly before his twentieth birthday, he married Mary Finley, with whom he had three children. Crockett moved to central and then west Tennessee in search of better land, supporting his family through subsistence farming and his skill as a hunter.
When the Creek Indian War broke out in 1813, Crockett enlisted and served as a scout until March of 1815, during which time he was promoted to sergeant. Crockett’s duties took him south into Alabama and eventually to Pensacola, Florida. The army was poorly supplied and constantly short of food; Crockett spent much time hunting to help feed his companions. He observed with some bitterness the effect of his lack of social rank when the commander of his regiment ignored his warning that an Indian attack was imminent but acted immediately when an officer reported the same information the next day.
Shortly after Crockett’s return from the war, his first wife died. Within one year he had remarried. His new wife, Elizabeth Patton, was a widow with two young children of her own, as well as a substantial inheritance of cash and slaves. Her funds enabled Crockett to move to Lawrence County and set up a gristmill and a distillery in the spring of 1817. For a while he seemed to prosper, but his businesses did not succeed. In 1831 he had to sell some slaves in order to reduce his debts. Crockett was appointed a justice of the peace by the state of Tennessee in November, 1817. The next year his neighbors elected him colonel of the fifty-seventh regiment of militia in Lawrence County. In 1821 he was elected to the state legislature and was reelected in 1823. He failed to win his bid for Congress in 1825, but in 1827 he went to Washington, D.C., for the first of his three terms in the House of Representatives.
Crockett’s tall tales and backwoods humor entertained and attracted the press, which covered his activities, real or imaginary, in detail and spread his fame across the country. Many of the reports were intentional exaggerations, such as claiming that his reputation as a hunter had spread so wide among the animals that when he aimed his rifle at a treed raccoon the animal meekly climbed down and surrendered, or that while traveling to the 1829 session of Congress he had waded into the Ohio River and towed a disabled steamboat back to shore. He was reputed to have shot forty-seven bears in one month and was said to ride alligators for exercise. When Crockett supported President Andrew Jackson, the Whig papers sneered at him as an example of an uncivilized westerner and alleged that he drank the water from his finger bowl at a White House dinner. After Crockett broke with Jackson, the Whig papers began to compliment him while the Jacksonian press, which had praised his rustic wisdom and virtue, began to attack him.
As much as he enjoyed his celebrity status and was willing to perform the part of the ignorant but shrewd backwoodsman, Crockett took seriously his work as a congressman. He was frustrated by his lack of success in advancing the interests of his subsistence farming constituents. In the state legislature, he had championed the cause of the western Tennessee squatters against the eastern Tennessee landholding aristocrats. In Congress he broke with the Jackson forces when they failed to support his Tennessee Vacant Land Bill, which would have allowed those living on and improving federal lands in western Tennessee to secure title to the land. When Crockett opposed Jackson’s Indian Removal Bill in 1830 and also proposed using federal funds to aid poor American Indians living in his district, the break with Jackson was complete. Jacksonian opposition led to Crockett’s loss in the 1831 election; however, he succeeded in winning a third term in 1833.
After his break with the Jacksonians, Crockett wrote an autobiography with the assistance of Thomas Chilton, a Kentucky congressman who lived in the same Washington, D.C., boarding house as Crockett. Crockett freely acknowledged Chilton’s help and informed his publisher that Chilton was entitled to half the royalties from the work. The book was a campaign autobiography intended to help Crockett’s bid for reelection. Like Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, a copy of which Crockett owned, the work described the rise of a self-made man who overcame hardships to achieve greatness. Crockett’s voice and language dominated the book, which was a fairly accurate account of his life except for some exaggerations about his...