David Crockett Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)
ph_0111206110-Crockett.jpg David Crockett Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The “real” Davy Crockett has all but yielded his place to the more striking images of him created by political manipulators and hero worshipers and to the larger-than-life figure presented by the Walt Disney television series based on the Crockett legend. Even while he was living, Crockett was fast becoming a legend as the bear hunter of the Shakes, the deadly marksman with a lethal grin, the droll yarn-spinner, and the coonskin hero of Whiggism. His death at the Alamo made him a demigod. His motto, Go Ahead, expressed the national sentiment of his America, as he himself was the embodiment of the romantic daring and energy of the frontier.

It was not until he became a magistrate that Crockett learned to read and write. After two terms in the Tennessee legislature, he was sent to Congress in 1827 as a partisan of Andrew Jackson, under whose command he had served as scout in the campaign against the Creek tribes. During his first two terms, he broke with the administration, and in his third he vigorously opposed Jackson’s policy concerning the United States Bank. Defeated for reelection in 1835, Crockett led a group of Tennessee volunteers to Texas, where they all were killed the following year, with William Barret Travis and James Bowie, in the defense of the Alamo.

Aside from a few letters, very little of the works sometimes attributed to Crockett can be ascribed with confidence to his sole authorship. His speeches in Congress were probably touched up by a friend before being recorded, and today it is generally assumed that the biography of Martin Van Buren supposedly by Crockett, published in 1835, was largely the work of another. Both Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett (1833) and Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas (1836), whoever wrote or compiled them, make use of Crockett’s stories and belong to the vast body of legend concerning him and to the tall-tale literary tradition of the American frontier. A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett itself, though bearing signs of another helping hand, is substantially Crockett’s work. Valuable as a general picture of the times, it achieves distinction as a realistic account of frontier life, and its language often attains a classic directness and simplicity.

David Crockett Biography

(19th-Century Biographies)

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

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David Crockett Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Crockett, David. Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee. A facsimile edition with annotations and an introduction by James A. Shackford and Stanley J. Folmsbee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973. The insightful annotations make this the most useful version of Crockett’s autobiography.

Davis, William C. Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Traces the fates of these legendary men.

Derr, Mark. The Frontiersman: The Real Life and the Many Legends of Davy Crockett. New York: William Morrow, 1993. Derr supplies an informative and entertaining narrative of Crockett’s life.

Dorson, Richard M., ed. David Crockett: American Comic Legend. 1939. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977. Helps in understanding the self-made legend.

Hauck, Richard Boyd. Crockett: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. This book contains an excellent biography of Crockett and an analysis of the style and content of his writings.

Kilgore, Dan. How Did Davy Die? College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1978. Kilgore provides a careful analysis of the evidence concerning the way Crockett died.

Lofaro, Michael A., ed. Davy Crockett: The Man, the Legend and the Legacy, 1786-1986. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985. This volume deals mostly with the legends about Crockett, from the early almanacs to Disney’s television version.

Lofaro, Michael A., and Joe Cummings, eds. Crockett at Two Hundred: New Perspectives on the Man and the Myth. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989. This book contains ten scholarly articles on Crockett’s life, death, and writings, along with an extensive bibliography.

Shackford, James Atkins. David Crockett: The Man and the Legend. Edited by John B. Shackford. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956. This is the definitive scholarly biography of Crockett, although it needs to be brought up to date by Kilgore’s book on Crockett’s death.

Shay, Frank. Here’s Audacity! American Legendary Heroes. 1930. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967. Places Crockett in perspective within the American heroic tradition.