TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom
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David Crockett


David Crockett was born on Aug. 17, 1786–not on a mountaintop, but along the banks of the Nolichucky River in Greene County. He was the fifth of six sons and one daughter born to John and Rebecca Crockett.
John Crockett was a well-known figure in the region and a veteran of Kings Mountain. The local pioneer businessman soon moved his family from the Limestone Community to present day Hamblen County. He built a building in the county that soon turned into a Tavern for passersby on the way west or towards the boom city of Knoxville. David and his family worked hard on the frontier making a living.
When he was 12, David’s father suddenly passed away David was forced to take on the responsibility of tending to his family. His father had left the family in debt and, knowing no other way, David left his home and moved to Baltimore to work for the man his father owed. From 12 to 15-years-old, Crockett lived the rugged life of a cattle driver. During that time, he received only a modest education, but began developing a common-sense wit about him that made him a quick study of people and circumstance. It took him close to two years in the harbor town to pay off his father’s debt and start home to Tennessee. It was an experience that would show Crockett a different side of America and influence him the rest of his life.



When David returned, he had no interest in trying his hand at the Tavern business, and was forced to hunt and trap to make a living. Crockett soon began to pick up a reputation as a woodsman and was highly regarded as a guide. He married Polly Findley when he was still a teenager and continued to live in Jefferson County until he was 25. Two of his sons were born there before Crockett moved west to Franklin County. Following the birth of his daughter, Crockett left on a hunting trip and, while he was away, Polly Crockett fell ill and died.
In the War of 1812, he decided to join General Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee militia and served as a scout against the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend and against the British in New Orleans. During that time, a maturing David Crockett proved to be a valuable member of Jackson’s Army. He was a shrewd thinker and his ability to act under fire and fight made him a natural scout.
Crockett eventually remarried a lady named Elizabeth Patton and moved to upper west Tennessee around the rugged country of Reelfoot Lake. His reputation as a woodsman continued to grow as David made a living hunting in the wilderness of Tennessee. It was still a day in the region where a man’s ability to survive in the wilderness was highly regarded. Those who exceeded the norm of experienced pioneers earned a kind of respect that is hard to explain. It wasn’t just the ability to live off of the land that counted. A person was expected to be able to deal with outlaws, wild animals, and local Native American tribes in order to carve a living out of the wilderness. Those who did not were often killed or maimed. Crockett’s reputation as a common sense individual and his homespun wit appealed to the locals in his community. In 1821, he made a run for the state legislature and won. He so impressed the people that they returned him to the state house two years later as their representative.
Three years later, Crockett decided to toss his hat into the ring for a Congressional seat. After a colorful campaign, he was elected to Congress and Crockett began to gain a nationwide reputation. As a federal representative, Crockett worked to guarantee his people the right to keep land on which they had settled before the area was opened by the Federal Government to homesteaders.
During this time, Crockett became angered over President Andrew Jackson’s Indian policies and tried to rally support against them in the house. His frontier wit proved to be a dangerous thing for President Jackson. The Tennessee Congressman was an avowed man of principals and dedicated his life to the frontier values of freedom and liberty. He believed in the individual’s right to do as he or she pleased so long as it didn’t harm another person or their property.
The other Tennessee House members, however, were Jackson supporters and rigorously opposed Crockett’s intervention and his speaking out against the President. In the 1831 campaign for Congress, they fought against his reelection to the house and succeeded, but the frontiersman fought back and was reelected to Congress in 1833. Crockett continued to oppose Jackson and attacked the President fiercely in his autobiography. Crockett, like thousands of Tennesseans, despised the President’s treatment and removal of the Cherokee and took every opportunity available to denounce it. The Whig Party was taken with the Tennessean and David Crockett had developed such a national appeal that he was soon speaking to groups around the young country trying to counteract Jackson’s populist appeal among rural people. In addition, the Whig’s published numerous books supposedly written by Crockett that continued to sell their party’s platform and hammer Jackson’s policies. There was even talk of Crockett becoming a candidate for Vice-President on the Whig ticket.
Crockett earned some powerful enemies in Tennessee. When he ran for reelection, President Andrew Jackson threw his support behind a Democratic candidate and saw to it that the frontiersman was not reelected in the Congressional race of 1834.
Following his defeat, Crockett returned to the pioneer life and soon became bored with it. Depressed and somewhat disgusted with politics and the Washington power structure– Crockett and his entourage left Memphis and rode west toward the Texas territory. The promise of new lands had already drawn numerous Tennesseans to the region to settle. Among them, were Crockett’s old friends Jim Bowie and Sam Houston, who was making a name for himself as a leader in the territory.
Mexico had thrown off Spanish colonial rule and under the dictatorship of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was trying to rein in the Texas rebellion. Whether it was fate or bad luck, former Tennessee Congressman David Crockett found himself at the Franciscan Mission near San Antonio known as the Alamo.
He rode in unexpectedly on Feb. 8, 1836 at the head of a dozen sharpshooters he called the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers. Crockett was 49-years-old and his arrival with his fiddle and the long rifle he called "Betsy" touched off a wild party in the Alamo. Travis offered him command of the Alamo, but Crockett turned him down in a stirring speech.
"I have come to aid you all that I can in your noble cause," said Crockett, "and all the honor that I desire is that of defending as a high private the liberties of our common country."
Word had come to Alamo Commander Lieutenant Colonel William Travis that Santa Anna was bearing down on the fort with 5,000 seasoned campaigners. Santa Anna’s men had been quelling rebellions throughout the Mexican territory and were now marching on Texas to deal with the uprisings and pull it back under Mexican rule.
With Santa Anna’s brutal reputation preceding him, Travis felt he had no option but to pull his men back into the Mission along with their families and wait for Santa Anna to arrive. He knew the Texas Army was still trying to pull itself together, but felt his men could hold them off long enough to allow the army to mount a relief effort.
On Feb. 23, 1836, General Santa Anna arrived in San Antonio with his Army.
Texans and their Mexican friends fled to the Alamo for protection. At the sight of the Army, Travis began deploying his men around the fortress. Crockett went to Travis when he saw the activity.
"And here I am Colonel," said Crockett, "assign me to some place and I and my Tennessee boys will defend it alright."
Travis posted Crockett and his men at a newly built wall on the southeastern side of the mission between the church and the low barracks where he felt the mission was most vulnerable. From the Alamo walls, Travis and his men saw Santa Anna raise the tri-color flag of Mexico–a sign they all knew meant that the Mexican Army would offer no quarters to those captured. General Santa Anna pulled his 5,000-man-army into formation around the Alamo Mission and sent a detachment forward with his demands that the Texans holding the mission surrender or he would attack.
William Travis immediately replied; "I shall never surrender or retreat. It will either be victory or death."
General Santa Anna took the message in stride and fell back to organize his assault on the mission. Crockett and his Tennesseans took up their position on the southeast wall of the mission and readied themselves for a fight.
On Feb. 24, General Santa Anna’s Army fired the first shots and began the Army’s Napoleonic march towards the mission.
The Army ran full scale into seasoned frontiersmen who sent them reeling backwards with a steel curtain of bullets and canon fire. The Alamo volunteers were veterans of Indian wars, outlaws, and countless skirmishes with the Mexican Army. They knew how to fight from the most vulnerable position and in the worst of conditions. They were not peasants armed with pitchforks, but individual fighters used to being outnumbered and outgunned.
For the next ten days, the Mexican Army and the garrison of 200 men traded shots and canon fire. When the Mexican Army would advance, the Texans would beat them back and among the deadliest fire from the Alamo was the southeastern wall defended by Crockett. Mexican Officer Captain Rafael Soldana later described a man firing from the southeast wall.
"He was a tall man with buckskin clothes and flowing hair who was dressed differently from the others," said Soldano. "This man would rest his long gun and fire, and we all learned to keep a good distance when he was seen to make ready to shoot. He rarely missed his mark, and when he fired he always rose to his feet and calmly reloaded his gun, seemingly indifferent to shots fired at him by our men. He had a strong resonant voice and often railed at us. This man I later learned was known as ‘Kwocket’."
Regardless of how good their marksmanship or how determined the Texans were in defending the Alamo, the mission fell to the Mexicans on March 6,1836. To the tune of "Deguello"–the "fire and death" call that signaled total destruction, General Santa Anna dispatched his reserves towards the walls. When the Mexicans surged over the walls, Crockett, his men, and the rest of the defenders went hand to hand with the overwhelming numbers. Some of the gunners had filled their canons with old horseshoes, grapeshot, anything that would fire and turned it loose on the Mexicans sending wave after wave of charging soldiers into the Texas dirt. The carnage of the fight was unbelievable. All 186 defenders inside the Alamo were killed, including famed Tennessean David Crockett.
A Mexican sergeant named Felix Nunez later described the actions of a man identified only as a member of the Tennessee force defending the southeastern wall.
"He was a tall American of rather dark complexion and had on a long buckskin coat and a round cap without any bill, made out of fox skin with the long tail hanging down his back," said Nunez. "This man apparently had a charmed life. Of the soldiers who took deliberate aim at him and fired, not one ever hit him. On the contrary, he never missed a shot. He killed at least eight of our men, besides wounding several others. This being observed by a lieutenant, who had come in over the wall, he sprang at him and dealt him a deadly blow just above the right eye, which felled him to the ground. In an instant, he was pierced by not less than 20 bayonets."
David Crockett’s last action at the Alamo turned him into a full-fledged American icon. While reports would later say that Crockett was among a handful of survivors who were executed by General Santa Anna, his memory would continue to ignite American sentiments and turn the tide of public opinion towards supporting the Texas cause. What happened following his death is not known and his grave has, to this day, never been found.



Following the defeat of Santa Anna’s Army and Texas Independence, a Nashville publisher put out the first edition of the "Davy Crockett Almanac" and it was a huge success in no small part due to Crockett’s martyrdom at the Alamo. Over the next 20 years, various publishers put out over 55 issues of the Almanac, which included so many tall tales about the Tennessean’s exploits, that he faded into the background of American folklore as almost a mythic figure. David Crockett’s death was a huge motivating factor in Tennesseans who volunteered for the Mexican War, especially when General Santa Anna left Cuban exile to lead the Mexicans.
There are few books written about the Tennessean, but his autobiography is still considered a classic on frontier humor and the day. The David Crockett Birthplace Museum in the Greene County community of Limestone is open year round. It features a log cabin on the banks of the Nolichucky River and an interpretive center featuring numerous artifacts of David Crockett’s belongings. The State Historic Site is open year round from 8:30 a.m. to sunset.
While many films and broadcast programs about David Crockett exist, including the famous Walt Disney production, historians at the park run a copy of the film "The Alamo" with John Wayne as David Crockett. Historians, who have studied Crockett and his life, claim Wayne’s portrayal of the Tennessean is among the most accurate Hollywood ever produced.
In addition, there is a flag monument on the Park grounds between the Center and the cabin. The bricks in the circular monument were donated by all 50 states in America in order to build a national shrine to the Tennessean.
The David Crockett Tavern in Morristown is also a good interpretive center of Crockett’s life and features numerous historical artifacts of the day.
Across the state, you will find numerous statues and monuments commemorating David Crockett, including a west Tennessee county named in his honor, however, there are many myths that continue to this day. Crockett was a man who often wore the traditional top hat of the day rather than the coonskin cap he was often portrayed as favoring.
Many high school students doing research papers on the Tennessean and seeking background information on his life and later years have found some historical revisionism that is not true about Crockett. In addition to the old myths we have all heard, I learned that some recent history textbooks have labeled him in their "discussion sessions" as an Indian oppressor. They cited Crockett’s service with Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend as proof–seeming to pay no attention to the fact that, without the Cherokee, America would have suffered two or three times the casualties against the British-backed "Red Stick" Creeks or that Crockett’s Congressional stance against the President’s Indian removal policy helped cost him his seat in the House.
Crockett, like most famous people, was a product of his time and his upbringing. He was a skilled communicator and rough-and-tumble frontiersman with little formal education, but one who knew how to lead and when to serve. Through both actions, he earned the most coveted spot in any nation’s history– a position of Homeric stature that would provide America with a man whose life would become the subject of songs and legends for countless generations.