|Narrative of the Life of David Crockett . . .
Written by himself
Many Americans grew up with an image of Davy Crockett as a hero of the Tennessee backwoods, who slew bears, fought Indians and enchanted Washington congressmen with his home-spun humor and common sense. This Disneyesque Crockett, portrayed by television actor “Fess” Parker, pales beside the vivid words and astonishing deeds of Crockett’s autobiography.
The Rare Collections of the State Library of Pennsylvania contain a copy of the Carey and Hart edition of Crockett’s autobiography published in Philadelphia in 1834. This early narrative follows the Tennessee born frontiersman from his experiences of childhood through to his involvement in Tennessee politics and in the U.S. Congress. His marriages, involvement with the Creek War and hunting exploits are included. Although Crockett claims that the biography was “Written by himself,” it actually was co-written with his House colleague Thomas Chilton, the Representative of Kentucky.1
Crockett prefaces his autobiography with a statement that sheds considerable light on his character and outlook: “Fashion is a thing I care mighty little about, except when it happens to run just exactly according to my own notion . . .” The author was first and foremost, his own man. He states that his reason for writing the biography was to redress the injustice done to his name, and to correct “the catchpenny errors” about him contained in an earlier unauthorized biography.2 Such intrigue is, doubtless, something readers would not expect to find in a biography of a famous frontiersman. Although Crockett had not actively sought fame, he clearly intended to defend the reputation he had built.
Like many prominent nineteenth-century public figures, Crockett felt the need to establish his pedigree. Born to Irish-American parents on August 17, 1786, David’s father John had fought in the War for American Independence at the battle of King’s Mountain. Crockett also mentions that his grandparents were killed by Indians, who had kidnapped his uncle Joseph and held him for over seventeen years. David was the fifth of six sons, but he also had three sisters. The family moved to Morristown, Tennessee in the Southwest Territory, where his father opened a tavern in the early 1790s.
In chapter two Crockett relates the story of his early life and the circumstances in which he left home at thirteen years of age. Crockett’s father had sacrificed to send the thirteen-year old David and his brothers to a small country school. After only four days (when he “had just began to learn my letters a little”), the boy found himself bullied by a larger, older boy. On the way home that evening David lay in wait for the bully, and thrashed him thoroughly. The following day David decided to skip school to avoid a whipping from his teacher. After an absence of several days, the teacher sent a note home, inquiring about the boy. His father threatened to beat the boy even more severely than the school master, and picking up “a two-year-old hickory” pursued him at top speed for about a mile. Crockett finally eluded his father and hired himself out (along with one of his brothers) to a neighbor, who was about to begin a cattle drove to Virginia.3
David returned to Tennessee, but did not return home. Over the next three years the adolescent roamed the states of Tennessee, Virginia and Maryland, hiring himself to various wagoners with whom he “was disposed to scrape up a hasty acquaintance.” Just before his sixteenth birthday Crockett returned home to his family’s tavern, but he had grown so much his family failed to recognize him among the other lodgers. When they were called for supper, his oldest sister Betsy “recollected me; . . sprung up, ran and seized me around the neck.” His family was overjoyed to see the boy and welcomed him back.4
Crockett’s father, who was in debt, subsequently hired out David to pay off a debt to Abraham Wilson. Once the note was paid, his father gave him leave to go. Instead, the boy offered to work off a second debt his father owed to a North Carolina Quaker named John Kennedy. After working off the debt, David continued to work for Kennedy, this time keeping the wages for himself. 5
Marriage, Family and Scouting in the Creek War
Initially disappointed in love when his engagement to a young Quaker woman
named Margaret Elder fell through, Crockett met and married Mary (Polly) Finley on
August 16, 1806 in Jefferson County, Tennessee, just before his twentieth birthday. The couple had two sons and a daughter. David says that his wife Polly was an excellent weaver, and good “at almost anything else a woman can do.” Crockett tried farming with little success, and this made hunting a necessity. When game proved scarce, he moved his family to Lincoln County. Several years later they moved to Franklin County and settled on the Beans Creek, where they remained until after the close of the Creek War. He says that it was in Lincoln County that he first distinguished himself as a hunter. He found deer and smaller animals in abundance, but bear not so plentiful.6
When the Creek (Civil) War broke out in 1813 the Crockett family was living in Winchester, Tennessee. He recalls that few people had any experience of war. Although he couldn’t imagine beforehand fighting in this manner, news of the Indian massacre at Fort Mimms that August immediately prompted him to go. He says, “I had none of the dread of dying that I expected to feel.” Poly begged him not to go, since she and her children were strangers in the area with no nearby relatives; however, Crockett reasoned that if the Creek Indians had murdered his fellow citizens in Fort Mimms, it would not be long before they “would be scalping women and children all about.”
He initially signed up for a term of 60 days, but remained afterward and was discharged only on March 27, 1814. He went to Winchester where the muster was to be, joining the Second Regiment of the Tennessee Volunteer Mounted Riflemen under Colonel John Coffee and marched south into present day Alabama. Because of his skills as a hunter, trapper and woodsman, Crockett was made a scout, and he supported the hungry militia troops with the game he killed. 7
In the summer of 1815 death claimed Crockett’s wife Polly, who had given birth to a daughter named Margaret. Despite the wrenching loss of “an affectionate good mother, and . . . a tender and loving wife,” the ever practical woodsman concluded that “it wouldn’t do, but that I must have another wife.” He didn’t look far, since in the neighborhood lived a widow named Patton with a son and a daughter, whose husband had been killed in the recent war. She was “a good industrious woman” with a “snug little farm”. Crockett thought that since they were both in the same predicament, they might be able “to do something for each other.” He began the courtship and quickly discovered that his “company” did not disagree with her. Describing the calculated and mutual transaction, he says that “I thought I could treat her children with so much friendship as to make her a good stepmother to mine.” It was not Sergeant Crockett, who married the Widow Patton, but Lieutenant Crockett, who had been elected an officer in the 32nd Regiment of the State Militia. His second marriage was a solemn affair with a minister officiating. The union was successful, since they raised their “first crop of children” and had a “second crop” together.8
The autumn following his marriage to Elizabeth Patton, Crockett joined three neighbors, Robinson, Frazier and Rich, in exploring a new territory, crossing the Tennessee River into Creek country in Alabama. But the expedition was a catastrophe. One of his comrades was bitten by a venomous snake and had to be left behind. The next evening the party’s horses broke loose. Finally, after pursuing the horses unsuccessfully on foot for over fifty miles, Crockett gave up the chase, and set up camp for the night. The next morning he awoke with a terrible nausea, which he thought either pleurisy or cholera. After the standard treatment of the era (bloodletting), he was unable to catch up with his companions and nearly died. Some passing Indians found him delirious and took him to the nearest house. The next day two Tennessee neighbors took him with them to meet his original party but his persistently high fever made further travel impossible. His friends took him to the house of Jesse Jones, then took their leave. Although Crockett lay near death for nearly two weeks, he began to recover. A passing wagoner, who lived twenty miles from Crockett’s home agreed to take him back home to Tennessee. To the astonishment of his friends and family Crockett arrived home pale and withered. 9
Crockett the Backwoods Politician
In the fall of 1817 Crockett once again went exploring—this time to the new western territory that would become Lawrence County, Tennessee. Crockett liked the area so much that he moved his family there, settling at the head of Shoal Creek. He says they “remained here for two or three years, without any law at all.” This legal vacuum attracted many “bad characters,” but it also provided an opportunity for Crockett to involve himself in local government. Crockett’s biographer, James Shackford, says that Crockett was appointed justice of the peace on November 25, 1817. At first the largely illiterate Crockett depended on his constable to draft warrants until “by care and attention I improved my handwriting in such as manner as to be able to prepare my warrants, and keep my record book without much difficulty.” Even though he says he had “never read a page in a law book in all my life,” Crockett’s rulings were never appealed, and had they been, he was confident that “they would have stuck like wax”. Crockett recalls that “I gave my decisions on the principles of common justice and honesty between man and man.” He relied on “natural born sense,” rather than “law learning”. Evidently, he performed his duties with competence and fairness, since his popularity grew and he was elected Colonel of the Lawrence County militia regiment. Also, in early 1818 he was appointed one of the town commissioners of Lawrenceburg.10
At the end of 1819 Crockett resigned as justice of the peace. A year later he also resigned as Commissioner of Lawrenceville. The reason was that he intended to run for the Tennessee State Legislature as representative for Lawrence and Hickman Counties. After taking a drove of horses to lower North Carolina in the spring, he “set out electioneering, which was a bran-fire new business to me.”11 Although inexperienced in government at the state level, he was shrewd, had good instincts and was a master story-teller.
Shackford explains that Crockett realized “these backwoods people really wanted to relieve their sense of isolation . . . and to satisfy their hunger for social companionship.” They did not want enlightenment, but entertainment.”12 And he was well equipped to supply it. He caught the crowd’s attention with a homely metaphor, comparing himself to an empty cider barrel; then invited them for a drink at the liquor stand. Later at a gathering in the town of Vernon that included candidates for Governor and Congress, Crockett waited until the other “big candidates” wore out the listeners with long speeches about government matters. Then, he got up and told “some laughable story,” and simply quit. The formula was a success, and he received more than twice as many votes as his competition.
After the Legislature convened in the capitol of Murfreesboro, Crockett met James K. Polk, clerk of the State Senate. Polk was later elected a member of Congress from Tennessee. Throughout the remainder of his political career—in the Tennessee Legislature and in Congress—Crockett served alongside Polk. Shortly after his arrival in the capitol, Crockett had an unpleasant surprise when he learned he was broke! Crockett had built a grist and powder mill, as well as a large distillery worth $3,000. After his departure for Murfreesboro, a flood swept both mills away. Only twelve days into the session Crockett was given a leave of absence to deal with his creditors. He and his wife willingly relinquished all of their property. Nevertheless, the lawsuits related to their bankruptcy were not resolved until April of the following year. Crockett remained long enough in the Legislature to cast his vote for General William Carroll for Governor, since at the time governors and senators were elected by the Legislature. 13
Returning home after the House adjourned on November 17, Crockett took his oldest son John Wesley and another young man named Abram Henry and set out for the Obion River in western Tennessee. He selected a spot for a new cabin seven miles from the nearest house, about a mile from the Rutherford’s Fork on the southernmost branch of the Obion then in Carroll County. The area was “complete wilderness,” full of Indians and game of every kind. In Crockett’s words, this “suited me exactly, as I was always fond of hunting.” After quickly building a new cabin, Crockett, his son and the rest of his party shifted between the activities of clearing, planting corn and hunting game. Before returning to Lawrence County in the early spring of 1822, Crockett had killed ten bears and numerous deer. He laid out his corn crop, then returned the 150 miles east to his family.14
Before he could move his family west to their new homestead in Carroll County, Crockett needed to settle the law suits related to his default. He also found that he had been summoned to attend a “call session” of the Legislature. During the spring and summer of 1822 he managed to sell his Lawrence County property to pay his creditors and attend to his legislative responsibilities before moving the family west to Carroll County in September. Arriving at their new homestead, the Crocketts harvested their corn crop by the end of October. Then David set out on the autumn hunt. He was not disappointed. He says that “I found bear aplenty, and indeed, all sorts of game and wild varments, except buffalo.” He hunted until Christmas, when he ran out of powder, but his family was supplied “very well” with wild meat. It might strain our credibility to believe that David killed 105 bears in a single year, during 1822-23, but Shackford said that this is probably accurate, given the incredible fecundity of the area resulting from the earthquakes of 1811, 1812 and 1813. These earthquakes, felt from New Orleans to Boston, felled many trees in western Tennessee. The fallen timbers created the perfect wilderness environment for thriving wildlife and determined hunters.15
On September 15, 1823 Crockett re-entered the Tennessee Legislature to represent the western counties of Humphreys, Perry, Henderson, Carroll and Madison. His name had been proposed without his knowledge or consent; in fact, he first read about his candidacy in the Jackson Pioneer newspaper. His opponent Dr. William E. Butler, Andrew Jackson’s son-in-law, was (in Crockett’s words) “the most talented man I ever run against for any office.” Since Butler was a refined, educated gentleman, David’s strategy was to present him as an “aristocrat” vying to represent backwoodsmen. At a public meeting for Colonel Adam Alexander, a Congressional candidate, Crockett encountered Butler and told him he would beat him at electioneering paid for by “the products of the country,” since he had “industrious children and the best coon-dogs; and they would hunt every night until mid-night to support my election.” He left Butler “both amused and astonished”. Crockett evidently accomplished his purpose, since he believed that he left “the people in a first-rate way, and I was sure I would do good business among them.”16
In the fall of 1824 Crockett made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Congress, opposing Colonel Alexander. Two years later he ran successfully with the secret financial backing of an Alabama friend, probably Major M.B. Winchester, a Memphis merchant soon to be the Postmaster. Crockett had met Winchester after a boating accident on the Mississippi in which Crockett and the men in his company lost control of two rafts carrying wooden staves (for barrels). The boat carrying Crockett sank, while the largest boat broke loose and was never recovered. Despite the loss, including “every particle of clothing, except the little we had on,” David claimed never to feel happier in his life. “I had just made such a marvelous escape , that I had forgot almost anything else” [Chap. XVI. P. 154]. In Shackford’s opinion, the whole incident rebounded to Crockett’s good fortune, making him “the hero of the hour” and winning him friends in Memphis (especially Winchester) who supported his second successful campaign for Congress. In 1827 Crockett entered the U.S. Congress as a Jacksonian Democrat.17
In the final chapter of the autobiography Crockett describes his experiences as a Tennessee congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. After recounting the 1827 campaign and his arrival in Washington, he characterizes his political stance, saying “I was without disguise, the friend and supporter of General Jackson, upon his principles as he had laid them down, and as ‘I understood them,’ [Crockett’s italics] before his election as President.” He says that he worked “pretty well” with the Jackson party and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1829.
After the beginning of his second term in 1829, Crockett says that “I saw, or thought I did, that it was expected of me that I would bow to the name of Andrew Jackson, and follow him in all his motions, and windings, and turnings, even at the expense of my conscience and judgment. Such a thing was new to me, and a total stranger to my principles.” Crockett realized that if he didn’t show the proper obeisance a “hue and cry” would be raised against him, and his political career would be over. The occasion of his split with Jackson was over his “infamous” Indian Removal bill, which Crockett publicly opposed. He told his colleagues in the House of Representatives that “I believed it was a wicked, and unjust measure, and that I should go against it, let the cost be to myself be what it might.” Indeed, Crockett’s opposition to the bill, “a favorite measure of the President,” would cost him his seat in the 1830 election. Afterward, in his 1834 autobiography, he called his vote “a good honest vote,” one of which he would not be ashamed on the day of Judgment. On a more basic level Crockett’s opposition was a matter of pride. In the 1832 election the savvy and defiant Crockett was vindicated and re-elected to his seat. Triumphantly he declares that “The contest was a warm one . . ; but I gained the day, and the Jackson horse was left a little behind.” When the votes were counted, “I had beat Fitz [by] just two hundred and two votes, having made a mash of all their intrigues.”18
Ultimately, Crockett would pay for his defiance by permanently losing his House seat in the 1834 election. In the meantime, he concludes his autobiography with the taunt, “Look at my arms, you will find no party hand-cuff on them. Look at my neck, you will not find any collar with the engraving “MY DOG. Andrew Jackson.” Instead, he stood fast as the people’s “most obedient, very humble servant.” 19
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