Homespun Wit and Wisdom
Davy Crockett is among the rarest of American icons: A legendary hero, explorer, hunter, soldier, pioneer and politician.
“There ain’t no ticks like poly-ticks. Bloodsuckers all.” – Davy Crockett
Ask someone what they know about Davy Crockett and they will probably tell you about his colorful persona as the “King of the Wild Frontier,” mention his celebrated coonskin hat, or refer to his valiant final stand at The Alamo.
But diving deeper, you will find that Crockett was a complex man whose untold stories as a politician, soldier, and businessman are just as riveting and impressive as the fabled ones made famous by the popular 1950s movie.
If you try to walk in the footsteps of this iconic frontiersman, you’ll chalk up a lot of miles. You can start with his birthplace which is commemorated at the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park. Located at 245 Davy Crockett Park Road in Limestone, TN., the park features a replica cabin, as well as entire frontier-style farm with a barn, corral and cookfire area to give you an idea of early pioneer life.
The Early Years
Born on August 17, 1786, in Greene County in East Tennessee, Crockett grew up in a country that was in its infancy, and ended up playing a significant role in its survival.
One of nine children born to John Crockett and Rebecca Hawkins, Davy was raised “far back in the back woods” and received very little formal education. He says in his autobiography, first published in 1834, that he stood “no chance to become great in any other way than by accident.”
But the fact that Crockett didn’t have any “book learning” didn’t stop him from being educated in the classroom of life. His first experience away from home occurred at the age of 12 when his father indentured to him to tend cattle on a 400-mile drive to Virginia to help pay for family debts.
He returned after fulfilling the contract, only to run away from home at the age of 13 to escape, what he believed, would be a harsh punishment from both his teacher at school and his father after getting into scrape with another student. Traveling through the wilderness, he performed odd jobs for settlers and wagon drivers—some of whom left him penniless and some of whom helped him along the way.
By the time he returned home at the age of 15, he had changed so much that his family members didn’t recognize him at first. When his sister realized who he was, they all welcomed back with open arms.
Another place to visit is the Crockett Tavern Museum located in Morristown, TN. This museum is a recreation of John Crockett’s (Davy’s father) 1790 tavern, which was both business and home to the Crockett family. It is furnished with authentic household items from Davy’s era and features a gift shop selling Davy Crockett memorabilia.
Falling In Love
A few years after his return home, Crockett met a young Quaker girl and fell head over heels in love. He says in his autobiography: “When I would think of saying anything to her, my heart would begin to flutter like a duck in a puddle; and if I tried to speak, it would get right smack up in my throat and choke me like a cold potato.”
Unfortunately, that girl was already engaged to another man so Crockett had to move on and forget her. After another heartbreak with a young lady who broke her engagement and wed someone else, Crockett found Mary (Polly) Finely in 1806. They were married the day before his 20th birthday.
His life with his wife went along quietly and comfortably for a number of years. Crockett eventually bought land alongside his brother, started a family, and worked on the same cattle ranch he had worked on as a young man.
In September 1813, after hearing about the massacre at Fort Mims in Alabama, Crockett decided to join the war that General Andrew Jackson and the Tennessee militia were waging against the Creek Indians.
By this time the couple had two sons, so Polly, of course, tried to talk him out of it. Crockett told her it was a duty he owed his country, and that furthermore, “If every man would wait till his wife got willing for him to go to war, there would be no fighting done, until we would all be killed in our own houses.”
The conflict took him south to Alabama, where he saw action and considerable bloodshed. He was a fine soldier, but also distinguished himself as a scout, navigator and hunter, often providing food for his regiment. In one incident, Crockett tells the story of being told to go on a scout and choose a man to take with him. The officer in charge immediately discounted the person he chose, saying he didn’t “have beard enough.”
This “nettled” Crockett, because, although it was a young man that he’d chosen, he didn’t think that “courage ought to be measured by the beard, for fear a goat would have the preference over a man.”
The officer relented, and Crockett got the man he wanted.
Crockett served his term and took a short furlough at home before hearing about an army being raised to go to Pensacola as part of the War of 1812. “I wanted a small taste of British fighting, and I supposed they would be there.”
Here again the entreaties of his wife were thrown away, “for I always had a way of just going ahead at whatever I had a mind to.”
The war didn’t last much longer, and he was welcomed home with open arms by his small family when he returned in December of 1814. “Though I was only a rough sort of a backwoodsman, they seemed mighty glad to see me... For I do reckon we love as hard in the backwoods country, as any people in the whole creation.”
The reunion with his wife proved to be short-lived, when the “hardest trial which ever falls to the lot of man” occurred. Polly died in the early spring of 1815 shortly after their third child was born. She was 27 years old.
“Death...entered my humble cottage and tore from my children an affectionate good mother, and from me a tender and loving wife.”
Deeply affected by the loss, Davy invited his youngest brother and his family to live with him, but with two young sons and an infant daughter, he knew he needed a mother for his children.
After a time, he “bargained” with a widow woman with two children of her own, and then got married. “In a great deal of peace we raised our first crop of children, then had a second crop (three more) together.”
Life in Politics
Crockett’s first taste of serving in office came when he was appointed as magistrate in Shoal Creek, a place that was lawless and unruly.
“If anyone was charged with marking his neighbor’s hogs or stealing anything, which happened pretty often—I would have him taken and if there was tolerable grounds for the charge, I would have him well whip’d and cleared.”
His next adventure was offering his name for the Legislature in Lawrence and Heckman counties. “It now became necessary that I should tell the people something about the government and an eternal sight of other things that I know’d nothing more about than I did about Latin and law.”
This required Crockett to “campaign,” something he had never had to do. “The thought of having to make a speech made my knees fell might weak, and set my heart to fluttering.” At one of his first events, Crockett got up and told the people that he reckoned “they know’d what he came for, but if not, I have come for your votes, and if you don’t watch mighty close, I’ll get them too.”
After telling a humorous anecdote, Crockett remarked that he was as dry as a powder horn, and that he thought it was time for everyone to wet their whistle. “And so I put off for the liquor stand, and was followed by the greater part of the crowd,” leaving the other politicians with no one to address.
The frontiersman was elected to Tennessee’s State Legislature in 1821, and to the United States House of Representatives in 1827. His unique style of mixing tall tales with frank speech, made him popular with his constituents, but not so much with his fellow politicians. They especially disliked his blunt disregard for voting along party lines, a customary practice that he publicly scorned and flatly rejected, saying: “I know nothing, by experience, of party discipline. I would rather be a raccoon-dog...than to belong to any party.”
Although he had very little formal education—in fact, barely knew how to read—Crockett did not feel like that held him back as a legislator. “I gave my decisions on the principles of common justice and honesty between man and man, and relied on natural born sense, not on law to guide me.”
For The People
Crockett was especially vocal about the way the government spent the people’s money. Even though he was very generous and compassionate to those who were in need, he did not believe it was the duty of Congress to provide relief to everyone who asked for it. “We must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. We have the right as individuals to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money.”
He went on to say, “I want people to be able to get what they need to live: enough food, a place to live, and an education for their children. Government does not provide these as well as private charities and businesses.”
In another interesting anecdote about the use of public funds, Crockett suggested, that since Congress provided lemonade to its members and charged it under the heading of stationery, then “I move also that whiskey be allowed under the item of fuel.”
Not a Dog
Crockett ran for his first term as a Democrat and as a supporter of President Andrew Jackson, whom he had served with during the Creek War. But he later moved away from Jackson’s policies—especially Jackson’s tough stance against the Native Americans—and eventually ran as a Whig. He was the only member of the Tennessee delegation to vote against the Indian Removal Act, which became law in 1830, showing his courage to stand up for his beliefs rather than go with the crowd.
Crockett went on to lose the next race in 1834 to a lawyer who had gained the president’s favor. As always, Crockett was outspoken, frank and blunt about his views. “I would rather be beaten and be a man than to be elected and be a little puppy dog. I have always supported measures and principles and not men. I have acted fearless and independent and I never will regret my course.”
Crockett also made his now-famous quote about going to Texas, after the loss of that election. What is not as well known is that Adam Huntsman, the man who won the election, had lost a leg fighting Indians and wore a peg-leg. Crockett’s full comment was, “Since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to Hell and I will go to Texas.”
He defended his votes and his principles throughout his career and paid a heavy price for it. “The time will and must come when honesty will receive its reward, and when the people of this nation will be brought to a sense of their duty, and will pause and reflect how much it cost us to redeem ourselves from the government of one man.”
The Road to Texas
In late 1835, Crockett made his way to Texas with a group of volunteers, and arrived in early 1836. Morale at the Alamo is said to have increased at having such a famous man join them.
Crockett was at the Alamo on the morning of March 6, 1836, when the Mexican president and General Santa Anna attacked with overwhelming numbers. In 90 minutes they had overrun the Alamo, killing all inside. Some say Crockett was taken alive and later executed. Other historical sources, including a former slave who was a cook for one of Santa Anna’s officer, maintained that Crockett’s body was found in the barracks surrounded by “no less than 16 Mexican corpses” with Crockett’s knife buried in one of them.
Crockett’s sacrifice for the cause of Texas’ independence gave the movement momentum at a time when it was most needed. The story of his heroic death, against impossible odds, inspired men from all over the country to continue the fight.
Today, Crockett’s legacy lives on through a town in Texas, a county in Tennessee, and many parks and buildings that bear his name. The Davy Crockett State Park near Lawrenceburg, TN, encompasses the area where Crockett ran a gristmill, distillery and powder mill. It is also where he lived when he served as a justice of the peace and colonel in the state militia.
You can find a life-sized statue of Crockett in Lawrenceburg, TN, the only one that pays tribute to his “backwoods statesman.”
Additionally, you can find out more about Davy Crockett by visiting The Alamo in San Antonio, TX., where he died on March 6, 1836.
Davy’s second wife Elizabeth lived many years after his death at the Alamo. Since most of his storied achievements happened after his first wife’s death, she is buried in a location that time almost forgot. The Tennessee Historical Commission did erect a large marker along US 64, a few miles away.
The grave of his second wife, on the other hand, is complete with a marble headstone and a statue. Elizabeth spent the last six years of her life in Texas, the place her husband had gone to make his fortune. On the morning of Jan. 31, 1860, wearing the widow’s black she had worn since first learning of her husband’s death, Elizabeth left her cabin to take a walk and shortly fell dead at the age of 72.
She is buried in the small town of Acton, Texas, about five miles outside of Granbury. A statue of Elizabeth Crockett appears to be looking for her husband in the distance.