By Philip E. Jenks
August 15, 2016 – Davy Crockett was born 230 years ago this Wednesday, August 17.
His birthday was the first historical date I committed to memory, thanks entirely to Walt Disney’s 1954 miniseries, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.
The historical Crockett was a bigger-than-life, self-aggrandizing windbag who lied about his exploits to make money and win votes. Disney’s Crockett was even bigger. Fess Parker, at six feet-six, would have been a head taller than the coonskin Congressman. And a lot about the TV Davy was also fabricated.
If eight-year-old viewers didn’t already know it, it was easy to miss the fact that Davy died at the Alamo. The last scene shows Fess swinging his musket like a fan blade to propel dozens of hapless Mexicans like unfeathered shuttlecocks off the smoking ramparts. When I finally realized, at 9, that Davy died, it was my first sortie into historical reinterpretation. It was many years later that I realized Disney also hid the reality that the Mexican army was defending its legitimate territory against Texian interlopers.
Whatever its shortcomings, however, Disney’s reanimation of the Davy Crockett legend ignited my lifelong love of history. Most of the credit goes to actor Fess Parker, whose laconic portrayal made Davy seem both decent and heroic. Fess played less memorable roles when he was under contract to Disney, and viewers a few years younger than me knew him as TV’s Daniel Boone. I remained a fan of Fess until his death in 2010, and when his grandson created a Facebook account for him, I was one of the first to sign on. Read more about that here.
Between Davy and Dan’l, Fess made a career of creating images of historical figures that were more attractive than the real deals.
But it was Davy himself who was the great myth-maker. He was a politician who believed elections are not lost by underestimating the intelligence of the American voter. His image as an Indian fighter, for example, was largely made up. During the famous Creek uprising of 1813 (immortalized in The Ballad of Davy Crockett), historian Michael Wallis said Davy hunted and foraged food for the troops and saw little action (David Crockett: The Lion of the West). Davy left for home before the war was over and hired a substitute to fight for him.
Back home, Davy set his sights on politics in 1821. He entertained crowds with his tall tales and homespun humor and was elected to the Tennessee Legislature and later to Congress. In Congress he introduced a bill to close the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which he considered free education for the sons of the rich.
Davy’s real claim to historic immortality was being the sole member of the Tennessee delegation to vote against President Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act. This singular act of courage damaged Davy’s dubious reputation as an Indian fighter and he was defeated for reelection in 1835.
From that time on, Davy Crockett devoted his time to promoting A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself, actually a collaboration with Kentucky Representative Thomas Chilton. It was during a book tour that newspapers quoted Davy’s famous message to his constituents, that “they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas.” That declaration sealed his fate. It seems he had every intention, as The Ballad of Davy Crockett puts it, of “follerin’ his legend into the West.”
According to historian Manley F. Cobia, Jr., Davy was followed by large crowds on his way to Texas and he regaled them with speeches about Washington politics and his commitment to Texas Independence. When he arrived in Nacogdoces, Texas, in January 1836, he enlisted as a Texian volunteer in exchange for a promise of 4600 acres of Texas land. Davy arrived at the Alamo in February, 1836.
As is now well known, the little San Antonio mission was placed under siege by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. All we really know is that when the smoke cleared, Davy was dead along with every other Texian. However, some accounts say a half dozen Texians surrendered to the Mexicans before the fighting was over. And some reports suggest Davy was among those who surrendered.
We will never know the truth, but I’m open to the possibility. Davy was in Texas to promote a book, himself, and his future as a landowner. He could have quickly assessed his situation to see how little sense it made to die where he was not famous and in a place that had no apparent strategic importance. I can see how it made sense to surrender.
Unfortunately, Santa Anna was reportedly incensed that his “take no prisoners” order was ignored and he ordered their execution. All they had bought for themselves was a couple more hours of time.
That was 180 years ago last March. As it turns out, it doesn’t really matter how Davy died. There are only a handful of serious historians who know anything about his real life, much of which was camouflaged by fabrications and frontier humor.
For the rest of us, we have the Davy who was played so heroically by Fess, the Davy who believed in justice, who never gave up, who fought for freedom at the Alamo until his last righteous breath.
Okay. Maybe it didn’t really happen that way. But the fact is, in real history, it almost never happens that way.
But 230 years after his birth, we might still remember Davy with fondness for what we think he was and not for what he really was.
So I think we can be excused if we choose to celebrate his birthday Wednesday with a healthy nip of Tennessee bourbon. Or four.
The more we nip, the less likely we will hear the real Davy bragging to us from his grave.