Professor Donald Elder: Davy Crockett

Mar 24, 2015 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Davy Crockett


Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder- we are now moving past the War of 1812 and into the expansion westward of America. Davy Crockett is someone who personifies this movement. Where did he grow up and what did he do in his early years?

David Crockett was born on August 17, 1786. His birthplace is now in Tennessee, but at the time it was still part of North Carolina. Interesting, Crockett referred to himself as “David.” It was others who coined the name “Davy” when discussing him. Crockett’s father moved the family frequently, as he was often in debt. As a result of that, Crockett was indentured by his father to neighbors on a number of occasions. When Crockett turned 16, his father decided that he would no longer indenture his son and gave him the freedom to make his own working arrangements. Crockett worked for a man named John Canady for four years.

After marrying Polly Finley in August of 1806, Crockett took up farming. In 1813, a conflict with Native Americans known as the Creek War erupted in the southeastern portion of the United States, and because of this Crockett volunteered for service in the Tennessee militia. After serving two terms in the militia, Crockett returned to civilian life in 1814. In 1817 Crockett moved his family to Lawrence County, Tennessee, and became part of a commission to map the boundaries of that jurisdiction. For his service, Crockett was named the county’s Justice of the Peace in November of that year. In 1818 he won election to the position of lieutenant colonel in a Tennessee militia regiment, and in 1821 he ran successfully for the Tennessee state legislature. He served in that body until 1825, and then made a run for an open seat in the US House of Representatives. He lost that election, but was victorious when he ran again. Crockett served two terms in the House of Representatives, but lost his bid for re-election. Undeterred, Crockett ran again and regained his seat. Unfortunately, he lost the next election, and decided to relocate to Texas. It was there that Crockett would meet his fate at the Alamo.

2) I understand that he actually fought in the War of 1812- what kind of role did he have ? What did he accomplish there?

As previously noted, Crockett joined the Tennessee militia in 1813. This obviously falls into the time period during which the War of 1812 occurred. But Crockett enlisted to specifically fight against Native Americans in the region rather than the British. Thus, it is technically correct to say that Crockett gave military service during, but not in, the War of 1812. While serving in the militia, Crockett appears to have spent most of his terms in the militia either scouting for the army or trying to locate food for his fellow militiamen.

3) We have all heard that he was ” King of the Wild Frontier”. But what facts do historians have about his exploits and endeavors?

Crockett was by all accounts a very good hunter, and as evidenced by his service in the military he had formidable skills as a scout. But much of the legend of Davy Crockett comes from stories that he told on the campaign trail that were more than likely embellished. Much as would be the case with Kit Carson, the actual accomplishments of Davy Crockett as a frontiersman, while in and of themselves impressive, were not as astounding as the stories made them out to be.

4)  I believe that he was elected two or three times to the House of Representatives. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments in that regard?

From the standpoint of enacting legislation, Crockett has to be judged a failure as a congressman. Indeed, virtually no piece of legislation that he introduced was ever passed. But Crockett earns high marks from many for his courageous opposition in 1831 to the Indian Removal Act. Crockett thought that the Native Americans of the southeastern portion of the United States were entitled to the land they had always lived on, and was the only representative from Tennessee to vote against their forced relocation. This cost him in the next election, but Crockett never regretted his stance on that issue.

5) And lastly, he died at the Alamo, during the Texas revolution. Can you provide a synopsis as to what led up to the Alamo, and the ramifications of the Alamo?

After the French had attempted to establish a colony in present-day Texas in 1689, Spanish authorities moved the following year to establish a presence in that area. Their first effort at colonization, but a second attempt in 1716 proved more successful. In 1718, the city of San Antonio was founded, but there were few other Spanish settlements there when the Mexican Revolution started in 1810. Spanish efforts to retain control of Texas were largely successful, but since they largely failed in their attempt to suppress the revolution elsewhere in Mexico they were forced to cede control of that country in 1821. Texas then became a province of Mexico. Upon taking control of Texas, the Mexican government learned that Spanish authorities had given land grants to an American named Stephen F. Austin. The new Mexican government decided to honor the Spanish land grant, and in the next decade thousands of Americans moved to Texas. According to Mexican law, these settlers were obligated to convert to Catholicism and learn Spanish, but by and large these legal requirements were never enforced. All this changed during the 1830s. Wary of the growing American presence in Texas, the Mexican government enacted a series of measures designed to make living in Texas less attractive to Americans, such as a stricter enforcement of the provisions for settlers regarding religion and language. In addition, Mexico outlawed slavery, and since most Americans who moved to Texas owned slaves it was hoped that this would cause Americans to think twice about moving to or living in Texas. All these measures did, however, was to make the 30,000 Americans living in Texas restive under Mexican control. The tipping point in the relationship between Texas and Mexico came when a new ruler, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, attempted to move the Mexican government from federalism to centrism. This caused a number of individuals in Texas, many of them Hispanic, to rebel against Mexico’s policies. Initially, the rebellion seemed to be designed to cause the Mexican government to revoke its unpopular laws, but it soon turned into a struggle to achieve independence for the province. The first battle of the revolution took place in October of 1835. Crockett arrived in Texas three months later. It appears that Crockett had thought about moving to Texas over a year before the revolution started; thus his arrival at the time of the revolution was merely coincidental. Crockett offered his services to the provisional government of Texas, and then proceeded to San Antonio. The rebels had fortified a Spanish mission in that city known as the Alamo, and the garrison had decided to defy orders to abandon the installation. Crockett had only been at the Alamo for two weeks when a Mexican army under the command of Santa Anna showed up unexpectedly.

The garrison decided to try to hold the Alamo until reinforcements could arrive, and in the next few days repulsed a number of probing attacks. But the Mexican force outnumbered the defenders approximately ten-to-one, and ultimately on March 6, 1836 they succeeded in capturing the Alamo. Accounts of the end of the battle differ on one detail. Some witnesses assert that every defender died during the course of the battle, but some accounts suggest that a few defenders surrendered and were then executed. One such account, supposedly written by a Mexican officer, stated that Crockett was one of the defenders who surrendered. Most historians, however, believe that this account was either fabricated or exaggerated. They believe instead that Crockett died in the actual fight for the Alamo. This is certainly the version that most Americans embrace, especially those who have seen the movies or television shows that have portrayed the life of Crockett. Until conclusive evidence to the contrary is offered, this is the version that will continue to be the most accepted narrative.

6) What have I neglected to ask ?

In the television series about Crockett that was created by Walt Disney during the 1950s, he famously says “be sure that you’re right, and then go ahead.” These are words that actually appear in Crockett’s autobiography, and it appears that he largely lived up to his motto. So, for once, the Hollywood version of a hero seems to be very close to the truth.

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