Who Was the Real Davy Crockett?
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It’s not hard to find references to Tennessee hero Davy Crockett around the Smoky Mountains. In Gatlinburg, you can play 18 holes at Ripley’s Davy Crockett Mini Golf, a course that is inspired by “the old days” when Crockett “roamed them thar hills”. Downtown Gatlinburg is also home to Crockett’s Breakfast Camp, which is actually named after another local legend, David C. “Crockett” Maples. Additionally, visitors to the area may remember Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey Distillery, which merged with Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine in February, 2016.
All of this Davy Crockett branding in the Smokies begs the question: who was the real man dubbed the “King of the Wild Frontier”? When it comes to Davy Crockett, separating fact from fiction isn’t always easy. A legend in his own time, Crockett inspired a mythology that has grown over the years, as his story was told and embellished in an iconic Disney miniseries, over 20 films, and countless books. To mark Davy Crockett’s 230th birthday, Visit My Smokies has investigated where the Tennessee folk hero ends and the genuine historical figure begins.
A Native Tennessean…Sort Of
One of the most popular parts of the Disney miniseries was its theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”. The infuriatingly catchy tune starts by claiming that Crockett was “born on a mountain top in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free”. While we don’t dispute the natural beauty of our state, Crockett wasn’t born on top of a mountain, and technically, he wasn’t born in Tennessee.
Crockett was born on August 17, 1786 on the banks of the Nolichucky River. While this region is now part of Tennessee, at the time, many people living in the area considered themselves to be citizens of the state of Franklin. Named after Benjamin Franklin, this territory seceded from North Carolina and was seeking recognition as the 14th state in the Union, a bid that Crockett’s father supported. Ultimately, the petition failed, and Franklin was retaken by North Carolina in 1789 and then transferred to the new state of Tennessee in 1796.
A Great Hunter
In the popular imagination, Davy Crockett is thought of as an intrepid frontiersman and daring hunter. According to one famous legend, Crockett killed a bear when he was only three years old.
Of course, there is no evidence that Crockett was mowing down ferocious bears as a toddler. Later in life, however, Crockett did become a very successful professional hunter. In the backwoods of Tennessee, Crockett would stalk black bears and sell their pelts, oil, and meat to support his family. During the winter of 1825 – 26, Crockett boasted that he took out 105 bears in just seven months. Never one to shy away from telling a great story, Crockett also claimed that he once killed a bear in total darkness by plunging a knife into its heart!
When he wasn’t out fighting bears, Crockett could be found fighting in the political arena. After serving in the Tennessee legislature for a number of years, Crockett was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for three non-consecutive terms beginning in 1826.
In popular film depictions of Davy Crockett, much is made of his support for Native American rights. It is true that Crockett doggedly opposed President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, writing in his autobiography, “I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure…I voted against this Indian bill, and my conscience yet tells me that I gave a good honest vote, and one that I believe will not make me ashamed in the day of judgment”. Crockett was the only Tennessean to vote against the bill, and this unpopular decision probably cost him his seat in Congress.
Nevertheless, the plight of the Native Americans was not the major focus of Crockett’s legislative agenda. Most of Crockett’s time in Congress was spent advocating for his poor constituents, many of whom were squatting on land they didn’t own. Unfortunately, Crockett wasn’t a particularly successful politician, failing to pass a single bill during his six years in Washington.
A Hero at the Alamo
Crockett is unique in that he is revered in two states: Tennessee and Texas. After losing reelection in 1835, Crockett famously told surly constituents that “they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas”. A revolution was brewing in Texas, as American settlers pushed for independence from the Mexican government.
Movies usually paint Crockett as a true believer in the revolution who came to Texas for the express purpose of fighting for independence. In reality, Crockett’s motives were probably less inspirational. Despite his fame, Crockett had very little money, so after losing his seat in Congress, he set out in search of greener pastures. Like many Americans of his generation, Crockett headed west to find better land and new opportunities.
Whatever his reasons for coming to Texas, Davy Crockett did not shrink from danger. Just days after his arrival, he swore an oath to the Republic and three months later he found himself at the Battle of the Alamo. Crockett and another 200 men died defending the Alamo Mission in San Antonio from General Santa Anna’s troops. As the most famous man at the Alamo at the time, Crockett’s death garnered a lot of attention and turned him into a legendary figure.
Want to learn more about East Tennessee’s past? Check out these 8 Dates That Changed the History of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!