Today is the birthday (1786) of David “Davy” Crockett, folk hero, frontiersman, soldier, and politician. He represented Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives, served in the Texas Revolution, and died at the Battle of the Alamo.
When I was about 4 years old my father bought me this record (78 rpm – yes, I’m that old). So, Davy and I go way back. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ACYcD1ce5E The song, and later Disney’s television series, perpetuates a mostly false image of Crockett based on the 1950s ideology of a wholesome U.S. built by rugged pioneers who cleared the land of trees and those troublesome Injuns so that good, honest, hardworking (white) settlers could build homesteads that would eventually evolve into suburbs just right for Beaver and his family. As I endlessly try to explain, the truth is much more complex.
The Crocketts were of mixed Irish, English, Scottish and French-Huguenot ancestry. The earliest known paternal ancestor was Gabriel Gustave de Crocketagne, whose son Antoine de Saussure Peronette de Crocketagne was given a commission in the Household Troops under French King Louis XIV. Antoine married Louise de Saix and emigrated to Ireland with her, changing the family name to Crockett. Their son Joseph Louis was born in Ireland and married Sarah Stewart. Joseph and Sarah emigrated to New York, where their son William David was born in 1709. He married Elizabeth Boulay. William and Elizabeth’s son David was born in Pennsylvania and married Elizabeth Hedge. They were the parents of John, the father of Davy. Got it?
John was born c. 1753 in Frederick County, Virginia. The family moved to Tryon County, North Carolina c. 1768 and then in 1776, to northeast Tennessee, to the area now known as Hawkins County. John married Rebecca Hawkins in 1780 and their son David (Davy) was born August 17, 1786 in what is now Greene County, Tennessee (at the time part of North Carolina), close to the Nolichucky River, near the community of Limestone. When Davy was 12 years old, his father indentured him to Jacob Siler to help with the Crockett family indebtedness. David helped tend Siler’s cattle on a 400-mile trip to near Natural Bridge in Virginia. He was well treated and paid for his services, but after several weeks in Virginia decided to return home to Tennessee. The next year, John enrolled his sons in school. After a fight with a fellow student, Davy gave up on school and ran away from home. He did odd jobs for a while but in 1802 he journeyed by foot back to his father’s home in Tennessee. His father was in debt to Abraham Wilson for $36, so Davy was hired out to Wilson to pay off the debt. Later, Crockett worked off a $40 debt to John Canady. Once the debts were paid, John Crockett told his son he was free to leave, but Davy returned to Canady’s employment, where he stayed for four years.
He met Polly Finley and her mother Jean at a harvest festival. Although friendly towards him in the beginning, Jean Finley eventually felt Crockett was not the man for her daughter. Crockett declared his intentions to marry Polly, regardless of whether the ceremony was allowed to take place in her parents’ home or had to be performed elsewhere. He arranged for a justice of the peace and took out a marriage license on August 12, 1806. On August 16, he rode to Polly’s house with family and friends, determined to ride off with Polly to be married elsewhere. Polly’s father pleaded with Crockett to have the wedding in the Finley home. Crockett agreed only after Jean apologized for her past treatment of him.
The Fort Mims massacre in Mobile, Alabama on August 30, 1813 became a rallying cry for the Creek War, so on September 20, Crockett left his family and enlisted as a scout for an initial term of 90 days with Francis Jones’s Company of Mounted Rifleman, part of the Second Regiment of Volunteer Mounted Riflemen. They served under Colonel John Coffee in the war, marching south into present day Alabama and taking an active part in the fighting. Crockett often hunted wild game for the soldiers, saying he felt better suited to that role than the killing of Creek warriors and families. He served until December 24, 1813 but then re-enlisted as third sergeant for a 6-month term with the Tennessee Mounted Gunmen on September 28, 1814. Crockett returned home in December.
In 1817, Crockett moved the family to new acreage in Lawrence County, where he first entered public office as a commissioner helping to configure the new county’s boundaries. On November 25, the state legislature appointed him county justice of the peace. On March 27, 1818, he was elected lieutenant colonel of the Fifty-seventh Regiment of Tennessee Militia, defeating candidate Daniel Matthews for the position. By 1819, Crockett was operating multiple businesses in the area and felt his public responsibilities were beginning to consume so much of his time and energy that he had little left for either family or business. He resigned from the office of justice of the peace and from his position with the regiment.
In 1821, he resigned as commissioner and successfully ran for a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly, representing Lawrence and Hickman counties. It was in this election campaign that Crockett honed his legendary anecdotal and storytelling skills in public speaking. He was appointed to the Committee of Propositions and Grievances on September 17, 1821, and served through the first session that ended November 17, as well as the special session called by the governor in the summer of 1822, ending on August 24.He favored legislation to ease the tax burden on the poor. Crockett spent his entire legislative career fighting for the rights of impoverished settlers whom he felt dangled on the precipice of losing title to their land due to the state’s complicated system of grants.
On October 25, 1824, Crockett notified his constituents of his intention to run in the 1825 election for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost that election to the incumbent Adam Rankin Alexander. In 1826 Memphis mayor Marcus Brutus Winchester encouraged him to try again to win a seat in Congress. The Jackson Gazette published a letter from Crockett on September 15, 1826, announcing his intention of again challenging Rankin, stating his opposition to the policies of President John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State Henry Clay and Rankin’s position on the cotton tariff. Militia veteran William Arnold also entered the race, and Crockett easily defeated both political opponents for the two-year term March 4, 1827 – March 3, 1829. Crockett continued his legislative focus on settlers getting a fair deal for land titles, offering H.R. 27 amendment to a bill sponsored by James K. Polk.
He was re-elected for the March 4, 1829 – March 3, 1831 session, once again defeating Adam Rankin Alexander. Crockett introduced H.R. 185 amendment to the land bill on January 29, 1830. The amendment was defeated May 3, 1830. On February 25, 1830, Crockett introduced a resolution to abolish the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, because he felt it was public money going to benefit the sons of wealthy men. Crockett opposed Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, and was the only member of the Tennessee delegation to vote against it. Cherokee chief John Ross sent him a letter on January 13, 1831, expressing his thanks for Crockett’s vote. His vote was not popular with his own district, and in 1831 he was defeated in the election by William Fitzgerald.
Crockett ran against Fitzgerald again in the 1833 election and was returned to Congress, serving until 1835. On January 2, 1834, Crockett introduced the land title resolution H.R. 126, but it never made it as far as being open for debate on the House floor. He was defeated for re-election in the August 1835 election by Adam Huntsman. During his last term in Congress, Crockett collaborated with Kentucky Congressman Thomas Chilton to write his autobiography, which was published by E. L. Carey and A. Hart in 1834 as A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself . You can find it here http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37925/37925-h/37925-h.htm It’s a very good read. Crockett went east to promote the book, and in 1836, newspapers published the now-famous quote attributed to him upon his return to his home state: “I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas.”
By December 1834, Crockett was writing to friends about moving to Texas if Van Buren were elected President. The next year he discussed with his friend Benjamin McCulloch raising a company of volunteers to take to Texas in the expectation that a revolution was imminent. After Van Buren was elected he left his home near Rutherford in West Tennessee on Nov. 1, 1835, with three other men to explore Texas. His youngest child, Matilda, later wrote that she distinctly remembered the last time she saw her father: “He was dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap, and carried a fine rifle presented to him by friends in Philadelphia … He seemed very confident the morning he went away that he would soon have us all to join him in Texas.” On November 12, 1835, Crockett and an entourage of volunteers arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas. The local newspapers reported that hundreds of people swarmed into town to get a look at Crockett, and a group of leading citizens put on a dinner in his honor that night at the Jeffries Hotel. Crockett spoke “mainly to the subject of Texan independence,” as well as Washington politics.
He arrived in Nacogdoches, Texas, in early January 1836. On January 14, 1836, Crockett and 65 other men signed an oath before Judge John Forbes to the Provisional Government of Texas for six months: “I have taken the oath of government and have enrolled my name as a volunteer and will set out for the Rio Grande in a few days with the volunteers from the United States.” Each man was promised about 4,600 acres of land as payment. On February 6, Crockett and about five other men rode into San Antonio de Bexar and camped just outside the town. They were later greeted by James Bowie and Antonio Menchaca, and taken to the home of Don Erasmo Seguin.
Crockett arrived at the Alamo on February 8. On February 23, to the surprise of the men garrisoned in the Alamo, a Mexican army led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna arrived. The Mexican soldiers immediately initiated a siege. Santa Anna ordered his artillery to keep up a near-constant bombardment. The guns were moved closer to the Alamo each day, increasing their effectiveness. On February 25, 200–300 Mexican soldiers crossed the San Antonio River and took cover in abandoned shacks approximately 90 to 100 yards from the Alamo walls.The soldiers intended to use the huts as cover to establish another artillery position, although many Texans assumed that they actually were launching an assault on the fort, so several men volunteered to burn the huts.To provide cover, the Alamo cannons fired grapeshot at the Mexican soldiers, and Crockett and his men fired rifles, while other defenders reloaded extra weapons for them to use in maintaining a steady fire. Within 90 minutes, the battle was over,and the Mexican soldiers retreated. Inside the Alamo, the stores of powder and shot were limited. On February 26, Alamo commander William Barret Travis ordered the artillery to stop returning fire so as to conserve precious ammunition. Crockett and his men were encouraged to keep shooting, as they were unusually effective.
As the siege progressed, Travis sent many messages asking for reinforcements. Several messengers were sent to James Fannin, who commanded the only other official group of Texan soldiers. Fannin and several hundred Texans occupied Presidio La Bahia at Goliad. Although Fannin ultimately decided it was too risky to attempt to reinforce the Alamo, historian Thomas Ricks Lindley concludes that up to 50 of Fannin’s men left his command to go to Bexar. These men would have reached Cibolo Creek, 35 miles (56 km) from the Alamo, on the afternoon of March 3. There they joined another group of men who also planned to join the garrison.
That same night, outside the Alamo, there was a skirmish between Mexican and Texan troops. Several historians, including Walter Lord, speculated that the Texans were creating a diversion to allow their last courier, John Smith, to evade Mexican pickets. However, in 1876, Alamo survivor Susannah Dickinson said that Travis sent three men out shortly after dark on March 3, probably a response to the arrival of Mexican reinforcements. The three men, who included Crockett, were sent to find Fannin. Lindley stated that just before midnight, Crockett and one of the other men found the force of Texans waiting along Cibolo Creek, who had advanced to within 20 miles (32 km) of the Alamo. Just before daylight on March 4, part of the Texan force managed to break through the Mexican lines and enter the Alamo. A second group was driven across the prairie by Mexican cavalry.
The siege ended on March 6, when the Mexican army attacked just before dawn while the defenders were sleeping. The daily bombardment by artillery had been suspended, perhaps a ploy to encourage the natural human reaction to a cessation of constant strain. But the garrison awakened and the final fight began. Most of the noncombatants gathered in the church sacristy for safety. According to Dickinson, before running to his post, Crockett paused briefly in the chapel to say a prayer. When the Mexican soldiers breached the north outer walls of the Alamo complex, most of the Texans fell back to the barracks and the chapel, as previously planned. Crockett and his men were too far from the barracks to take shelter and were the last remaining group in the mission to be in the open. The men defended the low wall in front of the church, using their rifles as clubs and relying on knives, as the action was too furious to allow reloading. After a volley and a charge with bayonets, Mexican soldiers pushed the few remaining defenders back toward the church The Battle of the Alamo lasted almost 90 minutes.
Once all of the defenders had been killed, Santa Anna ordered his men to take the bodies to a nearby stand of trees, where they were stacked together and wood piled on top. That evening, a fire was lit and the bodies of the defenders were burned to ashes. The ashes were left undisturbed until February 1837, when Juan Seguin and his cavalry returned to Bexar to examine the remains. A local carpenter created a simple coffin, and ashes from the funeral pyres were placed inside. The names of Travis, Crockett, and Bowie were inscribed on the lid. The coffin is thought to have been buried in a peach tree grove, but the spot was not marked and can no longer be identified.
All that is certain about the fate of David Crockett is that he died fighting at the Alamo on the morning of March 6, 1836, at age 49. According to many accounts of the battle, between five and seven Texans surrendered during the battle, possibly to General Castrillon. Incensed that his orders to take no prisoners had been ignored, Santa Anna demanded the immediate execution of the survivors. Although Castrillon and several other officers refused to do so, staff officers who had not participated in the fighting drew their swords and killed the unarmed Texans.
Weeks after the battle, stories began to circulate that Crockett was among those who surrendered and were executed. However, Ben, a former Southern slave who acted as cook for one of Santa Anna’s officers, maintained that Crockett’s body was found in the barracks surrounded by “no less than sixteen Mexican corpses”, with Crockett’s knife buried in one of them. Historians disagree on which story is accurate. According to Petite, “every account of the Crockett surrender-execution story comes from an avowed antagonist (either on political or military grounds) of Santa Anna’s. It is believed that many stories, such as the surrender and execution of Crockett, were created and spread in order to discredit Santa Anna and add to his role as villain.”
Memphis-style (or Tennessee) barbecue is a fitting tribute to Crockett, and is one of my favorites. I’ve wolfed it down in joints in east Tennessee many a time. Tennessee barbecue is one of the four predominant regional styles of barbecue in the United States, the other three being Carolina, Kansas City, and Texas. Like many southern varieties of barbecue, Memphis-style barbecue is mostly made using pork, usually ribs and shoulders, though many restaurants also serve beef and chicken: good, but get the pork! Memphis-style barbecue is slow cooked in a pit and ribs can be prepared either “dry” or “wet”. “Dry” ribs are covered with a dry rub consisting of salt and various spices before cooking, and are normally eaten without sauce. “Wet” ribs are brushed with sauce before, during, and after cooking.
Here’s two videos for you since Tennessee barbecue, although not difficult to make, is best taught by watching a master. The first video is an interview with legendary pit master Jim Neely to give you a sense of the style and method in general terms.
The second is a straightforward how-to demonstration.
You can buy the rub in stores or online or you can make it yourself. All the joints and pit masters have their own secret recipes of course. This recipe is pretty standard but you can alter it to suit yourself.
Memphis BBQ Dry Rub
3 tbsp dark brown sugar
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp mustard powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp sweet paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp cayenne