Identity Crisis

David Crockett tried to trim his myth, but it grew back.
by Published on
photo by Matt Wright-Steel

One true thing about Col. David Crockett: He was willing to stand up for a hopeless cause.  In early February 1834–two years before the Battle of the Alamo–he was making another heroic, doomed last stand. Embroiled in a fight for his very identity, he was putting the finishing touches on his autobiography. True to his plainspoken form, Crockett didn’t waste time–in the opening pages of the work, he explained why he was writing it.

“A publication has been made to the world, which has done me much injustice,” he wrote, “and the catchpenny errors it contains have been already too long sanctioned by my silence.”

Crockett was referring to Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee, a best-selling fake autobiography by James French that had been published a year earlier. The book bothered Crockett, as well as portrayals like James Kirk Paulding’s hit 1831 play The Lion of the West, which starred the Crockett-inspired character Nimrod Wildfire, “half horse, half alligator [and] a touch of the airth-quake,” who had “the prettiest sister, fastest horse, and ugliest dog in the deestrict.” Crockett was hoping to destroy his own myth, or at least take it down a notch.

The image had served him for a while: Crockett’s famous exploits as a hunter, outdoorsman and Indian-fighter were the heart of the common-man story that had vaulted him into Congress (think Joe Six-Pack of the 1820s). But in the hands of unscrupulous biographers and Crockett’s political opponents, the Davy myth had metastasized into a grotesque caricature that threatened to wreck his career. Crockett didn’t mind a few exaggerations, but he wanted to define the parameters of the Davy myth.

For Crockett, the fake autobiography was the last straw. “It was wrong; and the desire to make money by it is no apology for such an injustice to a fellow man,” Crockett wrote. “But I let him pass; as my wish is greatly more to vindicate myself.”

Crockett’s struggle to control his myth ended with his death, but subsequent generations have carried it on for him. Today, it isn’t Crockett’s identity that is at stake—it’s ours. This fight is over how we write our history, and what stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from.

 

as with most legends, elements of the Davy myth were true. Crockett was a child of the Tennessee backwoods who spent much of his early life hunting, farming and exploring. He enlisted in the U.S. Army as an Indian fighter, setting off in 1814 to battle British-trained Creek under Andrew Jackson and alongside Sam Houston during the Creek Civil War. “We shot them like dogs,” Crockett recalled. He contracted malaria during an expedition into Alabama and was assumed dead. When he returned home, miraculously “resurrected” to a family already in mourning, he appeared larger than life. “I know’d this was a whopper of a lie,” Crockett is reported to have said about accounts of his death, “as soon as I heard it.”

Crockett parlayed his military career into a political one, going to Congress from Tennessee in 1827. Three years earlier, he had publicly repudiated his mentor and onetime hero, now-President Andrew Jackson, over Indian Removal and squatter’s rights policies.

“I am at liberty to vote as my conscience and judgement dictates to be right, without the yoke of any party on me,” he wrote in the closing pages of his autobiography. “Look at my arms, you will find no party hand-cuff on them! Look at my neck, you will not find there any collar, with the engraving “My Dog Andrew Jackson.’”

Though Crockett spent some of his early years slaughtering Native Americans, he took a moral stand against the Jackson administration’s removal policy, which resulted in the infamous Trail of Tears.

“It would seem that the sufferings of a hungering people excites no pity with our President,” Crockett wrote in a February 1831 campaign circular, “and that all the miseries of famine, brought on by his own acts, are to be used as the instruments for their extermination or removal.”

Crockett might have followed his conscience, but his public break with Jackson made him a polarizing figure at home. He was voted out of Congress in 1831 and returned in 1833 as a standard-bearer for the anti-Jackson Whig Party. “If you think you can run me for President, just go a-head,” he wrote in an 1834 letter to the Mississippi congressional delegation, which had asked permission to nominate him. “I had a little rather not; but you talk so pretty I cannot refuse.”

Crockett the candidate is unfamiliar to most Texans. He emerges with fascinating depth in David Crockett in Congress: Rise and Fall of the Poor Man’s Friend, an account of Crockett’s political career that includes a collection of speeches, letters and campaign materials.

The book illustrates how Crockett would use the Davy myth when it suited him. John Gadsby Chapman, who painted a portrait of Crockett in 1834, recalled Crockett’s behavior when receiving visitors—putting on a hat indoors as though he didn’t know any better and throwing his leg over the arm of his chair in imitation of the mythical Davy. “They came to see a bear,” Crockett told Chapman, “and they’ve seen one.”

Over time, impersonating his myth surely became tiresome for Crockett, and spectators often felt that he measured up poorly against his alter ego. “His appearance disappointed hundreds,” wrote one observer cited by Boylston and Weiner. “It was that of a plain, practical, unassuming man.”

Another remembered him as “an intelligent, well-meaning gentleman, and although there are certain peculiarities of his speech, which are calculated to induce laughter, he is by no means so rough and uncultivated as we had been led to suppose.”

When Crockett’s autobiography was published in 1834, it catapulted him to the height of his national fame. He took on a grueling book tour of the Northeast, but, left with little time to campaign back home, he lost his seat in Congress a second time in 1835.

Crockett was devastated. His attitude is probably best summed up in a fiery and oft-quoted speech he delivered to constituents and party leaders shortly before he left Tennessee for good. “I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not … you may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

So he did. The legend of the Alamo is perhaps best enshrined in a painting in the Texas Capitol, William McArdle’s Dawn at the Alamo, which shows a beatific, buckskin-clad Crockett swinging the shattered remains of his famous rifle, Old Betsy, into a grotesque, ape-like Mexican soldier. As the legend goes, Crockett was found dead atop dozens of Mexican soldiers.

For generations, stories about Crockett’s rifle-swinging last stand had gone unchallenged by historians, and any Texian eyewitnesses were dead. That changed in 1975 with the first English publication of the diaries of José Enrique de la Peña, an officer in Santa Ana’s army who claimed to have witnessed Crockett’s death. He made the explosive assertion that Crockett, along with seven or eight Texian soldiers, had surrendered during the battle and was executed on the orders of Santa Ana after the fight.

“[The Mexican soldiers] thrust themselves forward, in order to flatter their commander, and with swords in hand, fell upon these unfortunate, defenseless men just as a tiger leaps upon his prey,” de la Peña wrote. “Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.”

De la Pena’s account is hardly unflattering, but the nuance was lost to those who had been gulping down the Davy Crockett Kool-Aid since the days of John Wayne and Fess Parker. For many, the thought that Davy Crockett might have laid down his arms renders him unacceptably human. The controversy boiled over after historian Dan Kilgore published How Did Davy Die?, a collection of primary accounts that support de la Peña’s account of Crockett’s death.

The response was beyond academic—Kilgore received death threats. The London Daily Mail accused him of the “murder of the myth”—at risk, the paper said, of becoming “the most hated man in America.” Carmen Perry, the translator of de la Peñña’s diary, was accused on the cover of People magazine of denying that Crockett had died at the Alamo.

The republication of Kilgore’s essay includes a companion piece by North Carolina historian James Crisp, “And Why Do We Care So Much?” Crisp’s essay may be more inflammatory than Kilgore’s. He argues that tall tales like Davy’s act as justification for centuries of injustice and hatred. If our myths are huge, that is only because they cover huge blemishes.

It’s not a message many want to hear. Crisp was attending a historical convention at the Alamo in 1995 when a Crockett loyalist confronted him. “I know who you are,” she told him, “and I ought to stab you with a Bowie knife, because hanging is too good for you.”

Oddly, Crisp has become friends with the woman who threatened him, Nina Andersen, and I asked her if any of Crisp’s or Kilgore’s research has changed her beliefs about Crockett.

“I will never change my mind about Davy Crockett,” she said. “Mr. Crisp is a highly intelligent and educated man, and I respect him and the work that he does. But I am not willing, nor do I care to be willing, to give up my image of Davy Crockett.”

For Hispanic Texans, the image of Davy Crockett is something else entirely. In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Rosie Castro, a longtime Chicana activist and mother of the San Antonio mayor, commented on what the Alamo means to her. “They used to take us there when we were schoolchildren,” she said. “They told us how glorious that battle was. When I grew up I learned that the heroes of the Alamo were a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them. But as a little girl I got the message—we were losers. I can truly say that I hate that place and everything it stands for.”

That sentiment has created its own anti-Davy myth. Bobby Garza, now an aide for an Austin City Council member, was a Mexican-American Studies student at UT in the late 1990s when he learned about the de la Peña diaries. He shared de la Peña’s alternative account of the Alamo with Hispanic teenagers in a job skills program he was volunteering with. Somewhere along the line, the nuance of the story was lost. Garza got a call from a school administrator, who complained that during a lesson about Crockett’s heroism at the Alamo, one of Garza’s students declared, “Naw, miss, that ain’t right. I heard that Davy Crockett went out like a little bitch.” The student was suspended, and the program where Garza taught was shut down.

In this proxy fight between two versions of the myth, the actual, historical David Crockett is lost. This is especially ironic because the battle between myth and fact—between Davy and David—is one that Crockett spent most of his life fighting. He was fighting this battle when he sat, in 1834, to pen the prologue to his autobiography.

“I have met with hundreds, if not, thousands, of people who have formed their opinions of my appearance, habits, language, and everything else from that deceptive work,” he wrote, referring to the popular fake autobiography. “They have almost in every instance expressed the most profound astonishment at finding me in human shape, and with the countenance, appearance, and common feelings of a human being. It is to correct these false notions, and to do justice to myself, that I have written.”

Robert Green is a writer based in Austin and an Observer intern.