Congressman Davy Crockett

“David Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” was the title of a movie produced by Walt Disney in 1951. No, I did not get to see it. My mother assiduously protected her children from Hollywood’s harmful influence, unlike an aunt who bought Crockett coon caps for my cousins. Most of what we know about Davy Crockett, we learned from movies and television series. His trademark was a racoon cap with the head and furry tail of the animal intact; he wore a fringed buckskin jacket and carried a flint rifle on his shoulder.

Crockett was born in August 1786, in the state of Franklin which used to be part of North Carolina until 1785 when it seceded and declared independence that was never legally recognized. Later, it joined the state of Tennessee. Franklin was not a peaceful place; it was a veritable battleground of speculators who drove squatters away from arable land they had already tilled and improved. From 1797 to 1811, the government would use federal troops for eviction which is probably why it became an object of hate. With unmitigated violence, the Cherokees and other Native Americans were driven off their ancestral lands, in violation of treaties that promised them respect and protection. The first governor of Tennessee, William Blount, was a notorious land grabber and speculator whom Native Americans called “Dirt Captain.”

Davy Crockett himself was a squatter. His parents lived off the land and could never afford formal education for their children, so when he became a politician, he defended the squatters and became the champion of the landless poor. He astutely pushed himself up the social ladder first as a militia man, then a scout, a town commissioner and justice of peace, He became a state representative in 1827, and finally Congressman of the United States of America. In 1830, Crockett petitioned Congress to give one of his squatter constituents some public land not as a reward for hard work. But because his wife gave birth to triplets. Fecundity was essential in the wild west.

Even in the halls of Congress, Crockett could not help but swagger and boast; he threatened to wade in the Mississippi with a steamboat on his back and bragged that he could swallow a “nigger.” He was not being racist. It was an oblique attack against plantation owners who had driven squatters off federal lands. Although he did own slaves, when he became congressman Crockett supported bills that provided for the sale of public lands to squatters at affordable prices. He was against indentured servitude which allowed people to pay their debts with farm labor at plantations.

He was not eloquent like other congressmen, but he was fluent in “cracker” language which Eastern politicians did not understand. In the Cracker Dictionary of 1830 Crockett was credited for coining the phrase “ring-tailed roarer” which means a very violent man. His brand of humor made him popular, if not notorious. To the educated class, most of whom were plantation owners and land speculators, he was vulgar and coarse. At his best, Crockett was nothing more than a harlequin or buffoon, at his worst, a savage braggart who made up tall tales. In 1824, he delivered a speech at the Tennessee House of Representatives calling land speculators “sneaky coons” with legal ploys to trick poor defenseless settlers of their land warrants. His verbal broadsides exposed class struggle in the backwoods. He authored a land bill which made enemies, so did his objections to the Indian Removal bill which expelled Cherokees and other tribes from southeastern states. Though he was a follower of Andrew Jackson, they eventually parted ways due to land issues. It must have been acrimonious because Crockett declared he would rather be a “nigger” than wear a dog collar with the name of Andrew Jackson on it. He loathed “eel-skinned Easterners” who used fancy words to get what they wanted. To him a “party man” was the lowest type of person.

In 1777, a year after the USA declared independence, it was not clear whether political freedom would automatically produce noble citizens. There was an expanding population of landless squatters heading towards the West, reminiscent of impoverished immigrants, waste people lubbers. Crackers that Britain used to send by shiploads, to rid London of its eyesores. The Articles of Confederation which preceded the US Constitution stipulated that citizenship was not for paupers, vagabonds nor fugitives from justice thus creating class distinctions among the population. As Americans moved westward, farther away from the cities and plantations along the Eastern Coast, they encountered vast tracts of uncultivated land where ragged squatters settled in roughly-hewn log cabins, a totally different image from Jefferson’s robust yeomen on their plantations.

In the “David Crockett Almanac” (1837) there is an engraving which is not at all like Walt Disney’s stylized American folk hero. He rushed to the Alamo to fight the Mexicans who defended it; there he perished on 6 March 1836. (Source: Isenberg, Nancy, White Trash)