A short history of how Davy Crockett got famous in Texas

Time Before Now, August, 1786  Thomas Jefferson had replaced Benjamin Franklin as Minister to France and was raising eyebrows over his relationship with artist, Marie Cosway, wife a a well-known British portrait painter.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “Marriage of Figaro” had been introduced in Vienna three months earlier and Scottish engineer Andrew Meikle invented a grain thrashing machine (right) after several earlier attempts failed.  It sparked  agricultural revolution in England during the 1790s.

August 17, 1786

On this day Davy Crockett, frontier adventurer, defender of the Alamo and folk hero extrodinaire, was born in Virginia, raised in Tennessee and moved his family to place that no longer exists on any map.  But he’s best known for dying in Texas just three short months after arriving. 

Before becoming the nation’s most celebrated 19th century soldier of fortune, Crockett (right) had served in the U.S. Congress for two terms and earned a reputation as a sharpshooter and backwoods narrator.   He was the model for James Kirke Paulding’s frontier character, Nimrod Wildfire, in his play, “The Lion of the West.”  Paulding was awarded $300 by actor James Hackett who was looking for a drama featuring an actual American.  Hackett believed Pauling’s rendition of Western humor suited his talent for playing offbeat characters on stage.  

Crockett’s growing celebrity persuaded the Whig party that the 48-year-old Congressman might be their ideal anti-Andrew Jackson candidate for the presidency in 1834. Crockett had openly opposed Jackson over the President’s Native American removal policy and argued loudly against the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 

Both Crockett and the Whigs got derailed.  Defeated for a third term in Congress by Jacksonian lawyer, Adam Huntsman, (right) Crockett took his leave in a huff.  “I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done,” he said  “but if not, they might go to Hell and I would go to Texas.”  Crockett may have had a posthumous last laugh, however.  Huntsman served only one term in the House, defeated in 1837 by none other than Crockett’s eldest son, John Wesley. (Left) 

Davy had a history of leaving unceremoniously.  He was the fifth of nine children born to Irish, English, Scottish, French Huguenot parents.   According to Crockett’s self-styled campaign autobiography, he bolted from the family’s tavern at 13, labeling it “a strategic departure” in fear of his father’s wrath for playing hooky from school. 

Returning three years later after surviving on his own under murky circumstances, all was apparently forgiven.  Not long after the reunion,  his father hired out his stout young son to settle a $36 debt.  He came home a hero with $4 more than necessary, enough to cover yet another of the senior Crockett’s liabilities.  

The reconstructed Crockett Tavern, now a museum.

He was “born for hardship, misery and disappointment,” Crockett decided when he was jilted by his first love, Margaret Elder.   His heart mended quickly, however.  Just before his 20th birthday he married Mary “Polly” Finley in Jefferson County, Tennessee.  

With a wife, two sons and a daughter, Crockett moved his family to a place colorfully called “Beans Creek Kentuck” in Franklin County, present-day Tennessee.   But he soon marched off for two tours with the Tennessee Mounted Riflemen in its ruthless campaign against the Creek Indians.

The couple’s reunion was short lived.  Mary died not long after Crockett’s return and he quickly married the widow Elizabeth Patton in (right) 1815.  They  had three more children, all  of them left behind when Crockett and three well-armed companions set out from Rutherford, Tennessee, on November 1, 1835. 

By the time he reached Jackson 40 miles south, his little band of Texas volunteers had grown to 30.   At last Crockett and 65 fellow citizen soldiers arrived in Nacogdoches on January 14, 1836, pledging to fight for Texas, and promised 4,600 acres each for their trouble.  

But the defenders were fighting among themselves.  Crockett’s continued animus for Jackson caused him to throw in with Col. William B. Travis, (left) a 26-year-old former lawyer late of Clairborne, Alabama, run out of town by his creditors.   Hastily elevated to lieutenant colonel, Travis disregarded Jackson’s man, Sam Houston, who had ordered him to abandon the Alamo. 

Crockett’s men arrived on February 8, less than two weeks before the Mexican Army under the command of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna began an 11-day siege to the mission.  Reinforcements  were on the way but early on March 6 the defenders were overrun. 

The Alamo, circa 1830s

Sorting out the aftermath was difficult.  According to some reports, Santa Anna (below) had the remains of the defenders moved to a nearby grove of trees and burned, Travis among them.   As many as a half a dozen Americans who surrendered were said to have been executed on Santa Anna’s orders.  Whether Crockett was among the first or second group to parish remains a mystery.  All that is known for sure is that he died in 1836 at the Alamo, age 49, 

Crockett’s 20-year-old son, Robert Patton (below) who had followed in his father’s footsteps, served in the Texas Revolution from 1837 until independence.  He returned once again from Tennessee in 1853 along with with his wife, Matilda, their three children and his mother.   Settling on Davy’s “bounty” land, the promised 4,600 acres dwindled to 1,280 and may have only resulted in as little as 640 acres on Rucker’s Creek after signing over half to the surveyor.  

 A new controversy surrounding Davy Crockett’s legacy bubbled up more than a century later.  A memoir  reportedly written by Mexican military officer, José Enrique de la Peña, was published in English by Texas A & M in 1955, which grew into a sizeable scandal. 

Claims that the famous fighter didn’t actually die in battle angered defenders of the Crockett legacy, pointing out the unverified manuscript conveniently came to light at the height of Davy Crockett mania fueled by the popular Disney mini-series, “King of the Wild Frontier.”  Crockett’s legacy, however, survived unscathed, Disney’s Davy, actor Fess Parker (left) vaulted into stardom and more than a million American kids were wearing coonskin caps. 

The Alamo National Historic Landmark, 100 Alamo Plaza San Antonio, is perhaps one of the nation’s most recognizable sites.  The church, built in 1744, was part of the San Antonio de Valero mission founded by the Franciscan fathers in 1718.  Its popular name “Alamo” was derived from the Spanish word for “cottonwood tree” by Spanish soldiers posted there during Mexico’s war for independence.    

Put a visit to the mission in person on the “to do” list, as the buildings and grounds are currently closed due to COVID-19.    For virtual tours and the latest information on reopening, go to thealamo.org or call (210) 225-1391.  

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.