Two biographies of Davy Crockett

“When I got there, it was to the utter astonishment of my wife; for she supposed I was dead. My neighbours who had started with me had returned and took my horse home, which they had found with theirs; and they reported that they had seen men who had helped to bury me; and who saw me draw my last breath. I know’d this was a whapper of a lie, as soon as I heard it.”

This Mark Twain-esque passage comes from A Narrative Of the Life of David Crockett, Of the State Of Tennessee. It purports to be the autobiography of Congressman Crockett. Historians are divided as to the extent of the truth of that claim. It’s now known that he collaborated with a fellow congressman and Baptist minister, Thomas Chilton, to produce the book. No one knows how much Crockett actually contributed (writing was a hard job for him, he himself admitted). Still, for this reader, the narrator’s voice is unmistakable, and I thought I could tell when an educated hand took over to insert more refined passages.

If Davy Crockett had been born in the 20th Century, he’d have lived in a trailer park. I don’t say that in condescension. He took considerable pride in belonging to the lowest stratum of white society, the movers and fringe population who drifted ahead of the great waves of settlement, living a subsistence life where more Indians than whites dwelt. Until he discovered that his affability and storytelling skills could win him political office, he could boast no distinction at all, aside from being one of Tennessee’s foremost bear hunters. He’d served honorably under Andrew Jackson in the Creek War, but with no great distinction either. He made several efforts to become a man of wealth, but never once achieved any success, except in election.

This book was written as an adjunct to his great tour of the Northeast in 1834, after he’d broken with President Jackson and joined the Whig Party. There are numerous references to presidential ambitions, which he actually thought were realistic, though that seems absurd in retrospect. He was, of course, entirely unqualified for that office (even as a congressman he failed to achieve his sole campaign promise, a reform that would have allowed frontier squatters to keep the land they’d settled on). Still, he might not have been the worst president we ever had.

His break with Jackson is the subject of some dispute among historians. By his own account he left the Democrats when he could not agree to the Indian Relocation Act, which resulted in the famous Trail Of Tears. Some biographers find it impossible to believe that a white frontiersman and Indian fighter like Crockett could have ever seen the banishment of the Native Americans as anything but a great improvement. On the other hand, a study of his life reveals more than one incident in which he received generous and even sacrificial kindness from Indians he encountered. He had probably received far more from Indians than he ever gave back, privately. Perhaps he felt he owed them something.

Hunting stories make up a large portion of this memoir. To the modern reader, Crockett’s hunting, especially of bear, seems excessive and even obsessive. No bear he ever sees, unless it’s a fast runner, survives an encounter with Crockett and his dogs, even after he’s already shot a half dozen that day.

But that’s educational, I think. It’s good for us to understand the circumstances of life in a marginal economy like that of the Tennessee frontier. A bear hunter like Crockett was considered a doubly useful citizen. Not only did he bring home tasty meat and useful grease, and skins that could be turned into warm robes or sold for coin, he also rid the neighborhood of a dangerous pest. Bears loved to kill pigs, the pioneer’s staple meat animal, and more than once carried off a child who’d wandered away from the cabin. The idea of conserving bears would have seemed insane to those people, for whom starvation was a legitimate fear.

The second half of the volume (I read it, of course, on Kindle, in this edition, which is marred by bad Optical Character Recognition and [apparently] zero proofreading) consists of Colonel Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas, by R. P. Smith, a pure forgery, supposedly based on a journal Crockett kept, which no one has ever seen. I wasted no time on this worthless account.

I might mention that before I read this actual memoir of Crockett’s (I like to belief it is), I read David Crockett: His Life and Adventures, by John S. C. Abbott. This was the book I complained about the other day, where the author couldn’t stop preaching moral lessons. It’s largely (not entirely) a re-telling of Crockett’s own book, but everything’s filtered through Abbott’s own ideas of how a proper book ought to be composed. Although he explains to the reader that he’s shielding him from the coarseness and immorality of many of Crockett’s anecdotes, the chief difference seems to be that he cleaned up his grammar.

It’s interesting that both Abbott and Chilton were Christian ministers. But Chilton, who was a good friend to the worldly and hard-drinking Crockett, had no qualms about presenting him more or less unvarnished to the world. To the modern reader (and, I suspect, even to readers of that day), Chilton’s version is far livelier and better reading.

I might mention, as a sideline, that it was under the preaching of Thomas Chilton, later in his life, that R. E. B. Baylor was converted to evangelical Christianity. He went on to be one of the founders of Baylor University in Texas.

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