Crockett, David (1786–1836)

By: Michael A. Lofaro

Revised by: William C. Davis

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: September 24, 2019

David (Davy) Crockett, frontiersman, congressman, and defender of the Alamo, son of John and Rebecca (Hawkins) Crockett, was born in Greene County, Tennessee, on August 17, 1786. In 1798, two years after the Crocketts opened a tavern on the road from Knoxville to Abingdon, Virginia, John Crockett hired his son out to Jacob Siler to help drive a herd of cattle to Rockbridge County, Virginia. Siler tried to detain David by force after the job was completed, but the boy escaped at night by walking seven miles in two hours through knee-deep snow. He eventually made his way home in late 1798 or early 1799. Soon afterward he started school, but preferred playing hooky and ran away to escape his father's punishment. This "strategic withdrawal," as Crockett called it, lasted 2½ years while he worked as a wagoner and day-laborer and at odd jobs to support himself. When he returned home in 1802 he had grown so much that his family did not recognize him at first. When they did, he found that all was forgiven. Crockett reciprocated their generosity by working for about a year to discharge his father's debts, which totaled seventy-six dollars, and subsequently returned to school for six months.

On October 21, 1805, Crockett took out a license to marry Margaret Elder of Dandridge, Tennessee, but was jilted by her, perhaps justly, since local legend intimated that he was a less than constant suitor. He recovered quickly from the experience, courted Mary (Polly) Finley, and married her on August 16, 1806, in Jefferson County; they remained in the mountains of East Tennessee for just over five years. Sometime after September 11, 1811, David, Polly, and their two sons, John Wesley and William, settled on the Mulberry Fork of Elk River in Lincoln County, Tennessee; they moved again in 1813, to the Rattlesnake Spring branch of Bean's Creek in Franklin County, Tennessee, near what is now the Alabama border. Crockett named his homestead "Kentuck."

He began his military career in September of that year, when he enlisted in the militia as a scout under Maj. Gibson in Winchester, Tennessee, to avenge an Indian attack on Fort Mims, Alabama. On November 3, under Andrew Jackson, Crockett participated in the retributive massacre of the Indian town of Tallushatchee. He returned home when his ninety-day enlistment for the Creek Indian War expired on the day before Christmas, and reenlisted on September 28, 1814, as a third sergeant in Capt. John Cowan's company. He arrived on November 7, the day after Jackson took Pensacola, and spent his time trying to ferret out the British-trained Indians from the Florida swamps. After his discharge in 1815 as a fourth sergeant Crockett arrived home and found himself again a father. Polly died in the spring of 1815 from unknown causes.

On May 21, 1815, Crockett was elected a lieutenant in the Thirty-second Militia regiment of Franklin County. Before summer's end he married Elizabeth Patton, a widow with two children (George and Margaret Ann), and he explored Alabama in the fall with an eye towards settlement. He nearly died from malaria-was reported dead-and astonished his family with his "resurrection." By about September of the next year the Crocketts had moved to the territory soon to become Lawrence County, Tennessee, rather than Alabama. They settled at the head of Shoal Creek, and David continued his political and military career. He became a justice of the peace on November 17, 1817, a post he resigned in 1819. He became the town commissioner of Lawrenceburg before April 1, 1818, and was elected colonel of the Fifty-seventh Militia regiment in the county that same year.

New Year's Day 1821 marked a turning point in Crockett's career. He resigned as commissioner to run for a seat in the Tennessee legislature as the representative of Lawrence and Hickman counties. He won the August election and, from the beginning, took an active interest in public land policy regarding the West. After the session concluded he moved his family to what is now Gibson County in West Tennessee. He was reelected in 1823, defeating Dr. William E. Butler, but was in turn defeated in August 1825 in his first bid for a seat in Congress. In 1826, after returning to private business, Crockett nearly died when his boats carrying barrel staves were wrecked in the Mississippi River. When he was brought to Memphis he was encouraged to run again for Congress by Maj. Marcus B. Winchester and won election over Gen. William Arnold and Col. Adam Alexander to the United States House of Representatives in 1827. He was reelected to a second term in 1829 and split with President Andrew Jackson and the Tennessee delegation on several issues, including land reform and the Indian removal bill. In his 1831 campaign for a third term, Crockett openly and vehemently attacked Jackson's policies and was defeated in a close election by William Fitzgerald.

By this time Crockett's reputation as a sharpshooter, hunter, and yarn-spinner had brought him into national prominence. He was the model for Nimrod Wildfire, the hero of James Kirke Paulding's play The Lion of the West, which opened in New York City on April 25, 1831. Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee was published in 1833 and reprinted the same year under the more accurate title of Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee. Much of the same material spilled over into the first few issues of a series of comic almanacs published under Crockett's name from 1835 to 1856 that, as a whole, constituted a body of outrageous tall tales about the adventures of the legendary Davy rather than the historical David Crockett.

Building in part upon his growing notoriety, Crockett defeated the incumbent Fitzgerald in 1833 to return to Congress. The following year he published his autobiography, written with the help of Thomas Chilton, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee, the only work that he actually authored. It was intended to correct the portrayal given by Mathew St. Clair Clarke in Sketches and Eccentricities and to deny Crockett's authorship of that account, which did not bear Clarke's name. The Narrative was also a campaign biography of sorts, for Whig politicians were touting Crockett as an anti-Jackson candidate for the presidency in 1836. Crockett's Narrative also represented a milestone in the evolution of rural American vernacular humor, which was unappreciated until much later. The self-deprecating, ironic, feigned naiveté, and deflation of the proud and aristocratic would be echoed loudly a generation later in the works of Mark Twain, and in the following century by Irwin S. Cobb, Will Rogers, and many others to the present day.

Crockett apparently considered himself a serious candidate, when, on April 25, 1834, he began a three-week tour of the eastern states. His "campaign swing" was recorded in the first of two Whig books published in 1835 under his name, An Account of Colonel Crockett's Tour to the North and Down East, and a negative Life of Martin Van Buren. In fact, he was likely only a convenient political tool to the Whigs, an independent frontiersman with a national reputation perhaps the equal of Jackson's who opposed Old Hickory on key political issues. The point became academic, however, when Crockett lost his 1835 congressional campaign to Adam Huntsman, a peg-legged lawyer supported by Jackson and by Governor William Carroll of Tennessee, by 252 votes.

Disenchanted with the political process and his former constituents, Crockett decided to do what he had threatened to do-to explore Texas and to move his family there if the prospects were pleasing. On November 1, 1835, with William Patton, Abner Burgin, and Lindsey K. Tinkle, he set out to the West, as he wrote on the eve of his departure, "to explore the Texes well before I return." At this point he had no intention of joining the fight for Texas independence.

The foursome reached Memphis the first evening and, in company with some friends congregated in the bar of the Union Hotel for a farewell drinking party, where Crockett repeated an oft-heard refrain from his unsuccessful campaign that, "since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas." They set off the next day, ferrying across the Mississippi River and riding overland to Little Rock, Arkansas. The group then traveled southwest to the Red River at the boundary with North Texas. Crossing the Red River, they passed through Clarksville, and by January 5, 1836 reached Nacogdoches. At San Augustine the party evidently divided and Burgin and Tinkle went home. Crockett and Patton signed the oath of allegiance, but only after Crockett insisted upon the insertion of the word "republican" in the document. They thus swore their allegiance to the "Provisional Government of Texas or any future republican Government that may be hereafter declared." Crockett balked at the possibility that he would be obliged to support some future government that might prove despotic. On January 9 he wrote his last letter home, telling family and friends that "I am rejoiced at my fate."

In early February Crockett arrived at San Antonio de Béxar; Antonio López de Santa Anna arrived on February 23. On the one hand Crockett was still fighting Jackson. The Americans in Texas were split into two political factions that divided roughly into those supporting a conservative Whig philosophy and those supporting the administration. Crockett chose to join Col. William B. Travis, who had deliberately disregarded Sam Houston's orders to withdraw from the Alamo, rather than support Houston, a Jackson sympathizer. What was more, he saw the future of an independent Texas as his future, and he loved a good fight.

Crockett died in battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836. What one writer has dubbed "a monstrous and unwieldy subcategory of Texana and Alamo writing," and another calls "the Crockett death wars," emerged as a result of the publication of the journal of Lt. José Enrique de la Peña. This "eyewitness account" declared that Crockett and five or six others were captured when Mexican troops overtook the Alamo at about six o'clock that morning. Santa Anna had ordered that no prisoners be taken. Infuriated when some of his officers brought the Americans before him to try to intercede for their lives, he ordered them executed and they were killed with bayonets and swords. De la Peña recounted that "these unfortunates died without...humiliating themselves before their torturers." A contentious and occasionally acrimonious controversy arose over whether de la Peña's diary was accurate, inaccurate, or even a twentieth century forgery. The debate initiated with the insistence of some contestants on calling the narrative a diary, which de la Peña never claimed. Rather, he made it clear that he wrote a narrative compiled from a mixture of notes made at the time, later recollections, accounts given him by others, and accounts in the Mexican press. De la Peña did not claim that he actually witnessed Crockett's death, and the passage dealing with it appears to reflect other statements that were plentiful in the press at the time.

Susanna Dickinson, wife of Almeron Dickinson, an officer at the Alamo, said Crockett died on the outside, one of the earliest to fall. Joe, Travis's slave and the only adult male Texan to survive the battle, reported seeing Crockett lying dead with slain Mexicans around him and stated that only one man surrendered and he was promptly shot. Yet within weeks of the fall of the Alamo, stories appeared in the Texan and outside press, of Crockett and others being slain after surrendering. A fictionalized memoir by Richard Penn Smith, Col. Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas...Written by Himself, determined that Crockett was captured and executed. Legend would not stand for that, and soon thrilling tales arose of Davy clubbing Mexicans with his empty rifle and holding his section of the wall of the Alamo until cut down by bullets and bayonets. One tale even allowed him to survive as a slave in a Mexican salt mine.

It is almost impossible to determine how Crockett died, though he certainly could have been among those who tried to surrender. He clearly played a central role in the defense of the Alamo. Travis wrote that during the first bombardment Crockett was everywhere in the Alamo "animating the men to do their duty." Other reports told of the deadly fire of his rifle that killed five Mexican gunners in succession, as they each attempted to fire a cannon bearing on the fort, and that he may have just missed Santa Anna, who thought himself out of range of all the defenders' rifles. His presence at the low stockade in front of the Alamo church, the most vulnerable point in the defensive line, was itself a testimony to Travis' trust and confidence in Crockett as a fighting man. In the final analysis, however, no matter how fascinating or outrageous the fabrications were that gathered around him, the historical David Crockett proved a formidable hero in his own right and succeeded Daniel Boone as the rough-hewn representative of frontier independence and virtue. In this regard, the motto he adopted and made famous epitomized his spirit: "Be always sure you're right-then go a-head!"

James Crisp, Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett's Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution (New York: Oxford, 2005). William C. Davis, Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis (New York: HarperCollins, 1998). Richard Boyd Hauck, Crockett: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1982). Dan Kilgore, How Did Davy Die? (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978). Michael A. Lofaro, ed., Davy Crockett (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985). James A. Shackford, David Crockett: The Man and the Legend (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956).  Bob Thompson, Born on A Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crocket and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier (New York: Crown, 2012).  Michael Wallis, David Crockett, The Lion of the West (New York:  Norton, 2011).

Time Periods:
  • Texas Revolution

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Michael A. Lofaro Revised by William C. Davis, “Crockett, David,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022,

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September 24, 2019