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  David (Davy) Crockett

By John T. Marck

His life, Travis, Bowie, Santa Anna and the siege of the Alamo

David Crockett was born in a small cramped cabin on August 17, 1786 in the wilderness of eastern Tennessee, which at the time was a part of Virginia. Although his parents named him David, the world would soon become to know him as Davy.

Originally, Davy's grandparents came to America from Ireland, settling in the frontier. Having to move further west to escape the Indians, they and their family were eventually massacred by the Indians, except one son, John.

John Crockett and his wife had nine children; six sons and three daughters, of which Davy was the fifth born. Life was difficult growing up, especially living in the wilderness, without the benefit of an education, as there were no schools, no churches, and no books. 

In an attempt to find a more suitable location, the Crockett family moved frequently, until they settled on the Holston River, and opened a tavern.  Davy helped operate the tavern, even at the young age of eight when records confirm his presence there. The Crockett Tavern was an overnight stop for travelers going from Virginia to the West. Seeing new people frequently at the tavern, and after listening to stories they told, Davy was infatuated with the outside world ‑ a world he had not yet seen.

Four years later, when Davy was a mere twelve years old, a Dutchman stopped by the tavern on his way driving his herd of cattle over the mountains to Virginia. Needing assistance to drive his herd, he struck a deal with John Crockett for the services of Davy. Davy did not desire to go, but the money John received meant more to him than the safety of Davy, so the next day, he and the Dutchman set off on their journey. Their travel took them about twenty-five days to cover the four hundred miles to their destination. Along the way, the Dutchman was very kind to Davy, and once in Virginia, asked him to stay with him. Davy told him he would stay, but soon his homesickness took over, and he ran away, heading home. Soon he came across a caravan, and they let Davy ride with them. But, the caravan traveled very slowly, and Davy's desire to get home got the better of him, and he decided that he could make better time on his own.  Now about two hundred miles from home, he pushed on alone through the thick, desolate wilderness. Three days after beginning his journey, he came upon a man who was going in his direction, and who happened to have an extra horse. The man lent Davy the horse, and they traveled together with this man taking him within 15 miles of his home.

Once at home, Davy learned that a school had opened near his house in the time he was away. Excited, Davy entered the school in the beginners' class, but unfortunately his stay was cut short. After class on his fourth day, Davy was bullied by another boy, and not desiring to take it, beat the other boy up. The following morning, Davy, knowing that a beating was awaiting him from this boy and his friends, did not go to school, but rather stayed in the woods until it was time to go home, as if he had been there. Davy repeated this pattern for a few days, until the schoolmaster sent a note to his father, asking why he was absent. Davy now knew that a more severe punishment was imminent, when his father, with a hickory stick in hand, came after him. Running to the safety of the woods, he eluded his father, hiding until his father went angrily home.

Afraid of the punishment that awaited him, Davy decided to run away, joining a drover who was taking cattle to Front Royal, Virginia, a journey that was two hundred miles further than the trip he made with the Dutchman. Over the next two years, Davy worked at various jobs earning about twenty‑five cents per day. When thoughts of going home entered his mind, the thoughts of a whipping by his father took over, and he remained away.

Finally, his fear of his father faded, and being older, he decided to return home. When he walked into the Crockett Tavern, all thoughts of his perceived punishment disappeared, and during the celebration of his return, Davy told his family that he would have suffered many beatings rather than cause his mother and sisters any more worry by staying away.

By the customs of the time, Davy was bound to stay with his father until he reached the age of twenty-one. As his father was in debt, he purposed to Davy that he work off some of this debt; a note for thirty‑six dollars, after which he could have his freedom. To gain his independence, Davy worked faithfully for six months, paid off the debt, and gained his freedom. Having developed a sense of honesty through his work, he discovered that he could earn forty‑dollars for another six months work. In doing so, he could pay off another note of his father's. He did so, and six months later, he presented the canceled note to his father, who thought it was a bill. His father said that he could not pay it, after which Davy surprised him with the news that it had been paid.

Now 16, Davy was sensitive concerning his lack of education and the fact that he could neither read nor write. Desiring to learn, but too old to start again in school, he took a job where he worked two days a week for board, and attended school for four days. After six months, Davy learned to sign his name, as well as could accomplish a few simple math problems, and very simplified reading. With this limited knowledge, Davy then set out to find a wife.

Within a short time, he found and won the affection of a pretty Irish girl. On August 16, 1806, one day before his 20th birthday, Crockett married Mary (Polly) Finley in Jefferson County, Tennessee, and with fifteen borrowed dollars, settled in a log cabin. Still living in the wilderness, game was plentiful, and Davy was an outstanding shot with his musket.  As such, they had food, and cloth, as his wife was handy with a loom, that provided them the necessities of life, although still very primitive. Moving frequently, they finally settled in 1813, in what is today Franklin County, Tennessee. They had two sons: John Wesley Crockett was born July 10, 1807, followed by William Finley Crockett (born 1809), and a daughter, Margaret Finley (Polly) Crockett in 1812.

About this time in Alabama, Crockett had learned that the Creek Indians were on the warpath, destroying homes and massacring settlers. When the news of the massacre at Fort Mins in Alabama reached Crockett, he decided that the settlers must get organized to mount a defense. Among the first to enlist, he joined a volunteer army under the command of General Andrew Jackson. Because he was a natural in the woods, as well as one of the best riflemen, Jackson placed him in charge of a scouting party. Soon he learned that the woods were quite live with Creek Indians, and brutal and savage battles ensued. By April 1814, the Creeks finally asked for peace. Interestingly, during the fighting, Jackson's army was very poorly provisioned, almost to starvation numerous times. Had it not been for Crockett and his skills as a woodmen and rifleman, able to find and kill game, the troops would surely have starved. Returning home from the Creek War, sadly he found his wife was quite sick, and who died shortly thereafter, leaving behind their two children.

Davy then met and married a widow with two children named Elizabeth Patton in 1815; they had three children: Robert, Rebecca and Matilda. Desiring fewer crowded surroundings in which to live, as by this time, many settlers were moving to his part of Tennessee, Davy and his wife and  children moved about eighty miles west, to what is today Giles County, Tennessee. Being quite popular with the people there, and although he knew little about the law, he was made the area's magistrate. But, legal knowledge really meant little, as most disputes of the time were handled using common sense, and Crockett had a great deal of that.

When he first took over this position, all the warrants he issued were verbal, but as times progressed, he found that the warrants had to be in writing. At the beginning he still could barely write his name, but with drive and ambition, he soon mastered the art of writing.

By this time Crockett was very popular among the townspeople, and soon was chosen a colonel in one of the state’s regiments. A great storyteller, his popularity grew and soon he was asked to run for the legislature. Crockett accepted the challenge, but soon admitted that he did not know what the legislature was. Following a local hunt and barbecue, Crockett met his opponent. Crockett, knowing he had to make a speech, was quite nervous. His opponent, sure that the backwoodsman would fall on his feet, was confident. However, Crockett shined with his jokes and wonderful stories, and soon thereafter, was elected with twice as many votes. In no time after occupying his seat in the legislature, Colonel Crockett was as informed as any of his peers. He had a talent for remembering anything that he had learned or heard.

As Crockett never desired to be too close to civilization, and upon the legislature adjourning, he set out westward, actually to look for a place to build a new home, where water and game were bountiful. After traveling about 150 miles he found himself to the extreme west area of Tennessee, on the Obion River. It would be here that he decided to build a cabin. The country here was wild, with an abundance of bears, wolves, panthers, deer and lots of smaller game. Loving the solitude of the wilderness, Crockett's nearest neighbors were seven and fifteen miles away. After settling here, Crockett and his family were very well liked, so much so that he was reelected to the legislature. Once there Crockett was urged to run for Congress, and he agreed, yet the tide turned when it seemed the issue that decided the election was based on a new tariff law. Conveying different views and opposition to the tariff law, Crockett was defeated in the election, but by only two votes.

Through Davy's experience in the wilderness with hunting, there was nothing he liked more than a good bear hunt. He longed to put on his coonskin cap and hunting knife, and grabbing his beloved musket that he named "Old Betsy," he would set out for a day of hunting. Most times his sons would accompany him, or perhaps a neighbor, as on each trip, Crockett always brought home a bear, no matter how fierce. There are hundreds of interesting tales told by Crockett on his adventures with bear hunting. On two occasions he brought down bears weighing more than six hundred pounds. Another story tells of a bear who was trying to get away, whereby it crawled into a deep hole, with Davy right behind it. In one week he killed seventeen large bears, and killed more than fifty‑eight in one fall and winter. Another story tells that he killed forty‑seven in one month, for a total of one hundred five bears killed in a year. Bears were a useful catch, as their meat was a delicacy, and their skins were used for beds and bedding, with their fur used for coats.

Having another attempt at Congress, Crockett was elected in 1827, as such; he had to abandon his bear hunting and travel to Washington, D.C. Upon arriving at Congress, he began to introduce himself, saying, "I am the same David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half‑horse, half alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle...I can whip my weight in wildcats and if any gentleman pleases, for a ten‑dollar bill, he can throw in a panther too."  This introduction and his presence made quite a stir in Washington, but he was well liked and people loved to listen to him speak of his adventures. Several times he was entertained by President John Quincy Adams at the White House.

As a Congressman, Crockett's service was outstanding, as he was very honest and quite conscientious ‑ one that could never be bribed nor forced to vote for anything he did know was right. While he was still serving in this office during his second term, the nation got a new President and one from Crockett's beloved Tennessee in Andrew Jackson. Generally speaking, Crockett was supportive of Jackson. However, on several occasions, Crockett did not believe in Jackson's measures, thinking they were wrong. Consequently, this brought him the censure of his constituency, which brought him defeat in his next election. Upon losing the election, Crockett said, "If they won't elect me with my opinions, I can't help it."

Upon his return home after his defeat, he found that his former love of bear hunting had lost its appeal. Instead of hunting, Davy decided to write his autobiography, while still looking forward to running again in the next election. He finished his book which was published in 1834. In his introduction, Davy wrote, "a plain, honest, homespun account of my life."

One year before his book was published; Crockett was able to defeat the people behind Andrew Jackson and was again elected to Congress. Because Jackson, or "Old Hickory," as he was known, practiced high‑handed politics, Crockett gained quite a lot of support from those who opposed Jackson. Within no time, Crockett was dubbed the "Honest Congressman." So popular was he that he dreamed one day of becoming President.

On April 25, 1834, Crockett set out on his famous tour of the Eastern cities. Starting in Baltimore, Maryland, he boarded a train for the first time in his life. He liked the ride and described the train as a "new, clean sight." Although the ride only lasted for seventeen miles, he enjoyed it. The remainder of his tour would be traveled by boat or stagecoach.

Everywhere he visited, he was met by crowds of cheering people, who were curious to see and meet the famous backwoods man. He was wined and dined, and cheered some more. At each stop, his speeches and stories entertained all who attended. When he arrived in Philadelphia, he was met by a crowd of five thousand, and here was presented with a rifle that would go on to replace "Old Betsy," as well as serve him well at the Alamo. A larger crowd met in New York City, and in Jersey City he participated in a shooting match that proved his skill was no myth. Continuing on his tour, he went to Boston, where he loved the historic sites, then traveled to a few other areas in New England. His tour was now winding down, taking him back to Philadelphia then Pittsburgh. Here he boarded a boat and traveled down the Ohio River, stopping at Wheeling, Cincinnati, and Louisville, before returning home to his cabin in Tennessee.

One year earlier, in 1833, the Americans who had settled in Texas decided to seek their independence and separate from the Mexican state of Coahuila. They organized a government, drew up a constitution, and appointed Henry Smith as governor and Sam Houston as their commander‑in‑chief. On December 10, 1835, they succeeded in capturing the town of San Antonio, driving the Mexican army, commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, out of Texas.

Not far from the center of town in San Antonio stood the Alamo, an old Spanish mission building built in1744 (that means "cottonwood" in Spanish) that had been converted into a fort, with a garrison of about one hundred fifty Texans. Its name came from its occupation by a Spanish company from Alamo de Parras in Mexico. These Texans were commanded jointly by Colonels William Barret Travis and James Bowie.

William Travis was born in South Carolina on August 9, 1809. Before his military career, he practiced law in Alabama, before moving to Texas. In Texas, he became a lieutenant colonel early in the revolution. When James Bowie became ill, he assumed total command at the Alamo. James Bowie was born in Tennessee in 1795, in an area which today is in Kentucky. He was quite the adventurer, as well as an excellent Indian fighter, known for his famous "Bowie knife." He lost his wife and all his children in 1833 in a cholera epidemic. Just a few months before the siege at the Alamo, he defeated a Mexican cavalry unit in October 1835 at Mission Conception. He held joint command at the Alamo with Travis until his was stricken with typhoid‑pneumonia.

Infuriated by his defeat, Santa Anna decided to exact his revenge at the Alamo in February 1836. Meanwhile, Colonel Crockett and four of his "Tennessee boys" arrived at the Alamo. Being from Tennessee, certainly Crockett and his men had no commitment in Texas, nor owed her nothing. Yet, they were there as volunteers, to fight for Texas, against tyranny, wherever it may have been. Crockett and his few men, combined with those under the command of Travis and Bowie, numbered about one hundred eighty-eight. These patriots were ready at the Alamo to take on the force under Santa Anna, now marching in their direction, and numbering about five thousand. Upon the arrival of Santa Anna, he ordered Travis to surrender. Determined, Travis answered Santa Anna with a cannon shot. On February 23, 1836, the fight at the Alamo began.

Others at the Alamo during the siege were some of the families of the defenders, including the wife and daughter of Captain Almeron Dickinson, as well as a few servants. James Bowie, present during the battle as well, had been stricken with typhoid‑pneumonia, and could not move from his cot.

As the battle raged, the defenders of the Alamo now exhausted and nearly out of ammunition and supplies, hoped for a miracle but waited for the inevitable that came on the chilly morning of March 6. Travis, Crockett and the others heard the bugles sound as Santa Anna's forces approached. The thousands of men under Santa Anna, in columns, attacked from the north, the east, the south and the west. But, the determined defenders repulsed them twice, using the last of their cannon and musket fire. As the third attack came at the now battered north wall, Colonel Travis, leading his men, was shot through his forehead, falling across a cannon, dying instantly. Passing by where Travis lay, the Mexicans stormed into the plaza. Overwhelmed, and with no time to load their muskets against such a large force of Mexicans, the defenders used the muskets as clubs. Colonel Crockett, likewise using his musket as a club, was killed as the attackers, now with reinforcements, stormed the south wall, and headed for the chapel, where those Texans inside were killed. James Bowie, fighting his best from his cot, his pistols now empty, and his famous knife bloodied, and with his body now riddled, died on his cot. With no defenders left, the battle at the Alamo was over. 

Mrs. Dickinson, her child, and fourteen other non‑combatants, were spared.   Santa Anna had suffered about 1600 losses. In further retaliation, he ordered the bodies of all the defenders burned.

However, following the siege at the Alamo, the Texans' desire for independence would not fade. Three weeks after the defeat at the Alamo, Santa Anna, at a place known as Goliad, coldly and savagely ordered the massacre of three hundred Texas prisoners taken at the Battle of Coleto Creek. On April 21, 1836, just forty‑six days after the fall of the Alamo, about eight hundred angered Texans and other American volunteers under the command of General Sam Houston launched an all-out attack on Santa Anna and his force of 1300 men at San Jacinto.  Shouting "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" as they attacked, they overran the Mexican army in a few minutes, killing six hundred thirty, while only suffering eight losses themselves. In the battle, Santa Anna was captured. Texas was now free and a new Republic was born. Texas, acted as an independent nation for about ten years, before being annexed to the United States on December 29, 1845.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was imprisoned for eight months, after which he was released and went into exile.  Recalled from exile in 1846, he served in the war against the United States, where he was twice defeated in the field.  In 1853 he was again recalled to service in the revolution, and was appointed president of Mexico for life.  However, in 1855 he was driven from the country.  In 1867, following the death of Maximilian, he attempted to effect a coup, but was captured and sentenced to death, but was then allowed to retire in New York.  Under the amnesty agreement of 1872, he returned to Mexico where he died in 1876.

David (Davy) Crockett, who was born on August 17, 1786, died on March 6, 1836 at the young age of 49. He was then and still remains an outstanding American, statesman and folklore hero. On the day he died, he wrote a letter to his daughter during the siege, saying not to worry about him, for he was with his friends.

Copyright © 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Grateful appreciation to Ms. Nina Dent for her help with information on Davy Crockett's marriages.