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David Crockett: The Lion of the West

by Michael Wallis; W.W. Norton

David Crockett never signed his name “Davy.” He wasn’t born on a mountaintop in Tennessee: Despite the well-known Disney TV-show theme song, his birthplace was part of North Carolina in 1786. And he didn’t kill a “b’ar” when he was only 3—although, according to Michael Wallis, at 39 he did dispatch a fully grown black bear with only a knife.

Wallis’ David Crockett: The Lion of the West is the first full-life biography of America’s most famous frontiersman in nearly two decades. One of the book’s delights is discovering that much of the Crockett legend is rooted in fact. Wallis, author of more than a dozen books on history and Americana, is the ideal guide for distinguishing Crockett’s history from the layers of folklore that have surrounded it.

Crockett was the fifth of six sons in a family of nine children; his parents, like many of those moving into Appalachia, were of hearty Scots-Irish stock from Ulster. These folk were the vanguard of the frontier movement, “the first settlers to call themselves Americans.” Despite minimal education, the Crocketts were not illiterate and imparted in young David an enduring respect for letters: This pioneer legend would carry volumes of Ovid and Shakespeare on his travels.

Crockett became a hunter renowned among his fellows and a formidable fighter in the Creek Indian War. He also shaped the mold for archetypal American myths, rising from humble beginnings to become a congressman and popular author. He was even regarded by some as presidential timber.

Myths aside, his life was a familiar American story, mingling success and failure. Debt hounded him, as it had his parents, “like a cur dog pursuing a bear.” His political fall was precipitated by a clash with President Andrew Jackson, his commander in the Creek War, over Jackson’s infamous Indian Removal Act. His vote, Crockett wrote in his 1834 autobiography, was “one that I believe will not make me ashamed on the day of judgment.” (It also earned him admirers among American Indians to this day.) “It was a brave act,” writes Wallis, “and a politically naive vote.”

After losing his 1836 congressional bid, he famously told his former constituents, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” The fledgling republic promised him “a fresh start and new opportunities for homesteading as well as politicking.” He had no notion he would be fighting in a rebellion against Mexico, and had never even heard of the mission fortress called the Alamo.

Already one of the most famous men in the country before heading west, Crockett had eclipsed Daniel Boone to become America’s leading folk hero. He lived long enough to see himself lampooned on stage as “Colonel Nimrod Wildfire,” who claimed to be “half horse, half alligator, and a touch of the earthquake.” Though he was only in the Lone Star Republic a few months, Wallis writes, “One might say that, figuratively, Crockett invented Texas.”

“The curtain calls…have never ceased for the Davy Crockett of imagination,” Wallis observes wryly. But he has made the David Crockett of reality every bit as intriguing.


Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.