Among our nation’s enduring myths is that of American exceptionalism centered on populist figures such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Thomas Jefferson’s glorification of the “yeoman farmer” never panned out — filmmakers in the Disney mold during the mid-20th century found far more money to be made in romanticizing the frontier long hunter, with his backwoods manners, morals and maxims. The Boone-Crockett American icon was that of the rough-hewn common man, educated only in the school of life, yet friendly, honest, always willing to help a stranger, and always good in a fight, because, it was said, he could lick his weight in wildcats.
Those gentlemen’s contemporaries would have ridiculed the portrayal. Back then, the frontier Army regarded many westward-roving settlers more as intruders and troublemakers who often sparked conflict with the Indians. Eighteenth-century Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason deemed inhabitants of the Appalachian uplands “the lowest pack of wretches my eyes ever saw,” who lived a “low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life.” Richard Henderson, the motive force behind the founding of Boonesborough, Kentucky, called the frontier characters of the region “single, worthless fellows” seeking adventure and easy riches, not settlement. Pioneers were often profiteers who speculated in land, defrauding both Indians and whites as readily as the rich landowners back east they claimed to despise.
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Boone’s Greed and Grift
Pioneer greed was legend. When Boone could not survive as a hunter, he transitioned to an agent for land speculators, working for the Transylvania Co. as a land commissioner, surveyor and land finder for absentee buyers.
“Boone’s land hunting,” Stephen Aron writes in How the West Was Lost, “demonstrated the corruption of the homestead ethic.”
Bemoaning “interlopers from every quarter,” Boone fled from Kentucky to Mississippi and then Missouri to seek respite.
“But I was still pursued,” he recalled in his tongue-in-cheek prose, “for I had not been two years at the licks before a damned Yankee came and settled down within a hundred miles of me!”
But the folksy, upstanding backwoodsman was largely a Disney invention. The real-life Boone defaulted on debts, was sued and received death threats for his shady dealings. In 1798 the sheriff of Mason County, Ken., issued a warrant for his arrest for debt. When the fugitive instead fled the country, the sheriff auctioned off much of his land. Not until 1964 did a larger-than-life, do-no-wrong Boone, portrayed by 6-foot-5 actor Fess Parker, make his appearance in the action-adventure TV series Daniel Boone.
The Crockett Crock
Almost every baby boomer can recall the Disney image of Parker as Davy Crockett (before he portrayed Boone), swinging his Kentucky rifle “Old Betsy” in a hopeless last stand against swarming Mexicans at the Alamo. It is an image we ought to pitch into the dustbin of pop culture alongside coonskin caps, saddle shoes and Hula-Hoops. Crockett was a long hunter and hardscrabble farmer, a politician and a debtor, and he died a “martyr of the Alamo.” He served as a scout with Andrew Jackson during the 1813–14 Creek War, though he saw little fighting. While his fellow Tennesseans generally hated Indians, he changed his tune once elected to Congress, where, at least for a time, he advocated for Indian rights and against removal—albeit not at the expense of white squatters. His biggest push was for the poor white pioneer, who, contrary to the image of Westerners as laissez-faire, independent, anti-government individualists, grabbed as many free government goodies as they could get, particularly roads, canals and land.
Every one of Crockett’s land bills was defeated, and he had little success in Congress. Part of the problem was his lack of formal education and a tendency to boast of that fact. The image of the unwashed, hard-drinking, cursing good ol’ boy who could shoot the eye out of a squirrel and grin down a b’ar proved a successful gimmick only so long. Although the anti-intellectual strain in America has not disappeared, even Jacksonians grew tired of it in their politicians. When enough of them regarded Crockett as a nearly illiterate, naive, country bumpkin, they just wished he’d go away. Crockett admitted to lying while campaigning and passing out booze to get votes, and his foul invective and slander prompted at least one newspaper to chastise him in print. Admittedly, little has changed on that front.
Contradictions abounded in Crockett. He was a slaveholder who hated slavery and an Indian lover who campaigned against Indians. He was for big banks to get cheap credit, which only swelled the ranks of the debtors. Though he’d seen military service, he hated professional soldiers and was opposed to the Military Academy at West Point, introducing a resolution in 1830 to abolish it. In Congress he padded his mileage accounts and went on book tours while he was supposed to be at work. Like Boone, he sold warrants to land speculators and had creditors chasing him. Crockett ended up hating Jackson and his chosen successor Martin Van Buren, while they did all they could to discredit him and oust him from office. When Crockett, man of the people, was resoundingly defeated by those people in 1835, he told them they could “go to hell, and I would go to Texas.” Meanwhile, Crockett hatched more schemes, angling for a seat in the Texas constitutional convention and dreaming of prosperity as a land agent in the future republic.
“I am in hopes of making a fortune for myself,” he wrote.
Most of his constituents were glad he was gone to Texas.
No Fans in the Service
If Crockett didn’t like professional Army officers, they in turn held frontier dwellers in disregard.
“You can’t imagine how disgusting it is to be compelled to have intercourse with such people,” sniffed Lt. Theodore Talbot in 1850.
Lt. Henry Prince found them equally despicable, deeming them crackers with “unwashed face; ropy hair; the swearing, lazy, idle slut! … Ye drinking, drawling, boasting, cowardly sluggards — Fare ye well.”
Englishman Charles Latrobe, who visited America in 1832, perceived a disconnect between our talk and our walk. He said American writers had to “show an extreme predilection and fondness for their native country, its history, its institutions — to see the past enveloped in a mist of glory, and the future veiled in a golden dust of prophetic anticipation.”
Americans still prefer to don rose-colored glasses, especially when regarding Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.
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