Davy Crockett: The Man, the Legend, the Myth

By Carl M. Cannon

Good morning. It’s March 6. On this day in 1836, after a 13-day siege of The Alamo, Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna recaptured San Antonio. The official list of the 189 "Texians" killed at The Alamo included three men already famous in their lifetimes: Jim Bowie, William B. Travis, and Davy Crockett.

Rumors have persisted since then that Crockett and the final six Alamo defenders were captured and put to the sword on Santa Anna’s orders after the battle had ended. This may have been propaganda, and it may have been true. One thing is sure: myths, some of them of his own making, accrued to Davy Crockett for the better part of two centuries.

In the 21st century, Gen-Xers or Millennials going through their family photo albums are often perplexed by boyhood pictures of their Baby Boom father wearing a raccoon cap, complete with the tail. “Our family lived in Los Angeles [or New York or Chicago],” they think to themselves. “Why on earth is Dad wearing that silly hat?”

If voiced aloud, this question is likely to engender the singing of a song – or, at least, the first verse of a little ditty called “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which is burned into the memory banks of the aforementioned Boomer parent.

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee, 

Greenest state in the land of the free. 

Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree, 

Killed him a bear when he was only three. 

and then the chorus:

Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.

They say that the artist is after Truth, not mere facts, and it’s a good thing, because “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” is historically wrong from its opening line. He wasn’t born on a mountaintop, but in the Tennessee lowlands. “It’s a river valley,” notes author Bob Thompson, “and you can’t see any mountains from there.”

Did he kill a bear when he was 3 years old? Hardly likely, although Crockett did claim in his own autobiography that he culled 105 bears in a single hunting season. Oh, and he preferred to be called David Crockett, not Davy.

And as for that coonskin cap that he supposedly sported, well, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver donned one while campaigning as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956, but there’s no evidence that Crockett ever wore one.

So what gives? The short answer is that in the 1950s, Walt Disney opened a certain theme park in Southern California – you know, the one that bears his name – and one section of it was called Frontierland. Walt Disney simply was looking for a real-life American hero to epitomize it.

Disney could have chosen Kit Carson or Daniel Boone or any number of fellows, but a former Tennessee congressman and famous woodsman who died at The Alamo seemed to fit the bill best. And, let’s face it, Fess Parker really nailed it. The rest is history…of a sort.

That’s the short take. For the long version, and an objective examination of what happened on this date 177 years ago at The Alamo, go ahead and buy Bob Thompson’s absorbing new book: “Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier.”

“Davy, Davy Crockett…King of the Wild Frontier.”

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