In the summer of 2002 I found myself in Dandridge, Tennessee, accompanying a lifelong David Crockett buff to visit a site he had recently discovered. We motored off into the Appalachians, along ever-narrower roads, until he pulled over and said, “I think this is it.” On foot, we slid down a wet holler of hardwoods overgrown with kudzu. There was a small meadow in the creek bottom, and after gamely stomping around, we encountered four smoothed-over foundation stones, the footprint of the cabin rented by newlyweds David and Polly Crockett in 1806. Nearby, we removed a sheet of rusting metal and looked down the wellspring from which they had drawn their water. This, I thought, was a real Ozymandias moment: Davy Crockett, frontier legend, killed “b’ars” in the surrounding forest; now his evidence was reduced to dew and poison ivy and a rattling sheet of corrugated iron.
Yet no other frontier figure has kept such a hold on the American imagination, and Crockett’s star has remained bright enough to regularly draw historians’ gaze. The first modern scholarly effort, James A. Shackford’s 1956 David Crockett: The Man and the Legend, did yeoman service during the Disney years, when Fess Parker played Crockett on television and no little boy could play cowboys and Indians without his coonskin cap. Before then, scholars lost in the landslide of folklore had pronounced Crockett “unknowable,” but in a withering display of primary sources, Shackford proved them wrong, resurrecting a fiery but imperfect frontier politician.
There were later efforts, most notably Michael A. Lofaro’s 1985 Davy Crockett, and each post-Shackford scholar has claimed some interpretive point for himself. But there is a broad agreement on the essential David Crockett: He was born into poverty in Tennessee, surviving a cruel childhood that included indentured servitude. He rose to become a state legislator and a congressman before running afoul of Andrew Jackson’s political machine, famously telling Old Hickory’s minions that they could go to hell and he would go to Texas, and then perishing at the Alamo. He was a rudely learned man, but an articulate advocate for his principles.
It is admittedly a thin résumé on which to claim status as an American icon, but it is too easy to think of Crockett as an ancestor of today’s cult of vapid celebrity. To be sure, Crockett was a master of self-promotion. The subtitle of Michael Wallis’s new biography, David Crockett: The Lion of the West (Norton, $26.95), derives from an 1831 play that was based on his life and produced with his approval. Later it was spun off into hugely popular illustrated adventure stories about his alter ego, a Tennessee Paul Bunyan with a little bit of Prometheus thrown in, riding buffalo and throttling comets. The play was followed in 1834 by Crockett’s autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, steeped in frontier humor, colloquialism, and dubious grammar—brilliantly calculated to win the support of Tennessee voters. But Crockett is not remembered as a comic figure, and he is not remembered for what he didn’t accomplish. He has kept his place in the American pantheon for what he represented: the rustic virtue of relentless courage, whether in killing a bear or facing certain death from Mexican bayonets.
Wallis is a frequent writer on Oklahoma and New Mexico subjects. Nothing in his bibliography of fifteen books recommends him to be the latest Crockett biographer, but this degree of separation may explain his admirable objectivity. Wallis, a popular historian in the David McCullough mode, passes quickly and effectively over Crockett’s early years. Yet most readers’ interest will intensify as Crockett approaches his destiny, and doom, in San Antonio. Wallis describes Crockett’s arrival in Texas, the context of the revolution, and the siege, battle, and death in the final twenty pages—an ending of stunning swiftness, but consonant with Crockett’s few weeks in Texas measured against a life of nearly fifty years.
Texas readers, of course, will want to know where Wallis weighs in on the controversies surrounding Crockett’s last moments. How does Davy die this time? In the aftermath of the Battle of the Alamo, it was generally accepted that a few of the defenders were taken alive and then executed. It took about half a minute to reload a long rifle, plenty of time to be overwhelmed by surging superior numbers; of course some would have been taken alive. Crockett was rumored to have been among them. At first this was not controversial, and interest in the Texas revolution even declined during the Civil War and Reconstruction. It was only around the turn of the twentieth century that there was a large-scale emotional investment in the heroic nature of that history, kindled by the rescue of the Alamo chapel from demolition by the newly founded Daughters of the Republic of Texas and abetted by the appearance of iconic historical paintings such as R.â€ŠJ. Onderdonk’s Fall of the Alamo, which depicted a deep-chested Crockett the moment before he fell, swinging Ol’ Betsy over his head.
It was an iconography so compelling that it was accepted as historical fact, and afterward, proud Texans would not countenance an Alamo recitation that suggested Crockett didn’t go down fighting. In 1956 Shackford had Crockett falling early in the battle, not in a last stand. The repercussions were minimal, but in 1978 the historian Dan Kilgore ignited a firestorm by returning to original sources in How Did Davy Die? and concluding, based largely on eyewitness Mexican accounts, that Crockett may have been among those who were taken alive. Gasoline was thrown on the controversy as more scholars noticed the 1975 translation of the memoir of Mexican lieutenant José Enrique de la Peña, with its account of the execution of Crockett and several others. In response, open war erupted between professional historians and Texas history buffs. Ever since, anyone who writes about Crockett has to cross this minefield.
To navigate it, Wallis subtly alters his voice from narrator to arbiter, laying the evidence before the reader, leading rather than pushing us to the conclusion that however he drew his final breath, David Crockett at the Alamo was a genuine hero. But in the end, Wallis concludes, “for the many scholars . . . every bit as devoted to the historic figure as those in love with the myth, the overwhelming evidence supports the Peña narrative.”
Lion of the West is not definitive, nor is Wallis interested in playing “duelling footnotes” with his predecessors; like Crockett himself he is a storyteller. The man who emerges from these pages is vivid, comprehensible, and, in the main, historically reliable. On a subject that has come to be dominated by acrimonious debate and posturing, such serenity has a lot to recommend it.
Textra credit: What else we’re reading this month
Life Is Yours to Win, Augie Garrido (Touchstone, $23). Life lessons from UT’s legendary baseball coach; introduction by Kevin Costner.
The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson (Norton, $150). Volumes 7 and 8 of this series of transcripts cover one month in the summer of 1964.