Davy had a chance to fight that must have satisfied him.
The story of David Crockett stands apart from all others in our history — a nebulous collection of traditions about a great array of facts. To the unnumbered thousands to whom his name is familiar he is often as unreal as the hero of a mediæval romance or of Scandinavian mythology. This book will follow his history with close attention to dates, and without recognition of the impossible legends of many writers. To accomplish this has required much reading and research, much weighing of evidence, and the help of others. The portrait of David Crockett, now for the first time published, is after the original in the Alamo, painted by the famous artist Chapman while Crockett was a Congressman. It is a picture that reveals the secret of his success in winning friends and fame.
For the use of the picture thanks are due to Mrs. Rebecca Fisher, of Austin, Texas, the venerable President of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, and to Mrs. Marie B. Urwitz, the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the same Society. For other favors acknowledgment is made to Miss Jennie Moore, of Flag Pond, Tenn.; Prof. Eric Doolittle, of the University of Pennsylvania; Judge W. T. Rogers, of Denver; Mr. and Mrs. Mark F. Postlewaite, of San Antonio, Texas; and to Richard A. Paddock, for much information in regard to Reelfoot Lake.
It is hoped that this unpretentious volume may help to a better understanding of the life and motives of a man whose footsteps went into no dark places, and who died an honor to his race and his countrymen — a hero sans peur et sans reproche.
Charles Fletcher Allen.
Denver, Colorado, June 2, 1911.
Birthplace in Tennessee — His Irish Blood — Summer-time in the Great Smokies — The Indian signal fires — Little Davy gets fighting mad — His love of weapons — In the Bald Mountains — Davy’s aspirations — John Crockett moves again.
The antecedents of Davy Crockett are Irish, although his mother was Rebecca Hawkins, a native of Maryland, and probably of English descent. After the execution of King Charles I, in the seventeenth century, many Irishmen were transported to North America as rebels, and there sold into a state of slavery among the English colonists. Many of them were sent to Virginia and to the Somers or Bermuda Islands, and in Sir J. H. Lefroy’s “Memorials of Bermuda” occur the names of James Sheehan and David Larragan as two of the slaves bought and sold in those islands. As we might expect, the same records often make mention of the unruly and riotous nature of the Irish rebels, and of the complaints of those who thought the colony might well be rid of them. It was the blood of the fighting race that told, and one by one the slaves became freemen, to follow every bugle-call or rolling drum that has led into the storms of shot and shell on our country’s battlefields.
David Crockett’s grandparents left Ireland for America after the birth of William, their oldest son, and it is supposed that John Crockett, another son, and the father of David, was born during the voyage. The family, which eventually included four boys, settled in Pennsylvania. Here John Crockett lived as a farmer for some time, removing while still a young man to Lincoln County, North Carolina, and afterwards to the Tennessee mountain country. His parents, displaying the same restlessness that characterized the career of David, came into what is now Hawkins County, Tennessee, and settled near the site of the present town of Rogersville. It is not unlikely that the county took its name from the family to which Rebecca Hawkins belonged.
The Creek Indians had now begun to feel the pressure of immigration into their sacred hunting-grounds, and were at all times dangerous, frequent encounters occurring between them and the settlers. Both of Davy’s grandparents were killed during an Indian foray, near the Holston River, in Hawkins County. In this bloody affair their son Joseph had his arm broken by a bullet, though he finally escaped. His brother James, who was deaf and dumb, remained a prisoner for more than seventeen years. It was without doubt due to his being deaf and dumb that he was finally heard of and identified by Davy’s father and uncle William, who paid some sort of a ransom and obtained his freedom. He lived for many years in Cumberland County, Kentucky.
Davy Crockett was the fifth of six sons, and there were three sisters, besides, or nine children in all, in the family of John Crockett. In his own story Davy makes little use of the names of his relatives, and although some of them are known, they are not material to this narrative.
Davy Crockett was born on the 17th of August, 1786. At this time, the “Gateses, Lees, and rough Yankee Generals,” as Carlyle styled them, had returned to their own shores, and were striving to form a permanent union of the States. The courts of the Old World were vying with each other in extravagance and riotous living.
But the Great Smoky Mountains were full of peace, and from the Unaka range to the far blue crest of the Cumberlands the troubles of the far-off world were but echoes faintly heard. The new and short-lived State of Franklin was a year old, and John Crockett, veteran of the Revolution, was content to work there from dawn till dark, that his children might be fed and housed. The mountains were full of game, corn could be raised when the ground was cleared, and the autumn yielded bountiful stores of nuts, wild grapes, berries, and apples, until from one source or another the cabin was filled with winter supplies; yet somehow there always seemed to be insufficient for the long months before the anemones and azaleas came again beside the leaping brooks or under the tender green of the wakening trees.
The log cabin of the Crockett family stood where the Limestone Creek joined the Nolichucky River, ten miles north of the great bend in the Bald Mountain range. There the rocky summits, angling abruptly about the watersheds of Indian Creek, are like fortifications of the Titans, crowned with battlements of the Appalachian range, whose peaks stand more than six thousand feet above the sea — higher than any others east of the Mississippi. From the rocky escarpments, between the black forests of pine and hemlock, shone the signal-fires of the Creek and Chickasaw, and from unseen nooks between their giant flanks the thump-thump-thump of the tom-tom caused the pioneer to look to his stockades and his flintlock guns.
The fierce ebb and flow of war that had given Kentucky the name of “the Dark and Bloody Ground” had now and then swept over parts of Tennessee — the massacre at Fort Loudon was a red spot upon the pages of her history; but the rivalries of the English, French, and Spanish had promoted Indian raids in the disputable regions of the Ohio and the Mississippi, rather than in the lowlands of the western part of this state and in the Alabama plains. What Tennessee was spared in earlier days she knew in the Civil War in 1861 to 1865, when from Knoxville to Donelson and Shiloh, and from Lookout Mountain to the Cumberland Gap, her fields were filled with unknown graves and the wreck and misery of a terrible conflict.
It was not until many years after the birth of Crockett that it became safe to travel the rugged roads between Virginia and North Carolina and the Nashville country. In the twenty or more trips that Andrew Jackson made between Jonesboro and Nashville in the days when he was foremost in the practice of the law, he had many a close call in Indian fights. More than a score of times he came upon the bodies of men, women, and children, robbed and slain and scalped. Little Davy, listening at nightfall beside the river, hearing above its murmur the hoot of the owl in the dismal trees, the howl of the wolf on the mountain-top, or the panther’s anguished cry, floating out of the vague unknown, would make good use of his sturdy little legs until he was safe at his mother’s side.
As the boy grew older, he lost the instinctive sense of fear that was perhaps a part of his natural heritage; for the cry of the Banshee had filled the souls of his Irish forebears with terror in their lowly cabins across the seas. Something of the daring of Sir John and of Richard his son, of the Hawkins kin — slavers, freebooters, sea-scourges, admirals — had come to him on his mother’s side, and now, too, the fighting blood of his father’s race began to show. Davy was scarce six years old when four of his brothers, and a boy named Campbell, left him on the shore of the Nolichucky while they put out into the river in the rude boat that was used in crossing the stream. Had it not been for the bravery of a man named Kendall, who saw their danger, the five boys would surely have gone over the falls a little way below, which would have meant certain death. Davy seems partly to have realized their danger, but said he was too fighting mad at being left behind to care what happened to them. When they were safe again, his greatest satisfaction was in telling them that the scrape they had been in was what they had earned for not taking him along.
Like every boy of the frontier, Davy was quick to idealize the great flintlock rifles, powder-horns, and other implements of the hunter. He loved to watch his father mould bullets from the well-nigh priceless supply of lead, or cut and grease “patches” for loading. The boy would sometimes shoulder a stick and imagine himself a hunter, stimulated perhaps by the loan of a powder-horn and a hunting-knife. All this was evidence of what was working in his mind.
An old man who knew the boy and always called him the “Corkonian” said that “the only diff’ betwane a crowbar and a gun is thot the gun do have a hole in it, and a stock.” The hunter’s rifle was made from a bar of iron weighing about the same as a crowbar, from eleven to fifteen pounds being the usual weight of the gun. From this it is easy to see that the small boy of 1795 could not take a very active part in the hunting that furnished the greater portion of the supply of food for the pioneer and his family.
In talking with General Grant, who had suggested a way in which the reserves might be of use while not needed at the front, Abraham Lincoln once said: “Oh, yes; I see that. As we say out West, if a man can’t skin he can hold a leg for the one that does.” A five-year-old boy might not be able to hunt and kill deer, but he could “hold a leg.” The boy of to-day can go forth with a four-pound “twenty-two” with less fatigue than his grandfather felt in handling a rifle when ten years older. At the age of fifteen a boy might learn to shoot, but he was hardly able to range the mountains for game.
It was on a day in August, when Davy was six years old, that his father and his uncle took him with them on a hunting trip into the dark forests of pine on the northern slopes of the Bald Mountains. They were gone but a single day, but every moment was a revelation to the little fellow. They were looking for wild turkeys, and had bagged several when they came to an opening surrounded by maples, beeches, and other deciduous trees. The grass was fresh, and a dozen sorts of flowers were under their feet as they tied their single horse, on which Davy rode with the game.
The men were talking of the West, and as they pointed out across the peaceful land of the Chickasaws, the boy heard often the names of the great rivers, the Tennessee, the Holston, the Cumberland, the Ohio, and the Mississippi. The spirit of unrest that was in their hearts was already in his own, and from that day the Nolichucky was no longer satisfying to him; he wanted something bigger.
In the faint echoes of ringing steel and bloody threats that came from the cities of the Old World, those August days, there was somewhat that excited the natural restlessness of the pioneer. The events in France were terrible and momentous. On the 20th of the month before, the “black-browed Marseillaise,” the Reds of the Midi, had finished their long march from the shores of the Mediterranean, and had entered Paris, six hundred strong, armed with forks and scythes and pikes, and singing the song of Rouget de Lisle that forever afterwards was to be the War Hymn of Unrest. The few who had left for the New World had not been missed in the ranks of the starving people of Europe’s overcrowded streets and lands. The “black chaos of insurrection” had burst upon the last defenses of the French king, and it may have been while the three looked westward to the promised land that the Swiss Guards — hunted like wild beasts — died to the last man in the Place de Grêve. The time for blood-letting had come to France, and the whole world was in a ferment that was soon to set the red men of America in battle against the aggressions of the colonists. There could never have been peace in the Old World until the opening of the New, and that also meant war to the knife.
From then until he went forth into the strange places of the east, Davy grew in thought and stature and in the knowledge of common things, but without any education other than that obtained by the use of sharp ears and keen sight. When he was seven or more, the whole Crockett family moved to a place about ten miles north of Greenville. From the habit John Crockett had, of going from one place to another, it seems that he depended mostly upon game and pelts for a living. He could not have been much of a farmer, in a country where land had to be cleared before crops could be raised.
It was while in Greene County that Joseph Hawkins, brother of Davy’s mother, shot a man while hunting, having mistaken him for a deer. The man was gathering wild grapes, and as he reached for the clusters above him, Hawkins thought he saw the moving ears of a deer. As all kinds of game were common in such a place, and hunters were scarce, he took a careful aim, and shot the grape-gatherer through the chest. The man finally recovered from the effects of the wound, but Davy tells that he saw his father draw a silk handkerchief through the bullet-hole and through the man’s body. Such accidents were less frequent in those days, when the human target might be one of a party of Indians skulking in the thickets. In such a case the hunter would be tomahawked and scalped before he could reload — or bound fast, and he might be tortured to death later.
A Chicago paper obtained a list of one hundred and thirteen men who were killed in the year 1910, through such mistakes and careless handling of guns. In war, the killed are far less in number than the wounded, but in 1910 only eighty-seven were wounded as against one hundred and thirteen killed. This shows that the hunters who do the killing are much more careful in their aim than in finding out what they have for a target. It is a pretty sure thing that the immediate scalping of such blunderers would save one hundred lives every year. Davy Crockett’s father used to tell him, when he began to use a rifle, “Look mighty hard before you shoot: it may be a man you see, but you can always get a man.”
From Greene County John Crockett moved, after a year or so, to the mouth of Cove Creek, some twenty-five miles below the mouth of the Limestone.
The mill on Cove Creek — Swept away, “lock, stock, and barrel” — The Crockett family keeps moving — Andrew Jackson and the corn-thief — “A boy’ll be after trouble before his ears are dry” — The empty cupboard — ‘Lasses-b’ilin’s, bean-stringin’s, butter-stirrin’s — Bobtail pigs and bawling calves — Davy is sent to Virginia on foot with Jacob Siler — He gets homesick, and longs to see his family — Good friends come to his aid, and he returns home.
It would appear that John Crockett had some funds upon moving to Cove Creek, for he at once began the building of a mill, in partnership with a man named Galbreath. They had about finished the mill — undoubtedly a primitive affair — when trouble came.
Over all the flanks and summits of the Appalachian range the snow lay deep in the shelter of the pines. It was the accumulation of the long winter, compact, and covered with a glaze of ice. All through the winter the creek on which the mill was built flowed quietly in its course, held in check by the icy rein of the zero weather. But the stream grew deeper and swifter as the days advanced, and when the swamp-apple and the wild cherry were like woodland fairies in their robes of tender pink and creamy white, when the rumble of the partridge’s wings was heard and the violets were scarfs of blue flung here and there, the south wind swept along the range with lowering clouds, the heavens were opened, and the rain began. In “the twinkling of an eye” the stream they had relied upon to run their mill swept every vestige of their labor out of sight, “lock, stock, and barrel,” as Crockett described the disaster.
Few men care to build upon the scene of ruined hopes, and John Crockett moved on again. We follow him next to a place on the road that was frequented by travellers between Virginia and Nashville. Here he kept an inn for the wayfarer — a poor kind of an affair, where only such people as wagoners were likely to halt. They were as rough as the roads over which they came, and in feeding such guests there was small profit. The Western settlers were always ready to take arms against any authority that held too tight a rein, and each man was as quick to show fight in his own behalf. In his later years, David Crockett remembered the little tavern between Jonesboro and Knoxville as a place of “hard times, and plenty of ’em.”
It was there that Davy first saw Andrew Jackson, who was afterwards his leader in the Creek War of 1813. Already the renown of the State’s Attorney had become a household subject in Tennessee. Jackson feared no man, and brought to justice the most defiant of the mountaineers. The men of that day had a habit of settling their differences out of court, which caused many to die “with their boots on.” Much the same system even now prevails in some parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. To those who have deplored the passionate natures and the crimes of the foreign element in our country, it may be said that the most lawless and cruel of our citizens are primitive Americans, the feudists of the Dark and Bloody Ground and the Big Bend State. The reason why Jackson had most of the court cases in those days was because they were criminal suits, and to him, as public prosecutor, came the duty of conducting them.
One day there stopped at the Crockett tavern a man from the head of the Limestone, who had come down the Nolichucky with a load of corn that he had stolen from a neighbor. Of this he openly boasted, and he defied any one to interfere with him. John Crockett told him he did not care to take stolen corn as payment for feeding him and his horses, and asked him to go; but the unwelcome guest said he should stay as long as he liked. The next day, towards dark, appeared a number of horsemen, who had been belated by a storm in the mountains. Among them was Andrew Jackson, and there were also two or three constables and prisoners on the way to Knoxville. Then in his twenty-seventh year, Jackson was an ideal leader of men. More than six feet tall, slender but muscular, the glance of his dark blue eyes meant more than verbal threats. To him, John Crockett told the story of the vainglorious thief. Jackson told the man that he was under arrest, whereupon the latter at once became violent and threatening.
The room of the tavern in which the wagoners spent the spare hours was large and dingy, built of logs, and had been the scene of more than one desperate quarrel. There were enough bullet-holes in the logs to prove it.
Jackson whispered to a constable, and under the directions of the latter every one left the room except Jackson and the thief. Ten minutes afterwards the latter came out of the room, without his rifle or knife, and sullenly left the place. The horses and the wagon-load of corn were left behind, and were afterwards turned over to the man from whom they had been stolen. Davy, who was a lad of eight or nine years at the time, had been terrified by the threats of the corn-thief, and always wondered at the quiet way in which Andrew Jackson had disposed of him.
The small boy’s days are short, but full of zest. Having as yet no conscience, or at least a dormant one, he feels no regrets for his misdeeds, but sleeps the sleep of the just, and wakes with all his faculties for mischief whetted. Where “two or three are gathered together,” there is always danger in the air. Davy had brothers whose experiences gave him a good start, and he “profited by their example.” Up to the age of five, when he danced with rage on the banks of the shore where he had been left alone, he tells us that he never had worn any breeches. From this we infer that as he was easy to overhaul in flight, and was without any protection from the usual application of punishment, he had to grow and be clothed before he became a serious source of trouble. An Irishman fresh from the Old Sod will tell you that “a boy’ll be after huntin’ trouble before his ears are dry.” And once started, he never quits.
In Davy’s time there were no jam closets for him to rob, for the cupboard was always empty, except for the great loaves of bread that were baked from corn and rye. Everything being devoured as fast as it was cooked, none of the boy’s time was taken up with watching the pantry, and his time was his own. If there happened to be such neighborhood events as corn-huskin’s, ‘lasses-b’ilin’s, log-rollin’s, bean-stringin’s, or butter-stirrin’s, which still prevail in the mountains, there was a respite for his victims. Upon one occasion, when his parents had gone to a corn-husking, Davy and one of his brothers, with another boy, rounded up all the hogs that were fattening on beech-nuts in the woods, penned them up, cut off their tails, and let them go. It was some weeks later when their villainy was detected. They were forced to confess that they were guilty, and that the tails had been roasted in hot ashes and eaten. Such mild pastimes as robbing birds’ nests were diversified by practical jokes on the travelling public, and many a beating fell to the lot of the Crockett boys. One of the tricks they played was to take the calves away from their bovine mothers after dark. This meant all-night bawling, and human wakefulness, until the cows were united with the lost offspring. If Elisha had lived in the Tennessee mountains, the bears would have been busy all the time.
When Davy was twelve, in 1798, he had become a strong and useful lad, with a fully developed conscience. The wishes of his parents were the only law he had known, and when at last the time came when his father said to him, as Saul to him of old, “David, go, and the Lord be with thee,” he went forth as a pilgrim. It is not certain with what words he was sent forth, but he seems to have made no appeal from the bargain that sent him four hundred miles over the mountains, on foot, in the keeping of a stranger. Perhaps he had come to know that his father found it hard to feed so many mouths. At any rate, he took up the long march with an old German, Jacob Siler, who was bound to Virginia with a herd of cattle, where he proposed to remain. How many have read with sympathy and keen appreciation Davy’s simple story of his departure “with a heavy heart,” perhaps never to return!
Siler treated the boy kindly, and paid him five or six dollars for his help. When he reached the end of his journey, he tried to persuade Davy to stay with him. At first Davy thought it his father’s wish that he should remain, so for some weeks he tried to be content; but the yearning to see his family again was strong within him. One day, as he was playing in the road, there came along three familiar faces, those of a man named Dunn and two sons, each with a good team. The sight of them was like a sight of home, for they were bound to Knoxville, and the way led past the lowly Crockett inn, and Davy was soon telling his plight to sympathetic listeners. As his disappearance in the daytime would soon be known and might result in his being brought back, they told him that if he could get to the place where they were to put up for the night, seven miles away, they would take him home. All the tiresome journey there, Davy had come on foot, and at the prospect of riding all the way back, heaven opened before him.
To his delight, he found that the “good old Dutchman and his family” had gone to a neighbor’s. Davy’s own story of what followed is this:
“I gathered my clothes and what little money I had, and put them all together under the head of my bed. I went to bed early that night, but I could not sleep. For though I was a wild boy, yet I dearly loved my father and mother, and I could not sleep for thinking of them. And then the fear that I should be discovered and called to a halt filled me with anxiety: and between my childish love of home, on the one hand, and the fears of which I have spoken, on the other, I felt mighty queer.”
It was three hours before daylight when Davy crawled out of his bed. He got away from the house without waking any one, and found it snowing hard, eight inches having already fallen. In the absence of moonlight, it was a difficult matter to reach the main highway, half a mile off; but once in that, he steered his way towards the place appointed, guided by the opening made through the woods. He was two hours trudging through snow up to his knees, and as his tracks were covered as fast as they were made, the Siler family must have wondered at his disappearance.
Davy found the Dunns up and feeding their teams, and was kindly received. As he warmed himself by the fire, he forgot his struggle with the storm in his thankfulness for their goodness and help. As soon as breakfast was over, the wagoners set out, and the boy found himself counting the seemingly endless miles of the homeward journey. When they reached the Roanoke valley, his desire to get home was too great for him to endure the slow progress of the loaded wagons. He could travel twice as fast afoot, so at the house of John Cole, on the Roanoke, he thanked his kind friends for what they had done for him, and started out alone on what must have been a tramp of three hundred miles.
He was near the first crossing of the river in a few hours, and dreaded it, as he would have to wade or swim to the other side, in water that was very cold. Then he heard the clatter of horses’ feet behind him, and a cheery hail from a man who was returning from where he had sold some stock. He had an extra horse, saddled and bridled, and as he had also a soft spot in his heart for boys, in a moment Davy was mounted, as proud as a king. In this way he travelled until within fifteen miles of home, when he went his way on foot, full of gratitude towards the stranger for his goodness towards a “poor little straggling boy.”
Davy is welcomed home — A school-house in the mountains — He makes an enemy — Wildcat style of fighting — Davy takes to the woods — John Crockett cuts a stout hickory switch — Davy is off for Virginia again — He goes to Baltimore — The clippers and the privateer — Prevented from sailing for London — He leaves his self-appointed guardian and starts for home — He crosses New River through slush ice — The trail in spring — A strange boy at the family table — “It’s Davy come home!”
Davy reached his father’s inn the same night, and his welcome may be imagined. It was late in the fall, and he lived at home until the red flames of the sumac and the poison oak were again fiery spots and streaks upon the hills. Then John Crockett took it into his head to send the boy to a school near-by. A rude log cabin, with benches hewn from logs and a floor of earth, offered its single room to those who came. A great slab of wood, three feet wide, and standing on hickory stakes, reached across the room, and was used as a table for the scholars. “Readin’, spellin’ an’ cipherin’” were the principal studies. Writing, of course, was taught, but the quill pens and poor ink they had to use were as hard to get as was paper, and the blackboard seldom made a penman of an awkward lad.
On the fourth day Davy spent in school he had an altercation with a boy larger and older than he. When the children were dismissed, Davy hid in the bushes and waited for his enemy. As the boy was passing the ambush, Davy “set on him like a wildcat, scratched his face to a flitter-jig, and made him cry for quarter in good earnest.”