In 1813 the Creeks uprose
Addin’ redskin arrows to the country’s woes
Now, Injun fightin’ is somethin’ he knows
So he shoulders his rifle and off he goes.
Davy, Davy Crockett
The man who don’t know fear!
Since my early youth, I have been doomed to shatter my own illusions. The price of being a reader with a curious mind.
When I was a young-un, was obsessed with Davy Crockett. I had the coonskin cap, a cap-firing replica of Ol’ Betsy, and my loving mother made me a suede-cloth version of a fringed buckskin hunting shirt that I wore ALL the time. I plumb wore out the grooves on my LP record of an audio version of Disney’s Davy Crockett story (gawd my parents must have got sick of hearing that song!) and when The Wonderful World of Disney broadcast the episodes of its famous Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, the world stopped and I crawled through the TV screen to fight with Davy in the Creek Indian War, to patch up the crack in the Liberty Bell with him in Congress and go down swinging at his side at the Alamo.
I was enraptured.
So, of course, I had to know more. So I rode my bike down to the La Crescenta library and checked out a couple of biographies written for young people. I can still picture Constance Rourke’s 1934 (heavily fictionalized) biography with its strangely haunting illustrations. When I found out that Davy had written an autobiography, well I had to have THAT! I can still picture the cover of that one, too, and I’ll never forget the experience of diving in and reading about Davy’s experiences in the Creek War. I found out right quick, it wasn’t no Disneyland. This is what I read about David Crockett, 27-year-old Tennessee militiaman in the assault on the Creek town of Tallushatchee:
When we got near the town we divided; one of our pilots going with each division. And so we passed on each side of the town, keeping near to it, until our lines met on the far side. We then closed up on each end so as to surround it completely; and then we sent Captain Hammond’s company of rangers to bring on the affray. He had advanced near the town, when the Indians saw him, and they raised the yell, and came running at him like so many red devils. The main army was now formed in a square around the town, and they pursued Hammond till they came in reach of us. We then gave them a fire, and they returned it, and then ran back into their town.
We began to close on the town by making our files closed and closer, and the Indians soon saw they were our property. So most of them wanted us to take them prisoners; and their squaws and all would run and take hold of any of us they could, and give themselves up.
I saw seven squaws have hold of one man, which made me think of the Scriptures. So I hollered out that the Scriptures was fulfilling; that there was seven women holding to one man’s coat tail. But I believe it was a hunting shirt all the time.
We took them all prisoners that came out to us in this way; but I saw some warriors run into a house until I counted fourty six of them. We pursued them until we got near the house, when we saw a squaw sitting in the door, and she placed her feet against the bow she had in her hand, and then took an arrow, and, raising her feet, she drew with all her might, and let fly at us, and she killed a man, whose name, I believe was Moore. He was a lieutenant and his death so enraged us all, that she was fired on, and had at least twenty balls blown through her. This was the first man I ever saw killed with a bow and arrow.
We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the fourty six warriors in it.
I recollect seeing a boy who was shot down near the house. His arm and thigh was broken, and he was so near the burning house that the grease was stewing out of him. In this situation he was still trying to crawl along; but not a murmur escaped him, though he was only about twelve years old. So sullen is the Indian, when his dander is up, that he would sooner die than make a noise, or ask for quarters.
The number that we took prisoners, being added to the number we killed, amounted to one hundred and eighty-six; though I don’t remember the exact number of either. We had five of our men killed.
We then returned to our camp, at which our fort was erected, and known by the name of Fort Strother. No provisions had yet reached us, and we had now been for several days on half rations. However, we went back to our Indian town on the next day, when many of the carcasses of the Indians were still to be seen. They looked very awful, for the burning had not entirely consumed them, but given them a terrible appearance, at least what remained of them.
It was, somehow or other, found out that the house had a potato cellar under it, and an immediate examination was made, for we were all as hungry as wolves. We found a fine chance of potatoes in it, and hunger compelled us to eat them, though I had a little rather not, if I could have helped it, for the oil of the Indians we had burned up on the day before, had run down on them, and they looked like they had been stewed with fat meat. We again returned to the army, and remained there for several days, almost starving, as all our beef was gone. We commenced eating the beef hides, and continued to eat every scrap we could lay our hands on.
That’s some heavy-duty shit for a kid of maybe 10 or 11 years old to wrap his little hero-worshipping head around.
You could go a few different ways with a worldview-shaping episode like that. You could retreat into denial — just avoid the unpleasant thing you just saw and stick to the Disney version. Or, you could decide that it’s all a lie — that there are no heroes, or that all your heroes are actually villains (and half-way cannibals at that!). Believe me, I’ve seen the rage of disillusionment in action.
A few years later, when I was about 13, my brother gave me Allen W. Eckert’s The Frontiersmen, which pulled no punches in depicting the nature of frontier life, culture and warfare in all of its savagery and brutality — and downright sordidness.
I don’t think I made any conscious choice about the trail I’d take, but you all know where it led. Somewhere in that era of youthful discovery I guess I just embraced it all — The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. History — frontier history maybe more than any other kind — is messy, contradictory, conflicted. It’s been used as a morality play by just about everyone, and who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat depends on the contemporary cultural/social/political ax you have to grind. It’s not that. It’s a wild-mad-exhilerating-horrifying-noble-ignoble and deeply, deeply complicated and human story.
As for Davy…
David Crockett was an extraordinary ordinary fellow. He wasn’t really any kind of warrior; he didn’t much care for the warpath — and given his wartime experiences, who could blame him? What he really loved and was really good at was bear hunting. He was a lousy and very unlucky businessman. He was a mediocre politician and one of those celebrities who was both uncomfortable with and thrilled by his own fame. All-in-all, a likable feller who would have quickly faded from history had he not met his death at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.
As the years marched on, I adopted new heroes. After The Frontiersmen, Simon Kenton loomed largest in my personal pantheon. But I will always have a place in my heart for Davy — not for the Disney hero swinging Ol’ Betsy in a last stand against Santa Anna’s hordes at The Alamo, but for the actual man who laid out a hard truth in plain language and set a young boy’s moccasins on a path toward knowing the real world of the Frontier Partisans.