I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee

  • David Crockett, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).

David (Davy) Crockett is one of the enduring symbols of America’s extinct, frontier lifestyle. He is the embodiment of the American dream; a man who came from nothing and was able, through hard work, to improve his circumstances so much so that he served in the federal government. He served as a Congressman of Tennessee from 1827-1831 and from 1833-1835. Due to his unusual background, Crockett received a great deal of attention from the public and media. One such outlet of attention was an unauthorized biography written in 1833 by Matthew St. Clair Clarke titled, Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee, which further sensationalized the backwoods nature of the Congressman. A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee, written in 1834, is Crockett’s response to this account in an effort to supposedly set the record straight. Crockett begins his story by discussing the hardships and adventures of his childhood, and underprivileged family in which he grew up. He discusses his indentured servitude as a child, his lack of desire to attend school, and the time he ran away from home to avoid punishment for not going to school. He pays a great deal of attention to his yearnings as a young man for love and a family of his own. Once married, Crockett’s story turns towards the specifics of his time serving in a militia that was set to avenge the lives of those that had died at the hands of a the Creek Indians in 1813. However, the brutal tactics used in this avengement were far too atrocious for his liking and he quit the effort. In the narrative, Crockett spends much time detailing his rough and tumble existence during hunting trips and the like. His entrance into politics occurred due to his defense of squatter’s rights in the West. He was able to gain the Congressional seat, not by using money for he had little, but by way of a non-traditional, theatrical campaign. The autobiography is written largely as a tool for reelection and as a way to voice his anti-Jacksonian politics.

Crockett’s narrative focuses largely on the straightforwardness and purity of the frontier lifestyle in which he grew up and still lives. He seems to associate his lack of book learning to the opportunity to fully develop a natural sense of right and wrong. He never learned proper grammar because he never had the time for it. Instead, he learned from experience, much like the Native Americans in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Crockett also equates being poor with honesty. Without the contaminating influences of property and greed, Crockett relies on a natural sense of common decency. He does not need fancy law books because he already fully comprehends the natural principles of democracy. Crockett’s narrative also places much emphasis on the importance of independence. Crockett, at least in his narrative, never does anything that he does not wish to do. He stands by his principles. Early in his marriage, Crockett quits sharecropping because it diminishes his independence, and he does not wish to be beholden to anyone. He recognizes that in order for individuals to make something of themselves on the frontier, they must rely on their own strength and partially on happenstance.  The playing field is even because no one is starting with an advantage. Crockett also prescribes to the conventional, frontier attitudes towards nature and Native Americans. Through his detailed accounts of hunting trips and the like, it is clear that Crockett views the wilderness as a domain in which man must assert his dominance. Also, although he does not condone the mass killing of Indians, Crockett still believes that they are lesser beings that possess an innately savage character.

In his introduction, Paul Andrew Hutton suggests that Davy Crockett was one of the first individuals to make a living off of being a celebrity. Much of Crockett’s persona, including the coonskin cap, was the product of public fascination and media sensationalism. Like Parkman’s Oregon Trail, Crockett’s autobiography was written largely for an Eastern audience. Crockett built himself around a persona that was developed by people who were completely removed from the frontier. It is hard to figure out what is actual experience and what is hype in Crockett’s account. Without, assumingly, being familiar with literary figures such as Natty Bumppo himself, can we summise that Crockett was actually unaware of the stereotype and thus, genuinely the frontier figure that he portrays? What was it about the frontier that caused the East to be so enamored? What were they lacking in their own society that the west had to become the center of American identity and escapism?

 

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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