Back in the 1950s, Walt Disney’s Disney Land television program aired a series about “Davy” Crockett, the “King of the Wild Frontier.” As a boy of nine, I really wanted to watch the series but being that I was in Training Union and church at Lavinia Baptist on Sunday nights, I was unable to unless I played sick so I could stay home. The series was accompanied by a song that started out “Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, raised in the woods so he knowed every tree….” Every kid in America was singing it and many lusted for “coonskin” caps and Davy Crockett rifles so they could play at being “King of the Wild Frontier.”
What I didn’t know, or didn’t understand, was that the ‘wild frontier” Davy was king of was right there where I was growing up in West Tennessee (all of West Tennessee was and still is rural except Memphis, Jackson and a couple of smaller cities and towns.) When I did see the series, it indicated that Ole Davy lived in the Smoky Mountains. In fact, for much of his life he lived only some 40 miles from where I grew up and at the same time as my ancestors, who knew him. David Crockett was born in East Tennessee but not in the Smokies. He was actually born and spent his childhood west of the Smokies in the Appalachians southeast of Bristol and Johnson City. Actually, he spent part of that time on the road driving cattle, beginning at the age that many American boys were so enraptured with the Crockett story. He left East Tennessee as a young man and settled initially in Middle Tennessee nearFFayetteville, which is not far from where my MacGowan ancestors settled at about the same time. He moved several times, each time to counties in southern Middle Tennessee and finally ended up near Lawrenceburg. After a creek flooded and destroyed the grist mill he had invested in, he left Middle Tennessee in 1821 at the age of 35 and crossed the Tennessee River to find land for himself and his relatives in the new lands Andrew Jackson and Issac Shelby had purchased from the Chickasaw three years before. He found land on the Obion River in what was then Carroll County, the county where I grew up. According to one recent biographer, the land was owned by his father-in-law, who deeded it to David. A few years later, he was one of a delegation that went to Nashville to propose the formation of a new county out of the western section of Carroll to be called Gibson County.
Crockett’s narrative of his life is available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37925/37925-h/37925-h.htm. It covers his life up until two years before he left Tennessee to meet his fate in Texas.
In the late 1970s I went to work for Taylor Aviation at the Everett-Stewart Airport at Union City, Tennessee. It is an old airfield, dating back to World War II when it was used as a primary training field. Several of the original buildings remained and were rented to various tenants. One was a somewhat eccentric woman in her late 40s named Mary. The wife of a professor at nearby University of Tennessee, Martin, Mary was an accomplished artist. Her wildlife art was fantastic. I wished then and I wish now that I had been able to afford to buy some. Mary was also a pilot. She either had or was working on her commercial pilot’s license. She loved to fly Taylor’s Piper Arrow, but she didn’t want to fly by herself. Shortly after I went to work there, I went up with Mary. We were flying south from the airport over the Obion Bottom. Mary pointed down and said “that’s Crockett’s Bottom.” After reading Crockett’s narrative, I realized that indeed it was.
Crockett’s new land was on the edge of what was and still is pretty close to swampland. However, it was very rich land and there was an abundance of game. He sent for the rest of his family and several of his relatives to follow him to West Tennessee and claim land of their own. They did. After building cabins and clearing land, they raised cotton and corn to sell as well as vegetables for their own sustenance. Crockett supplemented his income by hunting bears, both for their meat and their fat which was prized for bear grease. He ranged far and wide around West Tennessee hunting bear. A few months ago when I was in West Tennessee for a family reunion, my aunt rode with us from Jackson, where we were staying, to Huntingdon where the gathering took place. I took a back road that passed by where my grandmother grew up. “There was a tree over there where Davy Crockett killed a bear.” After she said it, I vaguely remembered Daddy telling me something about there being a tree on his grandmother’s place where Crockett had killed a bear. My grandparents lived on that place for a few years before they bought a place of their own. My great-grandfather’s farm wasn’t far from the Obion River South Fork. There is record in the Carroll County Courthouse where Crockett collected a bounty for a wolf he had killed in the Obion Bottom near Huntingdon.
Crockett was not a wealthy man. In fact, he was often deep in debt. He came up with a scheme to cut timber in the recently created Reelfoot Lake (the lake was created by an earthquake which changed the course of the Mississippi a few years before Crockett moved to West Tennessee) and float it down the Mississippi to New Orleans to sell it. He and his associates cut a large number of trees and constructed a raft. Unfortunately, they had not reckoned on the force of the river. Soon after they cast themselves on to the river, the raft hit a sandbar and came apart, spilling its occupants on to the river. Left with nothing but what they were wearing, the survivors somehow made their way to Memphis where a “wealthy benefactor” bought clothes and a hat for Crockett. The wealthy benefactor was Marcus Winchester, one of the founders of Memphis. Winchester would later be ostracized after he married a beautiful young woman from Louisiana who obviously had negro blood. Shortly afterwards, Winchester convinced Crockett to run for Congress and gave him money for his campaign. As soon as Crockett got to Washington, he drew a bank draft and sent it to Winchester to pay him back.
Except when Congress was in session and he was in Washington, Crockett remained in Gibson County until he left for TExas in November 1835.. His last home was near Kenton. In the 1950s during the Disney Crockett craze, the town of Rutherford built a replica of Crockett’s last home and reinterred his mother Rebecca Hawkins’ remains from a nearby cemetery to the site.
Crockett, who detested the “Davy” moniker, spent almost half of his adult life in West Tennessee – from age 35 to age 50. Yet, both East Tennessee, which he left as a young man, and Texas, where he only spent some three months, lay more claim to him. When Tennessee built a state park and named it after him, it was located in East Tennessee near where he was born. Another park was located just outside Lawrenceburg, where he lived for four years before moving to West Tennessee where he spent the remainder of his life except for the last five months.
After David’s death, his family did not move to Texas. Although his son went to Texas, he didn’t stay. He returned to West Tennessee where he remained until just before the Civil War when he returned to Texas with his mother, who died in Texas but lived most of her life in Tennessee. Crockett’s son John Wesley ran for and won his Congressional suit. He lived for a time in New Orleans then moved back to Tennessee where he died in Memphis.
Was David Crockett really the “King of the Wild Frontier?” If he was, it was the same frontier on which my ancestors settled in the 1820s-40s.