Already one of the most celebrated men in America in 1835, the restless Tennessean sought adventure and new opportunity in Texas...where the Alamo and immortality awaited him.
By Paul Andrew Hutton
COLONEL DAVID CROCKETT, recently defeated in his bid for a fourth term in the Congress of the United States, returned to one of his favorite hunting grounds--the taverns of Memphis--on November 1, 1835. He was accompanied by his teenage nephew William Patton, his brother-in-law Abner Burgin and friend Lindsy Tinkle. "These companions," Crockett had written on October 31 before departing his home, "will make our company--we will go through Arkinsaw and I want to explore the Texas well before I return."
By evening a large crowd had attached itself to Crockett, and a grand farewell tour of all of the Bluff City's finest taverns was proposed. In the company of old friends and political allies such as Memphis Mayor Marcus Winchester, Gus Young and C.D. McLean, he made his way from the Union Hotel on Front Street to Hart's Saloon on Market Street, the crowd growing larger and rowdier along the way. After Crockett had to intercede to prevent a fight between Hart's bartender and Gus Young over the eternal question of cash or credit on drink purchases, Crockett's party decided to stagger on to McCool's Saloon next door. The happy crowd hoisted Crockett onto their shoulders, depositing him on Neil McCool's bar counter and demanding a speech.
"My friends," the colonel declared, "I suppose you all are aware that I was recently a candidate for Congress. I told the voters that if they would elect me I would serve them to the best of my ability; but if they did not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas. I am on my way now!"
The crowd shouted in delight--that is, all save the fastidious barkeeper, Neil McCool. The sight of Crockett in muddy boots atop his freshly oil-clothed counter was too much. In a rage, he lashed out with a club. Crockett had jumped down by then, and McCool managed only to fall over the counter into the arms of a dozen half-drunken revelers. Amid many oaths he ordered everyone out.
Crockett now advocated retiring for the night, for, while he admittedly "was in hunt of a fight," he said he "did not want it on this side of the Mississippi river." The crowd would have none of that, and they whisked their hero off to Cooper's, on Main Street. Now Cooper only sold his liquor by the barrel or cask, but that proved scant problem for Crockett's company. "It is needless to say we all got tight--I might say, yes, very tight," noted one eyewitness. "Men who never were tight before, and never have been tight since, were certainly very tight then."
Early the next morning Crockett and his three companions walked their horses down to the ferry landing at the mouth of the Wolf River. His Memphis friends were still with him, and the group attracted the curious. Young James Davis watched the warm farewells, somewhat in awe of the noted hunter turned politician. "He wore that same veritable coon-skin cap and hunting shirt, bearing upon his shoulder his ever faithful rifle," Davis recounted. "No other equipment, save his shot-pouch and powder-horn, do I remember seeing." Crockett stepped onto the ferry-flat, and the elderly black ferryman, Limus, cast off and pushed away from the shore. Limus worked his snatch oars as the little flatboat floated lazily down the Wolf, into the Mississippi and toward the distant shore.
Despite the frivolity of his Memphis farewell, Crockett was a deeply troubled man. He had turned 49 in August, the same month of his electoral defeat. He might well have been one of the most celebrated men in America, but he was barely better off financially than when he had won his first electoral bid as militia colonel in 1818. He had always been restless, but now a new and uncharacteristic bitterness marked his temper as he cast about for new opportunities by which to rebuild his shattered fortunes. Texas was on every American tongue by 1835 as a land of grand opportunity. American settlers there were growing increasingly restless under Mexican rule that was at best incompetent and at worst despotic. Once the Mexican shackles were discarded, there would be plenty of free land for those bold enough to take it.
Land, and the quest for it, had dominated much of Crockett's life. His early efforts at pioneer farming had all failed miserably, and he was quick to confess that by 1813 he had proved "better at increasing my family than my fortune." He had, however, proved adept as a hunter, especially of bears, killing 105 in one season alone. In 1813 he had followed Andrew Jackson's call for volunteers to fight the Creek Indians and seen some hard campaigning in Alabama and Florida. Although he proved an able soldier, rising to the rank of militia sergeant, he cared little for the increasingly one-sided conflict with the Indians or for the rules of martial life. "I like life now a heap better than I did then," he later remarked of his military career, "and I am glad all over that I lived to see these times, which I should not have done if I had kept fooling around in war, and got used up."
Soon after the war ended, Crockett's first wife, Polly, died, leaving him with three small children to care for. In 1816 he married Elizabeth Patton, a young widow with two children of her own, whose husband had been killed in the war with the Creeks. They soon moved their family westward to Shoal Creek in Lawrence County, Tenn. Crockett took an active role in the formation of a new government in this wilderness country, first serving as magistrate, then as justice of the peace, and finally as town commissioner. In 1818 his neighbors elected him colonel of the 57th Militia Regiment and three years later sent him as their representative to the state Legislature.
There, he won good marks for his strong defense of squatters' rights to the lands they had pioneered in the western country, and he soon came to be friends with leading Tennessee politicians such as Sam Houston and James K. Polk. Intelligent and affable, he was endowed with a considerable measure of common sense and an uncommon streak of pure honesty that made him a natural for the rough-and-tumble world of backwoods electioneering.
In 1827, having moved his family to the Obion River country of northwestern Tennessee, he was urged to run for the U.S. Congress by the mayor of Memphis, Marcus Winchester. Crockett, like Winchester, Polk and Houston, was strongly identified with Andrew Jackson--who would be elected president in 1828--and with the so-called Age of the Common Man. Crockett's election to Congress represented to many the rise of frontier democracy and a complete rejection of Eastern notions of social class. He was an instant celebrity in Washington, hailed by many as the "canebrake congressman" and condemned by the anti-Jackson press as an ignorant country bumpkin devoid of any semblance of refinement. The more he was pilloried by the Eastern establishment, the more beloved he became everywhere else in the country.
By 1831, after he had won re-election to a second term, even his critics were coming around, especially after he made it clear that he was not to be bound by any party solidarity and would instead vote his conscience at all costs. Noted the Norristown Free Press in June 1831: "He was elected to the house of Assembly where he attracted the general gaze by his grotesque appearance, his rough manners, and jovial habits, at the same time that he exhibited uncommon indications of a strong though undisciplined mind. He became, indeed, the object of universal notoriety--and to return from the capital without having seen Colonel Crockett, betrayed a total destitution of curiosity, and a perfect insensibility to the 'lions' of the West."
The Lion of the West, a play written by future Secretary of the Navy James Kirke Paulding, premiered in New York in April 1831 to wide acclaim, further boosting Crockett's fame. Noted Shakespearean actor James Hackett's portrayal of the blustering, uncouth, but razor-sharp Colonel Nimrod Wildfire was recognized everywhere as a caricature of the Tennessee congressman.
Crockett had a reserved box seat when The Lion of the West returned from a triumphal London engagement to play Washington in 1833. When the buckskin-clad Hackett, wearing a wildcat-skin fur cap, strode onto the stage, he promptly bowed to Crockett. The colonel rose and bowed right back, the audience went wild, and reality and legend melded for a cosmic moment into one.
By this time Crockett had broken with Jackson, first over squatter pre-emption rights in the western country and then over Indian removal. The refusal of Crockett, the national symbol of the frontier, to go along with the cruel dispossession of the Eastern tribes and their forced removal westward highly embarrassed the Jacksonians. "I have no other feelings towards Colonel Crockett than those of pity for his folly," scoffed James K. Polk.
The Jacksonians worked diligently and successfully to defeat Crockett in 1831, but he came back strong to regain his seat in 1833. Now he was firmly in the camp of Jackson's enemies and more famous than ever. A laudatory biography had appeared in 1833, while Crockett published his autobiography in March 1834.
The Whigs now sent Crockett on a grand Eastern junket, and a ghost-written account of this tour was published in 1835. That same year, the first of some 50 Davy Crockett almanacs appeared under a Nashville imprint. They interlaced backwoods tall tales with the usual astronomical calculations and weather predictions and quickly became enormously popular.
There was talk in Whig circles of running Crockett for vice president or even president, and the colonel's head was turned by these blandishments. The folks back home in western Tennessee, however, had not elected the colonel to Congress so that he could tour Eastern cities, dine with famous politicians or write books, and they proceeded to make their disappointment in him clear in the August 1835 election. His Whig friends promptly deserted him, and Crockett turned westward for redemption.
The motto "Be always sure you're right--Then go ahead," had become identified with Crockett, and he reflected that self-assurance as he traveled westward. He had added three more to his party by the time he reached Little Rock on November 12. The city fathers heard of his arrival and sought him out, finding him busily skinning a deer he had just shot. He was invited to a dinner in his honor at Jeffries Hotel, where he regaled those gathered with a talk described by a local newspaper as "simply rough, natural, and pleasant." The war news from Texas was now ominous, and while Crockett could not help but direct a few barbs at President Jackson, he aimed his real enmity at the president of Mexico, quipping that he intended to "have Santa Anna's head, and wear it for a watch seal!"
The next morning Crockett's company departed Little Rock, joined by several young men anxious for adventure in Texas. They crossed the Red River at Lost Prairie and entered Texas, where Crockett, strapped for funds, traded a gold watch to Isaac Jones for his watch and $30. Crockett's watch had been a gift from the Philadelphia Whigs during his Eastern tour. Such mementos of his failed political fortunes held no sentiment for him now.
He led his men on to the tiny hamlet of Clarksville, some 25 miles south of the Red River, where his old friend Captain William Becknell lived. Becknell, the famed father of the Santa Fe Trail, lived on Sulphur Fork Prairie, and Crockett stayed there for several days while a large buffalo-hunting party was organized. Ignoring warnings of Indian war parties, Crockett and his companions pushed farther westward, exploring the country and searching for buffalo. Crockett loved this wide-open prairie country, so different from Tennessee. "Good land and plenty of timber and the best springs and wild mill streams, good range, clear water and every appearance of good health and game aplenty," he wrote his daughter.
Near the headwaters of the Trinity River, Crockett's party was met by James Clark, the founder of Clarksville, who turned the hunting party back with tales of raiding Comanches. Crockett called the area Honey Grove because of its swarming bees, a name it came to be forever known by.
Many old friends from Tennessee were in the Red River country, and Crockett agreed to meet several of them for a grand hunt at the falls of the Brazos River in December. He then pushed southeast along Trammel's Trace to Nacogdoches. News of his coming had preceded him, and yet another dinner in his honor was planned. He delighted the Texans with another version of his hell-and-Texas speech.
In Nacogdoches, Crockett swore an oath of allegiance "to the Provisional Government of Texas or any future republican Government that may be hereafter declared." He had Judge John Forbes insert the word "republican" before he would sign the standard oath. The political situation in Texas was confused, with the provisional government divided into factions favoring the governor, Henry Smith, and the governing council. The military situation was equally confusing, for although armed conflict had erupted between the settlers and Mexican forces on October l, and General Martin Cós had surrendered San Antonio de Bexar to the rebels on December 11 and retreated with his army south of the Rio Grande, there was no real Texas army, no goal of independence declared to fight for, and no unity of command. General Sam Houston, the new army commander, was unable to exert authority over his scattered and wildly undisciplined forces, while rumors abounded that Antonio López de Santa Anna was leading a large army northward.
Crockett, nevertheless, was in an expansive mood when he wrote his daughter from San Augustine, Texas. He had joined the army and planned to set out shortly to join the Texas forces on the Rio Grande. His mind was on politics, however, rather than martial glory. "But all volunteers is entitled to vote for a member of the convention or to be voted for, and I have but little doubt of being elected a member to form a constitution for this province," he wrote Margaret on January 9, 1836. "I am rejoiced at my fate. I had rather be in my present situation than to be elected to a seat in Congress for life. I am in hopes of making a fortune yet for myself and family, bad as my prospect has been." His last words to his family were soothing. "Do not be uneasy about me," he wrote. "I am among friends."
Micajah Autry, a Tennessee lawyer and sometime poet, wrote his wife on January 13 from Nacogdoches that "Colonel Crockett has joined our company." Although Tinkle and Burgin had returned home, Crockett and his nephew, along with many of those who had attached themselves to him, now joined with a dozen other volunteers into a company dubbed the "Tennessee Mounted Volunteers" in honor of the colonel. On January 16 they headed toward San Antonio. "We go with arms in our hands," wrote young Daniel Cloud of Kentucky, "determined to conquer or die."
Crockett's company reached Washington-on-the-Brazos in late January. There Crockett hoped to meet with Sam Houston, his old friend from early Tennessee politics. Houston, however, was at Goliad, attempting, without much success, to establish some order to the chaotic Texan army. On January 17 he had ordered Colonel James Bowie to San Antonio with 30 men to destroy the fortifications at the old mission Alamo and withdraw the garrison and artillery eastward. Crockett tarried in Washington for a few days, perhaps hoping for Houston's return or delaying in order to find some role for himself in the independence consultation that was to meet there on March 1. Finally, on January 24, he pushed on toward San Antonio de Bexar.
Crockett's company entered San Antonio from the west, through an old Catholic graveyard. They were met there by Colonel Bowie and his aide Antonio Menchaca. Upon arriving at the Alamo, Bowie had disregarded Houston's orders, writing to Governor Smith that "the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Bexar out of the hands of the enemy...we would rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy." He was naturally delighted to see Crockett.
Bowie escorted Crockett to Bexar's main plaza, where a large crowd had by now gathered. A speech was naturally in order. Crockett's hell-and-Texas story was greeted with enthusiasm, and he finished it with a democratic flourish. "I have come to aid you all that I can in your noble cause," he told them. "I shall identify myself with your interests, and all the honor I desire is that of defending as a high private, in common with my fellow citizens, the liberties of our common country."
Crockett found quarters near the Plaza de Armas and surveyed the town, so different and exotic from what he knew, with its adobe huts, ancient missions and large Mexican population. The ditches that his new friend Bowie was so determined to defend were hardly imposing. The Alamo was a sprawling mission compound founded in 1718 by Franciscans as the mission San Antonio de Valero and converted in 1801 into a fort for Spanish troops. After the Mexican revolution of 1821, the mission had been abandoned, many of its buildings occupied by local citizens. Like most of the Spanish missions in the Southwest, there was a large rectangular plaza of about three acres lined by 9- to 12-foot stone walls. A series of rude adobe buildings formed the west wall, facing toward the town, while the east wall was marked by a two-story building called the long barracks. South of these barracks was the ruined church, with 22-foot-high walls. The roof had collapsed 60 years before. The main gate was west of the church, through a single-story building called the low barracks. Between the church and the low barracks was a 50-yard gap fortified with earth and logs. This would be the area Crockett would eventually be assigned to defend.
Although the old mission was crumbling and in disrepair, the Texans had 21 pieces of artillery of various sizes captured from General Cós. They also had a good supply of British Brown Bess muskets and 16,000 rounds of ammunition left by the Mexicans. If they could hold the Alamo, it might yet prove a rallying point for all of Texas. That was certainly Bowie's hope.
On February 10 a grand fandango was held in Crockett's honor. Around midnight word arrived from Placido Benavides on the Rio Grande that Santa Anna had reached the river with a large army. Bowie took the warning seriously, but his rival for command of the 150-man garrison, William Barret Travis, dismissed the report. Arguing that he was about to dance with the loveliest lady in all Bexar, Travis declared: "Let us dance to-night and to-morrow we will make provisions for our defense."
The Mexican army was but 10 days away, and as the men sobered up the next morning they found Travis and Bowie in contention for command. Travis was a 27-year-old South Carolina lawyer of Byronic temperament and soaring ambition. More than perhaps any other man in Texas he had helped foment the rebellion, and now he was determined to command this frontier outpost of dubious honor. Bowie, a swashbuckling adventurer and reckless land speculator, was the most famous man-killer in the old Southwest--and had given his name to a deadly blade. Finally, by February 14, they had reluctantly agreed to share command--Bowie the volunteers and Travis the regulars.
While the Texan commanders bickered, the Mexicans rapidly advanced, crossing the Rio Grande on February 16. Santa Anna, personally humiliated by the defeat of his brother-in-law Cós in December, was determined to retake Bexar and redeem his family honor. By February 21 his advance guard was within striking distance of the Alamo, only stopped from launching a surprise attack by a rain-swollen river.
Bexar was a community in motion on the morning of February 23, with a steady stream of wagons and carts moving the citizenry out of town. A sentinel in the bell tower of the San Fernando Church soon spied the reason for the exodus--Mexican troops. Two scouts, John W. Smith and John Sutherland, rode out to investigate. They soon came galloping back, Sutherland's horse taking a tumble along the way. Mexican cavalry was not far behind them. The Texan garrison hurriedly retreated to the doubtful sanctuary of the Alamo. "Poor fellows," a Mexican woman called out to them, "you will all be killed."
Travis, busy in his headquarters room in the Alamo, looked up to find Crockett and Sutherland before him. Sutherland had injured his leg when his horse fell, and Crockett was supporting him. "Colonel, here am I," declared Crockett. "Assign me to a position, and I and my 12 boys will try and defend it." Travis promptly assigned him a post of honor--the wooden palisade between the church and the low barracks. It was the most dangerous and vulnerable spot in the Alamo.
Within hours Santa Anna had occupied Bexar with a strong force. Much of his army was still strung out back to the Rio Grande, but he would soon have several thousand men concentrated before the Alamo. He had a blood-red flag--signifying no quarter--raised over the San Fernando church and sent emissaries to the Alamo to demand unconditional surrender. Travis answered with a cannon shot.
On February 25 Santa Anna probed the Alamo's defenses, only to have his forces thrown back. Travis, now in complete command since Bowie was desperately ill with a fever, sent a sortie of his own out against the Mexicans, burning some nearby huts that had given them cover. In a dispatch he sent out that night with Captain Juan Seguin, Travis noted of the day's battle, "The Hon. David Crockett was seen at all points, animating the men to do their duty."
Enrique Esparza, the young son of Alamo defender Gregorio Esparza, recalled the fighting many years later. "Crockett seemed to be the leading spirit," he remembered. "He was everywhere. He went to every exposed point and personally directed the fighting. Travis was the chief in command but he depended more upon the judgement of Crockett and that brave man's intrepidity than upon his own."
Reinforcements swelled Santa Anna's army to more than 2,500 men as he tightened the ring around the Alamo, keeping up a continual bombardment. Travis' many appeals for aid went unanswered, save for 32 bold men from Gonzales who came in early in the morning of March 1. The reinforcement cheered the garrison, as did Crockett, who often played his fiddle, told tall tales and exhibited his homespun humor. But finally even Old Davy despaired. "I think we had better march out and die in the open air," he lamented on March 4 to Susannah Dickinson, wife of an artillery captain. "I don't like to be hemmed up."
The assault came before dawn on the freezing morning of March 6, 1836. Santa Anna sent 1,500 of his best troops storming against the Alamo. Colonel Juan Morales led a column of 100 men against the stockade defended by Crockett and his boys. More than 700 men under General Cós and Colonel Francisco Duque assaulted the northeastern and northwestern walls while Colonel Jose Maria Romero's 300 men attacked from the east.
The darkness was lit by the fire from the Texan artillery, blowing great gaps in the Mexican ranks. Duque fell wounded, and the columns faltered as the men bunched under the Alamo's walls, seeking protection from the defenders' guns. Santa Anna now ordered General Manuel Fernandez Castrillón, a gallant Cuban with a great shock of white hair, to take over Duque's column while he sent in 400 reserves to bolster the attack. He ordered the Mexican bands to play the "Deguello"--the ancient Spanish cutthroat song signifying no quarter.
Castrillón rallied the faltering troops and, with the added pressure of the reserves, they swept over the north wall. Here Travis was killed, one of the first Texans to fall. His men fell back from the wall and retreated into the long barracks.
Morales' column, hit hard by Crockett's men at the stockade, had veered to the left and now swept over the southwest corner. Crockett's company, flanked and caught in the open, fell back to the long barracks and the church. Several defenders bolted over the wall, attempting to cut their way out, only to be slaughtered on the prairie by Mexican cavalrymen.
The Mexicans turned the Texan cannons around, firing point-blank into the barracks doors. The dazed and wounded defenders inside were then bayoneted. In one of these rooms Bowie was slain in his sickbed. The enraged Mexicans tossed his body atop their bayonets like hay. Finally the heavy doors of the church were battered down, and after brief but fierce hand-to-hand combat, the last defenders were killed. In a nightmarish aftermath, the Mexicans murdered the wounded and mutilated the dead.
General Castrillon, however, stopped his advancing soldiers before a handful of bloodied, exhausted defenders. Offering clemency, he convinced them to surrender. Among this pitiful remnant was Crockett.
The sun had just come up as Castrillón marched his prisoners, seven in number, into the Alamo courtyard. Santa Anna and his staff had finally dared to enter the fort, and the Mexican leader busied himself haranguing the troops on their glorious victory. Having lost almost a third of their number in killed and wounded while taking the Alamo, the soldiers were not in a particularly vainglorious mood.
Lieutenant Colonel José Enrique de la Peña saw Castrillón's approach, noting in particular one man with him: "Among them was one of great stature, well proportioned, with regular features, in whose face there was the imprint of adversity, but in whom one also noticed a degree of resignation and nobility that did him honor. He was the naturalist David Crockett, well known in North America for his unusual adventures."
Santa Anna flew into a rage as Castrillón presented the prisoners. Turning to the troops nearest him, the sappers, he ordered the execution of the Texans. No officer or soldier moved. They had had enough of killing. Humiliated, Santa Anna ordered his staff officers and personal guard to carry out the murders. As Castrillón and de la Peña watched in horror, the officers used their sabers on the defenseless prisoners.
Castrillón stormed off to his tent and did not again speak to Santa Anna. The gallant Cuban would perish at San Jacinto in April as Houston led the Texans to victory and independence. Not long after the captives were slain, Mrs. Dickinson was brought out of her hiding place in the church. "I recognized Col. Crockett lying dead and mutilated between the church and the two story barrack building," she recalled years later, "and even remembered seeing his peculiar cap lying by his side."
Crockett's body was thrown onto a funeral pyre with his fellow Alamo defenders. From these ashes rose a legend of towering proportions. Crockett, for so long the symbol of democratic America, had now perished in defense of the very virtues he symbolized. A glorious immortality was to be his reward.
Paul Andrew Hutton teaches at the University of New Mexico and is executive director of the Western History Association. He is the author of Phil Sheridan and his Army (1985) and editor of Soldiers West (1987), The Custer Reader (1992) and Frontier and Region (1997). He is writing a biography of Davy Crockett.