David Crockett, celebrity pioneer, went from wrestling bears to wrestling with his image

February 8, 2013

Americans in the 21st century are all too familiar with celebrity culture. We know what it can do to people who become well enough known — never mind why — to have their lives contorted in its funhouse mirror.

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David Crockett — he didn’t like being called “Davy” — in an image based on a John Gadsby Chapman portrait.
(Bettmann/Corbis)

But David Crockett didn’t have a clue. How could he?

A person could be famous in early 19th-century America, of course. Military glory paved Andrew Jackson’s way to the presidency. But pure celebrity — defined as widespread public recognition in the absence of significant accomplishment — didn’t exist as a concept in 1830, when the future King of the Wild Frontier was in his second term in Congress, representing a raw frontier district in west Tennessee.

Then an actor named James Hackett sponsored a contest for a new play to be built around an original American character. Hackett’s prize went to a romantic comedy called “The Lion of the West,” whose title character was a Crockett parody named Col. Nimrod Wildfire. “Lion” was the first half of a literary one-two punch — the second would be an unauthorized Crockett biography — that would turn a backwoods politician who never got much done into a living legend. And all this was before he rode off to die a hero’s death at the Alamo, a mythic finale that would carry his legend forward to 1954, when Walt Disney put it on TV and sparked the cultural firestorm known as the Crockett craze.

I sometimes think I’m the only American child of the 1950s who never saw those Disney shows or begged his parents for a coonskin cap like the one actor Fess Parker wore. Half a century later, I was making up for lost time. I had signed up to write a book for which I would follow Crockett’s footsteps from his east Tennessee birthplace to the site of his Texas death, talking to historians, museum curators and other keepers of his flame along the way. The idea was to explore the rich story of the real David’s life — he didn’t like being called “Davy” — and the still richer one of how Crockett reality and Crockett myth became permanently intertwined.

So far, I’d visited the places where he’d run away from home, fallen in love, fought Indians, hunted bears, proved he wasn’t cut out to be a farmer, and used his gift for humorous gab to launch a political career. Now I was in Washington, trying to wrap my mind around the astonishing transformation Rep. Crockett was about to undergo.

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(Getty Images)

By 1830, James Hackett had already played a variety of backwoods characters onstage. He sponsored the playwriting contest because he was looking for a new vehicle. A writer named James Kirke Paulding took up Hackett’s challenge. Paulding would later denounce as “malicious and unfounded” the notion that he had based Nimrod Wildfire on Crockett.

He was lying.

It’s true that he had other sources to draw on. Portrayals of American frontiersmen as boastful “half horse, half alligator” types predated Crockett’s arrival in Washington by many years. Yet Crockett’s backwoods style had already caught the attention of the press, which painted him as either a charming, forthright child of nature or a crude, ignorant buffoon, depending on the politics of the newspaper involved. Paulding gave the game away in a letter to a friend from whom he was soliciting raw material. Please send “sketches, short stories, & incidents, of Kentucky or Tennessee manners,” he wrote. “If you can add, or invent, a few ludicrous Scenes of Col. Crockett at Washington, you will be sure of my everlasting gratitude.”

“The Lion of the West” opened in New York in April 1831. It went through numerous revisions, but Nimrod Wildfire remained a constant: an illiterate but good-hearted Kentucky congressman who saves the day as part of a farcical plot pitting right-thinking Americans against scheming Europeans. Hackett’s character was the most memorable thing about the play, and the most memorable thing about him was his outrageous manner of speaking — especially in ritualized frontier brags like this one:

“My name is Nimrod Wildfire — half horse, half alligator and a touch of the airthquake — that’s got the prettiest sister, fastest horse, and ugliest dog in the District, and can outrun, outkick, outjump, knockdown, drag out, and whip any man in all Kaintuck.”

Even if Paulding had been telling the truth about not basing Wildfire on Crockett, it wouldn’t have mattered, because the theatergoing public promptly linked the two. And in December 1833, when Hackett took a version of the play to Washington, the real man confirmed the connection by showing up to see himself mirrored onstage. As the curtain rose, one journalist reported, “Hackett appeared in hunting costume, bowed to the audience, and then to Colonel Crockett. The compliment was reciprocated by the Colonel, to the no small amusement and gratification of the spectators, and the play went on.”

Man meets legend! They bow to each other! In the annals of Crockettology, it seems a hard moment to top. But the second half of that one-two punch had landed earlier in 1833, and for Crockett, it proved the more life-changing event.

Printed under two different titles — the best known being “Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee” — the anonymously written biography was a weird mix of fact, gossip and fiction. It gave the facts of Crockett’s early life in a credible fashion, but also recycled damaging material from hostile newspapers and added fabulous tales of him grinning raccoons out of trees and riding streaks of lightning across the sky. Just as “The Lion of the West” had done, it appropriated his image for its own purposes. But Crockett reacted differently this time.

He hated “Sketches.”

It made him so mad that he set out to produce a celebrity bio “written by himself.”

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(Corbis)

For most of 1833, as it happened, Crockett was out of office. He had infuriated fellow Tennessee Democrats by going rogue on western land policy, as well as refusing to vote for Jackson’s Indian Removal bill, and had lost a hotly contested fight for reelection.

But that summer, the newspapers were full of him anyway.

It wasn’t because he was running hard for his old House seat — he would win, despite the fact that the Jackson machine had gerrymandered the district — but because editors nationwide mined “Sketches” for amusing excerpts. Crockett complained of meeting hundreds of people who, knowing him only through “that deceptive work,” seemed astonished to find him “in human shape.” Back in Washington, he recruited his friend and colleague Thomas Chilton to help him remold his image and, not incidentally, start cashing in on his own celebrity. Late in December, he announced his intentions to the world.

“I know not why my humble name should have excited any general interest,” he told a Washington newspaper, but since it had, “that interest shall be met by a plain and unvarnished history of myself, prepared under my own notice, and submitted to the public by my own authority.”

How much of “A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee” did Crockett write himself? No one knows, but scholars agree that it retained his authentic voice. Next question: Did the book tell the totally real, utterly non-legendary story he promised it would?

Of course not. It’s a political memoir!

Crockett included some politically motivated falsehoods about his Creek War service. Some of his bear-hunting tales cross the credibility line as well. But to understand the image he was trying to project — as Crockettologist Joseph Arpad has noted — we also have to consider what Crockett left out. He makes no mention, for example, of his passionate effort to pass a land bill that would have made his poor constituents secure in their holdings. It’s possible that he simply didn’t want to call attention to this politically damaging failure, but Arpad offers a more complex interpretation. The autobiography, he writes, was “a shrewd and subtle masquerade of backwoods originality” intended to enhance “the legend that had already been established” about the author’s character.

In other words, Crockett knew that tales of legislative maneuvering would muddy his useful image as a simple frontier eccentric who’d made good.

Political document though it was, the book also established its author of record as a literary original. Nothing comparable, Arpad writes, would turn up in “a sustained work of American literature until Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ ”

Not bad for a semiliterate frontiersman. Now Crockett had to sell the thing. With Chilton’s help, he found a publisher in Philadelphia. But even before that, he’d started planning his book tour. In late April 1834, urged on by anti-Jackson friends in the Whig Party, he abandoned his congressional duties, hopped on a stagecoach and headed north. There would be Whig-sponsored stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Lowell, Mass.

And if he were to take a few whacks at “King Andrew” while promoting his book — well, that was part of the tour’s agenda, too.

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(Dolph Briscoe Center for American HIstory/University of Texas at Austin)

The chief source on Crockett’s three-week adventure in political bookselling is a memoir that appeared under his name the following year. “An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East,” like his autobiography, states on the title page that it was “written by himself.” This time, however, Crockett’s contributions were so limited that he wrote his publisher to ask if the thing could be described, instead, as “written from notes furnished by my Self.”

No chance. Bad for sales.

He spent his first night at Baltimore’s Barnum’s Hotel, at the corner of Calvert and Fayette streets. The next morning he was off to Philadelphia, conveyed by steamboat and train. Crockett had never been on a train before. When the spark-spewing locomotive spooked some horses, which then smashed the wagon they were pulling, he couldn’t help bursting into laughter.

Steaming into Philadelphia, he was stunned to find “the whole face of the earth covered with people” who had turned out to cheer him. His hosts hustled him into an “elegant barouche” and spirited him away. Over the next few days, he toured the city’s mint, waterworks, asylum and navy yard. The young Whigs of Philadelphia solicited specifications for a fine rifle they planned to have made for him. One night he took in a minstrel show at a Walnut Street theater, where musicians in blackface improvised Crockett references into a popular song.

In New York, he was again greeted by a cheering crowd. After an evening spent watching actress Fanny Kemble “play in grand style,” he heard a cry of “fire, fire,” leaped up to help fight the blaze, and was smugly informed that “we have fire companies here, and we leave it to them.” Returning from an excursion up Broadway, he asked to have a look at a pro-Jackson stronghold called Five Points, which he described as filled with drunks “too mean to swab hell’s kitchen” — a remark sometimes credited with giving the neighborhood a new name.

Then it was on to Boston.

Despite having grown up in a Boston suburb, I had no idea that the King of the Wild Frontier had toured historic sites I’d visited as a child. He checked out Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market — the prices were a bit steep — and visited factories that made shoes and carpets. He drank “the best of wines,” with “the Champaigne foaming up as if you were supping fog out of speaking trumpets.” At Charlestown Navy Yard, he joked about a newly carved likeness of Jackson on the figurehead of the USS Constitution. Moving on to the Bunker Hill battlefield, he paid his respects to the men “who fell in that daybreak battle of our rising glory.” His own daybreak battle was less than two years away, and those words were enough to give me chills. But were they really David’s?

The northernmost point he reached was Lowell, the famed mill town. In 1834, Lowell was dense with brick-walled textile factories and the young women recruited to work in them. It was the most incongruous context I could imagine for a bear-hunting politician from west Tennessee, which made me eager to explore Lowell National Historical Park — and there he was, on a plaque in a park museum, explaining why he’d come.

“I wanted to see the power of machinery, wielded by the keenest calculations of human skill,” his quote read in part. “I wanted to see how it was that these northerners could buy our cotton and carry it home, manufacture it, bring it back, and sell it for half nothing; and in the meantime be well to live, and make money besides.”

The words are from “Col. Crockett’s Tour,” and they’re a testament to the power of celebrity harnessed to propaganda. The book paints Lowell as a worker’s paradise. Walking to dinner, “the girls looked as if they were coming from a quilting frolic.” When Crockett questioned some on a factory floor, “not one expressed herself as tired of her employment, or oppressed with work.” Was his opinion influenced by the fact that he’d driven up from Boston in “a fine carriage”; that one of the mill owners had given him a handsome broadcloth suit; or that he had been toasted at dinner by a hundred “young gentlemen of Lowell”?

It seemed likely. So a reality check was in order.

I asked Jen Burns, a seasonal employee cheerfully answering tourists’ questions, what a factory floor would have been like in the 1830s. “Well, it would have been about 90 degrees,” Burns said. “Almost a 100 percent humidity, because they would keep the windows shut so the cotton threads wouldn’t break.” Work would begin at 4 a.m.; late-comers would find the gate locked against them. According to a park slide show, the women worked “thirteen hours a day Monday through Friday and eight hours on Saturday.”

And that was in the good old days, before competition drove down the price of cloth and mill owners slashed wages, sped up production and increased workloads. Three months before the congressman’s visit, in fact, 800 women walked off the job to protest a wage cut — the first of many bitter strikes in Lowell’s history.

Apparently, no one mentioned this to David Crockett.

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Fess Parker played Crockett in a 1950s Disney TV series.
(Allan Grant//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

When I’d set out to follow Crockett north, I’d been trying to keep an open mind with regard to a longstanding debate about his political character. Was he an independent thinker who opposed policies favored by his fellow Tennessee Democrats on principle? Or was he a backwoods innocent duped by his savvy Whig “friends”?

The debate is complex and by no means one-sided. But Lowell sure looked like a problem for the pro-Crockett camp.

Crockett defenders argue that he saw the mill workers as poor people, just like the poor farmers in west Tennessee, but with a key difference: Lowell’s poor had decent, relatively secure jobs. Why wouldn’t a man who billed himself as “the poor man’s friend” approve? Besides, Crockett needed Whig help with his land bill.

Yet the more I thought about it, the more I saw that I was trying too hard to make excuses for David. Because there is, of course, a simpler explanation:

The foaming champagne of celebrity went to his head.

Come the next election, his frontier constituents — who didn’t like seeing their congressman abandon his post to peddle books and hobnob with Yankee elites — would make him pay. After he lost, he would ride off to Texas, and we know what happened there.

But the election was more than a year away, and Crockett was still high on fame. By mid-May, he was back in his Washington digs, where — according to the most intimate glimpse we have of him during his living-legend phase — tourists sometimes stopped by just so they could say they’d seen him in the flesh.

That glimpse comes courtesy of portraitist John Gadsby Chapman, who was fascinated enough by his subject to write nine pages of reminiscences. Chapman first painted “a study of his head alone,” but Crockett didn’t care for the result. It was a picture, he said, “like all the other painters make of me, a sort of cross between a clean-shirted Member of Congress and a Methodist Preacher.” Why not go for something new? “If you could catch me on a bear-hunt … with hunting tools and gear, and a team of dogs, you might make a picture better worth looking at.”

Chapman said he’d try, and Crockett really got into it.

He scoured Washington for props: leggings, moccasins, a hatchet, a butcher knife, a battered rifle and “a well worn linsey-woolsey hunting shirt.” He insisted on authentic mongrels, not purebreds, as models for his hunting dogs, informing Chapman that there were “plenty of first-rate fellows to be found about the country carts any market day.” With the painting well under way, he suggested a change in his overly static pose, demonstrating what he was after by raising his broad-brimmed hat above his head and giving “a shout that raised the whole neighborhood.”

Talk about a man conscious of how his public saw him!

One day Chapman was with Crockett “at his rooms on Pennsylvania Avenue” when visitors were announced. Two were strangers staying at a nearby hotel; the third was a man who liked to give informal Washington tours. “ ‘Show ’em up,’ ” Crockett said with a “comical air of resignation … putting on his hat, and throwing one leg over the arm of his chair.” He greeted the strangers, who had come “expressly to pay their respects to Colonel Crockett”; treated them to “several of his best stories” and bade them a cordial farewell.

Then the most celebrated bear-hunting congressman who ever lived “shook himself out of dramatic pose, replaced his hat upon the table, and, as it were, thinking aloud, murmured, ‘Well! — they came to see a b’ar, and they’ve seen one — hope they like the performance.’ ”

Bob Thompson is a former Washington Post staff writer and editor. His book “Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road With Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier,” from which this article is adapted, will be published by Crown in March.

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