HISTORIANS Jim Kelly and Fred Voss have been seeking the truth about the fabulous American hero Davy Crockett, and sure enough, the truth is that the Crockett legend is a crock. In honor of their scholarly achievement, we should ride Kelly and Voss out of town on a rail.
Who needs to know that Crockett couldn't catch bullets in his teeth, and never waded the Mississippi on stilts, nor ever drank the Gulf of Mexico dry, or even half-dry? Who wants to know that Davy Crockett wasn't nine feet tall, or even six feet? That he was in fact just a pretty fair country storyteller who became a 19th-century media event?
If you are the sort of person who reads stuff out loud at the breakfast table, send the kids out of the room now, because this is going to get worse.
And stay away from the new Davy Crockett exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, because for now you can still say to yourself ho-hum this is just something I read in the paper, but if you go down to the Gallery and see this stuff you'll have to admit oi, the Smithsonian says that Davy Crockett was just a regular person.
Of what service to the Republic is it to put out the word that Crockett couldn't shoot any better than the next man, and didn't wrestle bears? How will the lives of our children be enhanced by the knowledge that Crockett didn't die fighting to the last with Sam Houston and the boys at the Alamo, but gave up, and then was skewered by Santa Anna's men?
Why have these muckrakers found it necessary to inform us that Crockett never used the name Davy? And wouldn't you have kept it quiet if you'd been the one to find out that Davy Crockett never wore a coonskin cap?
Voss, who was showing people around the exhibit like he was proud of it or something, said he was sorry, but when he signed up to be a historian some years ago, they told him this wasn't journalism, he'd have to stick to the facts, and the fact of this matter is that Crockett came along at the point in American history where we were creating our heroic archetypes, and Brother Davy got himself elected King of the Wild Frontier.
Tennessee was wild when Crockett was born there on August 17, 1786, and Crockett was a pretty fair frontiersman: Voss credits him with having bagged 58 bears in the winter of 1825-26, when market-hunting was legal and the meat, hides and fat were valuable commodities. One of the items on display is the gorgeous .48-caliber rifle he used from the time he was a young man until shortly before he went to Texas. Like most of the finest "Kentucky" rifles, the piece was made in Pennsylvania, probably by York County's Henry Pickel.
There's also the journal and ledger of Crockett's brief stint as a justice of the peace; many of the litigants were people who were trying to collect money he owed them. But mostly the one-room exhibit is devoted to portraits of Crockett, and most of them are as wildly off the mark as the rest of the legend.
Crockett also did a little farming and this and that, including making a couple of benches for the courthouse in Lawrenceburg -- one of them is in the exhibit -- and by 1821 he was a member of the Tennessee legislature.
His campaign strategy was simple: Crockett ignored the issues and told stories; and in the pockets of his buckskin shirt (worn only while canvassing the voters, to enhance his image of the honest backwoodsman) were a bottle of whiskey and a huge twist of tobacco. While telling the boys a story he'd pass the bottle round, and afterwards offer the twist to replace the tobacco chaws they'd spit out to drink the liquor.
The same sip-and-nip technique served to win him three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Washington was even farther from Tennessee then than it is now, and his stories got taller and taller, which got him a lot of ink. By and by his name was known from sea to shining sea. But then he got to messing with the issues and arguing with Andy Jackson, and in 1835 the folks back home turned him out of office.
"You can go to hell," he told them. "I'm going to Texas."
DAVY CROCKETT: GENTLEMAN FROM THE CANE -- At the National Portrait Gallery through September 14.