Why was Davy Crockett king of the wild frontier?

In 1955, more than 100 years after his death, kids once again looked up to Davy Crockett as a hero and role model, thanks to Walt Disney.
In 1955, more than 100 years after his death, kids once again looked up to Davy Crockett as a hero and role model, thanks to Walt Disney.
Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images

Unless you were living under a rock in the 1950s (or not born yet), you were part of Davy Crockett's fan base. The legendary frontiersman experienced a resurgence in popularity more than 100 years after his death, thanks to a little help from Mr. Walt Disney. Crockett's popularity continues still today, with Crockett settled into a comfortable position as one of America's great real-life legends.

Between 1954 and 1955, Disney aired five episodes of "Davy Crockett" on television. The series chronicling Crockett's larger-than-life adventures became an instant success. Different singers' recordings of the show's theme song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," sold millions of copies. Crockett's trademark coonskin cap (which looked pretty much like a raccoon sleeping atop the wearer's head) became a fad among preadolescent fans and ironic teenagers alike. All told, more than $100 million worth of Davy Crockett material was sold within just a few months of the Disney show's premiere [source: Hoffman and Bailey]. Even the U.S. government caught Crockett fever: In the early 1960s, the army produced a lightweight artillery launcher that fired mortars equipped with small nuclear warheads. The army named the setup the "Davy Crockett" [source: Brookings Institution].

This wasn't the first time Davy Crockett enjoyed far-flung fame. While he was alive, he attained celebrity status -- during a time when newspapers and books were the only available means of publicity. Yet Davy Crockett still emerged as an international star. Many books and plays based on (and grossly exaggerating) his life and exploits were written. And following his death as a defender of the Alamo, his legend grew even larger.

Crockett was an expert frontiersman, eschewing the comforts of Eastern cities and pushing westward to carve a life out of the American wilderness. But it wasn't until Disney got involved in Crockett's legend that Davy was pronounced "king of the wild frontier." Find out what he did that earned him such a formidable title on the next page.

Davy Crockett Myth: Bear Hunter and Progressive Politician

Davy Crockett, circa 1820, around the time he was first elected to Congress.
Davy Crockett, circa 1820, around the time he was first elected to Congress.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Later in his life, Davy Crockett adopted the motto, "Be sure you're right, then go ahead" [source: Smithsonian]. He was true to this independent ideal from an early age. He ran away from his first job of driving cattle after it became clear it was merely indentured servitude. His dramatic escape entailed a two-hour, 7-mile nighttime run in knee-deep snow. And he chose work over school, generally. But Crockett was proud of the life he made for himself without the benefit of a formal education. He wore his lack of schooling like a badge of honor.

During his lifetime, Crockett's frontiersmanship became legendary. The book and play "Lion of the West" and other popular books chronicled his life. These biographies were fantastic, absurd accounts of Crockett's wilderness prowess. And when one was written by an author who falsely attributed the "autobiography" to Crockett (ostensibly to boost sales), Davy's endearing reputation as a teller of tall tales was secured. Crockett eventually did write his autobiography, which also spun some unbelievable yarns. In one chapter, Crockett describes how he killed 105 bears in one year [source: Crockett].

Bear hunting was seminally integrated into Crockett's image. The "Ballad of Davy Crockett" (the theme song of the Disney series) mentions that Davy "kilt him a b'ar when he was only three" [source: NIH]. While this is likely not the case, it captures the essence of his larger-than-life reputation.

At a time when American expansion was meeting resistance from American Indians, Crockett was also regarded as a brave "Indian fighter." As a member of the Tennessee militia during the Creek Indian War, Crockett participated in a massacre of an American Indian village in Alabama, in retribution for a previous raid by the tribe [source: TSHA].

But at some point, Crockett changed his views toward American Indians. As a Congressman for Tennessee, he came to oppose President Andrew Jackson's land-use policies. The president's ideas for securing new settlements included the forced removal of American Indians from their tribal lands. Crockett was so vehemently opposed to American Indian removal and land grabbing that he lost the election for his third term in Congress in 1831.

A bit irked that he'd lost his Congressional seat, he left Tennessee, but not before raising a toast to his friends: "You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas," he told them [source: Texas State Library]. He was so caught up in the Texas revolutionary spirit as the former Mexican state struggled for independence (and intrigued by the promise of money from land speculation that a free republic eventually promised), that he volunteered to serve as a member of the rebel militia fighting the Mexican Army there.

Crockett died in Texas the next year during the famous 1836 siege at the Alamo, but his death only brought him more glory. He's been portrayed in depictions of the battle using his trusty musket "Old Betsy" as a club, dealing blows to Mexican soldiers. His soldiering was called into question later from firsthand accounts that told of Crockett being captured rather than dying amid a rubble of Mexican corpses. But when the diary of a Mexican solider who had fought at the Alamo was discovered in 1975, Crockett's valiant reputation was supported by the soldier's words: Crockett had been a rallying figure for the doomed men at the fort before he was brutally executed at the hands of the Mexicans upon his capture [source: PBS].

For more information on expansionist America and other related topics, visit the next page.

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Sources

  • Crockett, Col. David. "Not yours to give." Foundation for Economic Education. http://www.fee.org/library/books/notyours.asp
  • Crockett, David and Chilton, Thomas. "A narrative of the life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee." Carey, Hart and Co. 1834. http://books.google.com/books?id=vl2-pBghhEEC&dq=davy+crockett&pg=PP1&ots=Lo0d61LrXk&source=citation&sig=26_GEpnNU7H8SirbkBb84tPhGDA&hl=en&prev=http://www.google.com/searchq=davy+crockett&sourceid=navclientff&ie=UTF8&rlz=1B3GGGL_enUS240US240&sa=X&oi=print&ct=result&cd=2&cad=bottom-3results#PPA165,M1
  • Hoffmann, Frank W. and Bailey, William G. "Arts and Entertainment Fads." Haworth Press. 1990. http://books.google.com/books?id=VaAqgBIceEIC&pg=PA93&lpg=PA93&dq=ballad+of+davy+crockett+million+copies&source=web&ots=pmh3YUPdkY&sig=vz0fxxSPCA4ah_AqTuaQbLxZbo4&hl=en
  • Lofaro, Michael A. "Crockett, David." The Handbook of Texas Online. January 17, 2008. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/CC/fcr24.html
  • "Bear hunting in Tennessee: Davy Crockett tells tales, 1834." George Mason University. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5816/
  • "David Crockett." Texas State Library. November 2, 2005. http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/treasures/republic/alamo/crockett-01.html
  • "Hatchet presented to Davy Crockett in 1835." Smithsonian Institution. 2001. http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=98
  • "People and events: David "Davy" Crockett (1786-1836)." PBS. January 30, 2004. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/alamo/peopleevents/p_crockett.html
  • "U.S. nuclear weapons cost study project: The Davy Crockett." The Brookings Institution.http://www.brookings.edu/projects/archive/nucweapons/davyc.asp