Thursday, April 19, 2012

Joint Musings: Lions of the West: Chapter 4 - David Crockett

A couple of months ago, Kari from Five Borough Books asked me to read Lions of the West:  Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion with her and participate in a blog discussion about the book.  I jumped at the chance, not only because I wanted to get even more in-depth on this historical era, but also because Kari is really pretty awesome. 

Lions of the West presents short biographies of eight men who were integral to the process of America expanding west across the North American continent.  Kari and I chose to discuss each man in-dept over the course of a few weeks.  We started the discussion here with the chapter on Thomas Jefferson.  Below is our discussion of the fourth chapter, on Davey Crockett.  We hope you enjoy the below discussion and that it piques your interest enough to delve more into American history and understand the complex relationships that existed, and continue to exist, between so many different cultures.

See our post on Chapter 3, Johnny Appleseed, here. 

David Crockett: Comedian and Martyr, His Life and Death

Kari:  Like John Chapman, David Crockett was also one of those western legends that didn’t really conform to the standards of 18th/early 19th century America (which at this point means eastern America). His chapter was interesting, because Crockett was never really any kind of success by traditional standards. He really sort of failed (or at least wasn’t a booming success) at everything he tried professionally speaking. I think his entire existence mostly served as a representation of the new western ideal, the new western mindset, the new western individual. 

Aarti:  Yes, I think Crockett’s whole life is about the individual.  In a way, I think he really harkens back to what Americans like to think of themselves.  Morgan says, “Crockett was one of the common people, in his speech, in his dress, in his vision of the future.”  We believe so strongly that in America, you can rise from nothing to make something of yourself, and in a way, Davy Crockett really exemplifies that.  He became head of a militia, he became a senator, he kept trying so hard at everything he did and died a national hero.  We really link ourselves so completely to that mindset that it was quite jarring, really, to learn that he actually failed at everything!

Kari:  Crockett had two characteristics that made him important: he was restless and he was an independent spirit. You have to remember that at this time, the west was unexplored frontier. Lewis and Clark had found the Pacific Ocean, but that just opened up this whole mass of land in between there and here that was unexplored. Crockett was the type of person needed to explore the west—the adventurous, wandering spirit. Persons like Crockett and Chapman became such legends because they did possess these characteristics that led to western development. These weren’t common traits at the time, and it’s only natural that the spirit of persons like them are defining of the West.

Aarti:  I remember SO WELL learning this song in grade school with the chorus, “Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.”  That’s honestly all I knew about him but I really considered the “wild frontier” of the song to be WAY west, and not... well, not Tennessee, I admit!  Crockett, though, seems to have masterminded his story much more than Chapman.  I don’t want to call him manipulative, exactly, because that implies he was malicious, but he definitely knew what the people wanted and made sure that his personality reflected what they wanted to see in a leader.

Kari:  I remember that song too, and that is EXACTLY what I was thinking of as I was reading about him!  

One of the most interesting things about Crockett’s life, that I knew little about before this, was his political career. I know Davy Crockett as the folk legend with the coonskin cap (he’s at every UT football game carrying the flag!) but I never knew his political experience. He originally supported Jackson but his support ended with Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy, and afterwards, Crockett became very anti-Jackson. To me, it seemed that no matter how much Jackson associated himself as part of “the west,” Crockett felt it was just a political front. Crockett tried to represent the everyman and viewed Jackson as part of the political machine. That new type of person (the independent, adventurous one) was needed to represent the new west, and Crockett felt these people needed to be represented by one of their own—him. Crockett’s political story is a common theme in politics still today—the little guy vs. the big guy.

Aarti:  I loved that, too!  I admit that the more I read about Crockett being anti-Jackson, the more I liked him!  I am sad that he was basically used as a puppet by the anti-Jackson movement, but I loved that he had such strong convictions and really stood by them.  (And the more I learn about Jackson through the We Shall Remain series, the more he repels me.  I didn’t know that he basically set aside an entire Supreme Court ruling that said the Cherokee were entitled to their land and to create their own government!  WHY didn’t Morgan mention any of that stuff?!)  And you are so right that the little guy vs. the big guy is still such a big political ploy.  It’s interesting the way that sports teams, politicians and really anyone try to make themselves seem like the “underdog” these days, and I think Crockett really understood that dance very well.  The only problem, of course, being that his constituency was also Jackson’s constituency, and it’s hard to back a senator against a sitting President...  

Kari:  Oooh exciting, you started the American Experience series! I also loved the eulogy on Crockett that Morgan reprinted on page 149.

Aarti:  It was a great eulogy :-)  I wonder if Crockett was quite as simple a man as Shackford made him out to be, but I think for the purposes of the eulogy, the description is an apt one- he was a man who stood by his beliefs.  I also wonder if we had a less stirring story of his death, if he would be remembered so strongly?  I always grew up with this really motivating idea of him dying in slow motion while fighting to the last, shouting the words, “REMEMBER THE ALAMO!” at the top of his lungs, but if he actually died by firing squad... I wonder if that story had come out at the time, if he would be remembered so well today.

I also really loved the details on Crockett’s wife!  She seemed to be such a level-headed, thoroughly competent woman who made the best of what she had (and made really, really good decisions).  I really wish Morgan would write a book about the Lionesses of the West!  Though considering that I am a little leery of the fairly one-sided accounts he presents in this book, I wonder if I’d be able to believe everything he said about the women...

Kari:  Oh I completely forgot about the wife, but you’re right! She did have quite a pioneer woman soul! That’s why I’m excited to read Letters from a Woman Homesteader that you told me was available as a free download AGES ago! We need a woman’s point of view on this westward expansion!


  1. I know so little about Crockett, and the fact that he was in the political arena really surprises me and makes me more curious about him! I agree that while the book does seem to present these figures in a not quite thorough light, I am learning a lot form these posts and from your discussions. I also agree that it would be nice to hear about the women of this time period!

  2. I have gotten really interested in the expansion of the west since reading Patricia Wrede's Frontier Magic series, oddly enough. This conversation is fascinating, and I'm interested in Letters of a Woman Homesteader and in learning more about Jackson. Though I think reading about him would make me intolerably angry!


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