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As legend has it, he was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, killed a bear when he was only 3 and then fought to his death protecting the Alamo. Since Davy Crockett joined Congress in 1826, his outsized, near mythical persona has rarely matched reality. We explore how legend transformed the “King of the Wild Frontier” into a pop culture icon, from the plays and folklore of his time to Disney’s “Crockett craze” in the 1950s and beyond.
- Bob Thompson Author of “Born on a Mountaintop: On the road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier.”
Images Of The Legendary Davy Crockett
Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Read An Excerpt
Reprinted from “Born On A Mountaintop” by Bob Thompson. Copyright © March 2013. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAmericans picture him in a coonskin cap and moccasins with a rifle in hand. And even though the real Davy Crockett probably looked a lot more like your average politician on Capitol Hill, folklore transformed this semi-literate Tennessee congressman into something larger than life. As legend has it, he fought bears from the age of three, caught raccoons with just a grin and defended the Alamo to his death. From myths perpetuated by Davy Crockett himself to the Walt Disney Crockett craze that dominated pop culture a century after his death, tall tales about his life include truth and fiction in near equal parts.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd only by sifting through the myths and legends can you see our lawmaker named Davy Crockett became king of the wild frontier. Here to explain it all is Bob Thompson, He explores the myth and reality of Davy Crockett in his latest book "Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road With Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier." Bob was a reporter for the Washington Post for more than 20 years. He joins us in studio. Bob Thompson, thank you for joining us.
MR. BOB THOMPSONThank you. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIYou traced Davy Crockett's steps from Washington to Tennessee to Texas, finding Crocket experts, museums and memorials along the way. How did a three-term Tennessee congressman leave such a mark on American culture?
THOMPSONWell, there's a very long version of that story, which is in the book. The short version is, when Crocket was elected to congress in 1827, he came east and represented the frontier. The elites in Washington and the east coast people in general saw him as the embodiment of the wild frontier. And some of them made fun of him for his frontierness. And some of them pumped him up as the great American hero. So he was a very famous man in his own time simply because he came to symbolize something that was very important in American history at that time.
NNAMDIWhen many people think about Davy Crockett, the first image to come to mind is probably that of actor Fess Parker dressed up in a coonskin cap in the Disney series Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. And the next thing that comes to mind is probably the theme song. But you found that the song isn't entirely factual. So let's just dissect it to sort out fact from fiction. Here we go.
SINGERSBorn on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free, raised in the woods so's he knew every tree, killed him a b'ar when he was only three.
NNAMDISo was Davy Crockett born on a mountaintop and did he kill a bear?
THOMPSONHe was born in a very beautiful Tennessee river valley, no mountains in sight. He killed many bears but probably not at the age of three. He once claimed to have killed 105 in a single season, but he was a grownup at that point.
NNAMDIOkay. Let's move on to the next clip.
SINGERSHe went off to congress and served a spell, fixing up the government and laws as well. Took over Washington, so I heard tell, and patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell.
NNAMDIOkay, Bob Thompson. Davy was a congressman. Did he have that kind of impact that the song implies on congress?
THOMPSONTook over Washington you could argue because as I was talking about, he was a very famous man and people loved talking about him and seeing him. Didn't have much influence on policy. He had one thing that he most wanted to do, which was to secure land titles for his poor constituents in west Tennessee. And he was not able to do that. It's a very complicated story but he tried very hard and he couldn't get it done.
NNAMDILet's move the story forward. Next clip.
SINGERSWhen he come home his politicking was done, while the western march had just begun, so he packed his gear and his trusty gun and led out a grinnin' to follow the sun.
NNAMDIDid Davy Crockett head west because he was done with politics, Bob Thompson?
THOMPSONWell, yes and no. He was done with congress. He had been defeated in his last election and he was kind of sick of being in congress. He went west to -- he set out to explore Texas. He wasn't necessarily going to stay, although that was the likely possibility. And he did it probably for several reasons. One, it was the new frontier at that point. It was where the opportunity was. He was broke. He was pretty much always broke so he was looking for cheap land and a new opportunity. And a lot of the folks that I call "Crockettologists" believe that he also was looking to revive his political career in Texas when he got there.
NNAMDISo he wasn't done with politics.
THOMPSONWell, we don't think so. But it didn't work out that way.
NNAMDIOur guest is Bob Thompson. He explores the myth and reality of Davy Crockett in his latest book "Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier." Bob Thompson was a reporter for the Washington Post for more than 20 years. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What stories have you heard about Davy Crockett? Do you care whether or not they're true? You can also join us at our website kojoshow.org or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIDid you own a coonskin cap as a kid or watch Disney's Davy Crocket series? Why did it appeal to you, 800-433-8850? Bob Thompson, just talking about the song it seems that you could lose your mind trying to separate the myth from the reality. What did it take to separate the real Davy Crockett from the myth?
NNAMDIApart from losing your mind I guess.
THOMPSONYes. Having that song stuck in your head is a good thing for a while, but probably a couple years is too long. When I talk about separating the myth and the reality, one of the things that I came to understand was, it's not that you can't do that and it's not that you don't have to try to do that. But the thing that fascinated me was the evolution of reality into myth, how that process happened and why we think of Crocket the way we do now.
THOMPSONThe song actually is a fabulous example of that. It was created very quickly after Walt Disney had made a three-part television series and realized that he didn't have quite enough footage. So they needed to fill some gaps. I'm sure you're familiar with that problem.
NNAMDIWho me? No.
THOMPSON…they sent the songwriter -- or the screenwriter, who had never written a song before, down the hall with a Disney musician and studio legend says that an hour later or less they came back with this song which became what's been called the carrying agent of the Crockett craze. It stuck in everybody's head for many years.
NNAMDIIt took them less an hour to write it?
THOMPSONYou know, that's a studio legend.
NNAMDIWell, having waded through all of this, are you now confident that you have successfully separated the myth from the reality, that you actually now know the real Davy Crockett?
THOMPSONNo. I am confident that I know him pretty much as well as he can be known, and I have my own feelings about who he was and sense of him, but I also -- it's very clear to me that throughout almost two centuries now, Americans have projected a lot of different things onto Davy Crockett, and they have made him into the hero that they wanted him to be for a variety of reasons.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you have questions or comments. Do you think the myths and legends in American history help us understand our past, or do they in fact prevent us from actually knowing the truth? 800-433-8850. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Bob Thompson. His book is called "Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Bob Thompson. He explores the myth and reality of Davy Crockett in his latest book, "Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier." Bob Thompson was a reporter for the Washington Post for more than 20 years. A century before he became a Disney star, the living Davy Crockett was actually shaping his own image. What did he want people to believe about him?
THOMPSONHe started out wanting people to believe that he was an authentic average frontiersman like his constituents. He wanted people to believe that he was one of them and not one of the educated elites who, even then, were normally the folks in Tennessee politics who got ahead. And he succeeded in creating that image, and then once he got to Washington, it kind of got a little out of hand.
NNAMDIA little out of control.
THOMPSONYes. As often happens to people and their Washington images. They have trouble restraining other people from creating it for them.
NNAMDIWell, you tell the story of a portrait of Davy Crockett on a bear hunt with a team of dogs. That portrait apparently was not done in the western wilderness, it was done here in Washington. How did it come about?
THOMPSONOh, that's a great story. He -- Crockett was being painted by a man named John Gadsby Chapman who did a very nice ordinary bust painting of Crockett that I like very much myself, but...
NNAMDIBut you're not David Crockett.
THOMPSONDavid didn't like it. He thought, this makes me look just like everybody else, like a Congressman or a Methodist minister, and what if you -- what if you put me out in a -- what he called a harricane (ph) , which is a rough patch of wilderness, and show me bear hunting. And it was his idea, and the painter got into it, and they went out all around Washington, among other things, looking for the correct kind of mongrel dogs, because he didn't want purebred dogs, and he had to borrow a rifle, because he didn't have one with him, and various gear.
THOMPSONAnd so this is the one image that we have of Crockett from when he was alive that is not just of a man in what he called his Congressman clothes. You know, it's a fabulous piece of image making, and Crockett created it himself with the help of the painter.
NNAMDIBut they had to hunt around Washington looking for this gear. Speaking of that, are there any similarities between how Davy Crockett went about shaping his public image, and how politicians do it today?
THOMPSONYes, there are. I try not to make too many direct comparisons to individual people because historical analogies get you in trouble pretty fast, and especially in terms of Crockett's politics, you can make him look like he's on one side or the other, and I don't want to do that. But if you think of people who presented themselves as of the people, Ronald Reagan comes to mind, did it very well. Sarah Palin, who came out of nowhere, and all of a sudden people were identifying with her, partly because she wasn't -- she was presenting herself as a regular person, not as a Washington person. I don't know how many people remember Lamar Alexander, but he used to...
NNAMDIThat flannel shirt.
THOMPSONYes. That flannel shirt is a very Davy-like...
NNAMDII remember that.
THOMPSON...Davy-like attribute. And you can go on and on.
NNAMDIDavy Crockett caught the attention of the media the moment he took office in 1824. Why do you think telling his story has been so profitable right from the very start?
THOMPSONWell, again, I think that he caught the attention especially when he got to Washington a little later because he was the symbol of the frontier, and at that time, many Americans were moving west. Crockett had a biography which was similar to many Americans. He kept moving west across Tennessee. He wasn't a very good farmer. He kept failing, and he kept trying, and yet in the east, the whole expansion of the country was creating a sort of excitement and anxiety at the same time, and Crockett came to symbolize that.
THOMPSONThe other thing that happened with Crockett is that he did die at an absolutely iconic battle in Texas. This was kind of an accident that he was there and he didn't go to Texas intended for that to happen, but he was by far the most famous man to die at the Alamo which became the symbol of Texas and its revolution. And so that really tripled his fame.
NNAMDIYou can find an excerpt from the book at our website kojoshow.org. His death has been as much a point of contention as his life. You just mentioned it. Everyone seems to agree that he died at the Alamo, but historians have long debated whether Crockett died fighting or if he surrendered and was executed. Why do the details matter?
THOMPSONThey matter partly because going back to Disney and other stories of Crockett, they matter because we have an image of Crockett in our heads, of him going down fighting heroically. There is a very strong feeling about the sacrifice made by those men at the Alamo and its importance.
THOMPSONAnd to suggest that Davy Crockett in particular surrendered and begged for his life, which really, there's not any evidence that -- there's no evidence that he surrendered actually, really. There is evidence that he may have been captured with other men, and there's evidence that he wasn't. But the notion of him not matching up to the hero that we have in our heads is why that was so controversial and remains so.
NNAMDIIn "King of the Wild Frontier," Disney put a coonskin cap on Fess Parker and called him Davy Crockett. While Davy Crockett was alive he was known as David Crockett. Did anyone call him Davy at all?
THOMPSONA few people did, not his friends as a general rule. People called him Davy in his public persona a little bit. Sometimes they used it to mock him, and sometimes they used it not, but he himself went by David.
NNAMDIWell, in a part of the Disney series, he goes to Congress and addresses his colleagues with a rifle in his hand. Let's listen.
NNAMDIBob Thompson, how did Disney build on the legend that already existed in American folklore?
THOMPSONWell, the Disney screenplay, which was written by a man name Tom Blackburn, it's a brilliant amalgamation of truth and legend, and when I sat down to watch the TV series, I realized that I knew where almost all of it came from. Now, that speech for instance, which is a kind of a classic frontier brag, but it also comes from a series of publications called the Crockett Almanacs. There was a -- which started right around the time Davy died, and exploited his fame afterwards.
THOMPSONAnd so you can read that the screenwriter took that legendary speech didn't really happen. I don't think he has a rifle in the movie either, I'm not sure, but he does give that speech, and the screenwriter just borrowed it and adapted it a little bit and put it up there, and that's very many other things in the movie were changed around from reality, but they came from somewhere, you know. They came from the legend.
NNAMDIYes. There are all these legendary speeches. Put on your headphones, because we're about to go to the telephones. Speeches like, I'm the second baddest man in town, and my brother's getting old. Here is Rick in Baltimore, Md. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICKThank you, Kojo, for at wonderful topic. My question had to do with the reputation that Crockett had for incredible marksmanship. There are numerous scenes from the TV series and a scene from the Alamo movie where he shot the epaulet off the shoulder of General Santa Anna. I just wondered if there's any supporting evidence for that kind of marksmanship.
THOMPSONWell, he was a very, very good hunter, and we know this from other people, but a lot of what we know about his early life comes from his own autobiography which he wrote while he was in Washington. But he spent a lot of time hunting. He was a better hunter than he was farmer. There's a shooting match that's mentioned in an unauthorized biography of him, I believe, that he wins early in his life. So I don't think there's any question that he was a good shot.
THOMPSONThe epaulet shot off Santa Anna is mythical, but that's the kind of thing that was attached to Crockett because he had a reputation as a great shot. So it's one of those things where we're pretty sure that he was a very good shot, and then a lot of details have been added and put along with that.
NNAMDIRick, thank you for your call. Disney's Davy Crockett had a hold on American pop culture in the 1950s that's hard to imagine today. Coonskin caps once sold at a rate of 5,000 per day. How did Disney manage to captivate Americans with a man that had been dead for a hundred years?
THOMPSONWell, that's a question that he had to ask himself, because he didn't know it was going to happen. He thought he was making a three-part television series, and then he would move on. There's a number of factors, one of which is that television was pretty new, and that was back in the day when a large percentage of Americans would watch it together, and there was something about Fess Parker and the character he played that, as many people said, he was the coolest thing that we had ever seen.
THOMPSONAnd that, in combination with the heroic story that was told, I think Crockett's sense of humor had something to do with it too. People really loved that Fess Parker had this kind of dry sense of humor.
NNAMDIHow'd he get thousands of Americans to buy Davy Crockett memorabilia?
THOMPSONWell, that demand, again, didn't happen because he was promoting it. He -- if he had known that was going to happen, he would have cornered the market on coonskin caps, but in fact, actually -- I've forgotten the name, but somebody else sold a lot of Crockett memorabilia and they ended up with a lawsuit with Disney because they were trying to corner it. But every child in America who got exposed to Davy wanted to have not just the hat, but maybe a little buckskin jacket and a little plastic rifle, and there were thousands of other products.
NNAMDIHere is John in Arlington, Va. John, your turn.
JOHNYeah, hi. I was just wondering about Crockett's family of origin, the brothers and sisters and did he marry or was he a big Casanova? That's all I have.
THOMPSONSure. He had eight brothers and sisters, a total of nine in the family. He was kind of in the middle. He married twice. When he was quite young, he seemed to be very anxious to be married, and he fell in love with three different women in pretty short order, and the first two didn't work out, and then he married a woman named Polly Finley, who is the woman in the Disney movie portrayed as his wife. And they moved west and lived for a while and Polly died young.
THOMPSONAnd after Polly died, he -- she and David had had three children, and David remarried a widow with some children of her own named Elizabeth Patton.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you for your call. You admit, Bob Thompson, that you never bought into the Crockett craze when you were a kid, so what about Davy Crockett attracted your attention?
THOMPSONWell, I like to blame my daughter, Lizzy, for that because when Lizzy was four, we had one of those, you know, children's tapes -- it was a long time ago, it was an audio tape, and it was Burl Ives, if you remember Burl Ives...
THOMPSON...singing children's songs. He had a wonderful voice, and we got through the tape and the next to the last song I think was "Polly Wolly Doodle," and up comes "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." And we got to the end of the tape and there was a pause. We were in the car, and Lizzie said, play that song again. And a year and a half later, she was done with her Davy Crockett phase. We -- she was interested in him intensely, and I got interested too. And years later when I was looking for a topic.
NNAMDIAnd the rest, as they say, is history. It's now in the form of a book by Bob Thompson called "Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier." Bob Thompson was a reporter for the Washington Post for more than 20 years. Thank you so much for joining us.
THOMPSONThank you, Kojo. It was a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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