Crockett was born in a state that no longer exists.
Crockett was born on August 17, 1786, in what is now eastern Tennessee. At the time, however, many of the region’s residents considered themselves citizens of the so-called state of Franklin, a breakaway territory that had declared its independence from North Carolina two years earlier. Supporters of the movement—including Crockett’s father, John—pushed for Franklin to enter the union as the 14th U.S. state, but the fledgling territory fell just shy of the required vote total in Congress. Following a stint as an independent republic, Franklin was eventually reclaimed by North Carolina in 1789. By 1796, its lands had become part of the newly formed state of Tennessee.
He ran away from home as a boy.
Crockett’s brief formal education began at age 13, when his father arranged for him to attend a local school. “I went four days,” the frontiersman later wrote in his autobiography, “and had just began to learn my letters a little, when I had an unfortunate falling out with one of the scholars—a boy much larger and older than myself.” The strong-willed Crockett eventually ambushed the bully after class and gave him a severe beating. He then began skipping school to avoid punishment, but it wasn’t long before his father learned of his absence. When the elder Crockett confronted him and tried to give him a whipping, young Davy fled into the woods and struck out on his own. He left Tennessee with a group of cattle drovers and eventually spent two-and-a-half years traveling and working as a teamster, farmhand and hat maker’s apprentice. Crockett later wrote that when he finally returned home in 1802, he had “been gone so long, and had grown so much, that the family did not at first know me.”
He was a veteran of the Creek War and the War of 1812.
In 1813, a 27-year-old Crockett was among the thousands of Tennesseans who joined the state militia to fight against the “Red Sticks,” a faction of Creek Indians who had attacked American settlers at Fort Mims, Alabama. Crockett spent most of the Creek War working as a scout and wild game hunter, but he was also present when future president Andrew Jackson—then the commander of Tennessee’s militia—led his volunteers in the slaughter of some 200 Red Sticks at the Creek village of Tallushatchee. Crockett later served as a sergeant during Jackson’s War of 1812 campaign in Spanish Florida, but saw little action before his enlistment ended in 1815.
Crockett often made his living as a bear hunter.
Crockett tried his hand at everything from farming to manufacturing wood barrels and gunpowder, but he found his greatest success as a professional hunter. He spent much of his life stalking black bears in the woods of Tennessee and selling their pelts, meat and oil for profit. He even claimed to have bagged 105 of the animals in a seven-month period during the winter of 1825-26. Crockett’s fondness for hunting dangerous game—and the tales he spun about it—later played a major part in making him a frontier hero. According to one oft-repeated yarn, he once killed a bear in pitch-black darkness by stabbing it in the heart with a butcher knife
He had a troubled career in Congress.
In 1826, having already served in the Tennessee legislature, Crockett was elected to the first of three non-consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. While he quickly gained fame for his folksy persona and advocacy for the poor, his sharp tongue also won him his share of political enemies. In 1830, meanwhile, he alienated many of his constituents with his fierce opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Crockett’s feud with Jackson would eventually play a key role in his final election defeat in 1835, but by then he had grown bored in Washington and was often absent from his duties. In fact, during six years in Congress, he failed to get a single bill passed.
An 1831 play helped make Crockett a legendary figure.
Crockett’s reputation as a coonskin cap-wearing folk hero owes a lot to “The Lion of the West,” a wildly popular play that first appeared in 1831. While the production avoided referencing Crockett by name, audiences quickly identified him as the inspiration for its hero, a swashbuckling frontiersman named Nimrod Wildfire. The play helped propel Crockett to national celebrity, and before long, tales of his larger-than-life exploits had appeared in countless newspaper articles, almanacs and unauthorized biographies. Crockett would later clear up a few of the myths—and cash in on his popularity—by publishing an 1834 autobiography titled “A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee.”
He helped foil an assassination attempt on Andrew Jackson.
Despite their political differences, Crockett famously came to Andrew Jackson’s aid during an assassination attempt. On January 30, 1835, the two men were part of a crowd of lawmakers leaving the U.S. Capitol after a state funeral. As Jackson passed near the East Portico, a crazed gunman named Richard Lawrence emerged from a throng of spectators and shot at him with two pistols—both of which miraculously misfired. “Old Hickory” supposedly responded by whacking Lawrence with his cane. Crockett, meanwhile, was one of several bystanders who disarmed the would-be assassin and wrestled him to the ground.
Crockett only spent three months in Texas before his death.
Shortly after losing his final bid for Congress in 1835, Crockett withdrew from politics and drifted west, famously telling his former constituents “you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.” With a few followers in tow, he left Tennessee that November and arrived in Texas the following January. His motivations for joining the Texas Revolution were complicated—he may have had an eye toward future political office—but only a few days after his arrival, he swore an oath to the Republic and agreed to take up arms against Mexico. By early February, the 49-year-old had found his way to San Antonio de Bexar and taken up a post at the former Franciscan mission known as the Alamo. Santa Anna and his Mexican forces laid siege to the Alamo just days later, and on March 6, 1836, they breached its outer walls. In the ensuing battle, Crockett and some 200 other defenders were all killed.
He may have been one of the last men standing at the Battle of the Alamo.
The circumstances of Crockett’s demise at the Alamo have long been a matter of historical debate. Early reports had him falling in the battle, and several witnesses claimed he was found surrounded by a heap of enemy corpses. In 1975, however, an alternate account was uncovered in the diary of a Mexican officer named Jose Enrique de la Peña. According to Peña’s version, Crockett and a handful of other Alamo defenders survived the battle and were captured by the Mexicans, but were almost immediately executed on the orders of Santa Anna. While the subject remains controversial, many scholars now believe that the Peña diary may offer the most reliable account of Crockett’s death.
Walt Disney helped revive his fame.
Crockett’s death at the Alamo secured his place as an antebellum American hero, but it was Walt Disney who brought his legend into the 20th century. In 1954, Disney released the first of five Davy Crockett television serials starring actor Fess Parker. The series and a subsequent film were both hugely successful, triggering a renewed fascination with Crockett and a massive demand for frontier-themed children’s toys. According to the Smithsonian, at the height of Crockett-mania, coonskin caps were selling at a rate of 5,000 per day.