Davy Crockett was a frontiersman, soldier, politician, congressman and prolific storyteller. Known as the “King of the Wild Frontier,” his adventures—both real and fictitious—earned him American folk hero status.
WATCH: The Real West on HISTORY Vault
David Crockett was born in eastern Tennessee on August 17, 1786, one of nine children of pioneer parents John and Rebecca (Hawkins) Crockett. John Crockett struggled to make ends meet, and the family moved several times throughout Crockett’s childhood. Davy was often hired out to help pay his family’s debts.
Crockett received no significant academic education. For much of his teenage life, his teacher was the frontier, where he became a skilled woodsman, scout and hunter.
On August 14, 1806, after being jilted by his first fiancée, Crockett married Mary (Polly) Finley. The couple had three children—John Wesley Crockett, William Finley Crockett and Margaret Finley Crockett—and moved to Franklin County, Tennessee, to a farm Crockett named “Kentuck.”
After Polly died in 1815, Crockett married widow Elizabeth Patton. Elizabeth brought two children to the marriage, and Crockett and Elizabeth had three more together: Robert Patton Crockett, Rebecca Elvira Crockett and Matilda Crockett.
In 1813, Crockett joined the Tennessee militia as a scout and fought against the Creek Indians in Alabama. He participated in the Indian massacre at Tallushatchee in retaliation for a Native American attack on Fort Mims.
During the War of 1812, Crockett re-enlisted as Third Sergeant under Captain John Cowan. He went to Spanish Florida to help Andrew Jackson clear British forces, including British-trained Indians, from the region.
After being discharged in 1815, he returned home, where his wife Polly soon died. He remarried, moved his family to Lawrence County, Tennessee, started several businesses and began his political career.
In 1817, Crockett became public commissioner of Lawrence County. Later that year, he was elected justice of the peace and then became a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee militia. After resigning those posts, he won a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly representing Lawrence and Hickman counties, where he fought for the tax and land rights of poor settlers and refined his speaking skills.
After losing his businesses to flooding, Davy moved to Carroll County and was again elected to the General Assembly in 1823. He lost a bid for Congress in 1825 and returned to the private sector.
He ran for Congress again in 1827 and 1829 and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, lost in 1830, won again in 1833 and lost his final bid in 1834. He often opposed President Andrew Jackson’s political platform, although at first, he supported him.
While in Congress, Crockett made a name for himself as a gifted storyteller and the “gentleman from the cane,” a snobbish reference to his rural upbringing. He also became the subject of a play and a series of books and almanacs which included tall tales about his exploits as a bear-hunting frontiersman.
Hoping to set the record straight about the reality of his life and change his folk hero reputation, Crockett wrote an autobiography and went on tour promoting it. When he returned and lost his seat in Congress, he famously said, “I told the people of my district that I would serve them faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” And he did.
Crockett and a 30-man armed brigade arrived in Nacogdoches, Texas, in January 1836 during the Texas War for Independence. Crockett swore allegiance to the Provisional Government of Texas in exchange for land and arrived in San Antonio at the Alamo Mission in February.
On February 23, President General Santa Anna and thousands of his troops laid siege to the Alamo against no more than 200 Texas volunteer soldiers, including Crockett and his men, whose sharpshooting skills and long rifles proved invaluable in the fight.
Despite Texas commander Sam Houston’s advice to abandon San Antonio, the Alamo defenders dug in and held out for 13 days until Mexican soldiers overran their defenses on March 6 and killed them all.
Crockett is thought to have died defending the Alamo; however, by some accounts he survived the battle and was taken hostage with a handful of men (against Santa Anna’s orders to take no hostages) and executed.
Crockett’s death at the Battle of the Alamo burnished his reputation as a hero and cemented his legendary status.
In 1954, Walt Disney produced a television series based on Crockett’s life titled Davy Crockett with actor Fess Parker as Crockett. The series introduced the famous song “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by George Bruns and Thomas W. Blackburn, and gave the world the still-popular image of a patriotic Crockett holding a long rifle while wearing frontier clothes and a coonskin cap.
Throughout the 20th century and beyond, Crockett’s likeness and adventures were represented in plays, novels, comic books and films, including the 1960 film The Alamo starring John Wayne as Davy Crockett.
Dozens of parks, schools and other entities are named for Crockett, including Davy Crockett National Forest in Texas, David Crockett State Park in Tennessee and the Davy Crockett Nuke, a nuclear weapons system developed by the U.S. Army during the Cold War.
Crockett, David. History, Art and Archives; U.S. House of Representatives.
David Crockett. The Handbook of Texas Online.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.