Review: David Crockett: The lion of the west

Book by Michael Wallis

David Crockett: The lion of the westIf all you know about Davy Crockett comes from a Disney song—“Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee…Kilt him a b’ar when he was only three”—then you don’t know a thing about Davy Crockett.

He never called himself Davy. He rarely wore a coonskin cap. He wasn’t born on a mountaintop. And while he kilt an impressive number of b’ars during his life, he was almost certainly toilet trained before bagging his first one. This new book, which makes ample use of Crockett’s own memoirs, is a lively read that deflates many of the myths surrounding the famous frontiersman while preserving the popular appeal that has made him such a recognizable cultural figure.

David Crockett was born in Tennessee to pioneer parents. He was a veteran of the Creek Indian War of 1813-14 and a putative farmer who repeatedly moved his family westward in search of better land. But his real passions were hunting—he once killed 47 bears in one month—telling yarns and drinking whisky. A career in politics beckoned.

Crockett quickly learned his outsized personality and folksy habits were gifts when it came to wooing backwoods voters. After surprising early success in local and state politics, he won himself a seat in Congress in 1826. He was perhaps the first American politician to seize on his own lack of education as a political advantage. “Crockett defined what it meant to be a populist,” writes Wallis.

Crockett was a huge celebrity in his own lifetime. His woodsman-goes-to-Congress dynamic spawned massive public and media attention, a successful Broadway comedy, a book tour and even talk of a presidential run. In the end, however, his restlessness got the better of him. After an electoral defeat in 1834, and estranged from his wife and children who were fed up with his politicking, he lit out for Texas and the promise of new land. He ended up at the Alamo. The mythmakers took over from there.