King of the Wild Exurbs? Another Reconsideration of Davy Crockett's "Wild Frontier"

Davy Crockett turns 227 on the 17th.

There's a new book by former Washington Post feature writer Bob Thompson about the immortal Crockett legend. It's not just the legend that's immortal. The debunking of it may turn out to be immortal, too. It's been going on as long as we can remember. There are people who never saw either Fess Parker or John Wayne's depictions of Crockett but who've seen them both debunked.

It's been more than half a century since either Parker or Wayne portrayed a coonskin-capped Crockett. Mention Fess Parker to a 30-something professional, and they may respond, "Oh, the winery?"

But we keep debunking Parker's portrayal, anyway, because it's fun, I guess. Nowadays, people hear Crockett never wore a coonskin cap before they ever hear that he did.

Thompson's book is called Born On a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier. The title comes with implied ironic quotes. Crockett wasn't born on a mountaintop, of course. Pregnant ladies, often disinclined to do a lot of hiking, tend to prefer valleys. That was the case with Davy's mom.

But Thompson may raise more hackles by questioning just how wild Crockett's wild frontier was.

The book's a droll first-person romp through Crockett's America, the sort of historical-travelogue gig I'd love to get someday. He stops off in Knoxville more than once. Not because Crockett was here much. Though he surely passed through town many times, Crockett never lived in Knoxville. I've never even run across a single interesting anecdote of him hanging around town. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ngo Dinh Diem, Le Corbusier, and Louis-Philippe, the Citizen-King of France, yes. They all had interesting Knoxville stories, illustrative anecdotes that might show up in any of their biographies. Not Crockett. Nonetheless, Knoxville has become a center for Crockett scholarship, and an essential stop for any thorough Crockett pilgrimage.

Thompson visits our Museum of East Tennessee History to see Crockett's rifle. While poking some gentle fun at the caption's implied confidence about its provenance—"The museum label seemed more certain of the gun's history than [owner Joe] Swann is"—Thompson doesn't doubt it was Crockett's rifle. "Here was a piece of the past I could reach out and touch—if it weren't for the display case, of course—and it gave me the shivers."

The author also has lunch at an unnamed Knoxville seafood restaurant with UT "Crockettologist" Michael Lofaro, about the enduring Crockett myth. Thompson returns to Knoxville a third time to attend the Western Writers of America conference held here in 2010, at which a symposium on the controversial circumstances of the death of Crockett at the Alamo is cited by various Crocketteers on the Web.

Thompson says Crockett, while an interesting and worthwhile fellow, was not what we think he was. He was not even a frontiersman, by our usual understanding of the term. It's true that his grandparents had been killed by Indians in 1777 near present-day Rogersville, before Davy was born. But Davy Crockett's Tennessee was a much safer place.

"The wild frontier moved faster than David did," Thompson writes. "Nine years before he was born, as the killing of his grandparents proved, East Tennessee was still contested ground. But by August 17, 1786 [Crockett's birth date], the Crocketts and their neighbors were no longer threatened."

And he has a point. Davy Crockett was born in Greene County, the same year that James White established a fort at the future site of Knoxville—which was 70 miles closer to Indian territory, and the wild frontier, than the Crocketts were. By the time Crockett was 5, Knoxville was a territorial capital with a garrison and a biweekly newspaper and some fancy shops that sold scented soaps, imported silk, and books of poetry.

Still, Thompson's assertion that the Crocketts and their neighbors "were no longer threatened" may be an overstatement. In 1793, the Crocketts moved farther west and were settling near Morristown. Davy was 7, and it was the year of the Chickamaugan uprising, kind of a militant Cherokee-Creek jihad against the white invaders.

The Chickamaugans posed a real threat to many white settlers west of the Appalachians. With more than 1,000 warriors, they invaded East Tennessee in the fall of 1793. Around what's now West Hills, they massacred families at Cavett's Station—that's where Doublehead earned the perhaps unwelcome nickname Babykiller. Their intention was to destroy Knoxville. The white man's territorial capital was not quite 50 miles from the Crockett home. If the fearsome and uncompromising chief Doublehead had prevailed—and with his large invading force, he easily could have, if his reconnaissance had been better—he could have destroyed Knoxville, and the Crocketts and their neighbors would certainly have been in danger.

By the way, Massacre at Cavett's Station is the title of another, even newer book by archaeologist and UT Professor Emeritus Charlie Faulkner. It's the most complete account of the disaster to date, and pretty fascinating. The Crocketts probably read about Cavett's Station in the newspapers.

Crockett was just 9 when Tennessee became formally approved as the 16th state, with congressmen and governors and banks and laws. Not that it didn't still offer opportunities for outdoor adventure, as it does today. He married at age 20 and had a few kids. At 27 he did join the Tennessee militia, and as part of the War of 1812, battled with British-allied Indians in the real wilderness south of Tennessee, before it was called Alabama.

After that, he settled his family in Franklin County, west of Chattanooga. It wasn't the city, but if you wanted frontier, you could get a good deal wilder than that. Crockett seemed to like a little frontier, but not too much. He spent much of his 40s as a congressman in urbane Washington, but kept his home base west, finally living in West Tennessee's Gibson County. By that time the wild frontier was somewhere well beyond the Mississippi River.

Thompson alleges Crockett never lived anywhere until after it was proven to be pretty safe. That is, not until, at age 49, he got to the Alamo.