Born on August 17, 1786, backwoods statesman Davy Crockett's life has often been obscured by myth. Even during his lifetime, fanciful stories about his adventures transformed him into a buck-skinned superhero. And after his death, the tales kept growing taller. Here are 10 facts about Crockett that’ll separate reality from fiction.
1. Davy Crockett ran away from home at age 13.
When Crockett was 13, his father paid for him to attend a school. But just four days in, an older, bigger boy bullied him. Crockett was never one to back down from a fight. One day, he waited in a bush along the road home until evening. When the bully and his gang walked up the road, Crockett leapt from the bush and, as he later wrote in his autobiography, “set on him like a wild cat.” Terrified the schoolmaster would whip him for beating one of the boys so severely, Crockett decided to start playing hooky.
His father, John, was furious when a letter inquiring about his son's poor attendance arrived home. Grabbing a stick, he chased after Davy, who fled. The teen spent the next few years traveling from his native Tennessee to Maryland, performing odd jobs. When he eventually returned home, Crockett’s parents didn’t even recognize him at first. Following an emotional reunion, the family decided he would stick around long enough to help work off some debts. About a year later, all these were satisfied, and Crockett soon left for good.
2. Davy Crockett nearly died in a boating accident.
After serving under General Andrew Jackson in the Tennessee militia, Crockett entered politics, completing two terms as a Tennessee state legislator between 1821 and 1823. After losing his seat in 1825, he chose an unlikely new profession: barrel manufacturing. The entrepreneur hired a team to cut staves (the boards with which barrels are constructed) that he planned on selling in New Orleans. Once 30,000 were prepared, Crockett and his team loaded the shipment onto a pair of flatboats and traveled down the Mississippi River. There was just one problem: The shoddy vessels proved impossible to steer. The one carrying Crockett ran into a mass of driftwood and began to capsize, with Crockett trapped below deck. His mates on the other boat pulled him out through a small opening, and a traveling merchant rescued them all the next day.
3. Davy Crockett claimed to have killed 105 bears in one year.
If his autobiography can be believed, the expert marksman and his dogs managed to kill 105 bears during a seven-month stretch from 1825 to 1826. Back then, bear flesh and pelts were highly profitable items, as were the oils yielded by their fat—and Crockett’s family often relied on ursid meat to last through the winter.
4. A successful play helped make Davy Crockett a celebrity.
Crockett ran for Congress in 1827, winning the right to represent western Tennessee. Four years later, a new show titled The Lion of the West wowed New York theatergoers. The production revolved around a fictitious Kentucky congressman named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, whose folksy persona was clearly based on Crockett. Before long, the public grew curious about the real man behind the character, and in 1833, an unauthorized Crockett biography was published.
Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee became a bestseller—much to its subject’s chagrin. Feeling that Sketches distorted his life’s story, the politician retaliated with an even more successful autobiography the next year.
When The Lion of the West came to Washington, Crockett finally watched the play that started it all. That night, actor David Hackett was playing Col. Wildfire. As the curtain rose, he locked eyes with Crockett. They ceremoniously bowed to each other and the crowd went wild.
5. Davy Crockett received a few rifles as political thank you gifts.
Over the course of his life, Crockett wielded plenty of firearms. Two of the most significant were named “Betsy.” Midway through his state assembly career, he received “Old Betsy,” a .40-caliber flintlock presented to him by his Lawrence county constituents in 1822 (today, it’s in the Alamo Museum in San Antonio). At some point during the 1830s, the Whig Society of Philadelphia gave Crockett a gold-and-silver-coated gun. Her name? “Fancy Betsy.”
If you’re curious, the mysterious woman after whom these weapons were christened was either his oldest sister or his second wife, Elizabeth Patton.
6. Davy Crockett put a lot of effort into maintaining his wild image.
For somebody who once called fashion “a thing I care mighty little about,” Crockett gave really detailed instructions to portraitists. Most likenesses, the politician complained, made him look like “a sort of cross between a clean-shirted Member of Congress and a Methodist preacher.” Before posing for John Gadsby Chapman, Crockett asked the esteemed artist to portray him rallying dogs during a bear hunt. He purchased outdoorsy props and insisted he be shown holding up his cap, ready to give “a shout that raised the whole neighborhood.”
7. Davy Crockett torpedoed his political career by speaking against Andrew Jackson’s Native American policy.
Jackson was a beloved figure in Tennessee, and Crockett’s vocal condemnation of the his 1830 Indian Removal Act didn’t win him many friends back home [PDF]. “I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure,” the congressman later asserted, “and that I should go against it, let the cost against me be what it might.” He then narrowly lost his 1831 reelection bid to William Fitzgerald, who Jackson supported. In 1833, Crockett secured a one-term congressional stint as an anti-Jacksonian, after which he bid Tennessee farewell, famously saying, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”
8. Davy Crockett really did wear a coonskin hat (sometimes).
Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett TV serial triggered a national coonskin hat craze in the 1950s. Suiting up for the title role was square-jawed Fess Parker, who was seldom seen on-camera without his trusty coonskin cap. Children adored the rustic hat and, at the peak of the show's popularity, an average of 5000 replicas were sold every day.
But did the historical Crockett own one? Yes, although we don’t know how often he actually donned it. Some historians argue that later in life, he started wearing the accessory more often to capitalize on The Lion of the West (Col. Wildfire rocked this kind of headgear). One autumn morning in 1835, the frontiersman embarked upon his journey to Texas, confident the whole Crockett clan would reunite there soon. As his daughter Matilda later recalled, he rode off while “wearing a coonskin cap.” She never saw him again.
9. There’s some debate about Davy Crockett’s fall at the Alamo.
Crockett was killed during or just after the Battle of the Alamo in 1836—but the details surrounding his death are both murky and hotly contested. An enslaved man named Joe claimed to have spotted Crockett’s body lying among a pile of slain Mexican soldiers. Suzannah Dickinson, whose husband had also perished in the melee, told a similar story, as did San Antonio mayor Francisco Ruiz.
On the flip side, The New Orleans True American and a few other newspapers reported that Crockett was actually captured and executed by General Santa Anna’s men. In 1955, more evidence apparently surfaced when a long-lost diary written by Lieutenant Colonel José Enrique de la Peña was published. The author writes of witnessing “the naturalist David Crockett” and six other Americans being presented to Santa Anna, who promptly had them killed.
Some historians dismiss the document as a forgery, but others claim it’s authentic. Since 2000, two separate forensics teams have taken the latter position [PDF].
10. During University of Tennessee sporting events, a student dressed like Davy Crockett rallies the fans.
Smokey the hound dog might get all the attention, but the school has another mascot up its sleeve. On game days, a student known simply as “the Volunteer” charges out in Crockett-esque regalia, complete with buck leather clothes, a coonskin cap, and—occasionally—a prop musket.