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'Born On A Mountaintop' Or Not, Davy Crockett's Legend Lives On

Mar 2, 2013
Originally published on March 2, 2013 11:04 am

There's a new book about an American hero that's not just about the man behind the myth, but about the myth behind that myth.

Davy Crockett really was from Tennessee, really was a skilled frontiersman and really killed American Indians in battle. (When he became a congressman, however, he opposed President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act.) And then, after losing a re-election campaign, Crockett really lit out for Texas and eventually died at the Battle of the Alamo — more or less

Crockett was the stuff of legend while he lived, but his legend boomed more than a century after he died. Bob Thompson tells Crockett's story in his new book, Born On A Mountaintop: On The Road With Davy Crockett And The Ghosts Of The Wild Frontier. He joins NPR's Scott Simon to separate the man from the myth and explain the mystery of how he died.


Interview Highlights

On Crockett's birthplace and whether it's really on a mountaintop, as the 1950s song "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" says

"It's a river valley and you can't see any mountains from there."

On whether Crockett really "killed him a [bear] when he was only three," as the song says

"That's highly unlikely, although he'd write in his autobiography that he killed 105 bears when he was somewhat older in a single season."

On whether Crockett wore a coonskin cap

"That's complicated. You can't prove a negative on that, but nobody contemporary reported him as wearing a coonskin cap."

On when Davy Crockett became a big name

"He was pretty big in the 1830s, but by the 1950s he had faded a lot. And then Walt Disney was starting his first theme park, Disneyland, and he had a section called Frontierland and he needed a character for the first Frontierland segment. And they had no idea that they were going to create a nationwide craze, in which everybody would go in a coonskin cap and everybody would be singing 'born on a mountaintop in Tennessee' [from 'The Ballad of Davy Crockett'], but that's what happened."

On why Crockett moved to Texas

"The real-life Davy Crockett had spent his life uprooting himself and moving west whenever he had a difficulty of some kind — when his land wasn't yielding or when something happened, he would move west. This was true of many, many, many Americans at that time. In his particular case he was beaten in his re-election campaign in 1835. He was in debt, he was kind of sick of being in Congress, and he's famously quoted as telling his constituents that since they voted for the other guy, they could go to hell, and he was going to go to Texas."

On the theories surrounding Crockett's death

"The two basic possibilities are died fighting [in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo] or was captured — not necessarily surrendered, but captured — along with five or six other defenders, and brought before [Mexico's] Gen. Santa Anna and executed. And I don't believe we have time to refresh all the details of that story. I once heard Bill Groneman, who is a major figure on one side of the argument, on a panel: Somebody asked the how-did-Davy-die question and he said, 'Somebody send out for pizza. We're going to be here for a while.' But suffice it to say that there have been long, sometimes bitter and always complicated arguments about how he died. And the goal I set myself was to make up my mind what I thought, and I did that, but that's preceded by about, you know, 25 pages of text."

On whether he's willing to share his conclusion

"I think it's actually better to come to it after somebody has gone through it, because I actually came to a different conclusion than I thought I was going to when I started."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a new book about an American hero that's not just about the man behind the myth, but the myth behind the myth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF DAVY CROCKETT")

BILL HAYES: (Singing) Borned on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state...

SIMON: Davy Crockett was real. He really was from Tennessee, he was really a skilled frontiersman and he truly...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF DAVY CROCKETT")

HAYES: (Singing) Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three. Davy...

SIMON: Well, maybe a candy bar. After killing Indians in battle, Davy Crockett became a congressman, then he lit out for Texas and died at the Battle of the Alamo, more or less or thereabouts. Davy Crockett was the stuff of legend while he lived, but his legend boomed more than a century after he died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF DAVY CROCKETT")

HAYES: (Singing) Davy Crockett, the man who don't know fear.

SIMON: Bob Thompson tells the story in his new book, "Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier." Bob Thompson joins us. Thanks for being with us.

BOB THOMPSON: I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: You've been to where he was born. Is it on top of a mountain?

THOMPSON: No, it's not. It's a river valley and you can't see any mountains from there.

SIMON: And did he kill him a bear when he was only three?

THOMPSON: It's highly unlikely.

SIMON: What about the raccoon-skin cap?

THOMPSON: That's complicated. You can't prove a negative on that, but nobody contemporary reported him as wearing a coonskin cap.

SIMON: How did Davy Crockett, Mr. Thompson, become a bigger name in American life, in a sense, in the 1950s than he was in the 1830s?

THOMPSON: Well, he was pretty big in the 1830s, but by the 1950s he had faded a lot. And then Walt Disney was starting his first theme park, Disneyland, and he had a section called Frontierland and he needed a character for the first Frontierland segment. And they had no idea that they were going to create a nationwide craze in which everybody would go on a coonskin cap and everybody would be singing "Born on a Mountaintop in Tennessee." But that's what happened.

SIMON: Some rather more serious historical questions. Why did the real life Davy Crockett go to Texas?

THOMPSON: Well, the real life Davy Crockett had spent his life uprooting himself and moving west whenever he had a difficulty of some kind. When his land wasn't yielding or when something happened he would move west. This was true of many, many, many of Americans at that time. In his particular case, he was beaten in his re-election campaign in 1835.

He was in debt, he was kind of sick of being in Congress and he's famously quoted as telling his constituents that since they voted for the other guy they could go to hell and he was going to go to Texas.

SIMON: You have an extensive review in this book and a dissection of the different ways in which Davy Crockett was said to have died at the Alamo. And one, of course, was with what I'll call John Wayne style.

THOMPSON: Right.

SIMON: Shooting his last musket ball until he was killed. And other, if I may, revisionist version has him surrendering and almost blubbering for his life.

THOMPSON: Well, the surrendering and blubbering part is not correct. The two basic possibilities are died fighting or was captured; not necessarily surrendered, but captured along with five or six other defenders and brought before General Santa Anna and executed. And I don't believe we have time to refresh all of the details of that story.

I once heard Bill Groneman, who is a major figure on one side of the argument, on a panel - somebody asked the how did Davy die question and he said: Somebody send out for pizza, we're going to be here for a while. But suffice it to say that there have been long, sometimes bitter and always complicated arguments about how he died. And the goal I set myself was to make up my mind what I thought, and I did that, but that's preceded by about another 25 pages of text, so...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Does it give away much to ask you if you're willing to share that now?

THOMPSON: Well, it's actually better to come to it after somebody has gone through it because I actually came to a different conclusion than I thought I was going to when I started.

SIMON: Bob Thompson - his new book, "Born on a Mountaintop," Or "On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghost of the Wild Frontier." Mr. Thompson, thanks so much.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF DAVY CROCKETT")

UNKNOWN SINGERS: (Singing) Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.

SIMON: Come on, you know the words. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.