David Crockett, Texian
I shall identify myself with your interests, and all the honor that I desire is that of defending, as a high private, in common with my fellow-citizens, the liberties of our common country.
My Tennessee friends are fond of saying that Texas would never have become Texas without Tennessee, seeing as they gave us Sam Houston and David Crockett. My immediate thought is Bless your hearts, but I usually respond with something like, “There’s a reason they left Tennessee and came to Texas, same as you” (since most of them now live in Texas).
This is just goodnatured interstate ribbing, but it does raise the question: Did Houston and Crockett actually fight as Tennesseans or as Texians (as they were then called)? And what about Stephen F. Austin (from Missouri), William B. Travis and James Butler Bonham (from South Carolina), James Fannin (from Georgia), and James Bowie (from Kentucky)? Were the only Texans to fight for Texas independence Tajanos—native born Texans—like Juan Seguín, José Antonio Navarro, and Francisco Ruiz?
Since Tennesseans love to march out the coonskin capped backwoodsman as an example of Tennessee’s paternity of Texas let’s look a little closer at Crockett’s involvement in Texas.
Crockett was born in the summer of 1786, in the state of Franklin, before it was annexed into the state of Tennessee. Growing up on the frontier he became an adept rifleman, a skill he put to good purpose fighting under fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Celebrated for his hunting exploits, especially of bears, Crockett became one of the most famous men in the state, next to Jackson and Sam Houston.
Jackson persuaded Crockett to run for Congress in 1825 (before states regularized even year elections). He lost. But two years later he won a seat in the House of Representatives. His country bumpkin ways in Washington earn him a larger reputation—both as a novelty and as a rube. Even Alexis de Tocqueville, the French diplomat and author of Democracy in America, took note of the backwoods congressman. Crockett served as a Democratic until 1831, when he fell out of favor with Jackson. The Whigs, seeing an opportunity to embarrass Old Hickory, courted Crockett and put him up for election in 1833; an election he won.
His fame became national with the stage production of The Lion of the West, whose main character was based on Crockett, and through bestselling (unauthorized and romanticized) biographies. The perpetually cash strapped Crockett sniffed a windfall in book royalties, so he wrote an authorized biography. The book was an immediate triumph. However, the windfall never materialized; royalties either vanished like the wind or blew into other pockets due to pirated editions.
With a man whose fame now rivaled that of Jackson, the Whigs toyed with the idea of putting Crockett up as their standard bearer in the 1836 presidential contest. All he need do was win reelection in 1835. Before the election he spoke out against Jackson and his handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren. “I have sworn for the last four years that if Van Buren is our next president I will leave the United States,” he declared. “I will not live under his kingdom.” Then with a dramatic flourish, he concluded: “I will go to the wilds of Texas. I will consider that government a paradise to what this will be.”
The Democrats selected Adam Huntsman to challenge Crockett in the 1835 contest. Huntsman won—“The great Hunter . . . has been beaten by a Huntsman.” The presidential bid for 1836 vanish just as quickly as his royalties. And Crockett was as good as his word. By the end of October 1835 he was riding west, Texas in his sight. He crossed the Sabine and rode into Nacogdoches in early January 1836. At a dinner hosted in his honor he said,
I am told, gentlemen, that when a stranger like myself arrives among you, the first inquiry is, what brought him here. To satisfy your curiosity at once as to myself, I will tell you all about it. I was, for some years, a member of Congress. In my last canvass, I told the people of my district that if they saw fit to reelect me, I would serve them as faithfully as I had done before. But, if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas.
At the same time, Crockett and fifty-three other Texas newcomers crowded into John Forbes’s Nacogdoches law office. The provisional government had appointed Forbes as a judge. He was responsible for administering the oath of allegiance—that he wrote himself—to volunteers from the United States who had come to fight for Texas. Since Texas hadn’t yet declared independence, the oath was something of a make-do statement; though it does pledge signees to a Texcentric authority.
I do solemnly swear that I will bear true allegiance to the provisional government of Texas, or any future government that many be hereafter declared, and that I will serve her honestly and faithfully against all her enemies and oppressors whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the governor of Texas, the orders and decrees of the present and future authorities, and the orders of the officers appointed over me according to the rules and articles for the government of Texas so help me God.
All but one stepped forward to sign Forbes’s document. Crockett hesitated. He was concerned by the statement of loyalty to “the provisional government of Texas, or any future government.” A future government could entail a tyrannical one, like the one currently in existence under Santa Anna. Crockett insisted that the phrase be altered to read, “any future republican government.” Forbes agreed and Crockett signed, making him a soldier in the cause of Texas, to be paid with 640 acres of fine Texas land.
The land no doubt was an inducement to the debt-ridden Crockett, but so was the likelihood of a political office. To his children he wrote, “[Texas] is the garden spot of the world. The best land and the best prospects for health I ever saw, and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here. There is a world of country here to settle.” He also included this note in the same letter: “All volunteers [are] entitled to vote for a member of the convention or to be voted for, and I have but little doubt of being elected a member to form a constitution for this province.”
Crockett and an entourage of twelve dudded the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers, so named in his honor, rode south and west out of Nacogdoches sometime in mid to late January. He took his time and looked over the land and engaged in some politicking. He spent time at the Swisher farm outside San Felipe, where he (probably) first learned about the Alamo. He arrived in San Antonio on February 8, 1836.
Cheers greeted the famous frontiersman and congressman. In Main Plaza the crowd clamored for a speech. Standing on an over turned box Crockett regaled the crowd with stories he had told time and again on the campaign trail in Tennessee, eliciting hoots and laughter. He gave them the same speech he gave in Nacogdoches—“they might go to hell, and I will go to Texas,” which brought more whoops and applause. He concluded: “And fellow citizens, I am among you. I have come to your country, though not, I hope, though any selfish motive whatever. I have come to aid you all that I can in your noble cause. I shall identify myself with your interests, and all the honor that I desire is that of defending as a high private, in common with my fellow-citizens, the liberties of our common country.”
Crockett was forty-nine. He had a month left to live.
As Stephen Harrigan writes in Big Wonderful Thing, “Like so many others, like Travis and Bowie and Houston, [Crockett] had outlasted his prospects in the States.” Each of these men—Travis, Bowie, and Houston—struck the tents of their earlier lives to pitch new tents in Texas, as Texians. So did Crockett.
In Nacogdoches, Crockett pledged his rifle and his life to the interests of Texas. If she was successful in either reestablishing the Constitution of 1824 or in gaining her independence—and if Crockett lived through whatever lay in store—he would become a Texas landowner, and, he hoped, a leading political figure. He reaffirmed this pledge in his San Antonio speech. He addressed his Texian audience as “fellow-citizens” and called Texas “our common country.” That, my Tennessee friends, makes David Crockett a Texian, no longer a Tennessean. A Texian “defending . . . in common with . . . fellow-citizens, the liberties” of Texas.