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Saturday, March 2, 2002

The life, legend of Davy Crockett

By Michael Barnes
Cox News Service

AUSTIN — Today — Texas Independence Day — a new exhibit opens at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum to celebrate and illuminate Davy Crockett — his life, legend and legacy. Before you go see the collection of artifacts and observations, you might want to prep with this quiz about the man with the funny hat who died along with William B. Travis and others, at the Alamo in 1836. Information for the answers was supplied by Heather Brand, public relations director at the museum, and was drawn from the exhibit.

Q: What would Crockett do if you yelled “Davy” at night in the woods?

A: Probably shoot you. Crockett was known as “David” during his lifetime. The nickname “Davy” was popularized in the more than 50 comic almanacs published under his name between 1835 and 1856. These almanacs depicted Davy as a larger-than-life character, wading through the Mississippi River, wringing the tail off a comet and riding a streak of lightning across the sky.

Q: When did Crockett acquire his coonskin cap?

A: While Crockett was noted to have worn a fur cap on several occasions, there is no record of the cap being made of coonskin. In the 1831 play The Lion of the West, the leading character of Colonel Nimrod Wildfire (a parody of Crockett) wore buckskins and a wildcat skin cap. The first drawing of Crockett wearing a fur cap appeared on the cover of the 1837 Davy Crockett Almanack and it was also a wildcat skin cap. However, this image was derived from The Lion of the West. Most likely, the cap that Crockett wore in real life was not made from wildcat, but from raccoon or fox, which were common on the frontier at the time. In 1954-55, native Texan Fess Parker portrayed a coonskin-cap-wearing Crockett in the Disneyland Crockett trilogy on ABC-TV. In one year, more than $100 million worth of coonskin caps and other Crockett merchandise was sold. At the height of the fad in the summer of 1955, coonskin caps sold upward of 5,000 a day. Coonskins, which had cost 25 cents a pound, rose to $8 a pound. A shortage in coonskins caused furriers to resort to muskrat, rabbit and fox skins to produce the caps.

Q: What was Crockett doing in Texas?

A: After losing the congressional election in his home state of Tennessee in 1835, David Crockett told his constituents, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” He then traveled to Nacogdoches, where he swore an oath of allegiance in early January of 1836 “to the provisional Government of Texas, or any future republican Government that may be hereafter declared.” Crockett insisted on inserting the word “republican” in the oath, fearing a dictatorship.

Q: How did Crockett die at the Alamo?

A: The facts surrounding the death of David Crockett at the Alamo have long been disputed. In 1998, UT’s Center for American History acquired the authentic manuscript of Mexican army officer Jose Enrique de la Pena, donated by two former alumni, Charles W. Tate and Thomas O. Hicks, who purchased it at auction for almost $400,000. The manuscript was written in the years after the Texas Revolution, and relates de la Pena’s version of the events of the Mexican campaign of 1836 in Texas. The 684-page narrative describes the siege and storming of the Alamo and the death of David Crockett, claiming that he was among seven men who were captured and executed: “Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.”

Q: Why is a Texas town named after Crockett?

A: The town of Crockett in East Texas is one of the oldest towns in the state. The town was named for Crockett in 1837. According to local legend, David Crockett camped at a nearby spring while traveling from Nacogdoches to San Antonio to fight in the Texas Revolution. He was nearly hanged by a posse hunting a band of horse thieves, but he convinced them of his identity and was spared. Today, the campsite is preserved, but Crockett Spring, as it is now known, has been converted into a drinking fountain.

Q: How did Crockett become a pop icon of the mid-20th century?

A: The Ballad of Davy Crockett premiered on the first episode of the ABC television show, Disneyland on Oct. 27, 1954, to help advertise the upcoming Crockett trilogy and to fill extra running time. The song, which went on to sales of 10 million copies, was written as an afterthought in about 20 minutes by George Bruns, Disney’s head songwriter and composer, and Crockett script writer Tom Blackburn, who had never written a song before. In 1955, The Ballad of Davy Crockett became the fastest-selling recording up to that time. It later was recorded by Bill Hayes and spent five weeks at No. 1 on the charts. Fess Parker, who never sang professionally before, also recorded a version of the song that sold a million copies. All told, 41 separate recordings were made of the 20-verse song, with some versions including nine additional verses. Doug Sahm, the late Austin troubadour, even did a version of the song for his S.D.Q. ’98 album four years ago.

In the words of David Crockett: Texas is “the garden spot of the world.”

“I am rejoiced at my fate. ... I am among friends.”

“Be always sure you’re right — then go ahead!”

Q: We know what the Alamo looks like today. How did it appear when Crockett died there in 1836?

A: An 1849 daguerreotype of the Alamo chapel in San Antonio is the earliest known photograph taken in Texas and the only existing photograph of the Alamo made prior to its reconstruction in 1850. The image, which was given to the Center for American History at the University of Texas in 1993 by Gov. and Mrs. Dolph Briscoe, was taken only 13 years after the famous battle and shows the damage done to the building during the 13-day siege. On Feb. 25, 1836, Col. William Barret Travis drafted a report to Gen.Sam Houston from the Alamo stating that “. . . the Hon. David Crockett was seen at all points, animating the men to do their duty.” The people of San Antonio even believed that Crockett was the first to kill a Mexican soldier with a 200-yard shot from his long rifle.

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