It’s a sunny spring afternoon in 1799 in rural Tennessee.
In a shady meadow by a babbling creek, 13-year-old Davy Crockett throws stones at beer bottles. Davy picks up a pebble and squints toward his target, balanced on a tree stump twenty-five feet away. He takes careful aim, draws back his arm, and lets fly; another direct hit!
Davy grins and goes to try and find another rock, savoring the joy of truancy.
Last month, Davy got into a fight with a classmate. That boy came off worse, walking away with a black eye and a split lip. Davy feared he’d receive a whipping from the schoolmaster if he returned to class, so he skipped school that day and has been playing hooky ever since.
As Davy lands another hit on a beer bottle, he notices long shadows forming across the meadow. He glances up at the sky and sees the sun sinking behind the hills to the west. Startled, Davy realizes it’s getting late. School will be out soon, and he doesn’t want his father to suspect he’s been skipping. So, Davy grabs his knapsack and sets off toward home.
After a short walk through the woods, Davy arrives at the Crockett family homestead. But as he approaches the humble log cabin… the door flies open. Davy’s father storms out onto the porch, his face contorted with rage. In his clenched fist, he holds a letter from the schoolmaster, inquiring about Davy’s poor attendance. Davy's father spits angrily: “You skiving dog! I paid good money for your schooling, Davy, and this is how you show gratitude?”
He then grabs a stick with which to beat his disobedient son. But Davy has other ideas. He turns and scampers off, running into the woods until the only footsteps Davy can hear are his own.
Rather than face punishment from his father, Davy will choose not to return home for three years. He will spend that time working odd jobs in the mountains of Tennessee and Virginia, learning how to hunt and survive in the wilderness. As Davy gets older, his life will continue down this adventurous path. He will serve in the military before running for political office, entering the House of Representatives in 1827.
But Davy’s stint in Washington DC will not tame his wilder impulses. When a revolution breaks out in Texas, Davy will return to his adventure-seeking ways, leading a band of thirty men to help the Texans fight for their independence from Mexico. But this feat will prove his final act, as the iconic frontiersman will be shot and killed during the famous siege of the Alamo - a fate set in stone following Davy Crockett’s arrival in Texas on January 5th, 1836.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is January 5th, 1836: Davy Crocket Volunteers in the Texas Revolution.
Act One: The Creek War
It’s September 24th, 1813, inside a ramshackle farmhouse in Tennessee; twenty-three years before Davy Crockett will join the Texas Revolution.
Davy, now a strapping young man of twenty-seven, sits at his kitchen table trying to comfort his crying wife, Polly. Moments ago, Davy broke the news that he intends to enlist in the Tennessee Militia. Polly begs her husband to stay at home. But Davy explains that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter; duty compels him to fight.
Recently, Davy learned about an atrocity that has sent shockwaves through the American territories. Last month, a band of seven hundred Native American warriors ambushed a U.S. military garrison in Alabama, slaughtering soldiers and civilian settlers alike. This massacre was the Creek Nation warriors’ retribution for white settlers forcing them off their ancestral lands. But few settlers have any sympathy for the Natives. Like Davy, thousands of men across the southeastern states have resolved to sign up and retaliate against what they perceive as unprovoked Indian aggression.
And so, with Polly’s tearful cries ringing in his ears, Davy shoulders his pack and strides out of his home. When he reaches the end of the road, he turns and looks back. Polly stands on the stoop, their three young children wailing at her feet. Davy tries to ignore the guilty feeling in the pit of stomach; he turns and walks away.
Soon, Davy reaches the nearby town of Winchester, where he enlists in the Tennessee Volunteer Mounted Riflemen. After being supplied with a uniform, a musket, and a horse, Davy and his company embark on the long journey south to Huntsville, Alabama.
As Davy rides alongside his fellow volunteers, he feels the rush of excitement that he hasn’t experienced since childhood. The truth is, Davy enlisted in the military partlyto avenge the deaths of those slaughtered in Alabama – but there isanother reason he signed up. Davy has grown bored of domestic life on the farm. He craves adventure, and joining the army seemed like the best way to get it.
After two days of marching, the town of Huntsville appears up ahead. The recent arrival of several militia companies has swelled the size of the small, unassuming settlement. A sprawl of canvas tents stretches along the banks of the Tennessee River. Smoke from soldiers’ campfires drifts above the rooftops, and the neverending infantry convoys run like streams through the surrounding hills.
Davy stops to take in the impressive spectacle. Then, he and his fellow recruits establish their own camp in town. There, they await instruction from the commander of the Tennessee Militia, Major General Andrew Jackson. While they wait, one of Jackson’s deputies, Colonel John Coffee, decides to send out a party to scout the surrounding woods. The Colonel needs a volunteer - the services of a skilled hunter and outdoorsman. And immediately, Davy Crockett's captain volunteers him. Davy’s impressive knowledge of the wilderness has already become a well-known fact among his regiment. His teenage years working on wagon trains in the mountains have furnished him with the practical skills needed to survive in the wild.
And with Davy pointing out the safest route, the scouting party navigates the dense woods and rolling hills of northern Alabama. Soon, they enter the territory of the Creek Nation Indians. They scour the area for several days, but they find nothing to report back to Colonel Coffee. They are just about to turn around and return to Huntsville when Davy spots movement nearby. He signals for the party to be quiet. And moments later, a band of Creek Nation warriors gallops through the forest, heading north.
Davy and the scouting party hustle back to Huntsville, where they warn Colonel Coffee of the Indian advance. The Colonel sends an urgent letter to Major General Andrew Jackson, calling for him to hurry south with his infantry. Jackson does and reaches Huntsville in late October. Shortly after his arrival, Jackson orders an attack on the nearby village of Tallushatchee, where the large Indian garrison is rumored to be based.
On November 3rd, 1813, Davy Crockett rides out to Tallushatchee alongside a force of 900 infantry soldiers. Bathed in the pale blue light of dawn, the soldiers surround the sleeping settlement. Davy’s heart pounds as he takes aim with his rifle. And then, at the Colonel’s signal, the US soldiers open fire.
The Natives don’t have time to prepare defenses. They run out into the open, disoriented and panicked. And as Davy will later write in his memoir, the US soldiers “shot them like dogs.” The Battle of Tallushatchee soon devolves into a brutal massacre. When a group of indigenous civilians take shelter inside a wooden cabin, the US soldiers set the building ablaze. The smell of burning flesh stings Davy’s nostrils, and the screams of the dying fill the morning air. By the time the smoke clears, around 250 indigenous warriors and civilians are dead.
The shocking scenes at Tallushatchee will horrify Davy Crockett, who will decide that he simply isn’t cut out for combat. The soldiers’ treatment of the Creek Indians will long trouble the young man, and lead him to advocate for a more humane approach by the US government toward indigenous rights. And with this shift, Davy will soon leave the military altogether, deciding that his future lies not on the battlefield, but in the arena of politics.
Act Two: Hell or Texas
It’s late December 1827 in the state of Virginia; fourteen years after Davy Crockett fought against the Creek Nation Indians.
The now forty-one-year-old Davy sits astride his horse, riding eastward. It’s a bitterly cold winter’s day. The ground is covered by a blanket of snow, and Davy shivers despite his bear-fur coat and coonskin cap. But he doesn’t have to weather the cold much longer. Up ahead, as silent and still, as the frozen surface of the Potomac River, is Davy’s destination – the place that was chosen, just over thirty years ago, to serve as this nation’s capital: Washington D.C.
The town is unlike any Davy has ever seen. The streets are broad and the houses are spread out, with vast tracts of land between them. Certain buildings dominate the patchwork skyline, and one is a grand white house, three stories high and decorated with soaring columns. Another is a sprawling domed building, reminiscent of the temples of classical antiquity. But the whole place seems unfinished, incomplete, as much a work in progress as the nation itself.
Davy rides into town and tethers his horse alongside a boarding house. There, he steps inside and warms himself by the fire. A few moments later, the landlady bustles in and looks askance at the scruffy, unshaven new arrival. She asks Davy what business he has here in Washington. Davy replies that he’s come to attend this year’s first session of the House of Representatives. The landlady cocks her head to one side, skeptical. Davy flashes a wry smile understanding the landlady’s surprise. He doesn’t exactly look like the typical Congressman. But Davy is already years deep into his political career.
After leaving the military, Davy decided to try his hand at state politics. He was elected to the General Assembly of Tennessee and spent the next few years trying to ease the tax burdens on the poor, championing the rights of impoverished farmers, and trying to steer the state's legislative agenda. But soon it became clear to Davy that truechange happened at a federal level, in the hallowed halls of the nation’s capital.
So two years ago, Davy ran for a seat in the House of Representatives. His first campaign ended in defeat. But Davy was not discouraged. The following year, he tried again. And this time, he successfully defeated his opponents for the 1827 Congressional term, which is now about to begin.
A few days after his arrival in Washington, Davy rides out to Capitol Hill with his fellow representatives, full of eager anticipation. As he enters the chamber’s grand hall, bedecked in ornamental bronzes and marble statues, Davy spares a thought for the log cabin in Tennessee where he grew up and marvels on how far he’s come.
And now that he's here, Davy throws himself into life in Washington. He becomes an active and outspoken member of the House arguing relentlessly for the rights of working people in his state. He opposes any bill that seeks to advance the interests of the rich at the expense of ordinary folk. As a result, Davy becomes a polarizing figure in American politics. Many admire his integrity but others grumble about the brash Tennessean with his unkempt appearance and hardline opinions.
But Davy doesn’t let the naysayers stop him. After being re-elected in 1829, he introduces a resolution to abolish the military academy at West Point, arguing that the institution only serves the sons of wealthy men. The resolution is defeated, but Davy continues to stand up for the poor and dispossessed.
And when President Andrew Jackson, Davy's former commander in Alabama, puts forward a bill to forcibly remove Native Americans from land east of the Mississippi, Davy vehemently opposes it. Ever since witnessing the US troops’ brutal treatment of the Creek Indians years ago, Davy has become an advocate for Native American land rights. But his opposition to Jackson’s bill alienates him from many voters in Tennessee, who support the President’s proposed Indian Removal Act. And having lost the support of his own constituents, Davy’s bid for re-election in 1831 ends in failure. He briefly returns to Congress for the 1833 term, but shortly after, Davy’s career in Washington runs out of steam.
But his political decline doesn’t bother Davy too much. After eight years in Washington, Davy is ready for a change of scenery. And he knows exactly where to go next. For months, tensions between the ruling Mexican government and the American settlers in Texas have been building toward an armed revolution. Now, Davy is ready to join the Texans’ fight for independence.
So following his final departure from the House, Davy will give the press an account of his election defeat, stating: “I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done, but if not… they might go to Hell, and I would go to Texas.”
Act Three: To the Alamo
It’s early November 1836 in Jackson, Tennessee; one year after Davy Crockett left Washington.
Davy stands on the steps of the Madison County courthouse, preparing to address a large, excitable crowd. Davy’s bright eyes flash charismatically from beneath his trademark coonskin cap. He removes his rifle from his shoulder and brandishes the weapon as he launches into a stirring speech about the brave settlers in Texas and their fight for independence against the government of Mexico.
By now, Davy Crockett has become something of a celebrity. Word of his brilliant oratorical skill has spread through the nation, and his resolution to bring aid to the Texan revolutionaries has inspired many intrepid young men to join him. By the time Davy leaves Jackson Tennessee, he rides at the vanguard of thirty armed men, all eager to fight by his side.
On January 5th, they arrive at the town of Nacogdoches in East Texas. Davy dismounts and tells his men to rest; they will need their energy for the fighting ahead.
But while his men snore peacefully, Davy lies awake, his limbs aching from the long journey. Davy is almost fifty years old now. His zeal and spirit remain as bright as they ever were, but Davy is no longer a young man. He thinks that maybe after this venture, it will be time to return to Tennessee and settle down again. But, for now, he focuses on the fight ahead.
A few days later, Davy and his company reach the town of San Augustine, where they sign an oath to fight on behalf of the Provisional Government of Texas. After remaining camped there for several days, Davy and his troops join a garrison of American soldiers stationed at a Catholic church mission in San Antonio called the Alamo.
On February 23rd, a large Mexican force arrive outside the garrison. They lay siege to the Alamo, bombarding the mission for thirteen days straight. From behind the crumbling walls of the chapel, Davy makes a heroic last stand. And when he runs out of ammunition, he discards the rifle and takes out his hunting knife. He slashes at the waves of Mexican attackers. But there are too many. Ultimately, despite the bravery of Davy and his fellow soldiers, the Battle of the Alamo ends in defeat. And by the time the gunsmoke clears, the mission’s American defenders lie dead in the rubble - Davy Crockett among them.
Following his death, Davy’s legend will grow. Books, movies, and songs will be written about his life, idealizing Davy as the “King of the Wild Frontier,” the quintessential American folk hero. Historians will later cast doubt over the circumstances of Davy’s death, suggesting that he may have surrendered to the Mexicans and then been executed. But what remains undeniable is that Davy Crockett lived an extraordinary life of service, cut short only by his violent demise after his arrival in Texas on January 5th, 1836.
Next onHistory Daily. January 6th, 1994: US figure skating champion Nancy Kerrigan is assaulted by an accomplice of rival skater, Tonya Harding, at the US Championships.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.