“Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee….”
Mountaintop? You won’t find a mountaintop here. For decades I’ve been singing that song, and now I find out that it should be riverbank, not mountaintop. Next thing you know, somebody will tell me that Davy Crockett didn’t kill a b’ar when he was only three.
No matter. This being the 225th anniversary of David Crockett’s birth and the 175th anniversary of his death at the Alamo, a Davy road trip is in order. Here’s where it all began.
Greenest State in the Land of the Free
I’m at Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park in Limestone, Tennessee. Here on August 17, 1786, Davy was born, Rebecca Hawkins Crockett’s fifth son in six years. Five kids in six years? We should be singing a song about Davy’s mom! Dedicated in 1958, the park contains a replica cabin, but folks swear that the engraved footstone out front is the original.
A nearby museum contains exhibits that tell of Davy’s life, but, this being the South, it’s closed for lunch. So I can’t ask them if that stone is really legit, or if Davy learned to swim in the Nolichucky River or in the park’s gated, cement swimming pool.
Besides, I need to get down to Morristown. In 1794, Davy’s father, John, moved the family to Jefferson County; two years later, he opened a tavern on the road from Abingdon, Virginia, to Knoxville, Tennessee. Running a bar? We should be singing a song about Davy’s dad!
Welcome to the Crockett Tavern Museum, which opened in 1958. (Notice a trend here? Davy parks and museums start opening shortly after Fess Parker starred as Davy in the hit Disney TV show!)
The reconstructed tavern includes period furnishings. Alas, there’s no Madeira or rum, so let’s hit the road.
One of the best places to learn about frontier history is the Museum of East Tennessee History in downtown Knoxville. The collection houses more than just Davy’s rifle. “Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee” is an excellent exhibit that focuses on the history, and people—from Davy to Dolly Parton—who have contributed to the region’s lore.
By 1813, Davy had joined up to scout for Andrew Jackson’s forces in the First Creek War. I could head south, but I’ve never found decent barbecue in Mississippi or Alabama. Instead, I’ll drive to Nashville and take in the Hermitage, Old Hickory’s home. It’s a lot nicer than any of Davy’s digs, but my third-grade son is no fan of Andy. He prefers Davy (or, at least, Fess Parker’s Davy). “Jackson had slaves and was mean to the Cherokees,” Jack tells me as we sweat our way out of the Hermitage.
Davy would be a Jackson man, and he would follow Old Hickory into politics. Davy was elected to the Tennessee state legislature in 1821 and into Congress in 1826. Jackson would serve two terms as president. Although a Jackson man, Davy strongly opposed the president’s Indian Removal policy.
“It was expected of me that I was
to bow to the name of Andrew Jackson,” Davy said, “and follow him in all his motions, and windings, and turnings, even at the expense of my consciences and judgment. Such a thing was new to me, and a total stranger to my principles.”
Which likely cost Davy re-election. Old Hickory was no one to trifle with.
Andy Jackson might have got a fancy house near Nashville and his portrait on the $20 bill, but Davy got a statue in Lawrenceburg. Davy was in Lawrence County by 1817, serving as town commissioner, justice of the peace (relying, he said, on “natural born sense, and not on law”) and state representative while here. On Shoal Creek, he established a powder mill, grist mill and distillery, but lost all three in an 1821 flood. Davy also became “colonel” here after he was elected lieutenant colonel of the local militia.
Lawrenceburg celebrates Davy. David Crockett State Park along Shoal Creek was established in May 1959. In 1922—long before Fess Parker immortalized coonskin caps—a Davy Crockett statue was erected on the town square. “Be sure you are right,” the north-side inscription reads, “then go ahead.”
I’m going ahead to Memphis, where I’ve never found bad barbecue.
Sure, about the only thing I can find related to Davy in Memphis these days is a golf course (and I don’t play golf). But it was here that his friend Marcus Winchester helped get Davy elected to Congress. And it was from here, after losing re-election and telling voters to go to hell, he left for Texas.
More than Razorbacks in Arkansas
To get to Texas, you had to get through Arkansas. Crockett and his companions crossed the Mississippi River by ferry, arriving in Little Rock on November 12, 1835. Had Cotham’s Mercantile been around then (it opened in 1917 on the outskirts of Little Rock), they might have stayed. The Hubcap Burger is that good.
While in Little Rock, stop in at the Historic Arkansas Museum, which has six history and art galleries. You can learn all about Jim Bowie’s namesake knife, and, yes, you can pick up a coonskin cap (alas, in children’s sizes only).
Davy probably stopped at Washington, Arkansas, on his way to Texas. After all, Sam Houston and Jim Bowie did. The town, founded on George Washington’s birthday in 1824, is a state park and a National Historic Landmark today. Visitors can have lunch at Williams’ Tavern Restaurant, circa 1832, and get an education at the Texarkana College/Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing. It’s shady, pretty, but in August, it’s hot and humid.
Texas Side Trips
We’re in Texas at last. So take a detour. In Dallas, check out artist William Henry Huddle’s 1889 preparatory oil-on-masonite, Davy Crockett, at the Dallas Museum of Art. Then head to the Texas Hall of State Museum at Fair Park. Davy’s not in the Hall of Heroes (James Fannin, Sam Houston and William Travis are), but he is depicted on the mural in the Great Hall.
Next, drive southwest to Acton, about five miles from Granbury, and visit Acton State Historic Site. The towering monument marks the grave of Davy’s second wife, Elizabeth, who died in 1860. The state gave Davy’s widow 320 acres, and in the mid-1850s, Elizabeth and two sons settled there. She was buried in the Acton Cemetery, and in 1911 the state placed the monument over her grave. The site envelopes a whopping .006 acres, making it the smallest state park in Texas.
Wow. This state usually brags about how big everything is here.
Now … back to Davy.
Ancient Pine Trees, Old History
Davy explored much of East Texas and its Piney Woods—the “Garden spot of the world,” he wrote—doing some speechifying in Big Prairie, Clarksville, San Augustine and Nacogdoches. On January 12, 1836, Davy volunteered in Nacogdoches to serve in the Volunteer Auxiliary Corps of Texas for six months.
Nacogdoches bills itself as the oldest town in Texas. Don Antonio Gil Y’Barbo built what became known as the Old Stone Fort (pssst … it was never a fort) between 1788 and 1791. The building was shamefully torn down in 1902, but a replica went up in 1936. Now a museum on the Stephen F. Austin State University campus, it’s a great place to learn about early Texas. So are the Sterne-Hoya Museum, built in 1830, and Millard’s Crossing Historic Village’s replica buildings from the 1830s to the early 1900s.
It’s a tough town to leave. But Davy left Nacogdoches and headed for San Antonio. So must I.
I stop in Crockett. On West Goliad Street, Davy Crockett Spring includes a mural and replica cabin. Davy is said to have camped here, and the mural illustrates Davy’s reunion with old Tennessee pal Andrew Gossett. Gossett and his father, who would both fight at San Jacinto, would name the town after Davy.
Before heading to San Antonio, take another detour to Ozona. Davy didn’t just get a town named after him. In 1875, Crockett County was formed, and in 1938, a statue of Davy was erected on the town square. Yep, that’s the same Davy quote at the bottom: “Be sure you are right, then go ahead.” Davy never lived here, but the city will hold the David Crockett Festival, a fund-raiser for the Ozona Community Center, on October 1.
13 Days of Glory
But I can’t put off San Antonio any longer.
I’m staying at the magnificent Crockett Hotel, which was built in 1909, with the west wing added in 1927. A 2007 renovation restored the hotel to pure delicacy. It’s walking distance to the Alamo, where Davy’s lodgings weren’t quite so luxurious.
Sometime in early February 1836, Davy arrived at the Alamo. Jim Bowie was already there. Sam Houston wanted them to blow it up. Bowie wrote that “we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy.”
And, on March 6, 1836, that’s what happened. There’s no point in repeating history here. You know the story. If not, you can relive it by watching Alamo: The Price of Freedom at the IMAX theatre at the Rivercenter Mall. But you must visit the Alamo.
The Alamo is a shrine. More than 2.5 million people visit here every year. I’m here in the afternoon, and tourists are storming inside. I’m here late at night, and visitors walk past that famous facade (which didn’t exist in 1836) with reverence, respect and awe. Nearby on the River Walk, tourists and locals are boisterous, downright rowdy. But not here.
The Alamo will always command respect. And so will Davy Crockett. It’s like Paul Andrew Hutton once wrote: “He is that rarest of American icons: a legendary hero who turns out, after all, to have been more or less a decent, admirable human being.”
Good Eats and sleeps
• Grub: Brass Lantern (Lawrenceburg, TN); Cotham’s Mercantile and Restaurant (Scott, AR); The Place at Perry’s (Dallas, TX; above, see “Shrimp and Grits” dish); Nacogdoches Seafood Restaurant (Nacogdoches, TX); Casa Rio Mexican Food Restaurant (San Antonio, TX).
• Lodging: Crowne Plaza Knoxville (Knoxville, TN); Days Inn Graceland (Memphis, TN); Stoneleigh Hotel & Spa (Dallas, TX); La Quinta Inn (Nacogdoches, TX); Crockett Hotel (San Antonio, TX).