Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier

Born on the mountaintop in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the Land of the Free.
Raised in the woods, so’s he knew every tree.
Killed him a b’ar when he was only three!
Davy! Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier!

When it comes to Frontierland, it’s impossible to work on the land without giving some time and noddage to Davy Crockett. Not the Alamo hero, because that’s just one aspect of this heroic character (whose name blankets Texas streets and other landmarks), but to the portrayal by Fess Parker that serves as the most potent mythic version of Crockett to grace the modern century.

The Davy Crockett Adventures were originally broadcast on the Disneyland television show, one per month, beginning in December 1954 and ending in February 1955. There are three episodes in the trilogy: “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter,” “Davy Crockett goes to Congress,” and “Davy Crockett at the Alamo.” Each installment addresses a different theme relevant to the heroism of the character. When we first meet Crockett, he is a settler who volunteers for the American army against the Creek Nation to make settlements safe for “red and white” alike. His goal is never to force the Native Americans off their land, but to find a way for both groups to co-exist. He believes in the treaties between the two nations, and upholds them with liberal nobility. Crockett is the mediator between two groups, and this can be read in two ways. One way I’m going to keep to myself right now because it’s a component of the dissertation, but the other way is the embrace of diversity that only Disney movies were fully conveying at the time. The Land is the issue; it’s the common cause we all share. It’s not worth fighting and dying over when there is a much better alternative: sharing.

He went off to Congress and served a spell,
Fixin’ up the government and the laws as well.
Took over Washington, so we heard tell,
And patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell.
Davy! Davy Crockett, seein’ his duty clear!

File:David Crockett.jpgThe next time we meet Crockett, he gets pulled into politics as a champion of the Western settlers (who, at this point, had not yet crossed too far over the Mississippi). He goes to Washington as Tennessee’s Representative and it’s really like Mr. Smith goes to Washington. Being an honest man, he does not fully recognize the games that politicians play, and is caught off guard when he finds out that he was sent on a “Goodwill Tour” of the states so Congress could try to pass the “Indian Bill” without his involvement. This bill, being pushed by then president Andrew Jackson, would put Manifest Destiny into play, and give force to the Westward Expansion. Crockett, himself a settler, does not have any opposition to the idea of moving West, but he is opposed to the idea of moving West if it is going to harm the locals who already live there. He makes a comment early in this episode before he is sent to Washington that the country is getting “mighty civilized,” and he says this with sorrow in his voice. The mid-1950s were the heyday of Westerns, but Crockett in this one line acknowledges the future of America, the one the Walt Disney inherited, of a fully civilized America, from sea to shining sea, getting ever smaller with the Eisenhower interstate system. What makes America great, Crockett seems to be telling us, is the Land. It’s America, not the people who live on it.

So then, there’s the last installment. The Alamo.

He heard of  Houston, and Austin, and so
To the Texas plains he just had to go –
Where freedom was fighting another foe –
and they needed him at the Alamo!
Davy! Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.

I’ve never really understood why Crockett worked his way to the Alamo, but after his disillusionment with Congress, he packed it up and headed to Texas. There’s a famous quote attributed to him (and one of my favorite ever): “You may all go to Hell and I will go to Texas!” The US was split when it came to Texas. Settlers had moved there as part of the Westward expansion, but Santa Ana sought to reclaim the land for Mexico. Gaining Texas would not be as easy as the Louisiana Purchase – the only way to do so was going to be to fight for it. Yet, oddly enough, no one really wanted to fight for it except the people who were already there. The Alamo is a mission in San Antonio, and it held out against Santa Ana for an impressive amount of time, especially considering that the Texans were outnumbered and lacking sufficient supply. It was a diversion. The real power of the war for Independence was General Sam Houston, and he needed time to build up an army. So Crockett and team stalled Santa Ana’s army in what is recognized as a major turning point in this war (and a major component in the state’s identity). Most people know to “Remember the Alamo!” We lost Crockett there. I never hear “Remember San Jacinto!” when Houston actually defeated Santa Ana. But Sam Houston isn’t a hero like Crockett. He never received the Disney treatment. And he certainly was never dubbed the King of the Wild Frontier.

To be the King of the Wild Frontier is no small task. A core component of our cultural psyche (collective unconscious?) is represented by the plains of the Wild Frontier. Many settlers were the “kings” and “queens” of the frontier. So there is something very liberal in the canonization of Crockett, and I think that it was his lack of fear coupled with his intent to always be right about a cause before getting involved with it. Which makes a lot of sense. He’d be my hero too if I was raised to believe that my school desk would actually protect me from nuclear attack. But I think this is also why Jack Sparrow is so potent today. It’s not the frontier he’s going after; it’s the sea, and all she represents.

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