I first encountered the quietly-humorous David version of the Old Betsy-swinging “King of the Wild Frontier” in Stephen Harrigan’s historical novel Gates of the Alamo. The militia colonel’s respectability was intriguing. Later I saw it improved upon in William C. Davis’ history Three Roads to the Alamo.
This new, voluminous history book, with its collected letters, selected campaign material, and congressional play-by-play, by James R. Boylston and Allen J. Wiener, leaves no doubt that the bar-killin’ Davy caricature (though Crockett did like to hunt bears and often must to feed his family) was more a creation of his political enemies, a popular satirical play, and an unauthorized and untruthful biography, than his true reputation among his peers.
His letters, despite the misspellings which seem illiterate to us but were common enough even among the educated in his day, make plain his yearning for respectability. And his enduring determination to help the poor of his district, though he seldom was able to. When he did make use of his Davy persona, it was little more than good campaign or business sense, or self-deprecating humor. Though he was ever in debt, he clearly preferred broadcloth to buckskin.
It seems clear to me now that it was less about Davy swinging Old Betsy than his disciplined militia fighting under General Jackson in the Creek War–years before his Tennessee and congressional political careers–that brought Colonel Crockett to the Alamo, and his steady, and oft-written affection for the common American which kept him there unto the death. It doesn’t diminish the Alamo hero at all to discover he was a skilled and progressive politician. It enlarges him.