BOOK REVIEW: 'David Crockett: The Lion of the West': Michael Wallis Tries to Separate Legend from Fact About a Man Who Never Used the Nickname 'Davy'

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'David Crockett: The Lion of the West': Michael Wallis Tries to Separate Legend from Fact About a Man Who Never Used the Nickname 'Davy'
You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott? 
 No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
  -- Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart) to Maxwell Scott in the 1962 movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

* * *

I leave this rule for others when I'm dead: 
Be always sure you're right --THEN GO AHEAD!
 -- David Crockett

* * *

David Crockett spent less than three months -- his final three months -- in Texas, yet this period in his adventure-filled life is the one most people remember, especially his death at the Alamo on March 6, 1836,  says Michael Wallis in his intriguing biography, "David Crockett: The Lion of the West" (W.W. Norton, 380 pages, photographs and maps, $27.95).

He wasn't, in the words of the 1950s song "Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee," writes prolific author Wallis, who voiced the sheriff in the animated feature "Cars." Rather, he was born alongside a river in Franklin, now part of northeastern Tennessee, but in 1786 when Crockett was born, an independent state that had seceded from North Carolina. It existed from 1785 to 1789 when it was absorbed by Tennessee, failing in an attempt to become the 14th state and existing briefly as an independent republic.  To this day in towns like Johnson City and Greeneville, TN, you'll see signs on banks and other businesses paying tribute to  its former independence.
Michael Wallis
Michael Wallis

Franklin was an appropriate place for the Scots-Irish Crockett to be born. It was a fiercely independent region of Appalachia -- itself a fiercely independent region of the new country -- which was largely settled by people with the same ethic background as Crockett. He killed plenty of bears and other game, but he didn't "kilt him a b'ar"  when he was three years old, as the song goes.

He was a state representative in 1821, after being elected Colonel in the Lawrence County, Tennessee militia. He was first elected in 1826  as Congressman from two different districts in west Tennessee,  where he lived until he decamped for Texas in January 1836. His restlessness, heavy drinking and lack of money prompted his exasperated second wife Elizabeth to move out of their cramped cabin to live with her family in North Carolina. Crockett committed political suicide as congressman when he voted against the Indian Removal Act advanced by his bitter enemy President Andrew Jackson. His opposition to Jackson, who was popular in Tennessee, led to his defeat in the 1834 elections.

During his lifetime, Crockett was a legend in his own time -- and mind, too. His exploits were featured in a popular play that was staged in New York and later in London. In his travels, Crockett was instantly recognized, but he only wore the hunting outfit -- including the coonskin cap popularized in the 1950s Disney series starring Fess Parker --- when he was promoting his 1834 autobiography or other appearances. In Congress, he clothed his muscular 6-foot, 200 pound body in the same suits as his colleagues.

 Early in the book, Wallis says he didn't write this book as "another straightforward chronological biography" of Crockett, but rather as a book "for those people interested in learning the truth -- or as much as can be uncovered -- about the historical and fictional Crockett, and how the two often became one." 

Wallis says that the research for the book involved traveling to the many places Crockett lived and hunted; this comes through in the book. The Crockett that emerged from Wallis' research was definitely not the Crockett portrayed in 1954 by Disney. "Much of the distortion of truth about Crockett began in his own lifetime and continued after his death," Wallis says.

About the Author

 Michael Wallis (born 1945) is a journalist and popular historian of the Western United States. He has written seventeen books, including Route 66: The Mother Road, about the historic highway U.S. Route 66. His work has also been published extensively in magazines and newspapers, including Time, Life, People, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Wallis attended the University of Missouri in Columbia, and moved to Miami, Florida, in 1978, where he worked for Time's Caribbean Bureau. He currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma with his wife, Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis.
For my 2007 review of his book about the "Father Road," "The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast From Times Square to the Golden Gate", click:

Publisher's Website: