Author searches for the real Davy Crockett

But facts are few about the man born with a restless spirit and a flair for self-promotion

"Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road With Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier," by Bob Thompson; Crown (384 pages, $27)

Bob Thompson's fascination with Davy Crockett began in the family car, on a trip with his wife and two young daughters, listening to an old Burl Ives collection of folk songs — "Shoo Fly," "Big Rock Candy Mountain," and then a song that immediately grabbed the girls' attention.

"Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free," Ives warbled. And when it ended, voices from the back seat insisted that dad play that song again.

That began a family immersion into all things Crockett, and more than a few surprises along the way. Finally, Thompson's need to separate fact from fiction, wild yarn — occasionally spun by Crockett himself — from the real David Crockett, led him on a meandering journey through much of the Southeast, up to Washington, D.C., and all the way to the Alamo.

An amiable, graceful writer and a thoroughly curious researcher, Thompson invites us along for the ride. Almost immediately, we learn that "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" isn't 100 percent true.

Crockett's official birthplace sits at the edge of the Nolichucky River in Tennessee, where it splashes down into a valley, and not on a mountaintop. But you can see the mountain from there.

And while Crockett loved hunting bear, he was much older than 3.

So what about that iconic image of Crockett decked out in buckskin? Unlikely, Thompson learns.

"You try walking around out here with buckskins on and get 'em wet one time," one period re-enactor tells him. "It will freeze you to death. And they get slimy, and they're just — they're terrible."

Even the great accolade "King of the Wild Frontier" is better attributed to Daniel Boone, according to the manager of the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park.

Much of what passes for Crockett history in the current culture has its roots in film and TV. Walt Disney shaped a good bit of it in his three-part series on Crockett's life that hit the small screen in December 1954. The John Wayne movie "The Alamo" added to the legend. Crockett, a pretty fair amateur public relations man, gave them plenty to work with.

Born to an extremely poor family, the fifth of six sons, along with three daughters, he left home for the first time at 12, hired out by his father to help "a perfect stranger" to drive a herd of cattle, on foot, from eastern Tennessee to near Natural Bridge, Va., a trip of about 250 miles.

A year later, he left home again after a row with his father, this time for 21/2 years. He hired himself out, helping to drive a herd of cattle to northern Virginia, 400 miles away. From there, he was off to what is now West Virginia, and then to Baltimore, where he marveled at the tall ships, and thought of joining one bound for England.

Instead, he found his way home, 16 years old and so changed that his family didn't recognize him.

This would be a pattern for Crockett, who tried farming and milling and other businesses but couldn't resist an adventure and sure couldn't stay home.

His final temptation came from Texas, and he followed a stream of settlers from Tennessee and Kentucky who were heading west, looking for land.

Thompson spent a year on his quest, "my year of walking where Crockett walked," he writes. And along the way, he ran into a series of generous folks who patiently detailed Crockett's history in their part of the old frontier, although history might be better defined as local tradition.

The difficulty, Thompson found, is getting hard facts. There are some from Crockett's later years, especially his years in politics. Even his final great act, volunteering to fight for the Texans in their rebellion against Mexico, can be murky.

In movies and TV, Crockett is a powerful voice at the Alamo, telling tales with his usual bravado to keep spirits up, and then fighting with a particular ferocity, clubbing enemy soldiers with his long rifle, his ammunition long gone. But other accounts paint a far different end.

In the end, Thompson writes, Crockett's tale is both history and myth, and the trouble is separating the two.

"If there's one thing I learned during my year of stalking ghostly Crocketts, it's that you can go crazy trying to herd the 'real' and 'mythic' version into different pastures," he writes. "It's hard to do that with anyone's story, but with David's it's close to impossible, because his legend sprang up at a point where there were hardly any facts on the ground."

Ultimately, it was Crockett himself who created his own persona, and his fans took that and ran.


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