THE INK SIGNATURES scrawled on their marriage contract had barely dried when David surprised his new bride with news of a honeymoon. The only problem was that Elizabeth was not invited to come along. This was to be a hunting expedition, a purely male endeavor, and Crockett would have three of his male neighbors for companions. Besides, the time had come to seek new land for settlement.

It was not as though Crockett had worn out his welcome in Franklin County. On the contrary, he had become a significant figure in his own community as well as in all the surrounding districts. At the camp meetings—popular and boisterous outdoor religious revival events—he was often one of the main attractions because of his engaging personality and ability as a storyteller. Camp meetings were as much social gatherings as spiritual events, and they usually lasted several days, bringing together people from far and wide. Crockett would stand under the shelter of a brush arbor, belt out a few hymns, and endure the fiery sermons of roving circuit preachers exhorting the faithful to either get right with the Holy Ghost or face the wrath of a furious God. That still left plenty of time for him to entertain the attendees with colorful stories of fighting Indians and hunting bears in the deep woods, while perhaps sneaking in a few horns of stump liquor when no one was looking.

David found that he was a natural-born crowd pleaser so well liked that his former comrades had made him Lieutenant Crockett in the militia of Franklin County, the first of several elections Crockett would eventually win over the course of the next eighteen years.

One of his supporters in the militia election was Jacob Van Zandt Jr., the same age as Crockett and one of his frequent companions on foraging hunts during the Creek War, when they supplied fresh meat for their fellow soldiers.1 Jacob came from a well-known and admired Franklin County family, headed by his father, Jacob Van Zandt Sr., a native of Holland who came to America and served as captain with the North Carolina militia in the Revolutionary War. The elder Van Zandt took part in the Battle of Cowpens and by 1800 had settled with his wife, Catherine Moon Van Zandt, in Tennessee.2 The Crockett family was held in such high esteem by the Van Zandt clan that when Jacob Sr., made out his last will and testament, he requested David and his younger brother John to act as two of the witnesses at the signing of the document. Van Zandt’s generous gifts of slaves and land to his kin did not become public until 1818, when the old man died, a few years after the Crockett family had left Franklin County. However, the signing of the will occurred on October 9, 1815,3 a significant date because not long afterward Crockett kissed his wife and five children good-bye—an act he had repeated many times before and would continue to perform until his own death—and headed south out of Tennessee into country that would become central Alabama. Crockett had seen plenty of what seemed like good land during his travels in the war, and since much of this land was opening to public domain it seemed a good idea to have a look.

In his Narrative, Crockett identifies his trio of fellow hunters only as neighbors named Robinson, Frazier, and Rich, probably because when Crockett wrote the book he had forgotten their first names.4 He did not forget the journey, however, which provided plenty of excitement and more chances for Crockett to prove his mettle.

“We set out for the Creek country, crossing the Tennessee river; and after having made a day’s travel, we stop’d at the house of one of my old acquaintances, who had settled there after the war. Resting here a day, Frazier turned out to hunt, being a great hunter; but he got badly bit by a very poisonous snake, and so we left him and went on. We passed through a large rich valley, called Jones’s valley, where several families had settled, and continued our course till we came near to the place where Tuscaloosa now stands.”5

Black Warrior’s Town, located on what the white settlers called the Black Warrior River, would not become Tuscaloosa until 1819, taking its name from tushka, meaning warrior, and lusa, meaning black, the name of the old Choctaw Chief Tuskalusa, who was defeated in battle by Hernando de Soto in 1540.6 Crockett had been to this place before, when he was a soldier and his outfit had looted stores of corn and beans from the deserted Creek settlement before burning it to ash.

Crockett and the two remaining hunters hobbled their horses for the night and stretched out for a rest. During the night, Crockett heard the bells on the horses as they freed themselves from the loose ties and took off, probably headed back to where they had started. At first light, Crockett started in pursuit of the horses on foot, carrying his rifle. For hours he looked everywhere, wading creeks, sloshing through swamps, and pushing through thick brush. At each cabin he came to along the way, Crockett was told the horses had been seen passing by, but at the end of the day there was no further sign of them. He doubled back to the last cabin he had passed and spent the night.

“From the best calculation we could make, I had walked over fifty miles that day; and the next morning I was so sore, and fatigued, that I felt like I couldn’t walk any more,”7 Crockett wrote in his Narrative. “But I was anxious to get back to where I had left my company, and so I started and went on, but mighty slowly, till after the middle of the day. I now began to feel mighty sick, and had a dreadful head-ache. My rifle was so heavy, and I felt so weak, that I lay down by the side of the trace, in a perfect wilderness too, to see if I wouldn’t get better.”

Although Crockett did not say so in his autobiography, he had been stricken with malaria, and would suffer from its effects for the rest of his life. Malaria did not exist in the Americas until the 1500s, but that changed with the coming of Spaniards and their African slaves; soon the disease spread throughout the hemisphere. The bite of infected female mosquitoes transmitted the infectious disease, which made it especially dangerous in the American South, where consistently warm temperatures allowed mosquitoes to breed year-round. Throughout the 1700s malaria struck many settlers in the southeast, causing a Scots-Irish pioneer to say that Virginia had so much malaria it was “only good for doctors and ministers,” while a German immigrant noted, “They who want to die quickly go to Carolina.”8 Malaria moved westward with the white settlers into Tennessee and all across the Mississippi Valley. Twice the capital of Alabama had to be relocated because of outbreaks of malarial fevers in the early 1820s.

Luckily for Crockett, a pair of Indians—probably friendly Choctaws—came across him as he lay sweating and trembling from chills and fever on the side of the trail. They offered Crockett some ripe melon, but he was far too ill to eat. The Indians knew what the white man was facing, and they told him the hard truth. “They then signed to me, that I would die, and be buried; a thing I was confoundedly afraid of myself.”9 Crockett asked them to take him to the nearest house, and by signing they agreed. “I got up to go; but when I rose, I reeled about like a cow with the blind staggers, or a fellow who had taken too many ‘horns.’”

He paid one of the Indians a half-dollar to carry his rifle and go with him. After they had traversed about a mile and a half, they came to a cabin. Crockett felt that he “was pretty far gone.” The people there were kind and put the stricken man to bed. “The woman did all she could for me with her warm teas, but I still continued bad enough, with a high fever, and generally out of my senses.” The next day two neighbors that Crockett knew from back home happened by, and they managed to get the sick man on a horse and take him back to the campsite where he had left the other two hunters, Robinson and Rich. The ride only worsened Crockett’s condition, and by the time he was returned to his camp he could not sit up.10 “I thought the jig was mighty nigh up with me, but I determined to keep a stiff upper lip,” Crockett wrote. “They carried me to a house, and each of my comrades bought him a horse, and they all set out together, leaving me behind.”

Crockett had been left at the home of a man named Jesse Jones, who, along with his wife, cared for the stricken man as if he was their own son. About the Jones family, Crockett later wrote that they “treated me with every possible kindness in their power, and I shall always feel thankful to them.”11 Without the attention he received at this modest frontier cabin, Crockett surely would have perished. For five days he was unconscious, and for at least two weeks he remained in a state of delirium. Finally, out of sheer desperation, Mrs. Jones poured an entire six-ounce bottle of Bateman’s Drops down Crockett’s throat. This was a drastic step. This patent medicine—it had been around since the 1720s—usually was taken in small doses of only a few drops at a time. The main ingredients were opium, aniseed, and camphor, and if swigged indiscriminately Bateman’s Drops could be toxic, if not lethal. The desperate Mrs. Jones had no other choice. She reasoned that Crockett was bound to die anyway, so why not take a gamble.12

“She gave me the whole bottle, which throwed me into a sweat that continued on me all night,” recalled Crockett, “when at last I seemed to make up, and spoke, and asked her for a drink of water. This almost alarmed her, for she was looking every minute for me to die. She gave me the water, and, from that time, I began slowly to mend, and so kept on till I was able at last to walk about a little.”

Gradually, Crockett’s health returned, and even though he was not fully recovered, he reached a point where the malaria did not seem debilitating. He had to get moving, so when a waggoner happened by the Jones cabin, he asked if he could hitch a ride as far as the man’s house, which Crockett found out was just twenty miles from his own place. “I still mended as we went along, and when we got to his stopping place, I hired one of his horses, and went on home. I was so pale, and so much reduced, that my face looked like it had been half soled with brown paper.”13

At the Crockett home, Elizabeth and the children grew more worried with each passing day. There had been no word at all from Crockett, and they were prepared for the worst. Robinson and Rich, her husband’s two friends, had returned weeks before, trailing three horses they found on the way; they were the same ones Crockett had been searching for when he was stricken with malaria. Perhaps out of embarrassment for leaving Crockett behind, when the two men brought Crockett’s horse to Elizabeth they said that her husband had met his death during the expedition.14 They told the stricken woman that they had come upon some men who watched Crockett draw his last breath and then buried him.

Elizabeth had already been widowed by war and understood the realities of life and death on the frontier. Yet she was not fully convinced that her highly resourceful husband was really dead. The practical Elizabeth wanted proof, so she hired a man to retrace Crockett’s journey. She directed the man to look for her husband and find out the truth of the matter. If David had left any money or personal effects behind, Elizabeth told the man to fetch them home to her and the children. The hired man was still on the trail and missed meeting up with Crockett before he slipped back into Franklin County.

Likely Elizabeth thought she was looking at an emaciated ghost when she discovered David standing in the doorway of the cabin. Her astonishment had to have been overwhelming. That all changed in an instant when David smiled, and her lost husband walked back into her life.

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