DAVID CROCKETT GOT OFF to a good start on his 160 acres of newly opened Choctaw Purchase land at the head of Shoal Creek, in what was soon to become Lawrence County, Tennessee. But he was not the first white man to settle there. For several years prior to the Choctaws’ ceding their land, mostly Scots-Irish squatters from North Carolina had illegally moved into the area.1 By 1815, the first settlement appeared on Big Buffalo River; a gristmill and distillery followed, and then some Primitive Baptists arrived and built a church. The soil was fertile and yielded fine crops of corn, wheat, cotton, and tobacco, with much game to be found in the hardwood forests and along the many spring-fed streams.

During the less than five years he lived in these parts, Crockett launched his public career. This was where he developed his own style of rhetoric and sharpened his oratory skills. It was here that he first entered mainstream politics. And it was in Lawrence County that history began to take notice of him.

Nearing his thirty-first birthday, Crockett and his boys quickly built a cabin along Shoal Creek, the first of three homes the family would have while living in this region. They had sold a large portion of their land back in Franklin County and leased out the rest of what had been the Patton farm. This income, along with Elizabeth’s family money, bought them a little time to adjust to their new surroundings and get to know their neighbors.

Even before the family had completely moved to Lawrence County, Crockett was quickly emerging as a community leader. He had already been named one of five commissioners of the Shoal Creek Corporation, a panel of local men charged with laying out county boundaries.2Coming up with a name for the proposed county proved to be easy. There was unanimous approval when the commissioners proposed to name it after Captain James Lawrence, the popular naval hero of the War of 1812 who, when mortally wounded, shouted to his crew, “Don’t give up the ship.”3 As far as a name for the county seat, it was simple enough to continue the pattern and call the place Lawrenceburgh, soon changed to Lawrenceburg without the “h.” All that remained was finding a place to build a courthouse. As smoothly as establishing county boundaries and the naming chores had progressed, site selection for the Lawrence County seat of government proved to be fraught with controversy.

Crockett and four other county residents were charged with choosing the site. The other selection commissioners were Maximilian H. Buchanan, a major landowner in the area; Josephus Irvine, who enjoyed fisticuffs and was often fined for fighting; Enoch Tucker, one of Crockett’s close friends and business associates; and Henry Phenix, operator of a “house of public entertainment.”4

At their first meeting, the five members sharply divided into two camps, each with a specific location and his own special interests. On one side were Crockett and Tucker, championing land at a point where Shoal Creek straightened out and flowed south to the Tennessee River. This site was very near the property Crockett and Tucker owned on Shoal Creek. They claimed it was the ideal spot since it was the “exact geographic location of the county,” as recommended by the Tennessee General Assembly.5 Crockett pointed out that such a location would be more easily accessible to all county residents. The other faction demanded that the county seat be built near property they owned on the new Military Road, under construction by some of Andrew Jackson’s soldiers. It would soon become an alternative to the historic Natchez Trace, an important road for several Indian tribes and by the late 1700s a vital link between outposts of civilization for white settlers.6

The two sides locked in heated arguments and neither would budge. Crockett was incensed because Irvine, who had been authorized to build the courthouse, started to erect the building on the site his team had picked before state officials had made a final decision. Accusations, citizen petitions, and a flood of other documents from the two factions bombarded the Tennessee General Assembly in Murfreesboro, where in 1818 the state capital was moved because, unlike Knoxville, Murfreesboro was located in the exact geographic center of Tennessee.7

Ultimately, Crockett lost the battle over location, although the dispute raged on and was not fully resolved until 1823, a year after Crockett had moved from Lawrence County farther west to the Obion River country.8 In fact, Lawrenceburg was built just where Crockett’s opponents had chosen—a 400-acre tract of land that had been granted to John Thompson by the State of North Carolina in 1792 for services rendered as a soldier in the Revolutionary War. Private Thompson never claimed the land, probably because he considered it worthless since it was located in the heart of Chickasaw territory.9

The squabble over where Lawrenceburg should be located made Crockett a few enemies, but it also broadened his appeal and heightened his public image. Soon after he came to the area, Crockett was called upon to help bring some order to an emerging county “without any law at all,” where, according to Crockett, “so many bad characters began to flock in upon us.”10 His neighbors formed a backwoods confederation and asked Crockett to be an unofficial magistrate. He took the appointment quite seriously but kept his sense of humor. “When a man owed a debt, and wouldn’t pay it, I and my constable ordered our warrant, and then he would take the man, and bring him before me for trial,” Crockett later explained. “I would give judgment against him, and then an order of execution would easily scare the debt out of him.” There also were times when Crockett had to be stern and use corporal punishment. “If any one was charged with marking his neighbour’s hogs, or with stealing any thing, which happened pretty often in those days—I would have him taken, and if there was tolerable grounds for the charge, I would have him well whip’d and cleared.”11

Crockett must have done a satisfactory job. The confidence his neighbors placed in him was proven when on November 25, 1817, the state legislature—based on citizens’ recommendations—named Crockett as one of twelve magistrates, or justices of the peace, in the emerging county.12 “This was a hard business for me, for I could just barely write my own name; but to do this, and write the warrants too, was at least a huckleberry over my persimmon,” wrote Crockett, using one of his pet phrases for “a cut above.” In describing his work as a justice of the peace in his autobiography, Crockett once again presented himself as a simple, semiliterate country man without much education but with an ample load of horse sense. “My judgments were never appealed from,” Crockett continued, “and if they had been they would have stuck like wax, as I gave my decisions on the principles of common justice and honesty between man and man, and relied on natural born sense, and not on law, learning to guide me; for I had never read a page in a law book in my life.”13

Crockett’s “natural born sense” proved to be more valuable to his future political career than anything he could have learned in school. His selection as town commissioner and justice of the peace gave him a taste of government as well as the desire to dig deeper into the political stew pot for a bigger spoonful. The governmental posts he held in Lawrence County, combined with his sizable reputation as a war veteran and skilled hunter, ignited a busy career of public service.

Crockett was flattered when Capt. Daniel Matthews, an officer in the local militia, asked for his support in an upcoming election to choose a regimental colonel. Matthews was a prosperous farmer who consistently raised more corn than anyone else in the entire county.14Crockett had no trouble giving his endorsement. However, he was hesitant when Matthews suggested that Crockett join his ticket and run for the post of regimental major. “I objected to this, telling him that I thought I had done my share of fighting, and that I wanted nothing to do with military appointments.”15 Matthews was as stubborn as Crockett. He spoke of Crockett’s record as a soldier in the Indian Wars and reminded him that his constituents in Franklin County had elected him to the rank of lieutenant before he moved away. At Matthews’s insistence, Crockett—confident that he and Matthews would support each other—gave in and agreed to run.

To launch their joint campaign, Matthews hosted a huge corn-husking frolic on his farm and invited every citizen eligible to vote in the county. The plan was for Matthews and Crockett to come forward at the end of the frolic and make their formal joint announcement for colonel and major in the militia. A swarm of people descended on the Matthews place, including the entire Crockett clan. However, just before the speeches were to be given, one of Crockett’s friends tipped him off that the whole thing was a ruse cooked up by Matthews, whose own son was also going to be a candidate for major. Crockett had been duped and set up as a patsy candidate.16

“I cared nothing about the office,” Crockett later admitted, “but it put my dander up high enough to see, that after he had pressed me so hard to offer, he was countenancing, if not encouraging a secret plan to beat me.” Crockett confronted Captain Matthews, who admitted to the double-cross but offered his apology and said that his son “hated worse to run against me than any man in the county.” That was when Crockett delivered a surprise of his own. “I told him his son need give himself no uneasiness about that; that I shouldn’t run against him for major, but against his daddy for colonel.”17 A stunned Matthews graciously shook Crockett’s hand and then addressed the crowd. He announced his candidacy and added that he would be running against David Crockett.

There was polite applause and then Crockett came forward with his speech. He liked giving the final speech of the day and would employ this tactic of getting in the last word in all of his future runs for elected political office. He kept his remarks brief and with a smile and a few winks explained his reasons for taking on Captain Matthews, “remarking that as I had the whole family to run against any way, I was determined to levy on the head of the mess.” The people gathered around him burst into cheers. Crockett’s self-effacing and humorous speech became the template for every one of his future political campaigns.

Crockett always went directly to the people, an action that would characterize his entire political career. He stumped every nook and cranny of the county, as if he were hunting only for votes. At each stop, he delivered his humorous speeches, shook hands, and swigged a little whiskey. It all paid off, for when the final votes were tallied, Crockett was declared the winner by a hefty margin and took great delight in the fact that, not only did he beat the father, but the son also lost badly to another candidate running for major.

On March 27, 1818, David Crockett was commissioned lieutenant colonel commandant of the Fifty-seventh Regiment of Militia.18 The rank he earned was not a gratuitous tile of “Colonel” that came to be handed out to so-called southern gentlemen of means. Crockett was not a plantation colonel but a high-ranking militia officer duly elected by the citizens to head up a regiment. Yet he also was a new breed of frontier populist who had challenged the plantation hierarchy and prevailed. The title of colonel stuck and remained with him for the rest of his years. Colonel David Crockett of Tennessee—it had a definite ring.

Crockett wasted no time in making his mark in Lawrence County. In rapid succession he was appointed justice of the peace and town commissioner, and then was elected lieutenant colonel of the local militia. The family was healthy and for the most part David’s flare-ups of malaria stayed in check. As a new year approached, a special gift arrived in the Crockett’s newest home built on the Military Road, just south of the public square. On Christmas Day 1818, Elizabeth gave birth to daughter Rebecca Elvira—bringing to seven the number of Crockett’s blood children and Patton stepchildren.19

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