IN THE EYE OF A “HARRICANE”

WITH MISSOURI’S ENTRY into the union in 1821, the United States continued stretching farther west under the leadership of second-term president James Monroe. That same year not only did the Santa Fe Trail open to merchants bound for the ancient city, but large parties of fur trappers and traders departed St. Louis bound for the West, while Stephen F. Austin began moving immigrant Americans into the Mexican state of Texas.

Crockett, content for the moment to remain in Tennessee, also was on the move. He and his son John Wesley arrived back in Lawrenceburg in late April 1822. They had been gone far longer than anticipated and, among other things, had missed another Christmas with the family, all still residing with various relatives since the Shoal Creek flood. Crockett mustered his children and Elizabeth and told them all about the new land waiting for them in the Northwest. He also spoke of the adventures with the boatmen, the land scarred by earthquakes, and of the plentiful game in “the land of the shakes.”

When there was a lull in the telling of tales, Elizabeth interrupted and gave her husband an update of all that had transpired on the home front while he was off scouting her father’s old land grant. Not surprisingly, none of the news was good. In his absence a number of lawsuits had been brought against Crockett, mostly for debts that had accumulated since the loss of the mill. Some of the claims had been challenged, but for the most part the court sided with the creditors.1

On April 5, just a few weeks before he returned home, Crockett’s power of attorney was awarded to Mansil Crisp, a respected citizen who had also served as justice of the peace.2 Crisp was given the authorization to satisfy any remaining creditors as best as he could. Crockett, who had once owned hundreds of acres in Lawrence County, was by July 1822 left with nothing but the goodwill of others. He must have been relieved when Governor Carroll issued a proclamation calling the Fourteenth General Assembly back into special session, as he could draw his legislature’s pay and give Squire Crisp some time to settle the outstanding judgments.

Crockett rode to Murfreesboro, stabled his horse, and secured lodging for himself at an inn that catered to legislators. The Rutherford County Courthouse on the town square was where the General Assembly had gathered in the past, but, during the recess, the building had burned down, so the special session convened in the nearby First Presbyterian Church, where the customary spittoons were forbidden.3 After the opening gavel fell, one of the first orders of business for legislators was to grant premiums for a levy of taxes to build a new courthouse of brick construction.

Crockett was actively involved in the brief session, which mainly had been called for lawmakers to deal with various pressing land issues. Still, he was very much a political novice, and as such kept a low profile and learned as he went along. The adjudication and disposal of vacant and unappropriated lands remained at the forefront of political activity throughout Crockett’s career both in Tennessee and later in the U.S. Congress. In light of the ongoing economic depression sparked by the financial panic of 1819, Crockett introduced several bills on behalf of the poor and needy, whose requests he nearly always championed especially when he very much felt that he had joined their ranks.

Although from time to time Crockett owned a few slaves, one of his bills sought relief for “Mathias, a free man of color.”4 This action supports the belief that, although Crockett on a small scale supported the horrendous institution, he was capable of showing some compassion. Crockett also introduced other relief measures to help one of his attorney’s relatives and several friends and associates from his legislative district. He was dead-set against a proposal to repeal redemption laws, or manumission, a process for a party to purchase and free slaves, and he also opposed repeal of a law to provide for widows and orphans and stop fraud in the execution of last wills and testaments.

Near the close of the special session, Crockett vehemently opposed a bill that called for the restoration of certain fees to justices of the peace and constables. Under this corrupt system, duplicitous peace officers urged citizens to file civil suits, from which the officials would collect a percentage of any settlement. This practice of “fee-grabbing” was an issue that directly involved Crockett, for not only had he served as a justice of the peace, but he also was on the receiving end of many civil actions.5 When the proposed repeal legislation came up for a vote, Crockett took to the floor of the assembly and spoke against it.

“There is no evil so great in society—among the poor people—as the management and intrigue of meddling justices and dirty constables,” Crockett said, based on his own observations of such indignities. “I have seen more peace and harmony among my constituents since the repeal of the fees, than I have for several years before. I do most earnestly hope that the house will be unanimous in putting the bill to instant death.”6 The proposed bill was rejected and Crockett’s speech was quoted in the Nashville Whig, published by John P. Erwin, a lawyer who served two terms as Nashville’s mayor.7 Crockett’s financial picture was dismal, but his political future was taking shape.

On August 24, just one week after Crockett’s thirty-fifth birthday, the special session was adjourned and David immediately returned to Lawrenceburg. After he consulted with his wife and Mansil Crisp, the decision was made to retain just a small parcel of land in distant Carroll County and sell off almost all of the 800 acres that had been conveyed to him the year before by his father-in-law, Robert Patton. Crockett simply did not have the $1,600 he owed Patton for the acreage. On August 25, a deed of sale was drafted and Crockett sold the Carroll County land to John McLemore, the powerful land speculator, and one of his associates, James Vaulse, from Davidson County, for exactly the $1,600 due Patton.8 It was a difficult transaction but Crockett’s only option if he wanted to become debt-free.

The Crocketts began packing up the little bit of furniture and goods they still had in preparation for the journey to Carroll County. It likely required two wagons for such a move, considering there were two adults and eight children, ranging in age from Matilda, only a year old, to John Wesley, just turned fifteen and as capable as a fully grown man. Other family members and friends also decided to make the move and either accompanied the Crocketts or came a short time later. In his autobiography Crockett made no mention of any slaves going with them. He probably sold or signed over ownership of the slave he once owned in order to satisfy one of the debts.

As was his style, Crockett quickly rebounded from having to sell off land to satisfy a debt. Besides, he was excited about the new land that awaited him. He summed up the move in a few words when he wrote that he took his family and “what little plunder I had, and moved to where I had built my cabin, and made my crap.”9 (Crockett meant “crop,” referring to the corn he had planted the past spring.)

The newest Crockett family cabin was near freshwater springs and unbroken forests of hickory, poplar, gum, and beech. A common saying from that time described the region as having “fifty bushels of frogs to the acre, and snakes enough to fence the land.” Not surprisingly, even as he and the entourage traversed the 150 miles to Carroll County, Crockett managed to fit in some hunting. He not only provided fresh meat for campfire meals but also made a little bit of money, something that in those times was hard to come by and even harder to hold. While moving westward in early September, he shot and killed two wolves. He skinned them out and on September 9 brought their scalps to Huntingdon, the seat of government of the newly formed county. There he sought out the home of R. E. C. Dougherty, where court was held and county business disposed of until the log courthouse, then under construction, was completed in early December.10 According to the court minutes for that day: “David Crockett came into open court and made oathe [sic] to the killing of one wolf over the age of four months in the bounds of this county.”11The other wolf he shot was just a pup under four months old and not eligible for any reward. Nonetheless, Crockett was pleased to rejoin his family on the trail with a three-dollar bounty in his purse.

When the Crocketts finally reached their new homestead on the east side of the Rutherford Fork of the Obion River, Abram Henry and Flavius Harris greeted them. The two young hired hands had continued to make improvements on the cabin and land and were relieved to have more company. The Crockett children staked out their secret places in the thickets and forests and busied themselves with the many daily chores required of everyone, regardless of age. Elizabeth was pleased when three of her sisters and their families soon joined them—Margaret Patton and husband Abner Burgin, Sarah Patton and husband William Edmundson, and Ann Catherine Patton and husband Hance McWhorter.12 They established homes within rifleshot of the Crocketts. Eventually five of Elizabeth’s sisters, along with their families, moved to the new settlement, as did Elizabeth’s father, Robert Patton, after the death of his wife. He still owned 200 acres in his original land grant and purchased another 1,200 acres, which he distributed among his daughters and sons-in-law.13 George Tinkle and his son, Lindsey Kavendar Tinkle, two of Crockett’s close friends and companions, also made the move to the Obion River country with their families.

Crockett was pleased that loved ones surrounded Betsy, and by late autumn, with the corn harvested, he ventured into the canebrakes bordering streams and creeks. The thick stands of the bamboolike plant provided cover and forage for all sorts of wildlife and game. Crockett ate the tender new shoots and let his livestock graze in the cane that grew near his cabin. Indian tribes made arrow shafts, knives, and scrappers from cane, and it could be carved into flutes and pipes and burned in ceremonial fires. Some tribes used shaped cane blades to remove body hair or lance wounds. Thickets of giant cane—some of it fifteen feet tall—sprang up in the dense tangles of broken trees, vines, and brush that had been devastated by the earthquakes and fierce windstorms. Crockett called these places “harricanes,” and he recognized their value.14

For weeks he roamed far and wide and periodically returned home with field-dressed game to be put up for consumption during the winter, although by Crockett’s own accounts his offspring and hired men devoured the fresh meat as fast as he packed it back to the cabin. By mid-December, Crockett was still gathering “wild meat” when he discovered that he was running out of gunpowder. “I had none either to fire Christmass [sic] guns, which is very common in that country, or to hunt with.”15 He remembered that one of brothers-in-law had agreed to store an extra keg of powder for him and was holding it at his cabin, only about six miles west on the opposite side of Rutherford’s Fork of the Obion.

“There had just been another of Noah’s freshes, and the low-grounds were flooded all over with water,” Crockett recalled. “I know’d the stream was at least a mile wide which I would have to cross, as the water was from hill to hill, and yet I determined to go over in some way or other, so as to get my powder. I told this to my wife, and she immediately opposed it with all her might. I still insisted, telling her we had no powder from Christmass [sic], and, worse than all, we were out of meat. She said, we had as well starve as for me to freeze to death or get drowned, and one or the other was certain if I attempted to go.”16

Crockett politely listened to Betsy and then, as always, went ahead. He put on his moccasins and woolen wrappers, tied up a bundle of extra clothes and extra pair of shoes, and started out for his powder. The snow was about four inches deep when he left, and by the time he reached the river, only about a quarter of a mile from the cabin, it looked like an ocean. Crockett waded into the swollen river and started to make his way, using logs whenever possible to cross deep spots. At times he was in waist-deep water, and it did not take long before he had little feeling in his legs and feet. When he attempted to cross another slough on a log he fell into icy water up to his head but somehow managed to keep his dry clothes and rifle above the surface. He got to the other side, put on his dry clothing, and eventually made his way to his brother-in-law’s cabin.

I got there late in the evening, and he was much astonished at seeing me at such a time. I staid all night, and the next morning was most piercing cold, and so they persuaded me not to go home that day. I agreed, and turned out and killed him two deer; but the weather still got worse and colder, instead of better. I staid that night, and in the morning they still insisted I couldn’t get home. I knowed the water would be frozen over, but not hard enough to bear me, and so I agreed to stay that day. I went out hunting again, and pursued a big he-bear all day, but didn’t kill him. The next morning was bitter cold, but I knowed my family was without meat, and I determined to get home to them, or die a-trying.

Crockett picked up his powder keg and hunting tools and left. When he reached the water, it was a sheet of ice as far as he could see. He carefully stepped into the freezing river. The combination of frigid air and icy water took his breath away, but he plodded ahead, perhaps wondering if he had made the right decision. Just as he started walking, the thinner ice along the bank broke through. Although shivering and numbed, Crockett plodded forward, using his tomahawk to break up the ice in his path until he reached a place where the ice was thick enough to hold him. He pulled himself out of the stream and his soaked buckskins immediately turned to ice. After walking a short way, the ice broke again, and the swiftness of the current was so fast no more ice would form. Summoning every bit of strength left in his ice-covered body, Crockett kept moving forward. Frostbitten and bordering on delirium, he somehow managed to keep the powder keg and his rifle out of the water. “By this time I was nearly frozen to death, but I saw all along before me where the ice had been fresh broke, and I thought it must be a bear struggling about in the water,” Crockett recalled. “I, therefore, primed my gun, and, cold as I was, I was determined to make war on him, if we met.”17

Invigorated by the notion that a bear might be nearby, Crockett staggered on through the freshly broken snow. “I followed the trail till it led me home, and I then found it had been made by my young man that lived with me, who had been sent by my distressed wife to see, if he could, what had become of me, for they all believed that I was dead.” As soon as Crockett stumbled through the cabin door, Elizabeth and their children swarmed around him, sobbing tears of joy and rejoicing that he was alive and had once again bested death. “When I got home I wasn’t quite dead, but mighty nigh it; but I had my powder, and that was what I went for.”18

Crockett took a few horns and collapsed into bed. During the night a heavy rain came and turned to sleet, but “in the morning all hands turned out hunting,” he recalled. Some of the hunters left Crockett’s cabin determined to find turkeys along the river, but Crockett wanted larger game. “I told them, I had dreamed the night before of having a hard fight with a big black nigger, and I knowed it was a sign that I was to have a battle with a bear; for in a bear country, I never know’d such a dream to fail.”19

Crockett set out with his hounds looking for bear. This time he found much more than he expected, and this January 1823 hunt became one of Crockett’s favorite stories. The episode was described with great relish and flair in the Narrative.

According to Crockett, he set out along the Rutherford Fork of the Obion River near Reelfoot Lake and quickly bagged a pair of fat turkeys. Lugging the birds over his shoulder, he pushed on but was “infernal mad,” with his hounds continually “barking up the wrong tree” when he encountered “about the biggest bear that was ever seen in America.”20 The bear looked “like a large black bull” and was so intimidating that at first even his dogs were afraid to attack. Eventually they took off after the bear. They chased him into a thicket and up a large black oak tree. Crockett took the turkeys from his back, hung them on a sapling, and “broke like a quarterhorse after my bear.” Cradling his rifle, he climbed through brambles and vines to within about eighty yards of the tree.

With the bear facing him, Crockett primed his gun and fired. The bear raised a paw and snorted as Crockett reloaded and fired once more. The big animal tumbled from the tree and immediately one of Crockett’s best hounds cried out in pain. Without hesitating, Crockett charged with his tomahawk in one and butcher knife in the other. When he drew near, the bear released the dog and focused his attention on the approaching man. Crockett, seeing his wounded dog had crawled off, raced back to his rifle. He loaded the weapon a third time, turned, and fired, this time killing the bear.21

Crockett blazed a trail to his cabin with his tomahawk and recruited one of his brothers-in-law, probably Abner Burgin, and Flavius Harris to help him retrieve the meat. They returned to the kill site with the four horses necessary to carry the dressed meat home.

“We got there just before dark, and struck up a fire, and commenced butchering my bear,” recalled Crockett. “It was some time in the night before we finished it; and I can assert, on my honour, that I believe he would have weighed six hundred pounds. It was the second largest I ever saw. I killed one, a few years after, that weighed six hundred and seventeen pounds…. We got our meat home, and I had the pleasure to know that we now had plenty, and that of the best; and I continued through the winter to supply my family abundantly with bear-meat and venison from the woods.”22

The hunts continued all winter. Crockett had gunpowder to spare. With the coming of the New Year, volleys of celebratory rifleshots fired into the darkness echoed through the harricanes and canebrakes and never sounded better.

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