DAVID CROCKETT’S FAMILY left his ancestral birthplace near the mouth of Big Limestone Creek on the Nolichucky in 1792, and relocated just five miles to the northwest on a 197-acre tract of land purchased by John Crockett close to the headwaters of Lick Creek.1 The primary reason for this move was for the Crocketts to live closer to Rebecca’s brother Joseph Hawkins and his wife, Esther, who had already established their family homestead on a nearby 200-acre land grant.

The spacious abodes that now dot the Greene County area are a far cry from the cramped one-room utilitarian cabins that accommodated large frontier families. These dwellings were often built with packed dirt floors and were windowless except for tiny square openings near the chimney called “granny holes” (because they allowed an extra bit of light for a grandmother while she sewed on the hearth and tended the fireplace).2 The mountain views were just as scenic then, but there was not much time to enjoy them.

Soon after his family settled in a new log house, young David once again experienced an event “which made a lasting impression on my memory.”3 This episode, later described by Crockett in his autobiography, began on a September morning in 1793, when Absalom Stonecipher, a handsome twenty-five-year-old from one of the first pioneer families in the community, donned his favorite red flannel shirt, picked up a basket, and went out in search of succulent wild grapes that were ripe and in abundance by early autumn.4 Clusters of fat purple grapes hung from vines as big around as a man’s arm. The time was right for making sweet wine and jelly that would last all winter. Settlers also had learned from the Cherokees that grapes boiled with geranium root made a potent rinse to wash the mouths of infants suffering from thrush, a common infection that left painful lesions.

Stonecipher waded into a thicket of heavy brush and gathered low-hanging fruit, unaware that only fifty yards away Joseph Hawkins, David’s uncle and Stonecipher’s neighbor and friend, had his Kentucky rifle at the ready while on the hunt for whitetail deer. Hawkins, too, was on a hunt of his own. Deer love nothing more than a meal of juicy grapes, and Hawkins figured he was in the right place to find some quarry for supper. Hawkins was a good shot, seldom known to miss. As Stonecipher pulled at the grapes, Hawkins picked up the motion and saw a reddish hue that he thought looked much like a feeding deer.5

“It was a likely place for deer; and my uncle, having no suspicion that it was any human being, but supposing the raising of the hand to be the occasional twitch of a deer’s ear, fired at the lump, and as the devil would have it, unfortunately shot the man through the body,” Crockett related in the Narrative.6

At the same time that Stonecipher heard the sharp report of the rifle, he felt a searing burn as the hot lead struck him just above the beltline and tore into his stomach. He screamed and fell hard to the ground. Hawkins—realizing his mistake—raced to his aid and managed to load the wounded man on a horse and take him to the nearby cabin of Samuel Humbert, in the glen at the head of Horse Camp Creek. As soon as Stonecipher was carried into the cabin, Hawkins sent for his brother-in-law, John Crockett, who lived in the vicinity and was respected and looked up to in the community for his woods wisdom and frontier skills.7

When John learned of the accidental shooting, he told David, 7, to help saddle horses and come along in case he was needed. On the way out of the Crockett cabin, John grabbed his own Kentucky rifle, and they rode off to tend to the gravely wounded man. After arriving and making a quick examination of Stonecipher’s wound, John determined that the rifle ball had passed through Stonecipher and had apparently not damaged any major organs. Still, Crockett knew that infection was always a possibility. If the young man was to survive being shot in the gut, bold action was needed at once.

Stonecipher was laid on a table before the cabin’s large hearth. The fire blazing in the fireplace was always tended and never allowed to go out. Samuel Humbert had brought the fiery embers to this place in 1777 from the old family home in Virginia when he followed his friends the Stoneciphers to the new frontier. Humbert believed that home fires were important to the family and clan because they were cleansing fires and connected one generation to the next.8

The fire in Humbert’s cabin had burned continuously for sixteen years, and by its light John Crockett pulled the ramrod from the barrel of his rifle and wrapped a silk handkerchief around the rod. With Joseph Hawkins, members of the Humbert family, and young David all gathered around the prone man on the table, John inserted the ramrod into the gunshot wound and pushed it through and out the exit hole on the other side. Then he took both ends of the silk handkerchief that remained in the wound and pulled it back and forth through the opening.9 The procedure, which John probably learned while serving in the militia, cleansed all debris from the wound and helped prevent infection.

Watching his father save a man’s life impressed David, who, over time, lost track of Stonecipher. “What became of him, or whether he is dead or alive, I don’t know; but I reckon he did’ent fancy the business of gathering grapes in an out-of-the-way thicket soon again,” Crockett wrote. When Crockett’s autobiography appeared in 1834, Absalom Stonecipher was very much alive. Humbert’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, whom Stonecipher married in 1796, had nursed him back to full health in front of the eternal fire.10

Eighteenth-century rural life anywhere in the new United States was challenging, but on the frontier of Tennessee it was especially perilous. Tending to gunshot wounds was but one of many skills one had to learn in order to survive. Just the basics of everyday life, such as felling timber and raising barns, often ended in tragic injuries. As Absalom Stonecipher learned, an innocent morning hunt for a basket of grapes could prove fatal. Bear maulings, rabid skunks, and poisonous snakebites were ever-present threats, as was travel by horseback or on foot through fields and woods where Indian warriors seeking revenge as well as the scalps of white intruders might lie in wait.

Doctors were few and far between on the frontier, and many times they were no more capable of dealing with illness or an emergency than the people they treated. They relied on an arsenal of barbaric and primitive cures that included bloodletting, purging, leeching, blistering, and dosings of arsenic and mercury.11 Most physicians, like lawyers of the time, were self-taught and had little, if any, scientific knowledge, often using home remedies based on superstition and the belief that the stronger a medicinal brew tasted and smelled, the more effective it would be. Yet frequently the folk medicine practiced by rural mothers, healers, and midwives had real value. Much of their knowledge of herbs, roots, bark, and berries to use for extracts and potions came from the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and other Indian tribes, and proved less harmful and more effective than the advice of medical professionals.12

For the Crockett family, and many others like them, a knowledge of basic medicine and medical techniques, the procurement of food and fresh water, and the maintenance of adequate shelter had to be foremost in their minds at all times. That meant interminable hard work. Anyone who did not work was not worth his or her keep. That was certainly the philosophy of John Crockett, who constantly struggled to support a growing family and stay out of financial trouble. All of his adult life, John faced debt due to his inability to handle money and a penchant for trying out various schemes to get ahead. When times got tough and debt collectors started showing up, John Crockett usually followed the same pattern—he uprooted his family, left for greener pastures, and started another venture.

That was the case in May 1794, when he sold his acreage on Lick Creek for one hundred pounds and moved to another tract of land at the mouth of Cove Creek, a tributary of the Nolichucky River in southeast Greene County.13 Stretched thin financially, John gambled and entered into a business partnership with Thomas Galbraith (or Galbreath), a native of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Together the two men undertook the building of a gristmill on the creek after Galbraith secured a permit.

The conversion of grain to flour or meal was an ancient process dating back thousands of years. In Tennessee during the 1790s, the most important crops were grains, such as wheat, oats, barley, and rye, that provided forage as well as the staff of life—bread. But the main crop was corn, and that is what most farmers grew. The ground meal used for cornbread, hoecakes, mush, and spoon bread was the backbone of the pioneer diet. A family supper might consist of nothing more than slabs of hot cornbread and some sweet cow’s milk. Everyone ate cornbread, usually at all three meals.14

Widows seldom if ever were charged full price for milled grain, but all others paid full price and usually never questioned it. Barter was an important and accepted currency when cash or goods were short, and services such as sewing and manual labor were traded for sacks of precious meal and flour.15 Saturdays were mill days, and customers would crowd around, exchanging not only their services but also news and gossip. In the winter, when doing business outside was all but impossible, people filed into a warming hut and huddled around a fire.

Not a soul ever got the chance to sit by a fire or buy a sack of meal at the gristmill being built by Crockett and Galbraith. Just as the mill neared completion, a tremendous storm caused the creek to flood, washing away both the mill and the Crocketts’ home.16Reflecting the family’s keen belief in the Bible, David, years later, called the disaster “the second epistle to Noah’s fresh[et],” a reference to the Old Testament deluge. “I remember the water rose so high, that it got up into the house we lived in, and my father moved us out of it, to keep us from being drowned.”17

The flood at Cove’s Creek devastated John Crockett and proved to be a crushing blow from which he never fully recovered. He and his family were left homeless and without any immediate income. Following the disaster, Thomas Galbraith and his wife, Elizabeth, took pity on the Crocketts, providing them with food and shelter until they could get back on their feet and find new quarters.18

John surely appreciated the hospitality of his partner, but he also had to feel somewhat ashamed that he and his family were forced to survive on the goodwill of others. In only a few weeks John dreamed up a new plan of action, and the Crocketts took their leave from the Galbraith residence and departed Greene County. They were bound for a three-hundred-acre tract on Mossy Creek, in neighboring Jefferson County, that John had purchased in 1792, shortly before he forged the partnership to build the ill-fated gristmill.19

The move brought the Crocketts no immediate relief. Soon after relocating to Jefferson County, John was forced to start selling parcels of the property he owned there. In November of 1795, the county sheriff auctioned off most of the rest of the land to settle an outstanding Crockett debt of $400. After losing title to the property in the bankruptcy sale, the Crocketts, by special arrangement, were able to relocate on a tract of land owned by John Canaday, a Quaker settler who lived in the Panther Springs area.20 At this site, John Crockett and his family operated a tavern to accommodate travelers on the old stage road connecting Knoxville, Tennessee, to Abingdon, Virginia, and other points east. The exact location of the Crockett tavern has long remained a confused and debated issue. At least three east Tennessee sites have been identified over the years, but more than likely it was built in Morristown, where a replica of it was constructed in 1959. “His tavern was on a small scale, as he was poor; and the principal accommodations which he kept, were for the waggoners [sic] who traveled the road,”21 David later wrote of his father and the roadside inn that also served as the Crockett family home.

At this tavern David learned his father’s true measure. The youngster already knew that John was capable of dire acts when it came to fending off creditors; he never forgot that his father was once so deep in debt that he bound out his eldest daughter. Over the years, John’s indebtedness only increased. A small amount of money owed Gideon Morris for thirteen bushels of Indian corn—the debt was incurred back in 1783—still had not been paid at the time of Morris’s death in 1798. A one-word comment from the account of the deceased man’s estate listed Crockett’s situation as “Desperate.”22

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