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David Crockett - Off for Texas

Crockett's return to his home was a signal triumph all the way. At Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, crowds gathered to greet him. He was feasted, received presents, was complimented, and was incessantly called upon for a speech. He was an earnest student as he journeyed along. A new world of wonders were opening before him. Thoughts which he never before had dreamed of were rushing into his mind. His eyes were ever watchful to see all that was worthy of note. His ear was ever listening for every new idea. He scarcely ever looked at the printed page, but perused with the utmost diligence the book of nature. His comments upon what he saw indicate much sagacity.

At Cincinnatti and Louisville, immense crowds assembled to hear him. In both places he spoke quite at length. And all who heard him were surprised at the power he displayed. Though his speech was rude and unpolished, the clearness of his views, and the intelligence he manifested, caused the journals generally to speak of him in quite a different strain from that which they had been accustomed to use. Probably never did a man make so much intellectual progress, in the course of a few months, as David Crockett had made in that time. His wonderful memory of names, dates, facts, all the intricacies of statistics, was such, that almost any statesman might be instructed by his addresses, and not many men could safely encounter him in argument. The views he presented upon the subject of the Constitution, finance, internal improvements, etc., were very surprising, when one considers the limited education he had enjoyed. At the close of these agitating scenes he touchingly writes:

"In a short time I set out for my own home; yes, my own home, my own soil, my humble dwelling, my own family, my own hearts, my ocean of love and affection, which neither circumstances nor time can dry up. Here, like the wearied bird, let me settle down for a while, and shut out the world."

But hunting bears had lost its charms for Crockett. He had been so flattered that it is probable that he fully expected to be chosen President of the United States. There were two great parties then dividing the country, the Democrats and the Whigs. The great object of each was to find an available candidate, no matter how unfit for the office. The leaders wished to elect a President who would be, like the Queen of England, merely the ornamental figure-head of the ship of state, while their energies should propel and guide the majestic fabric. For a time some few thought it possible that in the popularity of the great bear-hunter such a candidate might be found.

Crockett, upon his return home, resumed his deerskin leggins, his fringed hunting-shirt, his fox-skin cap, and shouldering his rifle, plunged, as he thought, with his original zest, into the cheerless, tangled, marshy forest which surrounded him. But the excitements of Washington, the splendid entertainments of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, the flattery, the speech-making, which to him, with his marvellous memory and his wonderful fluency of speech, was as easy as breathing, the applause showered upon him, and the gorgeous vision of the Presidency looming up before him, engrossed his mind. He sauntered listlessly through the forest, his bear-hunting energies all paralyzed. He soon grew very weary of home and of all its employments, and was eager to return to the infinitely higher excitements of political life.

General Jackson was then almost idolized by his party. All through the South and West his name was a tower of strength. Crockett had originally been elected as a Jackson-man. He had abandoned the Administration, and was now one of the most inveterate opponents of Jackson. The majority in Crockett's district were in favor of Jackson. The time came for a new election of a representative. Crockett made every effort, in his old style, to secure the vote. He appeared at the gatherings in his garb as a bear-hunter, with his rifle on his shoulder. He brought 'coonskins to buy whiskey to treat his friends. A 'coonskin in the currency of that country was considered the equivalent for twenty-five cents. He made funny speeches. But it was all in vain.

Greatly to his surprise, and still more to his chagrin, he lost his election. He was beaten by two hundred and thirty votes. The whole powerful influence of the Government was exerted against Crockett and in favor of his competitor. It is said that large bribes were paid for votes. Crockett wrote, in a strain which reveals the bitterness of his disappointment:

"I am gratified that I have spoken the truth to the people of my district, regardless of the consequences. I would not be compelled to bow down to the idol for a seat in Congress during life. I have never known what it was to sacrifice my own judgment to gratify any party; and I have no doubt of the time being close at hand when I shall be rewarded for letting my tongue speak what my heart thinks. I have suffered myself to be politically sacrificed to save my country from ruin and disgrace; and if I am never again elected, I will have the gratification to know that I have done my duty. I may add, in the words of the man in the play, 'Crockett's occupation's gone.'"

Two weeks after this he writes, "I confess the thorn still rankles, not so much on my own account as the nation's. As my country no longer requires my services, I have made up my mind to go to Texas. My life has been one of danger, toil, and privation. But these difficulties I had to encounter at a time when I considered it nothing more than right good sport to surmount them. But now I start upon my own hook, and God only grant that it may be strong enough to support the weight that may be hung upon it. I have a new row to hoe, a long and rough one; but come what will, I will go ahead."

Just before leaving for Texas, he attended a political meeting of his constituents. The following extract from his autobiography will give the reader a very vivid idea of his feelings at the time, and of the very peculiar character which circumstances had developed in him:

"A few days ago I went to a meeting of my constituents. My appetite for politics was at one time just about as sharp set as a saw-mill, but late events have given me something of a surfeit, more than I could well digest; still, habit, they say, is second natur, and so I went, and gave them a piece of my mind touching 'the Government' and the succession, by way of a codicil to what I have often said before.

"I told them, moreover, of my services, pretty straight up and down, for a man may be allowed to speak on such subjects when others are about to forget them; and I also told them of the manner in which I had been knocked down and dragged out, and that I did not consider it a fair fight anyhow they could fix it. I put the ingredients in the cup pretty strong I tell you, and I concluded my speech by telling them that I was done with politics for the present, and that they might all go to hell, and I would go to Texas.

"When I returned home I felt a sort of cast down at the change that had taken place in my fortunes, and sorrow, it is said, will make even an oyster feel poetical. I never tried my hand at that sort of writing but on this particular occasion such was my state of feeling, that I began to fancy myself inspired; so I took pen in hand, and as usual I went ahead. When I had got fairly through, my poetry looked as zigzag as a worm-fence; the lines wouldn't tally no how; so I showed them to Peleg Longfellow, who has a first-rate reputation with us for that sort of writing, having some years ago made a carrier's address for the Nashville Banner; and Peleg lopped of some lines, and stretched out others; but I wish I may be shot if I don't rather think he has made it worse than it was when I placed it in his hands. It being my first, and, no doubt, last piece of poetry, I will print it in this place, as it will serve to express my feelings on leaving my home, my neighbors, and friends and country, for a strange land, as fully as I could in plain prose.

"Farewell to the mountains whose mazes to me Were more beautiful far than Eden could be; No fruit was forbidden, but Nature had spread Her bountiful board, and her children were fed. The hills were our garners--our herds wildly grew And Nature was shepherd and husbandman too. I felt like a monarch, yet thought like a man, As I thanked the Great Giver, and worshipped his plan.

"The home I forsake where my offspring arose; The graves I forsake where my children repose. The home I redeemed from the savage and wild; The home I have loved as a father his child; The corn that I planted, the fields that I cleared, The flocks that I raised, and the cabin I reared; The wife of my bosom--Farewell to ye all! In the land of the stranger I rise or I fall.

"Farewell to my country! I fought for thee well, When the savage rushed forth like the demons from hell In peace or in war I have stood by thy side--My country, for thee I have lived, would have died! But I am cast off, my career now is run, And I wander abroad like the prodigal son--Where the wild savage roves, and the broad prairies spread, The fallen--despised--will again go ahead."

A party of American adventurers, then called filibusters, had gone into Texas, in the endeavor to wrest that immense and beautiful territory, larger than the whole Empire of France, from feeble, distracted, miserable Mexico, to which it belonged. These filibusters were generally the most worthless and desperate vagabonds to be found in all the Southern States. Many Southern gentlemen of wealth and ability, but strong advocates of slavery, were in cordial sympathy with this movement, and aided it with their purses, and in many other ways. It was thought that if Texas could be wrested from Mexico and annexed to the United States, it might be divided into several slaveholding States, and thus check the rapidly increasing preponderance of the free States of the North.

To join in this enterprise, Crockett now left his home, his wife, his children. There could be no doubt of the eventual success of the undertaking. And in that success Crockett saw visions of political glory opening before him. I determined, he said, "to quit the States until such time as honest and independent men should again work their way to the head of the heap. And as I should probably have some idle time on hand before that state of affairs would be brought about, I promised to give the Texans a helping hand on the high road to freedom."

He dressed himself in a new deerskin hunting-shirt, put on a foxskin cap with the tail hanging behind, shouldered his famous rifle, and cruelly leaving in the dreary cabin his wife and children whom he cherished with an "ocean of love and affection," set out on foot upon his perilous adventure. A days' journey through the forest brought him to the Mississippi River. Here he took a steamer down that majestic stream to the mouth of the Arkansas River, which rolls its vast flood from regions then quite unexplored in the far West. The stream was navigable fourteen hundred miles from its mouth.

Arkansas was then but a Territory, two hundred and forty miles long and two hundred and twenty-eight broad. The sparsely scattered population of the Territory amounted to but about thirty thousand. Following up the windings of the river three hundred miles, one came to a cluster of a few straggling huts, called Little Rock, which constitutes now the capital of the State.

Crockett ascended the river in the steamer, and, unencumbered with baggage, save his rifle, hastened to a tavern which he saw at a little distance from the shore, around which there was assembled quite a crowd of men. He had been so accustomed to public triumphs that he supposed that they had assembled in honor of his arrival. "Strange as it may seem," he says, "they took no more notice of me than if I had been Dick Johnson, the wool-grower. This took me somewhat aback;" and he inquired what was the meaning of the gathering.

He found that the people had been called together to witness the feats of a celebrated juggler and gambler. The name of Colonel Crockett had gone through the nation; and gradually it became noised abroad that Colonel Crockett was in the crowd. "I wish I may be shot," Crockett says, "if I wasn't looked upon as almost as great a sight as Punch and Judy."

He was invited to a public dinner that very day. As it took some time to cook the dinner, the whole company went to a little distance to shoot at a mark. All had heard of Crockett's skill. After several of the best sharpshooters had fired, with remarkable accuracy, it came to Crockett's turn. Assuming an air of great carelessness, he raised his beautiful rifle, which he called Betsey, to his shoulder, fired, and it so happened that the bullet struck exactly in the centre of the bull's-eye. All were astonished, and so was Crockett himself. But with an air of much indifference he turned upon his heel, saying, "There's no mistake in Betsey."

One of the best marksmen in those parts, chagrined at being so beaten, said, "Colonel, that must have been a chance shot."

"I can do it," Crockett replied, "five times out of six, any day in the week."

"I knew," he adds, in his autobiography, "it was not altogether as correct as it might be; but when a man sets about going the big figure, halfway measures won't answer no how."

It was now proposed that there should be a second trial. Crockett was very reluctant to consent to this, for he had nothing to gain, and everything to lose. But they insisted so vehemently that he had to yield. As what ensued does not redound much to his credit, we will let him tell the story in his own language.

"So to it again we went. They were now put upon their mettle, and they fired much better than the first time; and it was what might be called pretty sharp shooting. When it came to my turn, I squared myself, and turning to the prime shot, I gave him a knowing nod, by way of showing my confidence; and says I, 'Look out for the bull's-eye, stranger.' I blazed away, and I wish I may be shot if I didn't miss the target. They examined it all over, and could find neither hair nor hide of my bullet, and pronounced it a dead miss; when says I, 'Stand aside and let me look, and I warrant you I get on the right trail of the critter,' They stood aside, and I examined the bull's-eye pretty particular, and at length cried out, 'Here it is; there is no snakes if it ha'n't followed the very track of the other.' They said it was utterly impossible, but I insisted on their searching the hole, and I agreed to be stuck up as a mark myself, if they did not find two bullets there.

They searched for my satisfaction, and sure enough it all come out just as I had told them; for I had picked up a bullet that had been fired, and stuck it deep into the hole, without any one perceiving it. They were all perfectly satisfied that fame had not made too great a flourish of trumpets when speaking of me as a marksman: and they all said they had enough of shooting for that day, and they moved that we adjourn to the tavern and liquor."

The dinner consisted of bear's meat, venison, and wild turkey. They had an "uproarious" time over their whiskey. Crockett made a coarse and vulgar speech, which was neither creditable to his head nor his heart. But it was received with great applause.

The next morning Crockett decided to set out to cross the country in a southwest direction, to Fulton, on the upper waters of the Red River. The gentlemen furnished Crockett with a fine horse, and five of them decided to accompany him, as a mark of respect, to the River Washita, fifty miles from Little Rock. Crockett endeavored to raise some recruits for Texas, but was unsuccessful. When they reached the Washita, they found a clergyman, one of those bold, hardy pioneers of the wilderness, who through the wildest adventures were distributing tracts and preaching the gospel in the remotest hamlets.

He was in a condition of great peril. He had attempted to ford the river in the wrong place, and had reached a spot where he could not advance any farther, and yet could not turn his horse round. With much difficulty they succeeded in extricating him, and in bringing him safe to the shore. Having bid adieu to his kind friends, who had escorted him thus far, Crockett crossed the river, and in company with the clergyman continued his journey, about twenty miles farther west toward a little settlement called Greenville. He found his new friend to be a very charming companion. In describing the ride, Crockett writes:

"We talked about politics, religion, and nature, farming, and bear-hunting, and the many blessings that an all-bountiful Providence has bestowed upon our happy country. He continued to talk upon this subject, travelling over the whole ground as it were, until his imagination glowed, and his soul became full to overflowing; and he checked his horse, and I stopped mine also, and a stream of eloquence burst forth from his aged lips, such as I have seldom listened to: it came from the overflowing fountain of a pure and grateful heart. We were alone in the wilderness, but as he proceeded, it seemed to me as if the tall trees bent their tops to listen; that the mountain stream laughed out joyfully as it bounded on like some living thing that the fading flowers of autumn smiled, and sent forth fresher fragrance, as if conscious that they would revive in spring; and even the sterile rocks seemed to be endued with some mysterious influence. We were alone in the wilderness, but all things told me that God was there. The thought renewed my strength and courage. I had left my country, felt somewhat like an outcast, believed that I had been neglected and lost sight of. But I was now conscious that there was still one watchful Eye over me; no matter whether I dwelt in the populous cities, or threaded the pathless forest alone; no matter whether I stood in the high places among men, or made my solitary lair in the untrodden wild, that Eye was still upon me. My very soul leaped joyfully at the thought. I never felt so grateful in all my life. I never loved my God so sincerely in all my life. I felt that I still had a friend.

"When the old man finished, I found that my eyes were wet with tears. I approached and pressed his hand, and thanked him, and says I, 'Now let us take a drink.' I set him the example, and he followed it, and in a style too that satisfied me, that if he had ever belonged to the temperance society, he had either renounced membership, or obtained a dispensation. Having liquored, we proceeded on our journey, keeping a sharp lookout for mill-seats and plantations as we rode along.

"I left the worthy old man at Greenville, and sorry enough I was to part with him, for he talked a great deal, and he seemed to know a little about everything. He knew all about the history of the country; was well acquainted with all the leading men; knew where all the good lands lay in most of Western States.

"He was very cheerful and happy, though to all appearances very poor. I thought that he would make a first-rate agent for taking up lands, and mentioned it to him. He smiled, and pointing above, said, 'My wealth lies not in this world.'"

From Greenville, Crockett pressed on about fifty or sixty miles through a country interspersed withe forests and treeless prairies, until he reached Fulton. He had a letter of introduction to one of the prominent gentlemen here, and was received with marked distinction. After a short visit he disposed of his horse; he took a steamer to descend the river several hundred miles to Natchitoches, pronounced Nakitosh, a small straggling village of eight hundred inhabitants, on the right bank of the Red River, about two hundred miles from its entrance into the Mississippi.

In descending the river there was a juggler on board, who performed many skilful juggling tricks. and by various feats of gambling won much money from his dupes. Crockett was opposed to gambling in all its forms. Becoming acquainted with the juggler and, finding him at heart a well-meaning, good-natured fellow, he endeavored to remonstrate with him upon his evil practices.

"I told him," says Crockett, "that it was a burlesque on human nature, that an able-bodied man, possessed of his full share of good sense, should voluntarily debase himself, and be indebted for subsistence to such a pitiful artifice.

"'But what's to be done, Colonel?' says he. 'I'm in the slough of despond, up to the very chin. A miry and slippery path to travel.'

"'Then hold your head up,' says I, 'before the slough reaches your lips.'

"'But what's the use?' says he: 'it's utterly impossible for me to wade through; and even if I could, I should be in such a dirty plight, that it would defy all the waters in the Mississippi to wash me clean again. No,' he added in a desponding tone, 'I should be like a live eel in a frying-pan, Colonel, sort of out of my element, if I attempted to live like an honest man at this time o' day.'

"'That I deny. It is never too late to become honest,' said I. 'But even admit what you say to be true--that you cannot live like an honest man--you have at least the next best thing in your power, and no one can say nay to it.'

"'And what is that?'

"'Die like a brave one. And I know not whether, in the eyes of the world, a brilliant death is not preferred to an obscure life of rectitude. Most men are remembered as they died, and not as they lived. We gaze with admiration upon the glories of the setting sun, yet scarcely bestow a passing glance upon its noonday splendor.'

"'You are right; but how is this to be done?'

"'Accompany me to Texas. Cut aloof from your degrading habits and associates here, and, in fighting for the freedom of the Texans, regain your own.'

"The man seemed much moved. He caught up his gambling instruments, thrust them into his pocket, with hasty strides traversed the floor two or three times, and then exclaimed:

"'By heaven, I will try to be a man again. I will live honestly, or die bravely. I will go with you to Texas.'"

To confirm him in his good resolution, Crockett "asked him to liquor." At Natchitoches, Crockett encountered another very singular character. He was a remarkably handsome young man, of poetic imagination, a sweet singer, and with innumerable scraps of poetry and of song ever at his tongue's end. Honey-trees, as they were called, were very abundant in Texas The prairies were almost boundless parterres of the richest flowers, from which the bees made large quantities of the most delicious honey. This they deposited in the hollows of trees. Not only was the honey valuable, but the wax constituted a very important article of commerce in Mexico, and brought a high price, being used for the immense candles which they burned in their churches. The bee-hunter, by practice, acquired much skill in coursing the bees to their hives.

This man decided to join Crockett and the juggler in their journey over the vast prairies of Texas. Small, but very strong and tough Mexican ponies, called mustangs, were very cheap. They were found wild, in droves of thousands, grazing on the prairies. The three adventurers mounted their ponies, and set out on their journey due west, a distance of one hundred and twenty miles, to Nacogdoches. Their route was along a mere trail, which was called the old Spanish road. It led over vast prairies, where there was no path, and where the bee-hunter was their guide, and through forests where their course was marked only by blazed trees.

The bee-hunter, speaking of the state of society in Texas, said that at San Felipe he had sat down with a small party at the breakfast-table, where eleven of the company had fled from the States charged with the crime of murder. So accustomed were the inhabitants to the appearance of fugitives from justice, that whenever a stranger came among them, they took it for granted that he had committed some crime which rendered it necessary for him to take refuge beyond the grasp of his country's laws.

They reached Nacogdoches without any special adventure. It was a flourishing little Mexican town of about one thousand inhabitants, situated in a romantic dell, about sixty miles west of the River Sabine. The Mexicans and the Indians were very nearly on an intellectual and social equality. Groups of Indians, harmless and friendly, were ever sauntering through the streets of the little town.

Colonel Crockett's horse had become lame on the journey. He obtained another, and, with his feet nearly touching the ground as he bestrode the little animal, the party resumed its long and weary journey, directing their course two or three hundred miles farther southwest through the very heart of Texas to San Antonio. They frequently encountered vast expanses of canebrakes; such canes as Northern boys use for fishing-poles. There is one on the banks of Caney Creek, seventy miles in length, with scarcely a tree to be seen for the whole distance. There was generally a trail cut through these, barely wide enough for a single mustang to pass. The reeds were twenty or thirty feet high, and so slender that, having no support over the path, they drooped a little inward and intermingled their tops. Thus a very singular and beautiful canopy was formed, beneath which the travellers moved along sheltered from the rays of a Texan sun.

As they were emerging from one of these arched avenues, they saw three black wolves jogging along very leisurely in front of them, but at too great a distance to be reached by a rifle-bullet. Wild turkeys were very abundant, and vast droves of wild horses were cropping the herbage of the most beautiful and richest pastures to be found on earth. Immense herds of buffaloes were also seen.

"These sights," says Crockett, "awakened the ruling passion strong within me, and I longed to have a hunt on a large scale. For though I had killed many bears and deer in my time, I had never brought down a buffalo, and so I told my friends. But they tried to dissuade me from it, telling me that I would certainly lose my way, and perhaps perish; for though it appeared a garden to the eye, it was still a wilderness. I said little more upon the subject until we crossed the Trinidad River. But every mile we travelled, I found the temptation grew stronger and stronger."

The night after crossing the Trinidad River they were so fortunate as to come across the hut of a poor woman, where they took shelter until the next morning. They were here joined by two other chance travellers, who must indeed have been rough specimens of humanity. Crockett says that though he had often seen men who had not advanced far over the line of civilization, these were the coarsest samples he had ever met.

One proved to be an old pirate, about fifty years of age. He was tall, bony, and in aspect seemed scarcely human. The shaggy hair of his whiskers and beard covered nearly his whole face. He had on a sailor's round jacket and tarpaulin hat. The deep scar, apparently of a sword cut, deformed his forehead, and another similar scar was on the back of one of his hands. His companion was a young Indian, wild as the wolves, bareheaded, and with scanty deerskin dress.

Early the next morning they all resumed their journey, the two strangers following on foot. Their path led over the smooth and treeless prairie, as beautiful in its verdure and its flowers as the most cultivated park could possibly be. About noon they stopped to refresh their horses and dine beneath a cluster of trees in the open prairie. They had built their fire, were cooking their game, and were all seated upon the grass, chatting very sociably, when the bee-hunter saw a bee, which indicated that a hive of honey might be found not far distant. He leaped upon his mustang, and without saying a word, "started off like mad," and scoured along the prairie. "We watched him," says Crockett, "until he seemed no larger than a rat, and finally disappeared in the distance."

Back to: Biography of David Crockett

Source: David Crockett: His Life and Adventures by John S. C. Abbott

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