Legends and Such

The story of David Crockett and Mike Fink

Some Background

A few weeks ago, at Fix Bayonets, I posted an account of the 8th Marine Regiment following its activation in 1917.  The regiment formed as a contingency for possible service in France during World War II.  Earlier, however, the United States became aware of the Zimmerman Telegram — a secret communiqué between Imperial Germany and the government of Mexico proposing a military alliance between those two countries.  The Germans no doubt concluded that if Mexico would engage the United States as a German ally, doing so would prevent the United States from joining the war effort as an ally of France and the United Kingdom.  Rather than scheduling the 8th Marines for service in France, the regiment was dispatched to Fort Crockett in Texas in the event Mexico joined Germany in World War I.

In my account — and thinking once again about David Crockett — I noted that the myth surrounding the frontiersman has unnecessarily complicated the facts of his life.  I recall that I had never heard of “Davy” until Walt Disney produced a television series that aired between 1954-55.[1]  In 1954, I was nine years old.  It was the year my step-father purchased the family’s first television set.  We all watched the series.

Disney’s production starred Fess Parker as Crockett, and through this program, Crockett became one of my childhood heroes.  Of course, childhood heroes disappear with time — as did Mr. Parker’s depiction of him.  A few years later, John Wayne produced, directed, and starred in the film The Alamo, which rekindled my interest in “Davy” Crockett.  In 1960, I no longer had any childhood heroes — but I was nevertheless fascinated by Wayne’s account of the Battle of the Alamo.  Like most people back then, I assumed that it was a factual account of Crockett’s last moments.  The apparent source for this account was an African-American slave who worked in the employ of one of General Santa Anna’s officers.

The slave’s name was “Ben.” According to his account, David Crockett’s body was found adjacent to one of the Alamo’s barracks surrounded by “no less than sixteen Mexican corpses.” Ben testified that Crockett’s knife was found buried in one of these dead Mexicans.

In 1975, Texas A&M University Press published the account of José Enrique de la Peña, a Mexican officer who was present at the Battle of the Alamo.  In Spanish, this account was published as La Rebelión de Texas – Manuscrito Inédito de 1836 por un Ofical de Santa Anna.  The translated version was titled With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution translated and edited by Carmen Perry, a former librarian of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.  Señor Peña’s version of the tale caused quite a controversy because, in this account, Crockett was one of several defenders who the Mexicans captured alive and then executed.  This version of the story appeared in the 2004 film The Alamo, which starred actor Billy Bob Thornton.

I found nothing in Señor Peña’s account or the 2004 film[2]that in any way diminished the story of the Alamo or any of the men who served there, including the depiction of David Crockett.  In the first place, Thornton had a much closer resemblance to the real David Crockett than either Fess Parker or John Wayne. 

Moreover (and I understand this was pure film fiction), Crockett’s last words made me laugh, and I imagined it might have been something the real Crockett said.  While trussed and forced to his knees, Crockett/Thornton was asked if he had anything he wished to say before his execution.  His response was, “You tell the general I’m willing to discuss the terms of surrender.  You tell him; if he’ll order his men to put down their weapons and line up, I’ll take them to Sam Houston, and I’ll try my best to save most of them. That said, Sam’s a mite twitchy, so no promises.”

The Family

In history, the French-Huguenot Crockett family migrated to the British colonies by way of Ireland in the early 1700s. David’s earliest known ancestor was Gabriel Gustave de Crocketagne.  His son, Antoine, was one of King Louis XIV’s household troops.  Antoine later migrated to Ireland, where he changed his name to Crockett. Antoine’s son Joseph relocated to New York.  Joseph was David’s great-great-grandfather.

Over time, the Crockett family made their way from New York to Virginia, North Carolina, and then to Northeast Tennessee, in present-day Hawkins County. David’s father, John, was a frontiersman who fought on the American side of the Revolutionary War, notably at Kings Mountain.  While away serving in the militia, the hostile Indians attacked the homestead.  Brother David and sister Elizabeth were killed, Joseph received severe wounds, and James became a hostage.

John Crockett married Rebecca Hawkins in 1780, and David was born in 1786, named after John’s father.  John and Rebecca struggled to make a living for twelve years.  In 1794, John moved his family to Cove Creek, where he constructed a gristmill in partnership with Thomas Galbraith.  After flooding destroyed that effort, the Crockett family moved again to present-day Jefferson County.  However, luck was not with John Crockett, and he ended up forfeiting his land in bankruptcy in 1795.  Eventually, John opened a saloon along a stage route near Morristown.  The family, still in debt, forced John to indenture David to Jacob Siler, and for a time, David Crockett worked as a cracker moving cattle from Tennessee to Virginia.

David met and fell in love with Polly Finley in 1806.  Their first-born was named John Wesley, who later became a member of the U. S. House of Representatives.  After birthing two additional children, Polly died in 1815.  David later married the widow Elizabeth Patton, who had two children by her first husband.  They produced three other children.

The Indian Wars

In the fifteen years leading up to the War of 1812, much to the chagrin local of tribal groups, the United States had opened the northwestern territories to white settlement.  In Canada, retained and controlled by the United Kingdom, some senior British officers believed that re-initiating the question of American independence might be a worthwhile project.  Having noted the agitation among Indian groups, these British officials supplied the Indians with firearms and encouragement to attack white settlements.  The Red Stick Indians, also known as the Upper Creek Indians, likewise resented white encroachment in present-day Alabama and, heartened by their understanding of events in the northwest territories, also began attacking white settlements in the area around present-day Mobile, Alabama.

Red Stick resentment of the Americans also affected their relationship with other Creek tribal groups, notably the Lower Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw, who had established beneficial trade relationships with the whites and were ready to assimilate into white culture.  Bad feelings within the Creek (also Muscogee) Confederacy festered for several years.  In late August, 750-1,000 Red Stick Indians assaulted the white settlement called Fort Mimms, killing everyone within and around the fort, in total around 265 militia, 252 civilians, with an additional (although unknown) number wounded.

Andrew Jackson began his legal and political career in North Carolina’s western district, which later became the state of Tennessee.  In 1788, Jackson lived in the small frontier town of Nashville, where he served as a lawyer and land speculator.  In 1791, Jackson served as the territorial attorney-general and participated as a member of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention.  He was Tennessee’s only congressional representative in those early days and an affiliate of Thomas Jefferson.  Jackson.  In 1802, Jackson won election as Commander of the Tennessee Militia, serving as “Major General.”

After the attack on Fort Mimms, dealing with the Red Stick Indians was assigned to Jackson, appointed to Major General of the American Army.  His call for volunteers netted David Crockett, who, at age 27-years, served as a scout under the command of Francis Jones mounted rifle company.  Jones, in turn, served under Colonel John Coffee, who commanded the 2nd Regiment of Volunteers.  John Coffee was the cousin through marriage of famed Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays.  In addition to his scouting duties, Crockett was the primary hunter for the game to feed his fellow militiamen, having no preference for killing Indians.

When Jackson switched his attention to British forces operating from Florida, Crockett reenlisted as “third sergeant” with the Tennessee Mounted Rifles under Captain John Cowan. Cowan’s command saw no action in this phase of Jackson’s operations, and Crockett returned home in December 1814.

Tennessee Politics

In 1817, Crockett served as a surveyor for Lawrence County.  In November of that year, county officials appointed him to serve as a Justice of the Peace.  In March 1818, Tennessee militiamen elected him to serve as lieutenant colonel of the 57th Tennessee Regiment.

Throughout this time, Crockett developed several successful businesses; when his county duties became an impediment to these interests, he resigned from the regiment as Justice of the Peace but maintained his position as a land commissioner.  Between 1821-1822, Crockett served in the Tennessee General Assembly.  Shortly after his election, floods destroyed all of Crockett’s businesses.

Most of Crockett’s legislative efforts involved lowering the tax burden on poor settlers/landowners.  In the General Assembly, he opposed Andrew Jackson’s political intrigue, which did nothing to endear him to Tennessee Democrats.  In 1823, Crockett ran against Jackson’s nephew-in-law William E. Butler, defeating him for a seat in the General Assembly representing Carroll, Humphreys, Perry, Henderson, and Madison counties.  When Andrew Jackson ran for the US Senate, Crockett backed incumbent John Williams.  Jackson won.

Although he ran for a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives in 1824, he lost to the incumbent, Adam Alexander.  Disheartened, it took encouragement from Memphis mayor Marcus Winchester to convince Crockett to give it another “go.” In a letter published in the Jackson Gazette, Crockett explained why he was opposed to the policies of John Quincy Adams and Congressman Alexander.  Crockett won the seat, serving from 1827-1831.  Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828, which caused Crockett to throw his support behind James K. Polk.  His two terms in Congress were controversial because, among other issues, Crockett believed that the United States Military Academy had become a school for the privileged class.  He also opposed Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy.  His stance on Indian Removal cost him his seat in 1831.

On to Texas

Crockett served again in the House between 1833-35.  During this time, Crockett published his autobiography and went on a tour to promote the book.  By 1834, Congressman Crockett knew there would be a revolution in Texas, and he began discussing the possibility of raising a company of volunteers to help the Texians achieve their independence.

Crockett’s daughter Matilda, his youngest child, later recounted the morning he left for Texas on 1 November 1835. “He was dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap, and carried a fine rifle presented to him by his friends in Philadelphia.  He seemed very confident the morning he went away that he would soon have us all to join him in Texas.”

Crockett’s journey took him to Jackson, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas, where his popularity resulted in hundreds of people gathering to hear him speak about Texas.  Arriving in Nacogdoches, a Texas judge swore Crockett and his men in as Texas Volunteers.  In total, 65 men took the oath of allegiance to the Republic of Texas that day.  Each volunteer received the promise of 4,600 acres of land in payment for their services.  On 6 February, Crockett and six others arrived in San Antonio de Béxar — he and his companions joined the garrison at the Alamo on 8 February 1836.

… And Such

Until the Walt Disney production of Davy Crockett, I had also never heard of another mythical character, known variously as either Miche Phinck or Mike Fink.  Mr. Fink lived from around 1775 to 1823.  Beyond the fact that he was born at Fort Pitt (present-day Pittsburgh), there is not much known about Fink’s early years.  He may have served as a scout in his teenage years, and he was known as an exceptional shot with a rifle.  Accustomed to the wild, undisciplined life at a young age, Fink shunned the farmer’s life and took up the oar as a boatman on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

In the television program, Jeff York played the role of Mike Fink.  Then, it seemed to me that Fink was a loudmouth and a bully — and from what we know of Fink, he was precisely that.  Fink stood well over six feet tall and might have been around 180-190 pounds in weight.  As a boatman, he had a well-developed physique, which enabled him to seek out fights with others, and win.

When Mike Fink wasn’t drinking, he was drinking even more.  His drinking frequently involved fist-fights, brawls, or shooting contests — some of which involved placing a cup of whiskey on a man’s head and shooting it off without killing the man.  In such a deadly contest, he was, for the most part, amazingly proficient.  In that moment, before Mike’s own death, however, his aim faltered, and Mink Fink shot through the man’s face who was his friend, a man named Carpenter.  Talbot, who was also a friend of Carpenter, then killed Mike Fink.

David Crockett described Mike Fink as being “half horse and half alligator,” and, according to a relative by the name John Fink, Mike’s restlessness resulted from his unhappiness with encroaching civilization.  There was simply “too much” progress.  At the same time, in business matters, he was a strict disciplinarian and would not tolerate a man who would not or could not carry his own weight.

Fink died in the Rocky Mountains while serving as part of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, one of William Henry Ashley’s 100 fur trappers — his aim, as I said, a tad off.

Sources:

  1. Alphin, E. M.  Davy Crockett.  Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing, 2003.
  2. Beals, F. L.  Real Adventures with American Pathfinders: Daniel Boone, Lewis & Clark, Zebulon Pike, Davy Crockett.  Wagner Publishing, 1954.
  3. Blair, W., and Franklin Meine.  Mike Fink: King of the Mississippi Keelboatmen.  New York: Greenwood Press, 1971.
  4. Burke, J. W.  David Crockett, the man behind the myth.  New York: Eakins Press, 1984.
  5. Davis, W. C.  Three Roads to the Alamo: The lives and fortunes of Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis.  New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
  6. Rourke, C.  Davy Crockett.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
  7. Wallis, M.  David Crockett: The Lion of the West.  Norton Publishing, 2011.

Endnotes:

[1] In his own day, there were some who referred to Mr. Crockett as “Davy,” but he never liked the informal use of his name.  In his own work, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, published in 1834, he used a formal reference to himself rather than the familiar. 

[2] I give this film five-stars.  Stephen Harrigan’s book The Gates of the Alamo (2000) is an excellent companion to this film.


About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, History, Indian War, Pioneers, Politicians, Texas. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Legends and Such

  1. Andy says:

    Crockett’s legend is well-known in Texas. The circumstances of his death at the Alamo have always been questioned. After the Alamo fell, several of the women and children were allowed to leave unarmed. They, too, told the story of Crockett’s execution. While Hollywood and Disney may have made Crockett a larger-than-life hero, there can be no doubt that his real story was both bold and significant.

    Like

  2. Andy says:

    You still have your coonskin cap?!!? When you’re ready to sell it, let me know. It would go great with my mess dress.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I could let you borrow it for mess night, Andy … but then people would probably call you a racist. I’d better keep it under lock and key.

      Like

  3. I will watch the 2004 film at your recommendation.
    I always assumed it was revisionist crap.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      In the sense that no one knows what the real characters said to one another, or how they actually behaved inside the Alamo, the film is likely “revisionist.” I simply think that if we had to piece the events back together, the 2004 film would likely be better aligned with the actual event than the Wayne production in 1960. Most of the controversy has to do with how Crockett died, which I think is silly. Since a description of his death comes to us from a diary of a Mexican officer, who had no reason to embellish any of the events of this Mexican victory, then we should acknowledge the fact that it is likely that Crockett was taken prisoner and then beheaded. It certainly doesn’t change the bravery of either Crockett or any of the others who died with him on that day.

      Like

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