History of Tennessee/Antebellum Tennessee (1796-1861)

Early Settlements


Early Memphis


The area of Memphis had been populated long before becoming a part of the United States. Memphis was first populated by indigenous peoples many years prior to becoming part of the United States due in part to its geographical location. The land was found favorable because it is along the Mississippi River, while still being situated high enough to prevent flooding. The land would later be claimed by the Spanish, French, and British before coming into American hands. The US purchased the land in 1818 from the Chickasaw Indians. The town of Memphis was founded a year later by Andrew Jackson, James Winchester, and John Overton. Memphis was officially incorporated into the state of Tennessee in late 1826. Early Memphis found great success due to its prime location along the river, while the surrounding areas such as the Mississippi Delta were prime for cotton plantations, allowing the city to become a major player in the cotton market. This market at the time was mostly dominated by slave owners and because of that, Memphis became a large hub for the slave trade. By the 1850s, Memphis boasted the only east-west railroad in the south allowing it to grow to become the largest landlocked cotton market in North America at the time. This also caused Memphis to become a major target in the Civil war, which would come in the following years. The industry became so lucrative that when the debate over seceding to the union came, it was because while the town was definitely on the side of pro-slavery, they were hesitant to leave as there was a lot of money coming from the northern markets and leaving would cause a massive blow to business. The town of Memphis was designated by the government for white settlement after purchase. In the 1830s, the Indian Removal Act passed, forcing many people from their homes and to be relocated west of the Mississippi. Memphis became a hub for what would later be called the trail of tears, as many left from that point on their way to their new homes of designated Indian territory. Due to the slave-based nature of the economy in Memphis, African Americans made up a sizeable chunk of the population. This percentage grew from the town's founding until the war, when around one-quarter of the population were slaves. By the time the war began, the town had a population of about 55,000.

Founders Of Memphis


Founded in 1819 by the three men pictured, Memphis was named after the Egyptian city of the same name. The name was chosen due to the Egyptian city also being the capital and located on a prominent river.

Early Knoxville


Knoxville became part of the state of Tennessee in 1815 after much negotiation between surveyors and the regional Cherokee over boundaries. It served as the first capital of Tennessee up until 1817. Knoxville did not have a booming economy in it's early days, but rather was known as a "rough around the edges" hub for travelers to stop and rest as they made their way down the river or westward across the country. Hundreds of travelers passed through the city on a daily basis, prompting quick growth of local businesses. The geographical location of the town signaled a prosperous economic future as it was at the convergence of three rivers. Knoxville quickly became a sales hub for the local area as many came down from the surrounding mountains of the Appalachian to head into the town for imported goods. The town most prominently brought in cotton from the south in exchange for locally grown products. Much like Memphis, the town's population and business center experienced real growth once the railroad was built in the 1850s. Knoxville's growth had been hindered by the fact that it was relatively isolated due to the mountain ranges that blocked off the city from everyone else. It became very difficult to traverse by road and thus severely stunted the growth of the population for many years following its founding. Due to these issues, Knoxville legislators were some of the most enthusiastic when it came to building a rail line that connected them with the rest of the states. Unfortunately, before its eventual introduction in 1854, the city witnessed the financial failure of one line in the 1830s. This introduction put the expansion on a fast track as the population went on to more than double in the decade. The city went on to open multiple factories producing train cars among other things before the civil war began.

Early Nashville

Fort Nashborough, First Ave. and Church St., Nashville, Tenn (74048)

Before becoming incorporated in 1806, the area was home to Fort Nashborough, a small stockade located in the middle of what would become Tennessee. The fort would become a cornerstone of the early city, which would quickly grow and flourish due to its prime positioning in relation to the rest of the state, as well as the Ohio River. The city thrived and continue to grow, quickly becoming the state's capital from 1812 to 1817. In 1817, Knoxville once again became the capital of Tennessee, however, Nashville would regain capital status in 1826, a title which it still holds today. In the late 1840s, when the cholera epidemic made its way to the interior states, Nashville found itself hit hard. Over 1849-1850, cholera ran rampant in the town. It is approximated that over the course of these two years, between 700-800 people lost their lives due to the epidemic. This was devastating due to the fact that the population of Nashville at the time was already under ten thousand. The most notable life claimed by the outbreak was that of James K. Polk, the acting president at the time. While he was not considered to have contracted cholera while in Nashville he did, however, succumb to it in Nashville in the summer of 1849. In the mid-1850s, the railroad was built through the city, further taking advantage of the prime location that it was founded on. This led to the further expansion and boom of the city with its perfect location. However, this prime location proved detrimental once the civil war came, causing it to be a focal point for the opposing sides.



Cherokee Wars


The Cherokee-American War, otherwise called the Chickamauga Wars, were a number of significant clashes and skirmishes between the Cherokee and other affiliated tribes and European settlers in the southern frontier of the United States, caused by an increase in European settlement in Cherokee lands, such as Tennessee. The conflict lasted through 1776-1795. The War split into two parts, the first part lasting from 1776-1783 and the second part lasting from 1783-1794. During the first part of the war, (Included the Revolutionary War) the Cherokee formed an ally with the British to fight against their American adversaries. The second part of the war consisted of the Cherokee location/settlement shifting to the West. As a result, The Cherokee served as a surrogate between New Spain and the United States of America.

The sacred home of the Cherokee Nation was, what is now, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, settled by the Cherokee in approximately 1000 A.D. after leaving from the New England states. Cherokee living was hunting, trading, growing their food and living in small, matriarchal communities. The first Europeans arrived in 1540, when explorer Hernando de Sota, of Spain, surveyed the Cherokee territory. When more European explorers and traders came to the North America, the Cherokee had settled and controlled much of the southeastern United States. In the late 1700’s, many, many settlers arrived from Europe ready for a life in the United States. The Cherokee fought with settlers but eventually withdrew to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Tennessee Cherokee used a lot of the tools, weapons and methods brought by the settlers and these items affected their everyday life as they began to hunt animals for their pelts, not only for food, as they needed pelts to trade for goods. The more people arrived to settle on the Cherokee land, the more conflict arose. These battles against whites with better weapons, as well as new diseases brought over from Europe led to much Cherokee death. A conflict between British soldiers and the Overhill Cherokees at Fort Loudoun ended with British surrender on August 7, 1760. Captain Paul Demeré and some men were ambushed and the fort and the rest of the soldiers were taken prisoner. The Cherokee were the last native group to live in Tennessee. The fur trade changed the Cherokee way of life forever. The Cherokee became dependent on European goods and over hunted the region’s animals. The French and Indian War and the Seven Years' War led to even more fighting between the Cherokee and American settlers, as British and Spanish used the Cherokee to fight the Americans further their own ambitions. The Cherokee Nation heavily influenced the southern frontier including the state of Tennessee. The name Tennessee itself was named when British settlers arrived at a Cherokee village called Tanasi which means “winding-river” or “river of great bend” which is now referred to as the Little Tennessee River. The war was considered very irregular as it consisted of guerrilla tactics, periods of inactivity, and a range of small to larger battles. The Seven Years’ War (between French and Natives) also influenced further tension amongst the Cherokee and American settlers. Dragging Canoe, also known as The Savage Napoleon, was a Cherokee leader who led Cherokee warriors and other members from neighbouring Indian tribes during the war.

During the American Revolution, the Cherokee fought against the American settlers in their region, and also as allies of British against their American colonies. For example, Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals was attacked in 1776 by Dragging Canoe and his over 1,000 Cherokee warriors and nearly wiped out Fort Nashborough (which later became Nashville) the Battle of the Bluffs in April 1781. With The 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, also known as the Transylvania Purchase, the Cherokee sold Kentucky and Middle Tennessee to the American colonies. Dragging Canoe hated this Treaty and said the settlement of those lands would be “dark and bloody,”. At the end of the American Revolution, most Cherokee wanted peace with the United States. When the Treaty of Dewitt's Corner was signed in June 1776, Dragging Canoe and his warriors moved further down the Tennessee River to further white settlement from a better location. Since there were more loyalists in the south, British troops started to focus their war campaign south towards the end of 1778. The revolutionary phase or the Cherokee of War 1776 (first part of the war) consisted of the Cherokee fighting settlers and others that intruded their land. This phase started off with the Loyalists retreating back from Cherokee land as tensions began to rise rapidly. Known and feared Loyalists such as John Stuart (Superintendent of Indian Affairs) and Thomas Brown both flee to ensure their safety. Northern Tribes (Iroquois, Ottawa, etc.) were led by a British governor to delegate with southern Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee). This was done to encourage all the tribes to fight alongside the British against the Americans. Dragging Canoe accepted these terms by accepting ceremonial belts from the potential partnering tribes. Before fighting alongside the northern tribes, Dragging Canoe first initiated a small battle/raid in Kentucky. After the small raid in Kentucky, the first Cherokee campaigns commenced. War parties were sent to South and North Carolina. The Cherokee conquered land around the Blue Ridge, and the Catawba River. Following that, Cherokee and Loyalist (dressed like Cherokee) attacked a fort (named Lindsay Station) in South Carolina. There were no Cherokee casualties. Ultimately, there were multiple attacks on the American frontier. Forts and land were captured by the Cherokee, partnering tribes and the loyalists to ensure their power. The affected colonies were determined to respond back to recover their crippled frontier. Thousands of men were sent throughout the frontier, which included the areas of Little Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. The Colonial Response resulted in numerous battles such as the Battle of Twelve Mile Creek, Ring Fight, Battle of Tugaloo, and the Battle of Tamassee. After a series of battles, a summit meeting, which included western tribes (Muscogee, Mohawk, Seneca, Etc.), was held in January 1783. The meeting was held in St. Augustine (capital of Eastern Florida), where Dragging Canoe, along with 1,000 Cherokees attended. The summit requested for a union with the Indians to oppose colonists and the American settlers. A couple of months after in Tuckabatchee, the Cherokee and other major/smaller tribes attended another council meeting. This meeting ended with a disagreement about the federation and the Treaty of Paris was written and signed. The treaty was signed in May, 1783 and was designed to create boundaries between the State of Georgia and the Cherokee. The Treaty of Paris was signed between the British and the United States which ended the American Revolution. After signing the treaty, Dragging Canoe partnered up with the Spanish as they had a lot of influence in the south. The Spanish and Dragging Canoe worked together to oppose the Americans. Smaller Indian bands such as the Chickasaw and Muscogee signed the Treaty of French lick in November 6, 1783 which was designed to prevent them from attacking/fighting/going to war, with the United States. During this time, the Lower Cherokee were also prevented to attack until more Americans settled in the frontier. Warfare broke out in the summer of 1776 in east Tennessee and later spread to along the Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee.

During the American Revolution, the Cherokee fought against the American settlers in their region, and also as allies of British against their American colonies. For example, Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals was attacked in 1776 by Dragging Canoe and his over 1,000 Cherokee warriors and nearly wiped out Fort Nashborough (which later became Nashville) the Battle of the Bluffs in April 1781. With The 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, also known as the Transylvania Purchase, the Cherokee sold Kentucky and Middle Tennessee to the American colonies. Dragging Canoe hated this Treaty and said the settlement of those lands would be “dark and bloody,”. At the end of the American Revolution, most Cherokee wanted peace with the United States. When the Treaty of Dewitt's Corner was signed in June 1776, Dragging Canoe and his warriors moved further down the Tennessee River to further white settlement from a better location. The climax of the Cherokee influence occurred from 1788-1792 which was during the Post-Revolutionary stage. From 1788-1789, the Cherokee-Franklin War occurred, which was the most violent war since the wars of 1776. In 1789, a council at Coweta, declared that Cherokee and Muskogee can no longer trust both the Spanish and Americans. Furthermore, the council wrote a letter to Great Britain to announce they were willing to be loyal to the king in return for his support. However, this plan never really fell through. Commencing this, this stage of the war consisted of a range of treaties and battles. There was a Prisoner exchange, Treaty of New York (1790), Bob Benge’s War, and the Battle of Wabash. Ultimately, these series of events led to the death of Dragging Canoe. In 1792, Dragging Canoe died from a possible heart attack after celebrating northern victory. A majority of the conflicts ended in November 1794 with the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse. The Northwest Indian War ended with the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. The Cherokee and other Indian tribes were forcibly removed from their lands when the Indian Removal Act in 1830 was passed into law. The Cherokee called this the Nunna daul Isunyi—"the Trail Where We Cried" or "Trail of Tears”. Most of West Tennessee remained Indian land until the Chickasaw Cession of 1818, when the Chickasaw ceded their land between the Tennessee River and the Mississippi River.

African American Slave Life on Plantations

A coffle of slaves being driven on foot from Staunton, Virginia, to Tennessee in 1850.

African American life on the plantations of Tennessee during the Antebellum period leading up to the civil war, represented the larger societal interactions between races in economics, politics, and culture. Ideals of white supremacy supported the oppression and forced labour of African American slaves within plantations. Divided across the landscape, plantations in the west were primarily of cotton export, while those in the middle-featured tobacco, livestock and wheat. Madison County is representative of Tennessee’s slaveholding and cotton producing southwestern sector. In 1860, two out of five white families, within the area, owned at least one slave. Anywhere from one, to fifteen, to one hundred slaves may be employed on a singular plantation, depending on the geography, and the requirements of the produce and planter. The Hermitage, a one thousand-acre plantation owned by former president Andrew Jackson, at its largest size, exploited the labor of one hundred and forty African American slaves.

Institutional Slavery in Tennessee


Slavery was prevalent in the Antebellum era in Tennessee, with there only being a population of 77,262 residents in the state, of which 10,613 were slaves by the year 1796. The legal status of each of these slaves were determined by the North Carolina Act of Cession which legally allowed slavery in the new statehood of Tennessee. By this time in the United States, governments had more control over slavery compared to the slave owners, which made committing any crimes against these slaves more difficult to do without consequence. This sometimes meant slaves were rewarded with “more freedom of action and movement than was allowed in the older states and regions of the lower south.” To say that these slaves and their families had it easier than others though, would be an overstatement, as the physical, mental, and emotional pain these families went through remained prevalent throughout slave history and afterwards. For young women who grew up as slaves, as explained by the Tennessee Tribute, "puberty marked the beginning of a lifetime of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from masters and mistresses, and members of the planter family." Travelling as a slave was regulated by a system using passes which were supplied by their masters. "No slave, except a domestic servant, was supposed to leave his master's premises without a pass, explaining his cause of absence", Caleb P. Patterson noted in The Negroe in Tennessee. The rights slaves did have on these plantations included permission of one person to carry a gun for hunting during the cultivation for harvesting crops. However, if this person were caught hunting unlawfully, they were "whipped not exceeding 30 lashes." While slavery was still on the rise in the late eighteen to early nineteenth century, slaves could be purchased at about $300 each, and by the year 1832 that had risen to an average of about $800. However, in some counties including Davidson County, slaves were hired for as little as 15 dollars per year. In most circumstances, the prices of slaves would fluctuate with the rise of cotton culture as well as any changes to the country’s economic prosperity. The act of trading or selling slaves was often difficult, as it was illegal to do so between states from 1826 and 1855 and in 1823 self-hiring became illegal, which had the potential to land anyone caught doing so in trouble. It was much easier to hire slaves within Tennessee, as many slave-owners often “did not require the services of all their slaves at one time,” it was often that their neighbours would hire slaves from them for shorter periods of time. This was seen as very easy for all parties because cheap labor would be obtained by the hirer, and the owner was able to put one of his otherwise unused slaves to work for a profit.

Slave cabin, Tennessee, USA. Located on the Merritt family lands in Grainger County.

Layout and Structure


Slavery in Tennessee followed a unique layout due to Tennessean geography. The Western section of the state was best suited to traditional agriculture development due to its placement on the banks of the Mississippi River. This portion of the state was dominated by white settlers from other U.S states, chiefly from Virginia. This focus on traditional agriculture meant that few large scale slave operations existed; large plantation style estates were deemed to be unprofitable in this region. While slavery did exist in Eastern Tennessee, it was usually limited to one or two slaves per owner. The center of the state was dominated by ranches and the raising of cattle, another style that did not lend itself to large amounts of slaves on one property. The Western portion of the state was dominated by large-scale cotton and tobacco plantations.

The layout of the average plantation was similar to that of a small village. Many buildings were constructed to meet the high demands. The buildings varied farm to farm, however often included a smokehouse, icehouse, hen house, schoolhouse, slave quarters, livestock housing, corn pen, cotton house, and food shelters. The master, or planter’s quarters, was generally referred to as the “big house”, due to its elaborate display of wealth and power. The multi-storeyed mansions, furnished with luxury, stood in stark contrast to the small accommodations provided for African Americans. On average, slave quarters were made up of sixteen-foot by sixteen-foot log cabins that were intended by planters to keep their slaves, literally and figuratively, in their place. The difference in condition between the “big house” and slave quarters, serves as a physical representation of oppression from master to slave, and became a means of establishing a social hierarchy on the plantation. The organization of slave housing was generally divided by job. Cooks and house servants lived near the master’s house, while field hands lived closer to the crops. Storage pits featured beneath the floors of the slave cabins do not correlate with earlier African architectural forms and are evidence of the influence of European culture on African Americans oppressed on plantations.

Work and Leisure

Scenes on a cotton plantation, sketched by A.R. Waud.

The lives of slaves on the plantation were dictated by the agricultural calendar and seasons of plowing, planting, hoeing, and harvesting. Throughout the year, and across multiple plantations, slave labor varied due to the demands of the farm crop and master. For example, a cotton plantation, requires the harvesting, ginning, and baling of the crop. Slaves were also employed in mines, fields, manufactories, shops, and houses. Under particularly savage authority, slaves often worked deep into the winter, sometimes as late as February. Winter duties included fixing ploughs, cutting wood, knocking down stalks of cotton and corn, and collecting manure. Children worked to carry dinner and collect water. Slaves who were too old to work in the fields, regularly labored as cooks, and in the spinning and weaving of cotton. Skilled slaves worked as carpenters, horse trainers, groomsmen, mill workers, and wood cutters. Slaves were forcibly worked by their masters to the maximum possible potential, often through horrific, and inhumane conditions. In their free time, slaves tended to their gardens which provided an important supplement to their meagre diets. Although slaves were constantly deprived of breaks, regularly scheduled rests often came on Sundays as slaves occasionally attended church with their masters. Christmas, however, was the best opportunity for leisure as work lightened, and masters often granted certain freedoms, such as congregation at local free black households. Throughout the year planters kept records that tracked the harvest progress of slaves sorted by name and yield. The tense slave-master relationship varied as slaves were subject to different forms of treatment across different plantations.

Iron mask, collar, leg shackles and spurs used to restrict slaves.

Punishment and Resistance

Andrew Jackson reward notice for an Escaped Slave 1804.

As a slave, the consequences for not fulfilling your master’s wishes were brutal, savage, and inhuman. Regardless of age, whippings and lashings were given as regular punishment for disobedience. Reports describe the flagellation of slaves younger than fifteen. They were often chased down on horseback and beaten, leaving them broken, bruised, and bloody. In cotton picking season, women who did not work fast enough were punished in the harshest manner. Despite the abuse, when unsupervised, slaves on the plantation, often executed forms of resistance and revolt. A common method of rebellion was to purposefully work below the required quota, and not fulfill particular demands arranged by the master. Slaves often, also engaged in thievery of livestock and food, as well as robberies on the “big house”. The most substantial form of defiance was escaping the plantation in search of freedom. Slaves who ran away, were tracked and hunted by slave patrols. Patrols served the purpose of controlling the black population within American and maintaining fear. Once caught, slaves were returned to bondage and punished.

Slaves Brought to Trial


The legal process for accused slaves was another topic throughout the Antebellum period which became very corrupt and involved many changes. In all trials involving slaves, the jury in court were made up of justices and freeholders, who were all slaveholders. In 1815, there were 3 justices and 9 freeholders who were "empowered to try slaves for all offences", and by 1819 the amount of freeholders were increased to 12. It wasn't until 1825 where the jury may have contained non-slaveholders, if the full 12 freeholders could not be reached. However, the verdicts these non-slaveholders gave were often deemed invalid if it was shown that these jurors divided the jury decision. In 1835 the legal procedures surrounding slaves were switched for the better when special courts specifically for slaves were abandoned. The right of appeal was established and "no slave was to be tried by a jury until an indictment had been found against him by a grand jury in the regular way." This made Tennessee one of the 5 states to grant slaves the right of appeal. Although this did change the legal process for tried slaves in a major way, the fight didn't end for African Americans as only 13 years later the right of appeal was given back to the slave masters. In 1858, only a few years before the civil war, a law was passed which allowed 5 'creditable' (usually white) people to "file an accusation of insurrection or conspiracy to kill against a slave" which then allowed the judge to give permission to the jury to try the slave for this offence without waiting to file a notice regularly with the court. The rights of African Americans in the legal system at this time were never fair or even existent, since when one law helped these people out in the slightest way, there were always freeholders in the judicial system to diminish whatever progress had taken place.

Religion, Spirituality, and Beliefs


Although subject to forced assimilation into European culture, African Americans were largely able to maintain a strong independent belief-system, culture, and spirituality throughout the plantations of Tennessee. Items archaeologically recovered at plantation sites presumed to serve spiritual and religious purposes include: smoothed stones, glass beads, charms in the shapes of human fists, quartz crystals, reshaped ceramic, and animal bones. Identical items are found at slave dwellings throughout the eastern United States, and Caribbean. Quartz crystals, in arrangements with black stone and glass beads, draw similarities to the Minkisi, or charms, of the Bakongo peoples of the Congo-Angolan region of Africa. They reflect a larger African worldview of life and death, and are evidence of a distinct American slave culture influenced by the origin of African American slaves in Africa. Tiny copper alloy “fist-charms,” were believed to grant luck and fertility, as well as protection from harm. Colored glass beads served a multitude of medicinal, religious, and decorative purposes and were sewn onto clothing to ward off evil. The church and Christianity were used as a method to assimilate African Americans to white values, ideals, and culture. There, African Americans were taught subservience, and obedience. The ability of slaves on the plantations of Tennessee to preserve their rich spiritual heritage is analogous to African American persistence across the United States in the face of oppression, racism, cruelty and injustice.

Fear from Outside Communities


Present all throughout this time period is the fear from the white people of these societies of the African American population in general, and more specifically that they would eventually rise up against them. While Tennessee was one of the more liberal of the southern states when it came to the freedom and emancipation of slaves, it is clear that there was always an ongoing attempt to keep the power in their favor. As liberal as their policy on emancipation was, it also ensured that once a slave was emancipated they were to be removed from the state, as well as prevent already free blacks from immigrating to the state. It was their belief that it was the duty of African Americans to either be serving a master or “they should be removed from those areas where they were sufficiently numerous to endanger white dominance.” In the antebellum south generally, slavery was considered to present “a social system and a civilization with a distinct class structure, political community, economy, and ideology,” that was subscribed to mainly by the white members of society. They were the group most affected by the strong anti-slavery feelings felt by many in Tennessee, especially slave owners considering that many laws were in place that they would have seen as against them. Some of these included the master paying for anything stolen or damaged by the slave, be it food or clothing due to not being adequately provided so; as well as beating or physically abusing a slave becoming an indictable offense.

Life of Free African Americans


There were still many restrictions that people of color had to live by, even if they were considered to be free. Because of the dominating presence of slavery in these kinds of communities, the presence of those that were walking free angered many, “because of their self-sufficiency and very desire to live as free people” as well as the fact that they were made to be valuable counterpoints to all of those that were pro-slavery, typically those that owned slaves themselves. In order to maintain their legal status free African Americans had many rules that they had to follow on a daily basis. One of which was that they would have to have documents with them at all times that detailed exactly who they were and proved their freedom. Others were that they were exempt from joining the military, however it is believed that some may have been able to vote under the new constitution of 1834 in which “free men who should be contempt witnesses against a white man in court of justice” were allowed to vote. Most of those considered free were in most cases trapped in an in-between stage, in which they were “neither bond nor free.”

Decline of Slavery in Tennessee


The number of slaves in the state would begin to decline in the period leading up to the American Civil War. This decline was due to a number of factors. The key cause of the decline of slaves in Tennessee was due to a trend towards the sale of slaves into the Deep South. When the African slave trade was ended, the demand for slaves in the United States would skyrocket, with large cotton and tobacco plantations in Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia in need of increased labor. This meant that Tennessean slave owners could gain large profits by selling their slaves at auction; many opted to do so due to their dwindling profits within the state.

Davy Crockett


Davy Crockett is America’s quintessential folk hero, he is known as the king of the wild frontier and has come to represent America’s self-described resilient and conquering spirit. He is best known for his exploits in the military, particularly his participation in the battle of the Alamo, which is also a staple of American folklore.

Portrait of David Crockett, 1831

Personal Life


Davy Crockett’s life began in a way that was not unique to any other American during the period. Davy was born in what was, at the time, North Carolina, but is known now as Greene County, Tennessee, on August 17th, 1786. Davy grew up in a poor, indebted family, and by the age of 12 he was indentured to a man named Jacob Siler by his father in order to clear one of his father’s debts. By 1802 Davy had entered the employment of a man named John Canady, for whom he worked for four years until 1806 when he was married to Polly Finley, and settled on a plot of land near her family home. Crockett and Finley had three children together and lived in three separate houses; the third of which in Franklin county is where Polly Finley died in 1915. Crockett would remarry a woman named Elizabeth Patton later that same year, with whom he had three children.

Military Career


Crockett’s military career began in 1813 when he enlisted as a scout for the Creek War. This was in response to the Fort Mims massacre of the same year, which Tennessee militia general Andrew Jackson used as a rallying cry for the war. Crockett served in the Creek war until the end of 1813. He re-enlisted in the military in August of 1814, when Andrew Jackson, now of the US Army, asked for support from the Tennessee militia in driving British forces out of Spanish Florida as part of the War of 1812. Once again Crockett returned home from service at the end of the same year. In the War of 1812, and to a lesser extent the Creek Wars, Crockett did not see much of the main action. However, it is here where his legend as an American folk hero began to grow. During his time in the Creek Wars, Crockett preferred hunting to feed his fellow soldiers over killing Creek warriors, which made him well known within the militia. Him being a soldier in general during the period helped initiate the creation of his legend by participating in what are considered essential wars in the American mythos.

Political Career


In 1821 Crockett ran successfully for a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly. He represented Lawrence and Hickman counties. Crockett’s main concern while in office was legislation to ease the tax burden on the poor as well as fighting for the rights of impoverished settlers of the newly civilized Tennessee. Crockett’s time in the assembly was also noted by his opposition of many candidates endorsed by Andrew Jackson as well as his endorsement of John Williams, Jackson’s opponent in being elected to the senate in 1823. Crockett’s political career continued when he ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1825, losing to Adam Rankin Alexander. He then ran again the following year and was elected for the 1827-1829 term. In 1928 Andrew Jackson was elected President and in 1830 introduced the Indian Removal Act, which made it legal to remove Native Americans from their ancestral lands west of the Mississippi in favor of white settlers. Crockett voted against this bill and was the only Tennessean to do so. The opposition of Jackson’s policy was not well received, and Davy was defeated in the 1831 election by William Fitzgerald. Crockett was able to defeat Fitzgerald in 1833 and return to office. He served until 1835 when he was defeated by Adam Huntsman, it was during this final term that Crockett wrote his autobiography.

Texas Revolution and Battle of the Alamo


It was after Crockett’s final term in public office is when the most well-known period of his life began. This began while he was still in office when he considered the idea of moving to Texas, which was not yet a part of the United States , if Jacksons successor Martin Van Buren was elected President. A year later, Crockett, now out of office, discussed the idea of raising a group of volunteers with his friend Benjamin McCulloch to head to Texas for the impending revolution against the Mexican Government. The expedition began on November 1st, 1835. This would be the last time Crockett would see any of his children. His youngest daughter noted that her father was “dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap, and carrying a fine rifle.” This image of Crockett has become as legendary as his name, or any of his actions. Despite Crockett being a prominent politician for most of his life this image of him is part of the reason he’s known as the quintessential frontiersman or the “King of the Frontier”. Unfortunately, Crockett’s campaign in Texas was unsuccessful as he was killed on March 6th, 1836 during the Battle of the Alamo. This battle is one of the most famous events and American history and in American folklore, as all defendants of Alamo fort were killed by the Mexican Army.



Crockett’s exploits as a soldier and frontiersmen as well as his legendary coonskin hat and hunting outfit, coupled with his participation in the Battle of the Alamo has turned him into perhaps the most famous figure in American Folklore and one of Tennessee’s most famous residents. He is also well-known for same of his tamer exploits such as sticking up for impoverished people while in office, and opposing the Indian Removal Act, and Andrew Jackson in general.

Indian Removal Act, 1830


In 1830, President Jackson authorized the “transfer” of five Native American Indian tribes to land in Oklahoma to supposedly “preserve them from white culture.” The Tribes included the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee.

The proposal to remove Indians from the lands had been presented decades earlier, in 1803 by President Thomas Jefferson, but was not enacted until the Jackson Era. Before then, Native Americans had been allowed to remain on the lands within the states if they assimilated into American society. Southerners supported and shared the same ideologies as President Andrew Jackson and considered the Native American’s to be “uncivilized”. This caused high tensions between the Colonists and the Natives, and with the state government about land rights and sovereignty. In response to the growing tension, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The Act made it so the U.S. government could trade and use land previously owned by Native Americans, as agreed in older treaties with the tribes, for White settlement and expansion. The U.S. government forcibly relocated Native Americans Oklahoma, causing death of more than 5,000. Native American culture was quickly diminishing because of these acts and ideologies of the Americans. Following the proclamation of the Indian Removal Act, the Cherokee tribe took to legal action in order to distinguish the power that the Federal Government had over their land and their rights. The Cherokee fought in the Supreme Court for a ruling in 1823 about the relationship between the Federal Government and the Native American tribes, and whether or not the Government had the jurisdiction in this case to order their removal. Georgia planned to remove Cherokee and Creek peoples from northern and western parts of the state, as the Federal government was in a locked dispute with the Cherokee in court. There was no determined law yet, which allowed for a loophole in the division of lands for the time being. Georgians did not accept the legitimacy of the federal treaties and began to remove Natives. They threatened violence if the federal army were ordered to defend the tribes. Tension grew worse and endangered many more Native Americans. Jackson did nothing to defend or stand up for the Natives, as he had fought against them and thought of them as “savages”. The decision of the Supreme Court was that the Native Americans did in fact have to adhere to federal law. The Government was at liberty to trade and sell the land. In December 1829, Georgia’s legislature enacted a complete law that nullified all Cherokee laws and subjugated them to the laws of the State. Before this, Georgia had been living as a Native American state within a state. Native American titles to lands were extinguished and given back to the states in which they resided. Georgia agreed to give the Federal Government jurisdiction over the new Western lands, which were promising in farmland and eventually the discovery of Gold. Here, it is clear to see the American Ideology of Manifest Destiny shining through.