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OREGON IN THE 1840s:

Davy Crockett in Oregon? Yes, but only in “tall tales”

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By Finn J.D. John
January 21, 2018

Nearly everyone knows the story of David Crockett — the Tennessee mountain man and later politician turned folk hero who died at the Alamo in 1836. Most of us just remember the details from the old Fess Parker song and TV miniseries commissioned by Disney in 1955: “Da-veeey, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier!”

What isn’t remembered much today is that Davy Crockett had a long, colorful posthumous existence as a character in about twenty years of “tall tales” published anonymously in several different “Davy Crockett Almanacs” from the mid-1830s through the runup to the Civil War.

They were two totally different guys, too. The real David Crockett had no use for Andrew Jackson, bitterly opposing him for his Indian policies. The legend, though, introduced himself in the pages of his almanac as “that same David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half horse, half alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle — can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning, and slip without a scratch down a honey locust tree — can whip my weight in wildcats — and whip any man opposed to Jackson.”

Several different publishers produced Crockett almanacs, but they were very similar. Each year’s edition featured pages and pages of stories illustrated with woodcuts and written in a pastiche of Crockett’s storytelling style. They were tall tales, like those of Paul Bunyan and John Henry, only they were about somebody who everyone knew actually had existed. They were extremely popular.

An illustrated story of Davy Crockett’s escape from Mexican soldiers on his pet bear, Death Hug. (Image: archive.org)

And although David Crockett — the man — probably knew little or nothing about Oregon, Davy Crockett — the legend — had a great deal to say on the subject, starting in the mid-1840s with the “54-40 or Fight” controversy over borders with the British and heating up later in the decade as emigration on the Oregon Trail started in earnest.

 

In 1950, Oregon poet and folklore historian Verne Bright, while researching a book project on American frontier folklore, found a rich trove of Davy Crockett almanacs, full of tales about Davy in the Beaver State. Bright, a frequent contributor to the Oregon Historical Quarterly, promptly prepared a selection of some of the juiciest morsels for publication.

Here are some of the highlights from what he found:

“I esspose you has heer’d o’ them diggin’s out West, that are called Oregon, and how the British wants to have a joint occupancy of that ‘ere clearin’. It’s a sort of sinivation [insinuation] that we can’t take keer of it alone, and it puts me in mind o’ the joint occupancy of me and a painter [panther] when we both found ourselves together on the branch of a tree. The place war big enough for us both, but we couldn’t agree to stay there together.

“Thar war once a pesky Yankee pedlar that put up at my house, and had as much bear meat and whiskey in his long guts as he could carry, but he wasn’t satisfied with that, for he wanted to have the joint occupancy of my wife too. So, when I got out of bed early in the morning, he crept along to the disputed territory, and began to turn down the coverlid. My wife heer’d him and made believe she war asleep, but kept won eye open. Jest as he put one leg into bed, she took a cloze line that hung close by, and tied it round his ankle and made him fast by one leg to the bed post, then she got up and opened a hive of bees on him. He danced and roared most beautiful, and I think John Bull will do the same, when he gits among the Yankee bees of Oregon.”

Bright gives no dates on these tidbits, but this one surely dates from 1845 or 1846, during the height of the “54-40 or Fight” controversy; the joint-occupancy system he refers to ended in 1846 with the ratification of the Oregon Treaty, which set the boundary between Oregon and Canada where it stands today, at 49 degrees.

 

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This woodcut image from the 1837 edition of the Davy Crockett Almanac probably depicts the story of the time Davy and a panther found themselves on the same tree branch together, which is mentioned in the comments about the joint occupancy of Oregon with Great Britain. (Image: NY Historical Society)

Several of the stories make it very clear that the anonymous writers of Davy Crockett’s adventures were completely unfamiliar with Oregon. One tells the story of his ascent of a “mile-high cliff” with the help and occasional hindrance of his dog, Wolf Hunter; his pet bear, Death Hug; and a huge bull elk he caught and tamed along the way. After Death Hug peeks over the edge and panics, he and the other animals all tumble down the mountain, leaving Davy high and dry on top; so he pulls out a plug of “the Kentucky leaf o’ consolation,” takes a big “chaw,” makes a flume out of frozen tobacco juice, and slides away to safety upon it.

Another story recounts Davy’s battle with the “Great Snake of Oregon,” compared with which the “tarrable antyconda, the boa constrictor, and the eternal long strong an’ never to be felt or caught sea-snake is nothen.”

Later the writer (or one of his colleagues) seems to be under the impression that Oregon was infested with herds of super-sized bison.

“I have had dealins with several samples of mammoths in my darin’ days and nights of tarrific adventure, sich as mammoth porkers, mammoth [Indians], sarpants, wild cats and cat-fish,” he writes. “But I found a mammoth buffalo the most sassagereous and hydrophobish of any monster critter, that turned out to try human courage or combativeness. Now I don’t fear to own up that when I came across the first and worst of these varmints that I had ever seen, my skin had a leetle touch of the geese-flesh, ‘kase I half thought he war the devil come out to Oregon for the disputed territory, for he skipped, roared, an’ snorted an’ foamed about, as though he war master of the entire track clean up to 54-40; an’ it war only bekase I found he had no cloven hoof that I made up my mind he war a buffalo.

The front cover of the 1846 issue of the Davy Crockett Almanac, showing Davy escaping from British soldiers by riding his pet alligator up Niagara Falls. (Image: archive.org)

“I up with old Thunderbolt an’ let go at him; but the bullet only rolled off like tow-balls from a pop gun, an’ the wad set fire to his ten-foot mane; an’ made him more rambusterous, an’ he made right into me with his mouth foaming aquefortis, an’ his eye flashen’ out volcanic eruptions; I dodged and grinned a leetle airthquake humor at him, till the ground begin to shake and reel with the noise; he made another tornado rush into me, when I sprung upward, let him slip halfway back between my lower beams, an’ then sprung right upon his back, an’ seizin’ his tail in my one hand an’ his mane in t’other, while my dog Bullshark took him by the snout, makin’ a good bridle bit, I rode him clar down from the rocky to the Pacific pond, whar I shipped him as a curiosity to China.”

To modern ears, these tall tales of frontier Oregon can get very awkward and embarrassing at times, particularly when Native Americans are discussed. But the rough-hewn, colorful style of these stories, with their made-up words and idiosyncratic spellings and overall attitude of self-sufficiency, went a long way toward forging the cultural identity we recognize and respond to as Westerners today.

And, of course, the “tall tale” has never really gone out of style. Not in Oregon, at any rate.

(Sources: Bright, Verne. “Davy Crockett Legends and Tales in the Oregon Country,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, September 1950 (v.51 n.3); Falzone, Catherine. “Davy Crockett Almanacs,” From the Stacks (New-York Historical Society), 19 Jun 2012)

TAGS: #Legends #journalism

 

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