This post was written by cataloger Catherine Falzone.
As my colleagues and I work to catalog the thousands of almanacs held by N-YHS, thanks to a Hidden Collections Program grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), we have come across some unusual items that bear a closer look. Some of my favorite discoveries so far are the Davy Crockett almanacs. These items helped to spread the myth of Davy Crockett and serve as fine examples of early American humor. Today, more people know about Davy Crockett, the larger-than-life “king of the wild frontier” in the coonskin cap, than they do about the real David Crockett (1786-1836), a Tennessee militia colonel in the Creek War of 1813-1814 and member of the U.S. House of Representatives. His folksy charm brought him national fame, but he was an ineffectual legislator. After losing the 1835 election, Crockett headed for Texas–then part of Mexico– to get a fresh start in a new land. He ended up fighting in the Texas Revolution against the Mexican army and died on March 6, 1836 during the Battle of the Alamo.
The real David Crockett struggled with debt, the dissolution of his marriage to his second wife Elizabeth, and a desire for political power that he never fully attained, but the mythologizing of his character and exploits began during his lifetime and was perpetuated by numerous Davy Crockett almanacs, books (including Crockett’s own autobiography) plays, songs, newspaper articles, and word-of-mouth.
While Crockett was not above using his outsize image to further his own career, he probably did not have anything to do with the popular almanacs. In fact, no one knows who wrote them. The so-called “Nashville imprints” were published from 1835 to 1841, with the first four probably printed either in Nashville or elsewhere in South or West, and the 1839-1841 editions probably printed in Boston despite the Nashville imprint, which was probably kept in order to give them an aura of authenticity. From 1835- to1856 about 55 varieties were published in cities all over the country. N-YHS has Davy Crockett almanacs for 1836 through 1839.
The almanacs use a pastiche of Crockett’s voice to tell amusing tall tales of life in the backwoods and feature dynamic and unmistakably American woodcuts of the bawdy adventures of Crockett and his neighbors. In addition to a straightforward yearly almanac each issue features stories and illustrations in which Crockett handily wins fights against panthers, bears, and snakes in the woods of Tennessee while keeping his characteristic good humor.
I heard a loud howl behind me, that so started me that I jumped right out of water like a sturgeon. I knew it was a bear, and on turning to see how near he was, I saw a wolf but a short distance making towards me…I div down in a slantindicular direction so as to come up beyond them. When underwater an amphibious river calf saw me, and chased me to the surface. Upon breaking water they all began to chase me…upon the wolf’s coming within reach, with a good blow over the nose he went off howling. The bear came on, in the most rageiferous manner…but I gave him some startling raps…And I stunned the River Calf with a blow of my club, so that he was taken. I was invited on board [a steam boat], but as there was ladies on board I did not like to appear in a state of nature, so I dove under the boat and swam ashore. Bears and wolves swim across the Mississippi very often. (Davy Crockett’s almanack, of wild sports in the West, life in the backwoods, & sketches of Texas. 1837, p. 20)
Another theme running through these almanacs is that women can be just as fierce and heroic as men. The next passage shows Crockett’s wife and daughters more than holding their own against an alligator.
The women then slacked the rope a little and made it fast round a hickory stump, when my oldest darter took the tongs and jumped on [the alligator’s] back, when she beat up the “devil’s tattoo” on it, and gave his hide a real “rub a dub.”…My wife threw a bucket of scalding suds down his throat, which made him thrash round as though he was sent for. She then cut his throat with a big butcher knife. He measured thirty seven feet in length. (Davy Crockett’s almanack, of wild sports in the West, life in the backwoods, & sketches of Texas. 1837, p. 10).
The new ideal American, exemplified by Davy Crockett’s image in his almanacs, was self-sufficient and forward-looking: “The Backwoodsman is a singular being, always moving westward like a buffalo before the tide of civilization. He does not want a neighbor nearer than ten miles; and when he cannot cut down a tree that will fall within ten rods of his log house, he thinks it time to sell out his betterment and be off” (Davy Crockett’s almanack, of wild sports in the West, life in the backwoods, sketches of Texas, and rows on the Mississippi. 1838., p. 44).
After his death at the Alamo, the real Crockett (who opposed Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act) receded and Davy the folk hero emerged as a popular symbol for land-hungry, ambitious Americans who would fight Mexicans, Native Americans, and nature for the Western lands they saw as their rightful territory. As both David and Davy Crockett were known to say, “Be always sure you’re right–then go ahead!”