Since the 1950s children have learned the song about Davy Crockett that says he was “born on a mountaintop in Tennessee,” and that “he kilt him a b’ar when he was only three,” but how many of us know he once was a horse trader in northeast Mississippi?
Well, here’s the story and how we know it.
Of all the government programs that have come and gone – mostly come – over the last century, surely one of the best was the Federal Writers Project [FWP] of the 1930s that was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Many are familiar with the State Tour Guide books the FWP produced. Mississippi has one of the best, entitled Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State, and written in large part by Eudora Welty, who worked for the FWP during the Great Depression..
Not so well known are the local history source materials collected in each of Mississippi’s 82 counties. The original documents for those source materials are on file or on microfilm at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson and, in some cases, in libraries around the state.
The local histories are as good as the folk who were in charge of them – many are surprisingly good. Among the best is the collection for Pontotoc County, a fact much attributable to the late Mr. Richey Henderson, a school teacher and local historian extraordinaire who interviewed untold numbers of folk and recorded their stories for posterity.
Among the fascinating stories collected by the late Mr. Henderson was one told by Judge J. C. Weatherall, son of Pontotoc County pioneers.
It was the year 1835, as Judge Weatherall told it. The Chickasaw lands ceded in 1832 were being divided up and auctioned off, and settlers and speculators had descended in droves upon the newly created town of Pontotoc, where the federal office for the sales of Indian lands was located. Tents and wagons of new arrivals to the country covered the hillsides. Gold and silver abounded, so much so that kegs of coins were used as stools in some of the offices, and wagons laden with hard cash drove out from the land office to be deposited in Nashville banks on a regular basis.
Up in west Tennessee, Davy Crockett, already famous as an Indian fighter and teller of tall tales, had been defeated in his race for Congress. Hearing of the flush times in the Chickasaw country, Col. Crockett acquired a herd of horses and drove them down to Pontotoc, hoping to turn a profit selling them to new arrivals to northeast Mississippi. Once in Pontotoc County, he built a corral for his stock and boarded at the home of Judge Weatherall’s uncle, Simon Watt.
The half-blood Chickasaw chief, James Colbert, kept a “stand,” as taverns were called then, on the Natchez Trace near the site of the present day community of Bissell. Such places, located as they were on wilderness thoroughfares, served as clearing houses for the latest news, and Colbert, no doubt, often was the first to hear breaking stories. One day the old Chief came riding up to Simon Watt’s house with some news. The Texians*, it seemed, were unhappy with the government of Mexico. A war for Texas independence was brewing!
That sounded like adventure, and the sound of adventure was music to the ears of Col. David Crockett. He quickly sold his remaining stock, saddled his own horse, and prepared to ride back to Tennessee. Before he left Simon Watt’s place, he spied a chicken hawk sitting some distance away in an apple tree.
Davy raised Ol’ Betsy, his famous rifle, and snapped a shot. Of course, the hawk fell dead to the ground. Judge Weatherall reported that his uncle on many occasions pointed to the tree and told the story of his one-time boarder, Davy Crockett.
Crockett returned to Tennessee where he assembled a company of volunteers and then famously announced to the voters who had rejected his bid for Congress, “You can go to hell. I am going to Texas.”
Davy then left for Memphis where he crossed the Mississippi and, from there, went on to San Antonio and the Alamo and into history!
You may not find that story anywhere but in the FWP local history source material for Pontotoc County, and it wouldn’t be there but for Richey Henderson. Thank you, Mr. Henderson, and all local historians, past and present, for preserving the little stories the big historians miss.
* Texians were residents of Mexican Texas and, later, the Republic of Texas.
James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his www.canebrakes.com.
Copyright 2018 James T. McCafferty