Part Thirteen: Elizabeth Crockett and Her Roving Husband
Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Deborah Franklin – wives of men who figured prominently in the founding of the United States, while the women remained at home to hold the family together. Then came other wives whose men went west and ventured into the frontier, Rebecca Boone, Jessie Fremont, Josefa Carson, and countless others. How often their husbands went off, leaving homes, hearths, and families behind, to fight wars, establish laws, and explore new territories.
Elizabeth Crockett, married to that fellow Davy, was a member of this female heads-of-household club.
She was born in 1788 to wealthy parents who owned many acres in Buncombe County, North Carolina. Being a well-to-do family, a tutor was likely hired to teach the nine children basic subjects of reading and writing. The boys would also have been taught arithmetic, history, and natural science. The girls would have learned needlework and good manners. However, in the Patton household, girls were apparently also taught arithmetic, as Elizabeth demonstrated excellent numerical skills in her adult years when she was in charge of the house.
Sometime after 1805, she married her cousin, James Patton, and soon produced two children, Margaret Ann and George. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, her children were still very young in 1813 when yet another conflict with the local, native tribes began. Folks called it the Creek Indian War. Being a good citizen, James marched away with the militia to fight. This initiated a pattern for Elizabeth that would continue for most of her life – a husband leaving her bereft, children in tow, as he went off to adventure in manly responsibilities. Sadly for James, his adventure didn’t last long. During a skirmish with the Creeks, he was mortally wounded. In his last moments, he managed to ask a fellow soldier, a particular David “Davy” Crockett, to deliver his personal possessions to soon-to-be widowed Elizabeth.
Upon Davy’s return to Buncombe County, he completed that task and at their meeting, he was presumably quite smitten with Widow Patton. But he was married to wife number one, Polly Finley, and they had three children. He was an honorable guy and gave up the thought. However, all he needed to do was be patient and wait. Polly was a sickly woman and she expired in March, 1815.
I imagine Davy high-tailed it to Elizabeth’s house forthwith, possibly to offer his help with her farm and such. Although his attentions were pleasing, she proved difficult to persuade into a swift marriage. Davy tugged on her heartstrings for months before she agreed. They were married sometime in the summer or early fall, adding Davy’s three children to the mix. That made five and within several years, Elizabeth gave birth to three more babies, Robert, Rebecca, and Matilda. Elizabeth was then responsible for eight -- five children of her own and three stepchildren.
Davy must’ve grown tired of farming in North Carolina. He up and moved his family of wife and eight children to Tennessee. There, he joined the militia and gradually started several businesses. He also became a justice of the peace and later ran for a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly, an election that he won easily. Soon, he was on his horse and heading to Knoxville to become a politician, while Elizabeth was left in charge of the family and businesses. I can see her standing at the front door of their house, children crowded around her, waving goodbye with a handkerchief. Was she proud of this husband? Or exasperated? Or was this just the standard life for so many women of that era and Elizabeth expected nothing different?
By 1817, Davy was home and moved his family miles away yet again, where he could add a new job to his duties, that of a commissioner to re-configure Tennessee county boundaries. In this location, he started more businesses, none of which were very successful. And in 1821, a voracious flood destroyed those businesses anyway. In dire financial straits, Davy moved Elizabeth and family yet another time and was forced to rely on his father-in-law to clear debts.
Did Elizabeth talk her husband into simply going to work for someone else and earning wages? If she made that attempt, it wasn’t successful. He campaigned for a seat in the U.S. Congress, won hands-down, maybe due to his charming persona. He said goodbye to Elizabeth and his eight children and rode off to Washington City.
Are you counting how many times he and horse departed? Elizabeth was almost always head of the household, in charge of making sure the roof remained over their heads and food was on the table. She and her children probably managed simple, subsistence farming, although taking any surplus to town to sell, which would allow her to purchase other necessities. This was when her knowledge of arithmetic was surely useful.
Davy enjoyed Congress and life in Washington, though he certainly visited his family from time to time. He was re-elected to two more terms, finally deciding to quit Congress in mid-1835. His reason? Every man who read a newspaper knew that settlers in the territory of Texas would revolt against Mexico and Davy desperately wanted to take part. He hoped that it wouldn’t begin and end before his congressional term was over.
That hope was fulfilled. He said adios to Washington in October and traveled to Elizabeth’s home in Tennessee, where he announced his intention to journey onward to Texas and join the revolutionaries. (I wonder if Elizabeth considered whacking his head with an iron skillet.)
Whatever argument might have passed between them, he set out on November 1, 1835. At this point, Elizabeth must have been resigned. There was no changing this man who couldn’t stay in one place for longer than an icy minute. She would persevere, continue to raise the children and earn money as best she could.
The youngest daughter was Matilda, then aged fourteen. Years later, she wrote about the last time that she saw her father.
He was dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap, and a fine rifle presented to him by friends in Philadelphia. . . He seemed very confident the morning he went away, that he would soon have us join him in Texas.
This plan was not to be. Davy died at age 49 in San Antonio de Bejar, on the morning of March 6, 1836, in the Alamo, which was actually a church. The battle between the Texians and Santa Anna’s enormous army lasted just ninety minutes. Historians are divided as to the details of his death. Some say he put on a heroic last stand, killing as many as sixteen Mexican soldiers, while some say he survived the fighting, surrendered along with several others, and was executed.
I assume it took much time for word to reach Elizabeth in Tennessee as to the fate of her husband. No one knows about her reaction. Was she shocked and hysterical? Or did she show no surprise, perhaps holding a premonition that Davy wouldn’t return?
The son Robert went a little crazy and rushed off to join the Republic of Texas Army, his intent to gain revenge on the Mexicans. But the entire revolution was over by April, possibly already over when the Crockett family heard about the Alamo defenders. Thus, Robert didn’t have any opportunity to obtain his revenge. Elizabeth must have been relieved when he came home.
In 1838, the Texas legislature designated that all men who had fought in the War for Independence were entitled to grants of 640 acres. Robert went to Austin to claim Davy’s grant for his mother. I bet she was very appreciative of this son.
By 1853, Robert convinced her to move to their Texas claim in what is now Hood County, along with his family, Elizabeth’s son George, daughter Rebecca, and their families. This was wild, frontier territory and for protection, they traveled with a group of Tennessee farmers, also relocating.
The large, Crockett family spent a year in the town of Waxahachie, south of Dallas, as the men-folk searched for a surveyor who was willing to plot the claim. When a fellow was finally found, he insisted on an amount equal to half the value of the grant, $320. After all, to do the job, he would risk his life, as hostile Comanches and Kiowas were everywhere in north Texas. Happily, the surveyor completed the task and arrived back in Waxahachie, still in possession of his scalp.
The grant was located several miles north of a trading post, later called Acton, on Rucker’s Creek. The land was more suited to running cattle than farming, but the Crocketts divided it among the three families and went to work. Robert built a two-room cabin for his family and mother to share. It must have been crowded, since, a few months later, he built a separate cabin for Elizabeth. By then she was 65, but she was a good, pioneer woman and did her share of farm work.
Elizabeth spent her last five years there, among her children, in-laws, and grandchildren. In January, 1860, she died suddenly after her usual, early morning walk near her cabin. She was 71.
Those who’d known her well, her children and friends, declared that she could read and write exceptionally, not typical for frontier women. And she had dealt competently with running a large family in the many times when Davy was gone elsewhere. At her death, she left few earthly possessions to her children. No letters to or from Davy were ever discovered.
As to how she had felt about his extended absences, her children insisted that she never uttered a word against him, at least not within their hearing, and from the moment they’d received news of Davy’s death at the Alamo, she wore black every day to show her deep sense of mourning. At her own demise, she was buried in one of those black dresses.
In 1911, the Texas legislature approved money for a monument to be built at Elizabeth Crockett’s gravesite in Acton Cemetery. Construction was completed two years later, at a total of twenty-eight feet in height. The base gives her name and dates. Above that is a statue of that hardy, frontier woman. She stands, one hand shading her eyes and gazing into the distance as though watching for her husband’s return. Today, in the Acton State Historic Site/Acton Cemetery, you can view this monument honoring an industrious, steadfast, and faithful woman, and by extension, honoring a multitude of other pioneer women who lived much the same, unsung and unknown.
Acton State Historic Site, near Granbury
David "Davy" Crockett, while a congressman in D. C., painted
in 1834 by Chester Harding. Davy could dress well when called-for.
Davy Crockett, by William Henry Huddle, painted in 1889, years
after his death. But his outfit does match his daughter's description.