Today In Western History: The play “The Lion of the West” opens


The play The Lion of the West opens in New York City, today in 1831.    It was the first of many plays, books, and 

Davy Crockett, Indian fighter, politician, and hero of the Alamo
Davy Crockett, Indian fighter, politician, and hero of the Alamo

movies celebrating Davy Crockett.  It stars James Hackett as a parody of Davy, a character called Nimrod Wildfire.

Born in 1786 in Tennessee, Crockett grew up in a poor family that hired him out as a cattle drover at age 12. He eventually settled in middle Tennessee, where he became famous for his skill as a professional hunter. The Tennessee forests of  were still filled with game at that time, and Crockett once killed 105 bears in a single season.

Andrew Jackson, Indian fighter and President; responsible for the Trail of Tears
Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, Indian fighter and President; responsible for the Trail of Tears

After a stint fighting Indians with future president, Andrew Jackson, Crockett began a career in politics, eventually becoming a Tennessee state representative in 1821. As a state legislator, Crockett was a strong advocate for the rights of squatters who were claiming land on the frontier without legal permission. At the same time, the political fortunes of his old commander, Andrew Jackson, were on the rise. When Jackson became president in 1828, he pointed to Crockett as a symbol of the frontier values and spirit he believed should be adopted throughout the nation.

Politics alone, however, would not have ensured Crockett’s enduring status as an American hero. For that, only the 19th-century version of Hollywood would be adequate. In 1831, the play The Lion of the West opened at New York City’s Park Theater. Starring the popular actor James Hackett as a legendary frontiersman named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, the play was a thinly disguised and highly exaggerated account of Crockett’s life.  Two years later, the play was followed by an equally larger-than-life biography, Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee.

After Crockett died at the Alamo in 1836, along with fellow frontiersman James Bowie, William Barrett Travis and nearly two hundred other volunteers, his posthumous transformation from mortal man to mythic martyr was almost inevitable. A bogus 1836 autobiography portrayed him as an American Hercules and established many of the tall tales that would remain forever associated with his name.

Fess Parker, as Walt Disney's Davy Crockett
Fess Parker, as Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett

In the 20th century, Crockett’s fame waned for a time, but Walt Disney revived the legend. In 1954, Disney began producing a series of movies and television programs featuring the actor Fess Parker as Crockett. The series was a ratings blockbuster, and it led to the largest media-generated commercial craze up until that time. Children all across America clamored for coonskin caps, powder horns, books, and records so that they could be just like their idol, Davy Crockett.


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Today In Western History: William Barrett Travis Calls For Help

February 24  —

Wi lliam Barrett Travis, Commander of the Alamo
Wi lliam Barrett Travis,
Commander of the Alamo

On this day in 1836, in San Antonio, Texas, Colonel William Travis issues what will become a famous call for help on behalf of the Texan troops defending the Alamo, an old Spanish mission and fortress under attack by the Mexican army on their way to crush the Texan’s revolt.

A native of Alabama, Travis moved to the Mexican state of Texas in 1831. He soon became a leader of the growing movement to overthrow the Mexican government and establish an independent Texan republic. When the Texas revolution began in 1835, Travis became a lieutenant-colonel in the revo-lutionary army and was given command of troops in the recently captured city of San Antonio de Bexar (now known as San Antonio). On February 23, 1836, a large Mexican force commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana arrived suddenly in San Antonio. Travis and his troops took

General Antonio Lopez de    Santa Anna
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

shelter in the Alamo, where they were soon joined by a volunteer force led by Colonel James Bowie

James Bowie,  Hero of the Alamo
James Bowie, Hero of the Alamo

Also joining in the fight, legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett and some of his fellow Tennessee

Davy Crockett, Indian fighter, politician, and hero of the Alamo
Davy Crockett, Indian fighter, politician, and hero of the Alamo

fighters, to help Texas gain its independence from Mexico, Though Santa Ana’s 5,000 troops heavily outnumbered the several hundred Texans, Travis and his men determined not to give up. On February 24, they answered Santa Ana’s call for surrender with a bold shot from the Alamo’s cannon. Furious, the Mexican general ordered his forces to launch a siege. Travis immediately recognized his disad-vantage and sent out several messages via couriers asking for reinforcements. Addressing one of the pleas to “The People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” Travis signed off with the now-famous phrase “Victory or Death.”

Only 32 men from the nearby town of Gonzales responded to Travis’ call for help, and beginning at 5:30 a.m. on March 6, Mexican forces stormed the Alamo through a gap in the fort’s outer wall, killing Travis, Bowie and 190 of their men. Despite the loss of the fort, the Texan troops managed to inflict huge losses on their enemy, killing at least 600 of Santa Ana’s men.  But it turned out to be a major mistake for Santa Ana.  He won the battle and lost the war because of this fight.

The brave defense of the Alamo became a powerful symbol for the Texas revolution, helping the rebels turn the tide in their favor. At the crucial Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 910 Texan soldiers com-manded by Sam Houston defeated Santa Ana’s army of 1,250 men, spurred on by cries of “Remember

Sam Houston
Sam Houston,
Texas Governor and Hero of Texas’s War of Independence

the Alamo!” The next day, after Texan forces captured Santa Ana himself, the general issued orders for all Mexican troops to pull back behind the Rio Grande River. On May 14, 1836, Texas officially became an independent republic.


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