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King of the Wild Frontier: Center for American History and Texas State History Museum build exhibit around Texas legend

Portrait of Davy Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman
Photo: Ransom Center
Portrait of Davy Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman on display at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. No date. Oil on canvas. 24 x 16" (61 x 40.7 cm.) Courtesy of the Art Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.
The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, assisted by items on loan from The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for American History (CAH), is celebrating the “King of the Wild Frontier” with a temporary exhibit "Sunrise in His Pocket: The Life, Legend and Legacy of Davy Crockett," on display through Aug. 18.

Fourteen items from the CAH are included in the exhibit, continuing a working partnership with the museum that enhances the center’s mission of teaching and research.

“Our strong and close relationship with the museum has resulted in the center serving as a major donor to the current exhibit on David Crockett,” said Dr. Don E. Carleton, director of the center. “Not only are we displaying the famous page in the Jose Enrique de la Peña narrative describing Crockett's execution at the Alamo, but also such treasures as the personal manuscript diary of Col. William B. Travis (1833-34) and an 1849 daguerreotype photograph of the Alamo Chapel that is the oldest datable photograph taken in Texas.” CAH exhibits at the Bullock Museum and other places help the center fulfill its mission by providing information about its collections to potential researchers and to the general public, Carleton said.

“This helps to encourage research and other use of our holdings,” he said. “In addition, the public display of items from our collections provides materials that primary and secondary education teachers can incorporate into lesson plans relating to field trips. Another benefit is that these exhibits often attract donations of related material to the center.”

CAH's relationship with the Bullock Texas History Museum began soon after the announcement that the state would build it.

"I was among the team of historians who helped plan the exhibits," Carleton said. "I helped with the 20th century section. After the exhibits were planned, CAH served as the primary provider of historical documents for various displays.

Equestrian portrait of Santa Anna
Photo: Center for American History
Equestrian portrait of Santa Anna from the Center for American History, on display for the Davy Crockett exhibit.
"We have more than 60 individual items in the Bullock 's main exhibit area, including Elizabeth Ney's life size plaster statue of Sam Houston, the prison diary of Stephen F. Austin, Big Foot Wallace's buckskin coat and items from our Sam Rayburn collection.

"Because of its location, the quality of its staff and its status as a public institution, we view the Bullock Museum as an outstanding venue to display the center's Texas history treasures that the university has been collecting for more than 110 years.”

Although Crockett was in Texas only for three months or so, his influence on the creation and evolution of the founding myth of the state has been enormous, Carleton said.

“Almost immediately after his death at the Battle of the Alamo, Crockett's legacy assumed legendary status in American popular culture through plays and dime novels,” he said. “His actions in defending the Alamo, and the fact of his martyrdom there, played a significant role in the formation of Texas’ identity, and as a place ‘created’ by prototypical American heroes.”

With his death at the Alamo, a willing sacrifice to Texas’ freedom, Crockett became a mythic figure, said Dr. Paul Andrew Hutton, exhibit curator and director of the Western History Association.

“His name has never since been absent from the marketplace of American folklore and entertainment,” Hutton said. “The subject of plays, tall tales, films, television programs, and souvenirs and toys of successive generations’ popular culture, Crockett allows us to examine the way in which the West of the popular imagination both created, and was created, by its heroes.

“Crockett’s legend illustrates the process of commercial hero-making. More than a discovery of the real vs. imputed hero, this exhibition sets out to show ‘the complete Crockett.’”

the famous page in the José Enrique de la Peña narrative
Photo: Marsha Miller
The Crockett exhibit includes the famous page in the Josˇ Enrique de la Peña narrative describing the popular frontier hero's execution at the Alamo.
Organized with the cooperation of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., the exhibit pays homage to both the man and the myth by displaying artifacts from Crockett's life, along with objects that reflect his ongoing influence in American culture.

The exhibit explores Crockett as the quintessential frontiersman, the inspiration for the American image of the “hunter-hero,” a symbol of the “Age of Common Man,” a martyr for the cause of America's Manifest Destiny and a celebrity of popular culture.

Museum visitors will be able to see some of Crockett's belongings, such as his personal letters and rifles, as well as the “Davy Crockett Almanacs” that helped create his celebrity status both during and after his lifetime.

The exhibit contains six video segments from the television documentary, Boone & Crockett, The Hunter-Heroes, produced and donated by The History Channel. Also on display are objects and artifacts inspired by Crockett's story created in the years after his death, such as an original script with notations from a Victorian-era theater production, dime novels, portraits — even Fess Parker's rifle from the popular TV program that aired in 1955 and John Wayne's buckskin costume from the 1960 film.

A figurehead of Davy Crockett from an 1853 clipper ship and a recreated child's room from 1955 — complete with Davy Crockett wallpaper, curtains, bedspread, furniture, pillowcases, pajamas and toys — are just a few examples of the many featured items that span more than a century of Crockett mania.

By Richard Bonnin

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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