David Crockett lived in West Tennessee, in what is now Gibson County, in 1825. His favorite thing to do was to hunt, sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for a few days.
Crockett came up with a plan to make money. He and some other men would chop down hundreds of trees and cut them into lumber. They would then stack the lumber onto two huge log rafts, which they would float down the Obion and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, where they would sell the lumber and the rafts.
This form of logging/milling was, at the time, one of the most prevalent industries in Tennessee.
Crockett hired men to help him chop down trees, cut them into lumber and make the log rafts. Because he couldn’t afford to pay them before delivery, he promised to pay them afterward. He also promised to feed them all the bear meat they could eat while they worked.
While the men were chopping down trees, Crockett was hunting bear with his dogs. If his memoirs can be believed, he killed a lot of bears that year.
It was around March of 1826 when Crockett’s two huge rafts, loaded with 30,000 pieces of lumber, headed down the Obion River. The river was high and the current moved quickly. The only thing Crockett and his men could do was use big sticks as rudders to keep the rafts in the middle of the river. Things went pretty well as they floated down the Obion.
However, from the moment the two flatboats floated out onto the mighty Mississippi, things went wrong.
“I had never been down the river, and I soon discovered that my pilot was as ignorant of the business as myself,” Crockett later wrote.
They had no idea how to steer or stop their rafts. Crockett had his men tie the rafts together, but that didn’t help.
One night, Crockett and his men tried to steer to the shore but could not. They floated all night, in the dark, huge river, with no idea what was in front of them. At some point, they passed a town where they intended to stop. People waved lanterns and tried to yell instructions, but that didn’t help.
“The people would run out with lights and try to get us to shore, but all in vain,” Crockett wrote in his autobiography.
Somehow, they made it through a turn in the river known as the Devil’s Elbow. For a while, Crockett began to think they could make it all the way to New Orleans. But then his luck ran out. The rafts crashed into a large tree that was stuck in the river. Both rafts tipped over and all the men got thrown overboard.
Crockett and his men found a pile of driftwood and held on.
As luck would have it, a boat came by and picked them up. A few hours later, the boat landed in Memphis, where it was greeted by a large crowd that included Marcus Winchester — one of the most prominent residents of the town. He knew who Crockett was and was excited to see him.
Winchester owned a big store near the river. This turned out to be a good thing, because Crockett was not wearing any pants when the boat fished him out of the Mississippi. Somehow his pants had fallen off as he swam and drifted in the Mississippi.
Winchester got Crockett a pair of pants and then invited him and his men to his house.
The next day, Crockett got on a riverboat heading downstream in search of what was left of his flatboats. He went all the way to Natchez, Mississippi, but never found his flatboats or his lumber.
When Crockett got back to West Tennessee, he explained the story to all the men he had hired. Since he couldn’t pay them, they didn’t think the story was very funny. Crockett also had to explain it to his wife, who by this time was tired of his tall tales.
Other people loved the story, though. They lived in other parts of West Tennessee, in counties such as Carroll, Henderson and Madison. When Crockett ran for Congress the next year, he told stories about bear hunting, drifting uncontrollably down the Mississippi and about being fished out of the river with no pants on. People laughed and elected him to Congress.
It was there, in Washington, where Crockett became a national hero.
Bill Carey is the executive director of Tennessee History for Kids.