We got married on June 30, 1820, on a Friday evening at the Wilkes’ house. The preacher came down from Pitts Burg Landing to perform the ceremony. He was a Baptist, quite young, a red-faced Scotch-Irish fellow, another Wilkes’ relative. Danny was not a religious man, as far as I knew. The subject never came up. I had been baptized at Christ’s Church in Montreal, but had never taken to the church life myself, having found it to be an inconvenience, as had my parents. Mana and her family, on the other hand, were Baptists. Mrs. Wilkes belonged to The Primitive Baptist Church, but Mana must have taken after her father in that respect, for Homer rarely attended services. Mrs. Wilkes spent a lot of time excusing their absences.
The day of the wedding, I couldn’t see Lola before the ceremony, so Nathan and I went fishing. Nate treated me like his equal, not the kid, as some of the others did. We rode north, along the river for several miles, just talking, killing time, and looking for a good spot we’d never fished before. Finding the place where the river was much wider, not too far down from the new ferry, we stopped. Squatting on the bank, at the rivers bend, we baited our hooks. Positioning them just right in the water, we stuck the end of the cane poles into the mud bank, and settled back on the grass, and waited for the fish to bite. We kept our long rifles beside us.
Nate, as usual, got around to the sorry state of affairs, the growing divide between the rich and the poor in Tennessee, and the national issue of slavery which he openly opposed, keeping Danny all worked up.
“It’ll turn the whole country into a free-for-all,” Nate said. “We just think this depression‘s caused a panic, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Billy.
“And Clay’s compromise, well, it may stave off war a while, with Missouri comin’ in, seems to me to be prolongin‘ things, addin’ fuel to the fire, everyone diggin‘ in deeper on both sides. Just like me and Danny.”
“I know.” I never felt right talking against Danny. I knew enough about the compromise Nate was talking about, though, to know he meant that with Maine and Missouri coming in as new states, one free, one not, some kind of balance would be maintained.
“I hate to talk against your about-to-be-father-in-law, “ Nate pressed on about Danny, “but he‘s not the same man who married my sister!“ He cut off a chaw of tobacco, offering it to me. I accepted it, and he twisted off another plug for himself. “He’s jest like that Andrew Jackson, that‘s why he likes him!” He stuck the big chew into this mouth, and began whittling on a stick with his knife.
“How’s that?” I spit a stream into the water.
“Folks like Danny, thinking like he does,” Nathan paused to spit too. “They all support Jackson because he’s just like ‘em, tells ‘em just what they want to hear, and they think he‘s one of them. All he’s about is power! Grabbin’ up all the land, makin’ it damned near impossible for poor people, the very ones he used to say he was lookin‘ out for. Seems to me like Danny and the rest of ’em around here were tricked by Jackson, it’s like he suckered ‘em in, and they think he’s still lookin’ out for their interest.
“And he’s the worst kind of Indian hater. People came in here just tryin’ to make something out of nothing for themselves, makin’ friends with the Indians for the most part, build ‘em a little cabin, clearing off and breakin’ up good farm land, got ‘em some livestock. First time in their lives, they feel like they‘ve got some kind of fightin‘ chance, and the next thing you know, here comes THE GOVERNMENT takin’ it away from ‘em, sayin’ they got no right to it, that it’s somebody else‘s, under some old warranty deed. After they done all the work, made improvements! Well, maybe them old deeds are legal, maybe not!”
Nate jumped up in his agitation, throwing his knife at the nearest tree, where it stuck solidly, its handle vibrating from the fierceness behind the throw. “Jackson never had nothin’, was dirt poor comin‘ up, now can’t get enough, land, or slaves. Murderin’ Indians like animals. That ain‘t right, either!“
He walked around in a circle, spitting on the ground, then stopped dead in his tracks, and looked down at me. “He is one cutthroat individual, I’ll give him that. But nobody’s made him king of the frontier, yet!” His black eyes blazed, and he gave his head a jerk, tossing his long black hair away from his face. “Do you know that he at one time laid claim to more land than anyone else in this state, on speculation? He figured he’d killed more Indians than anyone so he’s entitled. ‘To the victor, belongs the spoils.’ That‘s his motto.’
“Danny believes that too,” he said, stomping around again in the circle. “Half-way fancin’ hisself some kind of high falutin‘ aristocrat, like he has some divine right to the land, just like Jackson!
“Danny fell in with him because they started out the same, like most of us—–honest, hardworking backwoodsmen. Jackson was orphaned by the Revolutionary War. Same as Danny! He fought in the war hisself, at thirteen. Same as Danny! He’s a self-made man, just like Danny. He’s Scotch-Irish to the bone, hates the English! Same as Danny.”
“Danny was sixteen,” I mumbled. “And I’m English.” I spit out my chewed-out piece of tobacco.
“Well, yeah, but you know what I mean.”
“No, I didn’t know Danny hates the English.” That bothered me more than anything else Nate was saying, although it did sound like Danny and Andrew Jackson sure did have a lot in common.
“Jackson is dangerous. He’s down there in Florida now, but he’ll be back. He‘s set his sights on the White House, I just know it, and he’ll do anything to get the votes, and he won‘t quit ‘til there‘s no more Indians!” He jerked his pole out of the water. “He, by God, ain’t never gettin’ my vote! Goddamit, somethin’ got my hook!”
“Wonder if this river will ever see a steamboat?” I asked, deciding we needed to change the subject. I didn’t understand what Nate was talking about, or why he took politicians so personally.
“I doubt it, not for a while.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“Don’t look like the fish’re bitin’ today,” I said, getting up, picking up my pole and my rifle. “Reckon we might ought to start back?”
“Yeah, I reckon.” Nate retrieved his knife from the tree, giving the long blade a couple of swipes against his pants leg. Slapping me soundly across the back, he added, in a softer tone, “We gotta weddin’ to go to!”
And what a wedding it was! The wide front porch was decorated with branches of honeysuckle, intertwined with tiny white roses from the bushes that lined the south side of the house. At the center of the porch, extending over the steps, an arbor had been built, all covered in ruffles, ribbons, bows, and white lace. I stood with the preacher under it, he on the bottom step facing me with his back to the crowd assembled over the front yard. I faced the front door of the house, my eyes glued to that opening, waiting for the first glimpse of my bride. Everyone waited for Lola. Folks had come from all around the area, bringing gifts and food, dressed in their finest, to witness us exchange our vows.
For once, politics was left at the yard’s edge. Even Nate and Danny behaved. After the vows were said, and the matrimonial kiss firmly planted, the wedding feast began. Later we danced by the light of the moon to the fiddle and banjo music played by Lola’s uncles. The festivities lasted until late into the night, but the two of us slipped away as early as was decent, to my bedroom in the houseboat, where Lola finally became my wife.
One day, a month or two after the wedding, I went out exploring, hunting, just needing some space away from the others. I had ridden probably three miles from the houseboat, to the west, when I came upon a surveyor and his party. Falling in with the crew, out of curiosity for the work they were doing, I wound up spending the day with them, helping the chainers measure and stake off the layout of the ground. They even invited me to camp with them over night. I accepted, although I knew how worried Lola and the family would be when I didn’t return by dark. Something just rebelled in me, and for the first time in a long time I decided to follow my own wishes.
Another thing that kept me there was the arrival of a small hunting party which happened upon our camp at dusk, led by a fellow by the name of Crockett, from a county to the northwest of us, out on a bear hunt. His reputation preceded him, for everyone in the camp hooped and hollered when they saw it was him, and news from other parts flew like June bugs around the firelight, since he seemed to be well-acquainted with all of Tennessee. Chickasaw brothers, guides with the surveying party, Chinnumbee and Chomocktay Turner (their father, English) knew Crockett, having accompanied him under Jackson, during the Creek Wars. The respect between the men was mutual.
Crockett, dressed in a well-made buckskin shirt, coarse cotton breeches, leather leggings and moccasins, wore a fox skin cap, the tail still attached, hanging over his shoulder. A large hunting knife, in a pouch made from a raccoon skin, swung from one side of his waist. He was tall and slender, with an outgoing folksy manner most of us lacked. Several hunting dogs followed on his heels, as they sniffed about the camp, cautiously satisfying themselves it was safe, before lying down on the ground.
The men led two packhorses behind them, carrying salted down bear meat on their backs, having shot two that day. He boasted of more than a thousand pounds of dressed out meat, not a bit bashful about giving us the details of each killing either. A bottle was passed around, and Colonel Crockett, as they called him, entertained us late into the night, with stories about one event or another, for there was a man who never met a stranger. He had, as a young lad, taken up with one memorable character after another, having run away from his family to escape a thrashing from his father‘s hickory stick. Having worked himself around the country, earning his living any way he could, learning the ways of the world at every turn, and finally educating himself to read and write, for the sum of his school days didn‘t amount to more than a few months.
His life adventures poured out around that campfire in front of us like some grand theatrical oration. He portrayed one action packed episode after another, parading a continuous cast of characters before us, some good, some evil, some comical, with more drama than I‘d ever witnessed from any man. Why, he almost went to London one time, he said, but missed the boat!
Before that night was over, the man had so impressed me with his wit and venturesome spirit, not to mention his straight forward, honest attitude about state affairs and local politics, that I found myself wanting to hear more from him. He spoke to my way of thinking, not to mention to the kinship I felt regarding our similar boyhoods, although he was a good fifteen, sixteen years older than me. This backwoods pioneer voiced the opinions forming in my head, although I lacked the ability, or the courage, to express them.
Learning the surveying party would be in the western area, I wanted to go with them. They would be exploring thousands of acres in the new district, one of the men in the party having already built his cabin in what was then Carroll County, with others, including Crockett, to follow. The next morning, the lead surveyor offered to hire me, on trial. If I proved to be a good hand, he would take me back with him to the land office in Nashville the next time he returned. There, I could take the oath required by the state for the job. It didn’t occur to me at that time that I had yet to take the oath of citizenship to this country.
The notion of exploring, being paid to do it, stirred my wanderlust, and I wanted more than anything to accept the man’s job offer. I told him I’d return to their camp that night, which would be further northwest, at a place called Cotton Gin Grove, for they were moving toward the Forked Deer River, a good distance further west from where we were that day. Getting the general directions, I promised to return, after clearing away some things at home and packing a few supplies.
Before departing at daybreak that morning, Crockett doled out the meat amongst us quite liberally. He wasn’t near finished hunting, he said, for the woods were still full of black bear. He questioned me, wanting to know who my people were, where I had come from, genuinely interested in every word I said. Having heard the night before what an expert marksman he was, I invited him to one of the shooting matches, the first Saturday of every month at the Wilkes, next time he was in the area. I suspected he and Nate would have something in common, sounded like their politics were similar, and Crockett had talked like a man who was considering running for office. Nate, a prizewinning marksman himself, needed some competition, and some support.
Upon my return to the houseboat that morning, laden down with bear meat, and eager to tell them all about my exciting night, all hell broke loose. Lola, eyes swollen and red from crying, clung to me, limp with relief to have me back alive. Danny, beside himself with anger and worry, had summoned the Wilkes men, and they were all about to leave out on a hunting party for me, certain some terrible fate had befallen me, for why else would I stay away all night? Seeing them all, the state Lola was in, I felt more the traitor than ever before. Any hopes I had for joining the surveying party as planned, vanished.
“You’ve got responsibilities, laddie!” Danny had shouted, when I told him about the surveyor’s offer. “Have you lost your goddam mind? You got a wife, a family, it’s time for you to act like it, William!” He admonished me, his tone different than any he’d ever taken before. Nothing was ever the same between us since that morning, after my “layin’ out all night” as he called it.
Danny had changed from the free-spirited riverboat captain as he got older, by then into his forties. He’d become an established, uncompromising, southern gentleman, having shifted his views about slavery, which opposed my developing abolitionist way of thinking. Now, the devoted family man, with his years of satisfying his own gallivanting ways long behind him, any point of view I might offer, did not interest Danny.
I had changed, too, or maybe I’d just gotten back to my old self, but when he showed nothing but scorn for the offer I’d been given, the chance to pursue what I considered an honorable trade, one perhaps that could open important doors for me, I felt resentment. When he ridiculed my high regard for Crockett, saying he was nothing more than a big-mouthed buffoon, an offense boiled up in me like bile, causing me for the first time to question his patronage, his motives.
Naturally, the tension between us affected Lola, and although she and her mother tried to keep things on an even keel, living in such close quarters agitated the friction. When I stopped taking Danny’s side on things, at times voicing a different opinion, he would walk away, leave the room if we happened to be indoors, shunning me when forced to be in my presence with the others. Most days he and I worked together on the cabin in silence, his dissatisfaction with me like fog around us.
At a shooting match some Saturdays later, it all came to a head. As usual, the anti-Jackson side, with Nate doing most of the talking, and Danny doing most of it on the other, had escalated into a shouting match, with neither side making any sense. Jackson wasn’t even in public office at that time, having left the senate in preparation for running for the White House, according to most folks, but he personified Tennessee politics, the hope of every pioneer, and the fight against the Indians. The talk had started over the mid-day meal when Nate brought up the ruthless treatment of the Creek Nation, questioning the man‘s principles, or the ones he‘d started out his career on, whether or not he had been sincere in his motives in the first place.
“I heard a man the other day, over at the ferry crossin’, comparin’ him to the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte.”
“What the hell you talkin’ ‘bout, Nate?” Danny barked. “His principles! He’s the most principled man ever to sit astride a horse, common folk like us got no chance without him!”
“What do you mean? You got every chance! It’s the poor squatters out there in the wilderness, being herded off their farms, just like the Indians off theirs. They got no chance! Or the niggers, talk about no chance! What’s the matter with you, Dan? You used to have some principles of your own, now all you got’s that collar around your neck, just another one of Andrew Jackson’s lapdogs!”
“Here, here, you two,” Homer interrupted, “let’s not get carried away. Ain’t nobody here anybody’s lapdog!” He shot his son an admonishing look. “We all got strong opinions, and that’s a good thing, just let’s not git too personal.”
“Okay, let’s start settin’ up the target boards, then!” Nate said, giving Danny a exasperated shake of his head.
The dogs started barking, and we all looked to the road, seeing a lone rider leading a pack horse behind him, coming into the yard.
“Is that Crockett?” Someone asked as the rider got closer.
“Believe ‘tis him, alright!”
“Hallooo!” Crockett greeted the gathering with a shout, a wave of his hand, and a big grin as he removed his lanky frame from astride the horse. He slung his long rifle casually over one shoulder as he approached us. “Quit that yappin!” He ordered the three dogs on his heels, now being sniffed upon by the other dogs in the yard, some growling, some barking, all suspicious and surprised by the unexpected visitors.
I moved forward, quickly approaching the man, extending my hand, happy to see him, and eager to show the others I knew him.
“Welcome, Colonel Crockett!” I said, grasping his outstretched hand. “Come on in here, warm yourself!” I led him to the big fire in the middle of the yard, for it was cold, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The others stepped away and we walked toward Homer, the look on his weathered old face clearly revealing his surprise that the famous “gentleman from the canes” was actually in his yard. They’d heard much about this man, his popularity, and his excellent marksmanship having spread quickly over all Western Tennessee.
“Gentlemen, set up your targets!” Homer proclaimed, “We got us some real competition here now.” Turning to Crockett, he added, “That is if Mr. Crockett don’t mind going up against a bunch of amateurs!” Homer winked at me.
“If you’d be so kind as to furnish me a target, I’ll give you my best shot!” His slim face broke into a wide grin as he shook the older man’s hand. “Homer Wilkes, I presume?”
Nate had joined us, extending his hand. “Nathan Wilkes, my son,” Homer announced. Others drew in closer, each introducing himself, eager to make the acquaintance. I noticed Danny, hanging back, not making the same friendly approach.
Crockett turned to me, asking if I’d give him a hand, that he had a load of freshly salted bear to add to the prize table. Others helped us tote back a big stack of the meat. “You people like bear meat, I hope!” Crockett looked around the yard, obviously checking to see if he recognized anyone.
“Not sure!” Someone remarked.
“Ain’t never tried it!” Others chimed in.
A few said they didn‘t know how to prepare it, perhaps that’s why they hadn’t acquired a taste for it, not wanting to appear unappreciative of the man’s contribution to the bounty.
“Never cared for it, myself,” Danny spoke up for the first time, approaching Crockett. “Has a god-awful stench too, when cookin‘.”
I remained quiet on the subject, for the bear meat I’d brought back from my night out with the surveying party had been promptly fed to the dogs, declared unfit for human consumption. Danny draped his one arm over my shoulder posessively, and extended a hand to the Colonel. “Daniel Keogh, Mr. Crockett. Bill, my son-in-law here, mentioned your past meetin‘.”
“I expected to see him up around my new place by now, a little northwest of here,” Crockett said, shaking Danny’s hand firmly, giving me a quizzical look.
“Soon,” I responded.
Crockett looked me squarely in the eyes, squinting a little, before spitting tobacco on the ground. Then, he commenced to share some of his wife’s favorite bear meat recipes.
Later, talk got around to politics, and Crockett launched into a speech, about the race for the State’s legislature the next year. “I reckon you all probably know what I come for today. Well, if you don‘t, I‘ll tell you. I’ve come for your votes for that seat in the legislature, and if you don’t watch me mighty close, I’ll get ‘em, too!
“I also come at the invitation of my young friend, William Featherstone. No finer name than William, runs in my family. We got my boy, William, my Uncle William, and my brother, William and I’m always glad to meet one more! William, here, told me one time ‘bout these shootin’ matches Homer Wilkes hosts, and I can’t pass a chance to win a prize any more than the next man.
“Now, me, I tried to get off when the fellar came askin‘ me to run, for I know’d I had a man to run against me who could speak prime, and I know’d, too, that I wasn’t able to shuffle and cut with him.
“I’m new at this electioneering, kinda like the man who slapped his hand against an empty barrel declaring that he’d had some cider out of that barrel a few days before and was wonderin’ if there might be any left in there, because if there was, he couldn’t get anything to come out of it. Now, that’s ’bout the way I’m feelin’ right now. A little while ago I felt full to the brim with fine speeches just ready to come outa me, but now, don’t seem to be nothing there!”
Everyone laughed and clapped, and then he added, “Talkin’ ‘bout that cider caused me to develop a mighty thirst, and I sure could use a drink!”
Someone passed him a bottle.
“How long you reckon it’ll take to get shed of the Indians ‘round here?” Danny asked.
“Yeah, they’re settin’ on some of the best bottom land west of here!” Isaiah Cain piped up. “Prime land. You willin’ to do somethin’ bout that?”
“I ’spect they’ll be offered a fair price, and I ‘spect they‘ll take it.” Crockett said. “When the time comes.”
“And what if they don’t?” Nate wanted to know.
“Now, that question’s a weighty one, likely the weightiest one there is, and I’m not through thinkin’ on it yet. But, Nathan,” he paused, taking a long swig before passing the bottle on, “I‘ll promise you this —– I’ll buck Mr. Jackson himself, if it comes to it, for I got no grouse with the Indians, and can’t abide greed. There‘s enough land to go ‘round, if a man‘s willin‘ to work for it!
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll fight for any man’s legal rights, but I’ll trample on no one’s.”
The talk continued, and for the most part Crockett spoke to Nathan’s point of view, but in such a friendly, backwoodsman way, most liked him no matter what he was saying. I figured the Colonel would make a fine politician, for he seemed to have a knack for straddling the fence more often than not, not wishing to finish before he got started. A funny story and a generous attitude went a long way with most gathered in the yard that day.
However, Danny opposed every comment, purposely finding fault with anything Crockett said, and growing more frustrated each time Crockett responded with an answer that drew applause, or a resounding chorus of “That’s right!” from the others.
Oddly, Crockett’s wild spirit, good-natured character should have been one the old Danny would find appealing. The men, at an earlier time, might have shared a common interest, even a good friendship, but now, from my observation point, I saw that Danny envied Crockett. Perhaps he feared him, too, for I plainly admired the man, obviously a real problem for Danny, threatening the ever-tightening hold he wanted over me. I had sensed that even my friendship with Nate bothered Danny.
When I openly agreed with Nate and Crockett, in a discussion about the increased slave trade, Danny called me down on it.
“You know bettern‘ that, laddie, how come you sayin’ such a thing? How do you think we gonna prosper without slaves? Why, slaves is the lifeblood of the South. Ever’body knows they’re better off here anyway, considerin’ where they come from.” He looked long and hard at me, then glanced around at some of the other men, I guess for support. He must have gotten it, for he continued. “They gettum a good home, somebody to take care of ‘em, no worries, in exchange for their labor. Why, hell, we even give ‘em our good names, take ‘em in just like they‘s family! Seems more’n a fair bargain to me.” The way he looked at me, I knew, as did everyone else, the full meaning of that last statement. “You need to think before you speak, Billy!”
“Who’s shootin’ first?” Crockett asked, slapping me on the back, walking away from Danny, his rifle over his shoulder.
“Pick your prize, men, and set up your target boards!” Homer announced, looking at Danny and shaking his head. Danny’s assault on me in front of the others, even those in agreement with him, put a damper on the event, making everyone uncomfortable, although his outbursts were a common occurrence. But that day, in front of Colonel Crockett, his comments and insinuations went too far. As for me, I said nothing more to him.
Free thinking cuts both ways equally in the strong-minded, and will sever a relationship, even one as strong as mine and Danny’s had been. Could be, my more objective thinking just came with age, now that I was no longer a boy. Or, could be, it was simply the independent streak I had been born with, asserting itself. Maybe both of those reasons, along with Crockett’s influence, had just opened another window in my brain. But the idea of settling into the farming life of a gentleman who sat back, growing fat off the whipped, sweating backs of slaves, bought and sold like livestock, was repugnant to me. I found it impossible to understand why Danny, or any other thinking person, didn’t see it the same way. The wedge widened between us, to the splitting point.
One day not too long after that shooting match, I sat on the deck of the houseboat with Lola. It was chilly out there, but she chatted on about the baby she wanted to have, how she wanted a bunch of kids. I tried hard to accept the future Danny had planned for us there, to share Lola’s joy for the life we could build next to her parents, but the events at the shooting match made it impossible. No matter how I tried to control it, my mind kept darting away again, to somewhere along Forked Deer River, where I knew the surveying party would be by then.