10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can't Fit in a Storybook
10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook

Larry Holzwarth - December 5, 2017

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
An 1834 portrait of Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee, far removed from his buckskin clad image today. Smithsonian

David Crockett

Like Daniel Boone, David Crockett of Tennessee (he despised being called Davy) is a larger than life character whose real life accomplishments are often overcome by his myth. Crockett was another hunter of renown, making his living by killing bear in the wilds of Tennessee and Kentucky while simultaneously attempting to make a success of one farm after another. He never succeeded.

Crockett too was not the Indian fighter that history has made him out to be. He did participate in the Red Stick War against factions of the Creek Indian tribes, mostly as a scout and a courier. His service was with the Tennessee militia, and when the army and his own memory disagreed on the date of his discharge he followed his own estimation, becoming listed as deserter. During the War he served with another famous Tennessean of the era, Andrew Jackson.

Crockett later became a county judge, an elected post for which he ran a campaign which liberally disbursed corn whiskey to voters, and eventually was elected to Congress. At one point during his political career there was serious discussion of him becoming a candidate for President of the United States. Crockett was a largely ineffective congressman and his opposition to Andrew Jackson’s Indian Relocation Bill sealed his political career, after which he famously told his former constituents, “…go to hell, I’m going to Texas.”

Like Boone, Crockett was legendary in his own lifetime, unlike Boone Crockett did all he could to promote himself. When he went to Washington he attended the theater to see a character in a show which was based on himself, he later saw similar portrayals in Philadelphia and New York. He published his autobiography to enhance his fame. After his death at the Alamo his reputation blossomed and then began to fade until by the 1940s he was all but forgotten except in Tennessee.

It was Disney that re-catapulted Crockett to fame in the 1950s and resurrected the many myths about the frontiersman. Crockett’s myth has largely outlived his real life accomplishments and failures, and most Americans today would be amazed to learn that Crockett both owned and traded in slaves during his lifetime, was a reluctant soldier, (he thought the fighting in Texas was over before he went there) and was once considered presidential material.

10 Larger than Life American Myths and Legends that Can’t Fit in a Storybook
The legend of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag is untrue, but she did make many other flags in the Patriot cause. Library of Congress

Betsy Ross

According to an oft repeated story, Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag with 13 stars in a circle after convincing General Washington that the stars should have five points, rather than six. This has led to the long-standing belief that Betsy Ross both designed and created the American flag. The problem with this story is that although Betsy Ross was a young seamstress who made flags for the Pennsylvania Navy (each state had their own Navy at the time) there is no evidence that she was involved in the creation of the American flag.

The story connecting her to the Stars and Stripes didn’t even appear until about 1876, when it was written by her grandson. There is no other document or recorded conversation linking Washington and Ross, or linking Ross to the creation of the first flag featuring the constellation of stars. What this myth obscures is the fact the Betsy Ross was one of several seamstresses in Philadelphia who sewed flags for regimental colors and ships, as well as repaired uniforms and tents.

The myth also obscures documented evidence that Betsy Ross worked on the Grand Union Flag, which flew over the Continental Army headquarters and Cambridge during the siege of Boston. The Grand Union Flag combined the 13 red and white stripes with the Union Jack in the canton. It may be that this was the flag to which Ross’s grandson referred when he mentioned her work on the first American flag.

There is no doubt that the young Betsy Ross contributed significantly to the American war effort during the Revolutionary War, including helping to make paper cartridges for muskets and blankets for the troops, as well as signal flags and ensigns for ships.

But the story of Betsy Ross designing and making the first American flag at the behest of George Washington is part of American Folklore.