- Author: David Crockett
- Date: 1834
- Medium: Manuscript document
- Inches: 9 3/4 x 7 1/4 [Paper]
- Centimeters: 24.76 x 18.42 [Paper]
- Product ID: 308087
Rare Letter Signed "David Crockett" as a U.S. Congressman from Tennessee
One page of one leaf, 7.25" x 9.75", Washington, April 12, 1834, to "Messrs. Cary & Hart," Philadelphia. Cary and Hart were the publishers of Crockett's 1834 autobiography A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett. In this letter, Crockett directs his publishers to pay Kentucky Congressman Thomas Chilton, who confidentially helped Crockett with the book, "the first eight hundred dollars from the sale of my Book." Though historians disagree on the extent of Chilton's participation, this letter suggests that he was involved beyond just editorial work. The letter exhibits smoothed folds and only one minor stain; otherwise, this leaf is very clean and all text is very clear and legible. The letter reads in full as written:
"You will receive at the same time with this a letter from Mr. Chilton, who is entitled to the first eight hundred dollars from the sale of my Book, out of the Sixty two and one half per cent, coming to me, as by your original agreement with me I enclose an order for that amount, which you will pleas accept and return to Mr. Chilton. I shall shortly visit your City, when we will make some further regulations about distributing the work. I am sincerely your friend [signed] David Crockett."
When David Crockett (1786-1836) was elected to a third term in Congress in 1833, he was suffering from mounting debts. Needing to improve his fortunes (financial and other), he decided to write his memoir. Though Crockett was not the coarse backwoodsman the public thought, he made the decision to caricature himself that way, even to the point of fabricating some details in the book. He also decided to use the dialect of the western frontier. By the time he arrived in Washington for the commencement of the first session of the 23rd U.S. Congress in December 1833, Crockett had already begun his new project. At his boardinghouse near the capital, Crockett met Kentucky Congressman Thomas Chilton (1798-1854), an experienced writer who, as a Kentuckian, was comfortable writing with the western dialect. (Crockett may have known Chilton for at least six years by this time; see James Atkins Shackford's biography, David Crockett: The Man and the Legend, [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986], 271.)
Crockett wrote quickly, finishing by late January 1834 (Crockett's preface to the book is dated February 1, 1834, from Washington two months prior to the date of this letter). In addition to helping with the composition, editing, and structure of the book, Chilton also wrote letters to various publishers until Crockett decided on February 3 to turn the manuscript over to E. L. Carey and Abraham Hart of Philadelphia. Chilton, experienced in working with publishers, handled most of the communications - the final draft of the manuscript sent to Cary and Hart was even written entirely in Chilton's hand. After the publishers read the manuscript, they generously offered Crockett 62.5% of the gross margin per copy.
Because of his help with the book, which James Shackford insists in his biography was substantial (the book "was not 'looked over' [by Chilton], it was “written by Chilton," [Crockett, 271]), Crockett informed Carey and Hart in a previous letter written on February 23 that Chilton was entitled to half of Crockett's 62.5% profits, as well as .5% of the entire profits and half of the copyright. In this letter written on April 12, Crockett directs the publishers to go further and give Chilton the first $800 out of the pair's expected 62.5% profit. This letter suggests that Chilton was very involved in Crockett's Autobiography. Whatever the extent of Chilton's help, Crockett wanted to keep the Kentuckian's role confidential. The publishers obliged, printing on the title page of the first edition that Crockett's book was "Written by Himself." The book was a success,
The rest, as they say, is history. After losing reelection in 1835, Crockett migrated to Texas where he died at the Alamo in 1836.
Additional Background Regarding the Mystery of Crockett’s Autobiography
In 1834 a Philadelphia publisher released a book titled Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee. Many readers suspected that this autobiography was crafted by someone other than Crockett himself. It had indeed been crafted by Chilton, from Crockett's written material and in response to questioning, but the agreement between these friends was absolute public silence on the matter. After a century of historical suspicion the details were unearthed during research by Crockett biographer, James Atkins Shackford. Shackford wrote what is considered the most serious and definitive account of Crockett’s life. He discovered two letters in Crockett's hand which revealed the circumstances;
The first letter, written to his son John and dated January 10, 1834 says:
I am ingaged in writing a history of my life and I have completed one hundred and ten pages and I have Mr. Chlton [sic] to Correct as I write it.
The second letter, written to Messrs Cary & Hart, publishers, and dated February 23, 1834 says in part:
I wish you also to understand that the Hon. Thos Chilton of Kentucky is intitled to one equal half of the Sixty two and a half per cent of the entire profits of the work as by the agreement between you and my Self -- and also to half the Copy right in any Subsequent use or disposition which may be made of that I have thought proper to advise you of this fact and to request that you will drop him a memorandum recognizing his right as aforesaid that half the Said profits, which would otherwise be due to my Self may be subject to his order and control at all times....It is more over proper that this Should be done in order that if either of us should die our heirs may understand the arrangement. This will therefore be my relinquishment to Mr. Chilton of the interest afore- said one half of which you are duely notified. The manuscript of the Book is in his hand writing though the entire Substance of it is truly my own. The aid which I needed was to Classify the matter but the Style was not altered.
The subject on offer here appears to be the third letter providing conclusive proof of the true author of the “biography”.
Estate of Thomas Tesoriero, who purchased it from Paul C. Richards Autographs on May 9, 1973, for $1,250, written in the upper left corner of the letter (1250-). The original receipt, layaway payment schedule and Crockett portraits on paper (two) are included.
Alamo related material is rare to the market. In March, 2017, a William Barrett Travis hand-written receipt for lumber, dated and sent from the Alamo just prior to Santa Anna’s siege sold for $150,000.