1. Life & Culture

Did this Davy Crockett tell tall tales, too? Tampa man claimed to be 132

Named for the ‘King of the Wild Frontier,’ the freed slave also said he saw George Washington and learned to read through a religious miracle.
Locals once believed a Tampa man lived to be over 130 years old.
Locals once believed a Tampa man lived to be over 130 years old. [ Times (1915) ]
Published Jun. 4, 2020

TAMPA — The oldest person whose age has been authenticated, according to Guinness World Records, is Jeanne Louise Calment, who died in Arles, France, in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days old.

But could a Tampa man, who died 40 years before Guinness began documenting such achievements, have lived longer?

In February 1915, the Tampa Times reported that a man named Davy Crockett died on the 24th of that month at 132 years old.

His death certificate, which does not include a date of birth, says he was “about 133."

Still, a pioneering mayor of Tampa once said Crockett embellished his age by a decade, so he was only 122 or 123 years old when he died.

Could any of those claims be true?

“I would take it with a grain of salt as far as his actual age,” Andy Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida’s Special Collections, said. “But it certainly made for a good story back then."

Crockett said he was born into slavery in South Carolina, near the border of North Carolina.

He told tales of seeing George Washington, watching as the nation fought in multiple wars — including the Seminole Wars and the War of 1812 — and saw the country grow from a population of 4 million to 80 million, all while outliving his six children and marrying three times.

Crockett said he learned to read through a religious miracle. Blinded by a bright light, he said, a Bible fell into his lap and he could suddenly read.

His name was originally just Dave, until “my master heard what a brave man Davy Crockett was," he told the Tampa Tribune in 1910 when the newspaper profiled him. "It has been my name ever since.”

That Davy Crockett, romanticized as the “King of the Wild Frontier," remains a folk hero who was a politician, frontiersman and war hero known for his own wild stories.

Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center compared the story of Tampa’s Crockett to that of Juan Gomez, who in the late 1800s regaled Floridians with claims that he was over 100 and sailed with the pirate Jose Gaspar, the namesake for Tampa’s Gasparilla festivities.

Today, much of the mythology of the pirate Gaspar is based on Gomez’s supposed firsthand accounts.

“We now know Jose Gaspar was not real,” Kite-Powell said. “It wasn’t uncommon back then to hear stories about people who claimed to be extraordinarily old and for people to want to believe it. American thought was still in that folklore mythology mind-set of Paul Bunyan and other tall tales.”

In the 1880s, a free man, Crockett was residing in Mobile, Ala., when hired to help build a road connecting Tampa to Jacksonville.

It was then that the story of his grand age began to spread locally.

John Lesley, a former Tampa mayor charged with finding laborers for the road construction effort, was questioned about whether a man of Crockett’s supposed age could still perform such work. Lesley reached out to the family — spelled Gallette by the newspaper in 1910 and Gullett in 1915 — that once enslaved Crockett.

That was in 1900, and the family told him Crockett was 107.

“I firmly believe he is 117 or 118,” Lesley told the newspaper in 1910. “I took every means to ascertain the truth.”

That would have made Crockett 122 or 123 when he died in 1915, still an unusual occurrence for someone living in poverty at that time. Could it be true?

“I guess anything is possible," Kite-Powell said. “But I would say it is more likely that it is not likely at all.”