What a Crockett!

The crinkly piece of paper that the Texas Historical Commission is on the verge of buying for half a million dollars is not what it appears to be.

On January 9, 1836, Davy Crockett sat down to write a letter to his daughter Margaret and her husband, Wiley Flowers. During Crockett’s three terms in the United States Congress, he had written numerous letters and even published an autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee. But after being voted out of office in 1834, he had seldom bothered to write anything at all. Having only recently arrived in Texas, however, he was spilling over with enthusiasm for the country and for the life he thought he could have here. The extravagantly friendly reception he had received in Nacogdoches had left him almost giddy; he wrote to his daughter and son-in-law back in Tennessee because he wanted them to know that he was not just a defeated congressman with few prospects but a famous and popular personage with real opportunities in a new land: “I must say as to what I have seen of Texas it is the garden spot of the world the best land and best prospect for health I ever saw is here and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here.”

Because of that phrase describing Texas as “the garden spot of the world,” this letter, the last that Crockett ever wrote, has been quoted in nearly every history of the Texas Revolution, from scholarly tomes to grade-school textbooks; in every biography of Crockett; and in most accounts of the Battle of the Alamo, where he met his death less than two months later. But anyone who checks the notes and sources of these books discovers that the authority for this letter is simply that it has been quoted in previous books or articles. None of the historians, textbook writers, or biographers had ever seen the letter themselves. In David Crockett: The Man and the Legend , which is still the standard biography even though it was published 52 years ago, James Atkins Shackford wrote that the letter was in the hands of J. D. Pate, of Martin, Tennessee. Not only was this fact never verified, but Mr. Pate has never been found.

Assertions on such slight authority are barely more than rumors, so scholars long ago accepted that the letter had probably been destroyed somehow, another bit of history lost forever. Then, last September, in an elaborate ceremony at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, in Austin, Governor Rick Perry announced that Crockett’s famous epistle had reappeared. What’s more, the Texas Historical Commission planned to purchase it, pending authentication, for $550,000.

Perry’s announcement was met with groans among the small but intense community of Texana collectors and dealers, Alamo enthusiasts, amateur and professional Texas historians, and grown men still fixated on Davy Crockett. To begin with, the letter’s seller, Ray Simpson III, was the grandson of William Ray Simpson. The elder Simpson was a cagey, slightly stuffy gentleman who in his youth had been a minor acolyte of Ezra Pound’s and who, in 1962, founded the Simpson Galleries, in Houston. His shop, then on Main Street a few blocks west of downtown, was home to a fascinating hodgepodge of antiques, fine art, silver, jewelry, books, and manuscripts. But it was also the source of some of the fraudulent documents in a seventies forgery scandal over printed matter from the era of the Texas Revolution. Simpson denied knowing that the materials he sold had been forged, but not everyone was convinced.

William’s son, Ray Simpson II, joined him in the business in the early seventies. According to Ray II, in 1986 a man claiming to be one of Crockett’s great-great-grandsons visited the galleries with a shoe box containing two letters written by his famous ancestor. Unfortunately, the Simpsons did not retain any supporting documents showing the man’s name, the exact date of the purchase, or the amount paid for the two letters. One letter was addressed to Crockett’s publisher; William sent it to be auctioned by Butterfield & Butterfield (now Bonhams and Butterfields) in California. The second was the “garden spot of the world” letter; William decided not to sell it right away. As Ray II remembers it, his father kept the famous letter in his office, even though the room was overflowing with books, letters, papers of all description, files, and bric-a-brac. William was splitting time between Houston and Florida in those days, and during one of his absences, his secretary took it upon herself to clean up his office. After that, no one could find the Crockett letter.

William died in 2001. In 2007 the gallery moved several miles west of its Main Street location. While cleaning out his father’s office, Ray II found a folder in a pile of old magazines on top of a filing cabinet. In the folder, between some plastic sheets, was the long-lost letter. That was a happy moment. Ray II turned the letter over to his son, Ray III, who now runs the gallery. Ray III immediately went into action.

Over the years, he had sold some historic Texas paintings to John Nau, an intellectually inclined Budweiser distributor from Houston who was appointed to the Texas Historical Commission in 1993, elected chair of the commission in 1995, reappointed as chair in 1999, and reappointed again in 2003. Ray III contacted Nau about the letter, and Nau decided that the commission ought to move quickly to buy it before it was offered in an open auction. With the governor’s encouragement, Nau called an emergency session of the commission’s executive committee on August 28, 2007. He told the committee that whereas bids at an open auction would begin around $250,000 and probably rise to $750,000, or even $1 million, Ray III was now offering the letter for $550,000 and was willing to give back $60,000, making the total cost to the State of Texas only $490,000. The commission happened to be sitting on $823,000, authorized by the Legislature for a special artifact fund, that needed to be

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week