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Say It Ain’t So, Davy

The truth hurts, as historians discovered when they broke the news that Crockett surrendered.

By November 1986Comments

Crockett being led before Santa Anna: he may have surrendered, but nobody ever said that Davy was a coward.

Illustration by John W. Thomason, Jr., from 'The Adventures of Davy Crockett,' Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934

When Dan Kilgore wrote a small historical book in 1978 titled How Did Davy Die? he was not prepared for the wrath of a gen­eration of militant Davy Crockett fans whose minds had been made up on the subject since childhood. They had watched Crock­ett-in the Walt Disney version of his life-go down fighting like a tiger.

Kilgore, who had never bothered to see the Dis­ney movie, boldly asserted that this popular version of Davy’s death was a will­ful distortion of historical evidence. Reliable eyewit­ness accounts, he contend­ed, proved that Davy Crockett had not died in the assault but had been captured or surrendered to Santa Anna and then was executed. Kilgore’s book detailed a guerre de plume that had been raging since the first accounts of the battle appeared. Those who ventured to suggest that Crockett may have surrendered were vicious­ly attacked, prompting many historians to side­step the issue altogether.

A silent conspiracy to leave the myth intact held sway until 1975, when the polemics were rekindled by the pub­lication of Carmen Perry’s transla­tion of the diary of Jose Enrique de la Pena, an officer with Santa Anna’s troops and a witness to the events at the Alamo.

With Santa Anna in Texas contained only a single page describing the events leading to Crockett’s death, but the publication of the book caused a monumental stink. The mere sug­gestion that Crockett hadn’t gone down fighting was suddenly blasphe­my. One journalist said that Perry’s book implied that Crockett had died a coward, “grovelling in the Alamo corner.” Perry, who was formerly the librarian of the Daughters of the Re­public of Texas, was harassed with anonymous letters and late-night phone calls. A story in People magazine on October 13, 1975, revealed the ab­surdity of the controversy when it placed a picture of Perry alongside one of John Wayne, who had played Crock­ett in the 1960 version of The Alamo. Did Crockett Die at the Alamo? Carmen Perry Says No, the headline read. The not-so-subtle distinction be­tween Hollywood fantasy and histor­ical reality was lost on the press, which consistently referred to the movie ver­sions of Davy Crockett in discussing Perry’s book.

Kilgore suffered the same sort of abuse when How Did Davy Die? came out. Taking a coolly detached view of the Crockett legend, Kilgore quoted sources long suppressed by the popular desire to uphold the myth, claiming that Crockett never had any intention of dying for the liberty of Texas. Them’s Fighting Words; Davy’s Legend Smudged, read the headline in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Kilgore’s hometown newspaper. This time the outrage was widespread, as wire copy made its way to London, Mexican, and Canadian newspapers. Kilgore received letters criticizing his book as “nothing more than a superficial analysis that Texans are known for” and calling him everything from a mealy-mouthed in­tellectual who ought to have his mouth washed out with soap, to an organizer of a commie plot. One irate Crockett fan from Fort Myers, Florida, said, “We know the reason for this. This is one of the Communists’ plans to de­grade our heroes. .. . He’s still the king of the Wild Frontier.”

Kilgore endured the name-calling with bemused amazement at the potency of the myth. Not having been particularly enam­ored of Crockett himself, he was taken aback by the ferocity of the attacks. “To me it was a very sim­ple exercise in historical research,” he says. “I based my book on seven accounts of different Mexi­can soldiers. There was an enormous weight of evidence.”

What still irks Kilgore, however, is the way his reputation was dragged along with the sensational­ism surrounding How Did Davy Die? One Austin writer, he says, attacked Kilgore’s book as a way of getting pub­licity for his own novel on the Alamo. “It was a slow news day,” Kilgore recalls. Columnists who picked up on the story embellished it, often to wild proportions. “One newspaper colum­nist threw in his own derogatory opin­ions,” Kilgore says. “He used my book as an opportunity to make up all sorts of things, such as how Crockett’s per­sonal motto was, ‘Victory, or how about another chance on Tuesday?’ or ‘Be sure you’re right, then lie about it.’ He made it sound like it was my intention to smear Davy Crockett’s reputation. I don’t know why people feel like it is a slur to say that he surrendered. Really, it’s not-during World War II, ten thousand men sur­rendered, and they’re considered heroes. There’s nothing wrong with an overpowered soldier surrendering in the face of all the odds.”

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