Should We Care
DON CARLETON, the director of the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, gestured toward a stack of old paper about two inches thick. The paper was so old it was as soft and supple as a bedsheet. The edges were frayed and each sheet, front and back, was covered with flowery old-fashioned handwriting in brown ink. “In my twenty-five years in the profession,” Carleton said, “this is the most vibrant piece of history I’ve ever seen. Every week there’s a call about it from somebody somewhere. The interest in it doesn’t die down. It just keeps building. And the reason is because of the stuff about Davy Crockett.”
That vibrant pile of old paper, which some claim is a forgery, purports to be the diary of José Enrique de la Peña, a lieutenant colonel with the Mexican army who fought with Santa Anna at the Alamo. In it he wrote that Davy Crockett surrendered to the Mexicans rather than fighting to the death, as legend insists. He describes Crockett as a “naturalist” who had “undertaken to explore the country and who, finding himself in Béjar at the very moment of surprise, had taken refuge in the Alamo, fearing that his status as a foreigner might not be respected.” But these excuses did him no good. After surrendering, de la Peña says, Crockett and a handful of other defenders who had also surrendered were taken to Santa Anna, who had them executed immediately.
The diary wasn’t published in English until 1975. In 1978 Dan Kilgore, a former president of the Texas State Historical Association, used it as the basis for his book How Did Davy Die? This slight volume caused much huffing and puffing because it blasphemed Davy’s legend. But historians generally agreed with Kilgore. Texas Monthly published a cover story on Davy Crockett by historian Paul Andrew Hutton in November 1986 that stated unequivocally that he surrendered. In fact, there is a second historical source, the Dolson letter, published in a Detroit newspaper in September 1836, that also says Davy surrendered. George M. Dolson was a sergeant in the Texas army who served as an interpreter. In his letter he wrote of the fall of the Alamo as told to him by an unnamed captured Mexican officer.
Two separate sources with practically the same information would seem to be conclusive, but in the past ten years or so the controversy has come to life again through the efforts of devoted amateur historians who stubbornly refuse to believe that Davy surrendered. They argue that internal inconsistencies show that at best de la Peña and Dolson were inventing their version of events as part of various conspiracies and political intrigues that were epidemic in Mexico and Texas at the time. At worst, the doubters contend, the two documents are in fact masterful and particularly malicious forgeries. Jan Reid wrote about this controversy for Texas Monthly in May 1995 (Texana: “Davy Crock?”) and the debate has only intensified since then. When the de la Peña diary was auctioned in November 1998, the event was international news. Experts appeared on Today discussing whether the diary was a fake, and the BBC broadcast a similar story across Europe. In the meantime Brian Huberman, a filmmaker at Rice University, has made a documentary about the diary and the controversy around it. The Center for American History will host a symposium about de la Peña on April 29 in Austin, and here in an issue about the Alamo it is impossible not to write about it again.
Why does anyone care how Davy died? Of course, the entire baby boom generation remembers Walt Disney, Fess Parker, and the Davy Crockett craze they created in December 1954 when the first episode of Davy Crockett appeared on Disneyland. In the Davy hysteria during the months that followed, wrote Hutton, “Ten million copies of ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ record were sold and every one of those buyers now knew for certain just how Davy had died — fighting to the bitter end with his rifle as a club.” Until then the story of Davy fighting to the death and the story of Davy surrendering seemed to coexist peacefully. The earliest accounts of the battle in newspapers, based on word of mouth, had Davy surrendering and then being summarily executed, which, as Hutton also noted, “was often used by the press in 1836 as further evidence of Santa Anna’s barbarity.” A popular nineteenth-century biography, Edward S. Ellis’ The Life of Colonel David Crockett, which was published in 1884, also had Crockett surrendering. These accounts did not portray the surrender as dishonoring Crockett, and outside Texas no one seemed to mind.
In Texas the belief that the Alamo defenders, every last one, had fought to the death was part of the state’s sacred legend. After December 1954 the Texas version and the Disney version coalesced and became the only version for those who believe in Davy. And of the two amateur historians who are doing the most to keep the belief alive that Davy fought to the end, one, Thomas Ricks Lindley, is a native Texan steeped in the state’s history and the other, Bill Groneman, is a fireman in New York who saw the televised Davy as a child and has remained fascinated ever since.
But nostalgia, although important, isn’t the only reason people care about how Davy died. I think the persistence and the sheer effort behind the arguments shows that in the question of Davy’s death some fundamental belief is at stake. If the de la Peña diary and the Dolson letter say that Davy surrendered, then they must be proved wrong. Groneman dismisses the diary as a forgery. It’s possible, but the strongest evidence for the diary’s authenticity was discovered by James Crisp, a professor of history at North Carolina State University, who has spent the past several years of his life taking on all comers in his defense of the diary. In 1994 in the Yale University library he discovered a single copy of a formerly unknown pamphlet by de la Peña that was published in 1839. It has several sentences that are almost identical to passages in the diary. No forger could have known about this pamphlet to copy it, so the identical passages prove the diary is real.
This was a telling blow until the doubters moved back the goalposts. “The possibility [someone] in Mexico or the U.S. would have had access to a copy [of the pamphlet] cannot be dismissed,” wrote Bill Groneman, the author of six books on the Alamo. “We cannot eliminate the possibility that the copy in Yale actually passed through [many] hands. To myself and others, the similarity of passages indicated more evidence of the ‘diary’ as a researched or ‘cut and paste’ account.” Thus, to Groneman, the pamphlet means the diary is a fake — exactly the opposite of what the pamphlet means to Crisp.
The Dolson letter would seem to be unimpeachable. But that hasn’t prevented Thomas Ricks Lindley from engaging Jim Crisp in an extended debate in The Alamo Journal. Lindley focuses on what he takes to be inconsistencies in the account, in particular the sentence concerning the prisoners’ being taken to the “tent” of Santa Anna. The general came to the scene of the battle and the prisoners, whether including Crockett or not, were brought to him there, either in or in front of the Alamo. Thus they could not have been taken to Santa Anna’s tent, assuming he even had one. Here the debate veers into a long discussion of what Spanish word the Mexican officer may have used that Dolson translated as “tent.” Was it tienda or was it pabellon? In 1836, Crisp argues, pabellon meant “banner” as well as “tent,” and it is plausible that Santa Anna had a banner with him after the battle. But, Lindley counters, pabellon meant a banner on the mast of a ship. It was a naval term that an army officer wouldn’t use.
It might seem strange that grown men are so concerned with Davy’s posthumous legend, but it’s an example of what can happen when passion and conviction seek to dominate history. It turns out now that little of what we customarily think about the Alamo is actually true. There’s no reason to believe that Travis drew a line in the sand and asked the men who wanted to stay and fight to cross it. In fact, the Alamo defenders were not always determined to fight to the death; they tried to surrender both at the beginning of the siege and very likely near the end as well. The best estimate is that there were about 250 defenders in the Alamo rather than the accepted number of about 180. During the battle, many Texians ran and several surrendered, although Santa Anna summarily executed them. All of that is well enough established that it doesn’t inspire much controversy among historians. But the legend of Davy Crockett’s fighting to the death against overwhelming odds is the one piece of the Alamo legend that could still be true. The reason for the passionate defense of Davy is that the whole myth of the Alamo, indeed of the whole Texas Revolution, hangs on the way that he died. And that myth is that the Battle of the Alamo was a glorious fight by heroes who willingly gave their lives for freedom. On the other hand, if Davy did surrender, well . . .
But does so much hinge on Davy’s fate after all? Isn’t there a way to look at what happened at the Alamo that makes the event far less mysterious and far more human than the Alamo of myth? The men in the Alamo were fighting for independence, just as the American revolutionaries had before them. Some, perhaps all, had venal motives, but they had higher ones too. Travis’ defiant letters from the Alamo prove that. And so does Crockett’s presence in the fort. He could, after all, have moved on rather than staying to fight. Once inside the walls the Texians were trapped. A negotiated surrender would have been prudent, but Santa Anna never agreed to one. When the attack came, the Mexican soldiers soon scaled the walls and poured into the Alamo in waves from the north and the south. The situation was clearly hopeless. Why not run and perhaps survive to fight another day? Why not surrender for the same reason? After all, they had already held out for thirteen days. That’s long enough to count as a hero.