Dispute over Davy Crockett's last stand
AUSTIN, TEXAS — Remember the Alamo? Jose Enrique de la Pea sure did, and he remembered a lanky gringo who died by execution, after surrendering to Mexico's superior forces. Pea called him "Croket," as in Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.
When Pea's 680-page memoir was published in 1955, more than 100 years after it was written, it ignited a fiery debate over historical accuracy and heroic characters. Last month, when two businessmen bought the memoir and gave it to the University of Texas at Austin, the battle revived and continues to this day in academic journals and Internet chat rooms.
In historical terms, the debate over How Davy Died may rank somewhat below the question of who really discovered America and why did Patton slap that crying soldier. But it's a debate that speaks volumes about the powerful hold that the Alamo and Texas culture still have on the imaginations of Americans. It also asks a deeper question: to whom does history belong - the victors or the victims, the academics or the amateurs?
The central figure in this debate is Crockett, a frontiersman and politician from Tennessee who was famous long before actors Fess Parker and John Wayne engraved this heroic character on the American consciousness.
"Crockett really was the first American celebrity ... he would have been on the cover of People magazine," says Richard Winders, curator and historian for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas at the Alamo in San Antonio. "The story was they all died fighting with their backs to the wall. That's the way we perceive a hero dying. And this story has become so fixed in American culture that any substantial revision was just unthinkable."
But revision is precisely what is going on. Kept under lock and key at UT's Center for American History, Pea's memoirs tell a rich tale of the mistakes of Mexico's tyrannical leader, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, in his failed attempt to hold onto Texas and much of what is now the American Southwest. And one small portion of this memoir has lent weight to eyewitness accounts of how the last Texas combatants died.
According to the manuscript, Crockett's death was anything but cinematic. Seven men survived the massacre, Pea writes, and "Among them was one of great stature,... in whose face was stamped the pain of adversity, but ... David Croket [sic] very well known in North America for his novel adventures,... had confined himself in the Alamo."
In surrendering, Crockett and the others were promised amnesty by their captors. But Santa Anna ordered them executed, and a group of soldiers eagerly took up swords. "[T]hese miserable ones died moaning, but without humbling themselves before their executioners," wrote Pea.
One of the first scholars to declare the Pea memoir legitimate was James Crisp, a historian at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He says his treatise in 1995 made front-page news all over the state, and when he was on a visit to San Antonio that year, one die-hard Texas matriarch (in jest) threatened his life. "She came up to me and said, 'If I had a Bowie knife I'd gut you right here, because hanging's too good for you,' " Dr. Crisp recalls with a laugh. "It was a friendly death threat."
Fortunately, all she had was a purse, and she was willing to hear Crisp out. He told her that the eyewitness account meshed well with the writings of other witnesses, both Mexican and Texan. The paper it was written on came from Portugal, according to expert analysis, and the ink was of a type used by the Mexican army in the early 19th century. By the end of their 45-minute conversation, she had changed her mind, and agreed with Crisp.
Others, particularly a proud band of amateur historians, have not been so easily persuaded.
Individually, these professional men from Texas, New York, California, and New Jersey, spend their vacations and free time digging through archives and libraries, scanning all available translations, and writing heated articles in historical journals, all in an effort to prove their contention that Pea's memoir is an elaborate hoax.
Bill Groneman, a captain in the New York City Fire Department, says he became fascinated with the character of Davy Crockett by "watching Walt Disney." But in time, he read as much as he could about the Alamo, and everything he has read thus far tells him the Pea memoir is "a fake, a hoax, or a forgery." He points to handwriting similarities to a letter attributed to the pirate Jean Lafite, but which later turned out to be a fake. He cites 20th-century phrases, like "crime against humanity." He notes the suspicious fact that the document never appeared until 1955.
"There was no record of it before 1955; that's like a red flag," says Mr. Groneman, who has written a book on the Pea memoir, called "Defense of a Legend: Crockett and the De la Pea diary." "But in the academic community, it was just accepted at face value."
Thomas Lindley, an Austin-area mental-health worker and writer on the Crockett debate, agrees. "The best evidence suggests that Crockett was in the chapel, fighting it out," he says. "Here's a man who killed his own political career in Tennessee, because he said he wasn't going to wear a dog collar for Andrew Jackson. I just don't see that kind of man surrendering."
While Crisp disagrees with Groneman and Lindley's conclusions, he welcomes their input and detective skills. In fact, he credits Groneman's book with getting him to study the Alamo in earnest. And he has found the subject rich with lessons about race, class, and the American frontier.
"It's not that Groneman is right, but in going wrong in his conclusions he led people to go back to the evidence and find their own conclusions," says Crisp.
"What a scientist tries to do is direct our attention to the evidence, so that we can make a statement that is precise. It might be wrong. In the end, there is no definitive history. There is only contingent truth."