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A line in the shifting sand

National | Revising the myth of Davy Crockett: Alamo hero was brave, but did he die in the battle, or afterwards?

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

Myths may spread more quickly on the Internet than in years past but popular legends, widely believed but with no

factual basis, are nothing new. Many tales about Pocahontas and John Smith are not true, for example, and there is no historical evidence that a young George Washington confessed, "I cannot tell a lie," when confronted with a felled cherry tree.

One of the most enduring myths in America describes the death of Davy Crockett at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. According to popular belief and the popular Disney movie, he went down swinging his broken rifle like a club as the bodies of Mexican soldiers stacked up around him like cordwood. Crockett, Alamo commander William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, and the other Texas soldiers at the Catholic mission near San Antonio fought to the death. The slaughter galvanized the forces of the Texas Revolution and led to the birth of the Republic.

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But one brief section of a narrative history of the campaign by an officer in the Mexican army, Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña, claims that Crockett was one of seven "Texians" who were captured and hauled before Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. He ordered the prisoners executed, and officers attacked them with swords, "just as a tiger leaps upon its prey," wrote de la Peña. They "died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers." The execution was regarded in the Mexican camp as "base murder."

Amateur history buffs have argued indignantly that internal inconsistencies in the de la Peña papers, now owned by the University of Texas at Austin (UT), mean they are an elaborate fraud. The papers mysteriously appeared on the shelves of a suspected dealer in forgeries in 1955 with no indication of where they were before then. Some have even speculated that political intrigue in 19th-century Mexico prompted the creation of the de la Peña account.

But Davy revisionists dominated at an "Eyewitness to the Texas Revolution" conference at UT on April 29. Archivist David Gracy reported that forensic analysis on the paper and watermarks on the paper indicate the materials, if not the actual words, are authentic. North Carolina State University historian James Crisp noted that de la Peña's account roughly matches at least two other contemporary versions describing how several prisoners were taken before Santa Anna and executed, including one published in a Detroit newspaper in July, 1836.

The revisionist account differs from the stories of Crockett's death that circulated in the 1800s. The two most famous survivors of the Alamo, Mrs. Dickenson, the wife of an officer, and William Travis's slave, Joe, told newspapers that they saw the body of Davy Crockett in the mission courtyard surrounded by slain Mexican soldiers. Creative newsmen and contemporary biographers drew the obvious inferences, and the legend was born.

By the 1920s Davy's reputation was waning, but 30 years later Walt Disney, hunting for cheap stories to air on The Wonderful World of Disney, came across one of the popular accounts of Davy that was by then in the public domain. "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," composed for the television show, sold 10 million records around the world, according to Texas Monthly, "and every one of those buyers knew for certain how Davy had died."

Stephen Harrigan, a Texas historical novelist who spoke at the conference, told WORLD that "the Alamo is the Creation story of Texas, and the great enduring myth is the line in the sand." Mr. Harrigan's latest work, The Gates of the Alamo, omits the

legendary scene in which Travis asks for volunteers to fight to the death. Except for the infamous Moses Rose, the assembled troops step solemnly across the line Col. Travis had scratched in the dust with his sword. Jim Bowie, so ill he cannot stand, asks his comrades to carry his bed.

"I'm not saying it wasn't heroic," continued Mr. Harrigan. "It was a bitter fight. These men obeyed their orders to hold the mission, and they did that to the last. But in the end we're dealing with humans, not demi-gods."

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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