Did Davy Crockett Go Down Swinging?

Did Davy Crockett Go Down Swinging?

David Crockett died violently March 6, 1836, at the Alamo after thousands of Mexican soldiers stormed the lightly defended fortress in San Antonio, Texas. And 185 years later, we’re still debating at least 185 versions of how Crockett died that bloody dawn.

Americans have a favorite version. Walt Disney forever fixed Crockett’s death in our minds with a primetime TV show, “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” on Feb. 25, 1955. Disney made Crockett the last defender atop the wall, clubbing attackers dead or senseless with Old Betsy, his flintlock rifle, as the screen faded and the credits rolled.

As heroically as Disney portrayed Crockett’s death, his version is less dramatic than the one Theodore Roosevelt wrote 60 years earlier. In Roosevelt’s “Hero Tales from American History” in 1885 Crockett is also the last man standing, but he and “three or four” others retreat in battle to an inner building, where a “desperate hand-to-hand conflict followed.”

Roosevelt wrote: “Colonel William Travis, the commander, was among them; and so was James Bowie, who was sick and weak from a wasting disease, but who rallied all his strength to die fighting, and who, in the final struggle, slew several Mexicans with his revolver, and with his big knife of the kind to which he had given his name. Then these fell too, and the last man stood at bay. It was old Davy Crockett. Wounded in a dozen places, he faced his foes with his back to the wall, ringed around by the bodies of the men he had slain.”

Crockett fought desperately, Roosevelt wrote, beating back Mexican soldiers until none dared close with their lances. They held him at bay until he lost so much blood that he couldn’t break through their line. Roosevelt continued: “(Then) the musketeers loaded their carbines and shot him down. (General) Santa Anna declined to give him mercy. Some say when Crockett fell from his wounds he was taken alive, and then shot by Santa Anna’s order; but his fate cannot be told with certainty, for not a single American was left alive…Yet they died well avenged, for four times their number fell at their hands in the battle.”

For the record, no historian puts Travis and Bowie alongside Crockett for his last stand, inside or out. Travis likely died early in the battle from a lead ball to his forehead, and Bowie was likely bayonetted while lying delirious or unconscious in the Alamo’s sickbay.

Mired in Speculation
Roosevelt got at least one thing right: Crockett’s fate “cannot be told with certainty.” And yet history buffs, university historians, everyday Texans, and every American child who imitated Crockett’s final fall will forever argue how and where he died at the Alamo.

Historian Buddy Levy at Washington State University had this to say in his 2005 book, “American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett.”

Levy wrote: “Literature devoted to the controversial death of David Crockett forms a monstrous and unwieldly subcategory of Texana and Alamo writing.” In the book’s notes, Levy also wrote: “The exact nature of Crockett’s death remains unknown, mired in speculation and multiple supposed firsthand ‘eyewitness’ accounts.”

This iconic American battle plays a central role in what Crockett historian Paul A. Hutton called the “Texas creation myth,” which honors courage, sacrifice, and redemption against all odds. The Alamo’s defenders knew they were doomed as the attacking Mexican force assembled during the 13-day siege and bombarded the 3-acre fortress. Santa Anna then unleashed—depending on the source—1,800 to 6,000 soldiers against 180 to 250 defenders inside the Alamo, a repurposed Spanish Catholic mission built in the early 1700s.

Levy said Alamo stories are as enduring as Crockett’s own legend, but he doesn’t embrace Disney’s version. In “American Legend,” Levy wrote that Crockett and his riflemen fought defiantly at their post, “the picket wall extending from the end of the barracks, on the south side, to the corner of the church.” Overwhelming forces drove them inside the chapel, but attackers then blew it open with cannons before pressing in upon the final six defenders, including Crockett.

The on-scene general, Manual Fernandez Castrillion, ordered his soldiers to spare the survivors, even though Santa Anna’s battle orders demanded “no quarter.” Castrillion marched the captors to Santa Anna, who scoffed and ordered their immediate execution.

Citing an account by Mexican officer Enrique de la Peña, whose writings are often called the “de la Peña diary,” Levy wrote that officers seeking to impress Santa Anna killed the captors with swords and bayonets. De la Peña said the officers attacked like “a tiger leaps upon his prey,” and the “unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.”

Courageous Defiance
Levy said he chose that account because it’s the basic consensus of Alamo scholars. He said Crockett likely fought as long as he could, and did nothing to dishonor or diminish his legend. “Being executed suggests courageous defiance, not cowardice,” Levy told MeatEater. “I still view Crockett as a profile in courage.”

Such a surrender also conforms with the current U.S. Military Code of Conduct. Article II holds that surrender is not dishonorable if service members are captured against their will and “dictated by the futility of the situation and overwhelming enemy strengths.”

Was de la Peña’s diary accurate? Hutton, a distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico, found the manuscripts credible after intense review in the mid-1980s. So did Professor James Crisp at North Carolina State University in his 2005 book “Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett’s Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution.”

In that book, Crisp said the de la Peña diary resurfaced in 1955 in Mexico City, but drew little attention, probably because it was only available in Spanish until 1975. That’s when Carmen Perry, a former director of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo, translated it into English.

Texas and much of the country erupted in scorn, believing Perry’s translation portrayed Crockett as helpless and submissive when captured. Crisp said Crockett’s defenders harassed Perry with hate mail and midnight phone calls. Dan Kilgore, president of the Texas Historical Society, triggered equal disdain in 1977 by siding “solidly (with) de la Peña rather than Disney” after studying questions raised by Perry’s critics. Kilgore’s haters called him a “mealy-mouthed intellectual” and a “smut peddler” who should “have his mouth washed out with soap.”

When Crisp investigated de la Peña’s diary, he expected to agree with skeptics like Bill Groneman, an arson investigator and amateur historian who declared it a forgery in his 1994 book, “Defense of a Legend: Crockett and the de la Peña Diary.” Instead, Crisp found the documents authentic after comparing them with other accounts and letters from the battle’s aftermath. He, too, believes Crockett was executed with six other captured defenders.

Shifting Narrative
In “Sleuthing the Alamo,” Crisp shared Hutton’s view that from 1836 to 1955 few condemned writings or paintings that depicted Crockett’s capture and execution. As Hutton noted, most accounts resembled Roosevelt’s version and had no “negative reflection on Crockett.”

Even grade-school biographies about Crockett portrayed that ending heroically. In the 1948 children’s book “Davy Crockett: Hero of the Alamo,” author Sanford Tousey wrote: “At its finish only six of the Texan garrison were found alive. All were promised protection. Crockett was one of the six survivors…Santa Anna flew into a rage and ordered them executed at once. Davy sprang at the Mexican chief as officers’ swords plunged into five of the men. Davy was not spared either. He suffered the same fate as his mates when a dozen swords entered his fighting body.”

Earlier that decade, another children’s book described Crockett being driven inside while fighting, but then back outside to die. In “Davy Crockett,” a 1941 book in The American Adventure Series, Frank L. Beals’ tale closely foretells Disney’s version:

“Davy Crockett and his men fought their way to the chapel. Inside the chapel they fought hand to hand (until driven up stairs to the roof)…The Mexicans came on and on. Davy stood alone, Old Betsy in his hand. ‘Liberty and Independence,’ Davy called in a ringing voice. ‘Go ahead, Texas! Go ahead, America!’ Then slowly he slumped over the bodies of dead Mexicans.”

Stories like Tousey’s became blasphemous after Disney actor Fess Parker portrayed Crockett going down swinging like Beals’ character. Likewise, John Wayne portrayed Crockett dying alone heroically in his 1960 movie “The Alamo.” In Wayne’s portrayal, Crockett torches the Alamo’s powder magazine after a Mexican soldier center-punches him with a lance.

Even a trained journalist like former CBS anchorman Dan Rather, a native Texan, refused to accept modern historians’ detached, multi-sourced version of Crockett’s death. Rather defended Crockett’s honor in an angry letter to the New York Times Book Review in 1997 after historian/book critic Garry Wills dismissed “The Alamo: An Epic” as “hokum” in a review.

Wills wrote that the Alamo story is more complicated than the poem’s heroic, suicidal tale of self-sacrifice. Worse, Wills said Crockett tried bargaining for his life before being executed, and that attempts to discredit de la Peña’s diary are simply “desperate claims.”

Rather responded: “Mr. Wills relies secondhand on eyewitness testimony from a Mexican army officer (de la Peña) who, of all people, would have had the most to gain by discrediting the defenders of the Alamo.”

Wills fired back: “Texans are rarely sane on the subject of the Alamo, as newscaster Dan Rather recently proved.” Wills also noted that de la Peña actually criticized Santa Anna, and “admired the stoic conduct of Crockett once his appeal for life had been rejected.” He added, “Mr. Rather’s credentials as a broadcaster are safer than his claims to be a historian.”

In “Sleuthing the Alamo,” Professor Crisp wrote that he understood why people reject de la Peña’s account. Crisp said he respected Groneman’s “Defense of a Legend” book, and thought Groneman “substantially advanced our understanding of this document in the course of being wrong about it.” Crisp said Groneman and others were honestly committed to heroic, patriotic values, but those beliefs “clouded their reading of the evidence.”

Groneman, for instance, thought Carmen Perry’s 1975 translation reflected contemporary values that too easily defamed heroes. He also thought mid-1970s media were too quick to report such accusations. After all, Perry’s translation appeared amid the tortuous aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War.

One Man’s Many Deaths
Groneman’s book isn’t all about the de la Peña diary. In its chapter “Crockett’s Many Deaths,” Groneman chronologically shares over 40 versions of Crockett’s killing, dating from 1838 to 1993. Many of those tales exceed history’s record.

In 1967, for example, historian William C. Davis debunked a story that Crockett was one of six survivors found hiding beneath mattresses in the Alamo’s barracks. Davis said Crockett and his fellow Tennessee volunteers couldn’t have retreated there from their post because attackers had cut them off from the barracks.

And in the 1990 book “Duel of Eagles,” Jeff long wrote: “The Go Ahead man (Crockett) quit. He did more than quit. He lied. He denied his role in fighting.” Those interpretations sound harsh and subjective, given that all surviving accounts of the battle were handwritten recollections, not official transcripts.

Another account said Crockett died alone and unarmed early in the battle, while another said he died while fighting desperately at the sickbay doorway after loading Bowie’s rifle and a brace of pistols. And yet another reported Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson seeing Crockett’s mutilated body outside between the chapel and barracks. If so, it’s unknown if he died there while fighting or was led there for execution, because another debate centers on Santa Anna’s location when ordering the captors’ deaths.

Levy said rumors and conspiracies started exploding within minutes of the Alamo’s fall. One tale said Crockett was captured and sent to Mexico, where he supposedly toiled till death in an unnamed mine.

Another reported Crockett sneaking away before the battle, and hiding in shame till death. Levy laughed at that, saying Crockett craved the limelight and was incapable of living in obscurity. “He would have figured out a way to parlay his survival at the Alamo to even greater fame,” he said.

Levy said Crockett, 49, was already a celebrity before dying at the Alamo. And much like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Donald Trump over 150 years later, Crockett knew something about image-making, the power of media, and seeking high office.

But his luck might have just run out. If Crockett, a Tennessee congressman, had simply left for Texas in December instead of November after losing the 1835 election, he might have fought alongside Sam Houston rather than Bowie and Travis. He might have even parlayed military heroism into a presidential campaign. Levy said Crockett certainly wouldn’t have been satisfied returning to Congress and dying an elder statesman.

“He always seemed so distracted by political office,” Levy said. “It was probably painful for him to go through the actual work of Congress; the lawmaking, negotiations, and endless hearings. He probably pounded his head against the wall. He preferred to be hunting and being on adventures. He loved crowds, socializing, telling tales, and sharing hunting stories.”

The Verdict
In “American Legend,” Levy tells of Crockett riding out from Washington, Texas, in late January 1836 to visit the James Swisher homestead. Crockett saw Swisher’s son, John, 17, arriving on horseback with a deer tied behind his saddle. Crockett helped the teenager unload the deer, complimented him on his buck, and asked details of the hunt, shot, and kill—“the sorts of woodsy stories which always interested him,” Levy wrote.

“Impressed with the young man, who perhaps reminded him of his own boyhood, Crockett began calling John Swisher his ‘young hunter,’ and in fun, even challenged the lad to a shooting contest.”

A few days later, Crockett rode off for San Antonio, appearing to the Swishers “more mortal than legend.” Levy wrote: “Despite heading into the unknown, which very likely included being in harm’s way, Crockett maintained that infectious conviviality, that joy in being alive.”

The Swishers couldn’t have known that Crockett would be dead in six weeks, martyred, immortal, and forever mythologized.

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