Cannons roar, rifles crack, and bayoneted soldiers scream. It was March 6, 1836, and the Alamo was about to fall under the viscous assault of Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. He had declared that he would take no quarter: every soldier in the Alamo was condemned to die. Among those doomed to meet their end was an American who was already quite famous: David Crockett. When he was killed at the Alamo, it caused shock waves to reverberate across the entire North American continent. However, in the chaos of Santa Anna’s final assault on the fort, record of exactly what happened to him became completely confused, and ever since then, legend and myth have confused the story even more. How Crockett died has become one of history’s great enigmas.1 But why was Crockett at the Alamo to begin with?
David Crockett had a tremendously eventful life. The early years of his life were spent in the backwoods of eastern Tennessee, where he became well known for his extraordinary ability at hunting and his masterful storytelling. From 1813 to 1815 he served as a scout in frontier militia units during the Creek War. Beginning in 1817, Crockett became involved in local politics, starting out as justice of the peace for Lawrence County, Tennessee. In 1818, he was elected to the positions of lieutenant colonel of his local militia regiment and town commissioner of Lawrenceburg. He resigned those positions in 1821 to campaign for a seat in the state legislature, which he won by a landslide. David Crockett was elected to the Tennessee legislature again in 1823. Then, in 1825, he ran for Congress. He was defeated by the incumbent, Adam Alexander. However, when he ran again in 1827, he won easily. He was reelected in 1829, but experienced ever increasing friction between himself and President Andrew Jackson. As a result, he was defeated in the election of 1831. He regained his seat by a narrow margin in 1833, but lost for good in 1835. With wounded pride and empty purse, he made a final speech to his constituents: ” I told [my constituents], moreover, of my services, pretty straight up and down…and I also told them of the manner in which I had been knocked down and dragged out, and that I did not consider it a fair fight anyhow they could fix it. I put the ingredients in the cup pretty strong I tell you, and I concluded my speech by telling them that I was done with politics for the present, and that they might all go to hell, and I would go to Texas.”2
He arrived in San Antonio in early February, 1836, greatly boosting the morale of the Texian soldiers stationed there under the command of Colonel William Travis. On February 23, a lookout in the bell tower of San Fernando Church reported that columns of Mexican troops were in sight. Travis ordered his men to fall back to the fort with whatever provisions they could carry.3
The situation for those in the Alamo was dismal, to say the least. First of all, the Alamo had never been built to be a fortress. It completely lacked any strong points from which defenders could stave off attack. Furthermore, it was not self-sustaining. That is, there was no way that it could outlast besiegers. Also, there were only about 180 defenders to the thousands of Mexican attackers commanded by Santa Anna.4
After besieging the Alamo for twelve days, Santa Anna ordered a final assault. The battle of the Alamo was over in less than an hour. Over the course of that hour, every Texian soldier defending the Alamo was killed, including David Crockett. Due to his immense popularity, stories immediately began to spread about exactly what had happened to him. Ever since then, we have been trying to unravel the mystery.5
For nearly the past six decades, a war of words has been waged among Alamo historians as they try to figure out exactly how David Crockett died. Over the course of time, innumerable scholars have weighed in on the debate. Eventually, however, two major theories have emerged. One theory says that Crockett was killed in a heroic last stand. The other theory holds that he surrendered to Mexican soldiers when he was finally overwhelmed. According to this theory, soldiers then took him before Santa Anna who coldly ordered his immediate execution. Two historians had a particularly important impact on this debate, with each taking one of those two sides to the argument. The first, Bill Groneman, came down firmly on the side of the “died fighting” theory.6 The other, James Crisp, responded by strongly supporting the “execution” argument. Each one has voluminous evidence to back up their conclusions. In addition, each side has many other historians who support it. For example, Michael Lind7 and H. W. Brands8 lean towards the “died fighting” hypothesis while Stephen Hardin9 and Thomas Connelly10 support the “execution” theory. Of all the ideas proposed about Crockett’s death, however, the most plausible scenario is that he, one way or another, died in combat and was never captured and executed by Mexican soldiers.11
The main issue at hand is determining which sources that claim to tell the true story of David Crockett’s death are authentic and correct, if any of them actually are. Specifically, there are twelve important accounts of his death that can be analyzed. Some of them back up the “execution” side of the story, and others support the “died fighting” claim. However, historians strongly differ on the reliability of these accounts and how each account should be interpreted. That being said, most of the debate among historians is centered around one account in particular: the diary of Lieutenant Jose Enrique de la Peña.12
Lieutenant Jose de la Peña was the aide to Colonel Francisco Duque, commander of the Toluca Battalion. They arrived in San Antonio on the twelfth day of the siege to reinforce Santa Anna. After their arrival, Santa Anna held a council of war and decided to take the Alamo by assault. Colonel Duque had been so impressed by de la Peña during the long march from Mexico that, when Santa Anna gave out the attack assignments, he requested that de la Peña accompany him. De la Peña participated actively in the battle, mostly delivering critical messages between the front lines and the rear guard. He was fortunate enough to survive the battle basically completely unharmed, and did not see any more action during Sana Anna’s Texas campaign.13
He eventually published a diary of his experiences in the Texas campaign. In the diary, there is a passage concerning the death of David Crockett:
As the speech of Santa Anna very nearly proceeded an unpleasant event which, happening when the heat of the strife had already passed, was seen as contemptible murder and greatly contributed to the coldness noted. Some seven men had survived the general massacre and guided by general Castrillon, who sponsored them, were presented to Santa Anna. Among them was one of great stature, well formed and of regular features, in whose countenance there was imprinted the sentiment of adversity, but in which was noted certain resignation and nobility that commended him. He was the naturalist David Crocket [sic], very well known in North America for his strange adventures, who had come to travel over the country and had been in Bexar in the moments of surprise had locked himself up in the Alamo, fearful that this quality as a foreigner would not be respected. Santa Anna answered the intervention of Castrillon with a gesture of indignation and immediately directing the sappers, who were the troops most near to him, order them to shoot them. The chiefs and officers were irritated by this behavior and did not second the voice, hoping that the first moment of fury had passed, these men would be saved; but various officers who were around the President who perhaps had not been there in the moment of danger, were made notable by an infamous act; exceeding the soldiers in cruelty, they placed themselves before them, in order to flatter their chief, and sword in hand, they threw themselves upon these unfortunate defenseless ones, in the same way that a tiger throws itself upon its prey. They tormented them before they were made to die, and those unfortunate ones died moaning, but without humiliating themselves to their executioners. It is said that general Ramirez y Sesma had been one of them: I do not testify to this, because although I was present, I set apart this sight horrified in order not to see such a barbarous scene. Remember, companions that fierce moment, that horrified us all equally, and which shook our souls, which a short while ago had thirsted for vengeance. Do not our hearts beat quickly, filled with indignation against those who so vilely bloodied their swords. As for me, I must confess I shake only at the memory and the sound is always in my ears the pitiful and penetrating accent of the victims.14
This is by far the most important and controversial account of David Crockett’s death. While there are many other accounts, this is the one by which all the others stand or fall. Essentially, if the de la Peña diary is legitimate, then Crockett was most likely executed, and if it is not, Crockett probably died fighting.15
This all-important diary has come to us through somewhat uncertain pathways. The extensive manuscripts for the diary were acquired in the mid-1900s from unknown sources by J. Sanchez Garza, a dealer in antiquities in Mexico City. He edited them and then privately published them from his house in 1955 as La Rebelion de Texas: Manuscrito Inedito de 1836 por un Oficial de Santa Anna. However, the impact of his published version of the diary was minimal. Then, in 1975, Carmen Perry, former director of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo, translated the manuscripts into English. After the translation, the manuscript finally became famous and in many ways sparked the debate that is still going on today.16
This brings us back to the two important historians mentioned earlier, James Crisp and Bill Groneman. After the de la Peña diary was translated and published in English by Carmen Perry, historians accepted it as reliable without any real questioning, and used it to justify the “execution” theory of Crockett’s death. However, Bill Groneman wrote a book in 1999, Death of a Legend: The Myth and Mystery Surrounding the Death of David Crockett, that strongly challenged the accuracy of the diary. In that book, Groneman presented the theory that the diary was actually a forgery and that David Crockett most likely died fighting instead of being executed. In the process of reviewing the book for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, James Crisp became extremely skeptical of Groneman’s views and wrote a long journal article attacking the book and reasserting the “execution” theory. This started a massive war of words between the two historians that eventually spread to include many others. The question is, who is right?17
I believe that the correct answer is actually a middle ground between the two ideas. It is likely that the de la Peña diary is legitimate and not a forgery. However, the idea that David Crockett was captured and executed by Santa Anna is highly implausible.
Groneman claimed that the de la Peña diary was a forgery done by one John Laflin, a famous forger of the mid-twentieth century. I believe that he is wrong. Groneman’s strongest argument for the falsity of the diary involved a serious anachronism. According to Groneman, the Peña account was “purported to be a ‘diary’ written in 1836.”18 However, Groneman notes, the diary contains material that could not have been written until at least 1838. Groneman uses this fact to conclude that the diary must be a fraud.19
At first glance, Groneman appears correct. In a prologue to the diary consisting of a letter de la Peña wrote to a colleague on September 15, 1836, de la Peña writes, “…I was convinced that in order to be impartial, I had to take some time to verify those acts to which I was not an eyewitness and to obtain more accurate information about others, important objectives which I achieved by collecting the daybooks from the various sections that constituted the army.” De la Peña appears to be saying that he spent two or three months collecting materials to complete his final rendering of the diary. Furthermore, on the last page of the diary, he writes, “I have concluded this narrative during the most pressing moments, a few hours before resuming the march….” This conclusion appears to be signed and dated, like the prologue, September 15, 1836.20
James Crisp, upon closer investigation, found problems with these passages. First, in the prologue passage, there is a translation error. What Perry translated into “important objectives which I achieved” would be more accurately written as “important goals which I planned.” In other words, de la Peña is not writing about something he has already achieved, but something he in currently working on. So, in September, 1836, he was still working on his diary.21
The second passage, from the last page of the diary, is also problematic. It is important to understand that the de la Peña diary, in the words of Crisp, is “neither a single document nor a simple one.” What Crisp found when he delved into the actual manuscripts is that the original narrative does not contain a conclusion, date, or signature on that last page. What could have happened? When J. Sanchez Garza and Carmen Perry published their “clean” versions of the diary, they both included this extra material. Of course, they did not draw it out of thin air. It came from a small booklet that de la Peña used to keep memos to himself during his time in prison in Mexico City, because of his participation in a Federalist rebellion against the Centralist government in 1838. In that booklet can be found the exact conclusion included by Garza and Perry, minus the date and signature, which according to Crisp, was added “for good measure” by Garza and Perry.22
There is a third significant piece of evidence that supports de la Peña’s diary as authentic, which was overlooked by Groneman. It is a pamphlet written in the form of a letter that bears the date of November 6, 1839. This pamphlet was basically de la Peña trying to justify his actions and state that he was being unjustly held in prison. In that pamphlet is found the following passage, as translated by James Crisp:23
I know well that it is a hard thing in our country to tell the truth to men who have influence and power to do evil, but in writing about the Texas campaign, my principal object was to vindicate the honor, tarnished in it, of the nation and the army, because ignominy ought to weigh solely upon those who merit it…. In good time I will expose the causes which have prevented me from publishing my diary and the observations which I have almost completed, but I will do it in spite of my conviction that new sorrows are going to rain down upon me, [I will do it] because the noble goal which I have set for myself will give me the courage necessary to face all difficulties, and no consideration, however strong and personal it may be to me will cause me to retreat.24
Here, in late 1839, we see that de la Peña says he is still working on his diary. So, the anachronism has vanished. Nowhere does the original manuscript actually say that the diary was published in 1836. What is more, de la Peña writes in 1839 that he is still working on it. So, Groneman’s strongest argument for the falsity of the diary is most likely invalid.25
Now, while I believe that the de la Peña diary is legitimate, I do not believe that Crockett was actually captured and executed. How can that be? There are several reasons.
First of all, as we have seen, de la Peña spent several years working on his diary. During that time, the idea that Crockett may have been executed had already spread far and wide. De la Peña could have easily picked up that story and included it in his diary in the name of “obtain[ing] more accurate information.” There may have been actual executions at the Alamo, but de la Peña most likely added that David Crockett was one of the executed later. This is especially likely given that de la Peña would almost certainly not have been able to identify Crockett at the Alamo.26
Second, a close inspection of the other six major accounts of Crockett’s “execution” reveal that they are not necessarily accurate, either. Bill Groneman’s analysis of each of them is quite straightforward. Five of those accounts are unreliable because there is no document for any of them that links the eyewitness directly to their respective story. Furthermore, it is unknown for each of those accounts how much “reshaping” each of the accounts went through before becoming what we have today.27 The sixth account is the diary of Colonel Jose Juan Sanchez-Navarro. The pertinent passage in his diary reads as follows:
[At the Alamo] I saw actions that I envied, of heroic valor. Some cruelties horrified me, among others the death of an old man they called “Cocran” and of a boy approximately fourteen years. The women and children were spared.28
Everyone who has ever used this as a source agrees that “Cocran” is meant to be Crockett. However, this account, in the words of Bill Groneman, “has the distinction of being used as part of the evidence proving Crockett’s execution without…actually describing any executions.” As a result, I am not happy with this account as evidence for Crockett’s execution.29
My third reason for believing that Crockett died fighting is that there are several accounts that describe him dying that way. That being said, those accounts are, like the execution accounts, of somewhat questionable reliability. Nevertheless, they do exist.30
Finally, given that there were about 180 defenders in the Alamo and only 5-7 were executed (if any were executed at all), from a simple statistical standpoint it is unlikely that David Crockett was executed.31
While there are many who believe that the de la Peña diary is genuine and that Crockett was executed, I believe that they are wrong. Although I do not believe the theories that some have put forward to the effect that the diary is a forgery, I do believe that the diary is wrong about Crockett’s death. I believe that the most likely scenario was that David Crockett died fighting in the Alamo and was not captured and executed.
However, we will never be completely certain about how Crockett died. There is simply not enough evidence to conclusively prove one story or the other. Historians agree that we will most likely never determine exactly what happened.32 In fact, the confusion and mystique that surround his death only increase his status as a cultural icon. Regardless of how he died, however, one thing is certain: David Crockett’s legend will live on.