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Monday, December 07, 2009

More on Davy Crockett's death

Since publishing this post on the Battle of the Alamo and its several portrayals in movies and on TV, I've done a little more research especially into one of the battle's more controversial aspects- one which, to somebody who was once a coonskin hat-wearing five year old fan of Fess Parker's Davy Crockett, is one of the more interesting ones. How, precisely, did Davy Crockett die? As I mentioned, it's a matter of some controversy, and debates on the subject tend to be heated.

The history books I read in school took it for granted that Crockett died in battle. Susannah Dickinson (the widow of Capt. Almarond Dickinson, one of the fallen members of the Alamo garrison), San Antono Alcalde (mayor) Francisco Ruiz, sixteen year-old Mexican fifter Apolinario Saldigua, Col. Travis's slave Joe and Ben, a former slave who served as Santa Anna's cook and had once met Crockett in Washington when the latter was a member of Congress, all later reported seeing Crockett's body near the main entrance to the mission. Mrs. Dickinson even reported seeing Crockett's trademark coon skin hat lying nearby.

Mrs. Dickinson frequently changed her account of the details of her experience in later years, and may not be the most reliable of witnesses. In fact- as is usually the case in such matters- problems exist to various degrees with the testimony of many the witnesses. But Ruiz- who knew the man- not only identified Crockett, but specified that his corpse was "lifeless." Saldigua reported that Crockett's face was "florid, like that of a living man; and he looked like a healthy man asleep. Santa Anna viewed him for a few moments," Saldigua continued, and then "thrust his sword through him, and turned away."

Ben's account is the most detailed, and the most conclusive: The former slave stated that Crockett's body was surrounded by "no less than 16 Mexican corpses," Crockett's "huge knife," Ben said, was thrust into the bosom of a Mexican lying on top of him "up to the hilt." The testimony of Travis's slave Joe collaborates that of Ben. But the most conclusive evidence that Crockett died in battle was the fact that Santa Anna himself later specified that he had been shown Crockett's "cadaver-" by Ben and Ruiz, both of whom positively identified it as that of Crockett.

Kent Biffle, author of A Month of Sundays, finds it curious that none of these accounts are mentioned by revisionist historians who argue that Crockett was captured and later executed.

The revisionist theory has its roots in the account of a Mexican officer present at the battle, José Enrique de la Peña- a critic of Santa Anna and- at least later in life- a man somewhat sympathetic to the cause of the Alamo's defenders. Jesus Sánchez Garza, a Mexican antiquarian and book-dealer, self-published de la Peña's memoirs and certain other material he attributed to de la Peña in 1955- precisely at the height of the Disney-inspired Crockett-mania in the United States- and called his book La Rebelión de Texas.

Although Garza never explained how the material came into his possession, at least the first part of it- de la Peña's actual diary from the Alamo campaign, written as events unfolded- is universally acknowledged to be geniune because it is written in a hand easily identifiable by comparison with the former officer's other writings. The critical second part, however, is written in several different hands, a fact explained by assuming that de la Peña had dictated it while recuperating from an illness in a Mexico City prison where he had been confined for opposing Santa Anna. It is from this controversial second section of de la Peña's alleged memoirs that the critical paragraph- which not only denies that Crockett had been killed in the battle, but that he had really been among the Alamo's defenders in the first place- was taken:

Some seven men had survived the general carnage and, under the protection of General Castrillon, they were brought before Santa Anna. Among them was one of great stature, well proportioned, with regular features, in whose face there was the imprint of adversity, but in whom one also noticed a degree of resignation and nobility that did him honor. He was the naturalist David Crockett, well known in North America for his unusual adventures, who had undertaken to explore the country and who, finding himself in Bejar at the very moment of surprise, had taken refuge in the Alamo, fearing that his status as a foreigner might not be respected. Santa Anna answered Castrillon's intervention in Crockett's behalf with a gesture of indignation and, addressing himself to the sappers, the troops closest to him, ordered his execution. The commanders and officers were outraged at this action and did not support the order, hoping that once the fury of the moment had blown over these men would be spared; but several officers who were around the president and who, perhaps, had not been present during the moment of danger, became noteworthy by an infamous deed, surpassing the soldiers in cruelty. They thrust themselves forward, in order to flatter their commander, and with swords in hand, fell upon these unfortunate, defenseless men just as a tiger leaps upon his prey. Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers. It was rumored that General Santa Anna was one of them; I will not bear witness to this, for, though present, I turned away horrified in order not to witness such a barbarous scene

If such a provocative document had been in existence since the late 1830's, it is hard to understand how it could have remained a secret for a century and a quarter, only to come to light at the very moment when interest in Crockett was at its all-time highest. But timing was to play a further role in the credence given the claim that Crockett had survived the battle and had been executed at Santa Anna's orders afterward. It was not until 1975- in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, when popular paranoia about cover-ups and conspiracies to falsify history was at its height- that Texas A&M Press published an English translation of de la Peña's supposed account as With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution.

That (contrary to legend) there were indeed survivors of the final assault who were indeed executed on Santa Anna's orders is generally accepted by contemporary historians, and is verified by the testmony of no less a witness than Ramon Martinez Caro, Santa Anna's own secretary, writing only a year after the battle:

Among the 183 killed there were five who were discovered by General Castrillon hiding after the assault. He took them immediately to the presence of His Excellency who had come up by this time. When he presented the prisoners he was severely reprimanded for not having killed them on the spot, after which he turned his back upon Castrillon while the soldiers stepped out of their ranks and set upon the prisoners until they were all killed. . . . We all witnessed this outrage which humanity condemns but which was committed as described. This is a cruel truth, but I cannot omit it.

Caro, however, does not identify Crockett as among them.

Several accounts in American newspapers do contain reports of Crockett's execution. The best-documented of any of these is a tale from George M. Dolson, an officer in Houston's army, who passed along a report from a high-ranking Mexican officer that he had had Crockett identified to him as one of the prisoners taken at the Alamo, and had personally heard Santa Anna order their execution. The report, of course, is hearsay, and the credentials of the person who allegedly identified Crockett to the officer with whom Dolson spoke remain unclear. Numerous other accounts in American newspapers of Crockett's survival and subsequent execution represent even more remote cases of hearsay, and are often contradicted by accounts in the same issue from alleged eyewitnesses describing Crockett's death in battle. Contemporary sources report that Mexican prisoners were often pressured into confirming such stories by Texans who had heard them as gossip. Francisco Becerra, another Mexican Alamo veteran noted for his eagerness to please American tale-seekers, reported 39 years after the fall of the Alamo that Santa Anna had executed not only Crockett, but Travis!

On balance, it seems to me that the evidence favors the traditional view that Crockett was killed during the final assault, not far from the Alamo's main gate. The only eye-witnesses whom we know for certain could have identified Crockett by sight either verify that it was his body that Santa Anna was shown, or independently place Crockett's dead body in that very location at the end of the fighting. And Santa Anna's own report of the incident clearly identifies him as a "cadaver." Not one but two of those who was able to personally identify Crockett- Santa Anna's sometime cook, Ben, and San Antonio's Alcalde Ruiz - were present when Santa Anna viewed the body. So was fifer Saldigua. Saldigua even reported seeing Santa Anna run his saber through Crockett's lifeless corpse.

Could Crockett have perhaps been inadvertently included among the anonymous prisoners Santa Anna had executed after the battle? If so, one would think that Santa Anna would have remembered so recent an incident when shown the location where Crockett lay dead!. And it's difficult to reconcile Crockett's execution with Ben's description of his body lying in the midst of his dead enemies, one lying on top of him, impaled by Crockett's knife, or with Joe's similar account.

Granted that Davy Crockett had lived a life full of "unusual adventures," it is hard to credit de la Peña's dismissal of even a backwoodsman whom the Whig Party had at one point considered as a candidate for the White House as a harmless academic caught in the wrong place at the wrong time while studying the flora and fauna of Texas! That Crockett was present at the Alamo as a combatant is accepted without question by everybody, it seems- except de la Peña!

In fact, it is by no means clear that the portion of the manuscript alleged to have been authored by de la Peña was even written by him. Unlike the earlier, and undoubtedly genuine, portion of the narrative published by Jesus Garza in 1955, it is not in his handwriting. It describes as an eye-witness account not only Crockett's execution, but the death of Col. Travis- an event de la Peña could not have witnessed, since it occurred high on the wall of the Alamo long before the Mexicans were inside the mission, and which in any case appears to be inaccurate when compared with the accounts of those who were actually present when Travis died. Most tellingly, it provides absolutely no information as to how either de la Peña knew that the man he so inaccurately described as a naturalist and a non-combatant who had merely taken refuge among his fellow countrymen was, in fact, Crockett. We have no reason to believe that either he nor any of the other Mexicans present had ever met the Tennessean. Did somebody claim to be Crockett? Did others of the captured Texians, perhaps, identify one of their number as Crockett? De la Peña (or whoever authored that second portion of the Garza document) doesn't tell us. But even if such were the case, it would hardly constitute proof that one or more prisoners facing summary execution might not have told a tall tale about his own or a companion's identity in the hope of staying Santa Anna's hand. And Santa Anna, of course, reported seeing Crockett's dead body upon entering the mission, not having him executed after the battle. Not a man to pass up an opportunity for vainglorious boasting over a defeated enemy, it seems to me to say a great deal that he engaged in no such boasting where Crockett was concerned.

What it all comes down to, I think, is that the evidence for Crockett surviving the battle, while plentiful, is of such poor quality that it pales before the fact of the positive identification of his body among the fallen in battle by four people who knew him personally. Unsupported hearsay accounts of claims by unidentified individuals who wouldn't have known Davy Crockett from Fess Parker seem to me to be no match for the testimony of four people whose identities we know, and whom we know knew Crockett, to say nothing of that of Santa Anna himself. To me, the decisive point is that we do not have a single report of Crockett's survival and execution which is collaborated by anyone who would have reason to have been able to actually identify him. In the face of the positive identification of his lifeless corpse by Ben, by Joe, by Alcalde Ruiz, and by Susannah Dickinson, all of whom were in a position to know Crockett by sight, the probability that the traditional account is true and that Crockett died in battle seems strong. Combine that consideration with the dubious character of the claims allegedly made by de la Peña in somebody else's handwriting, interspersed with details about the battle which no Mexican soldier could have known and which in any case differ from the facts as reported by those whom we know were actual eye-witnesses to them, and it's difficult for me to see how "de la Peña's" claim that Crockett survived the battle and was among those executed by order of Santa Anna in its aftermath has been able to gain any traction at all.

Of course, Ben had only met Crockett once, and that was years before. And Susannah Dickinson was a notoriously unreliable witness. The possibility that Crockett did survive the battle and was subsequently executed- perhaps without Santa Anna actually realizing who he was- cannot be absolutely excluded.

But it's a theory that's hard for me to accept in the absence of a single eye-witness to the event whom we have any particular reason to believe could have positively identified Crockett. And the critical point, in any case, is that- as has been said by historians time and time again- even if Crockett was captured or voluntarily surrendered once the battle was clearly lost and no further reason to fight remained, he is no less a hero. Even de la Peña's account of Crockett's death paints it as no less than heroic.

The legend of Davy Crockett is in no way diminished no matter what view one takes of how he died.

1 comment:

RJF said...

Great blog Robert, it would not detract from Crockett's heroism to know that he was captured and executed, but Santa Ana's own testimony of stabbing a "cadaver" (to assure his demise), while another "nameless" officer claims that 6 men survived and were executed (among them supposedly Crockett)...the officer observer's army had been defeated and he was given an audience with assurance he would be spared, perhaps in the context of the situation he was trying to discredit perhaps the most prolific of the Alamo defenders (Crockett) when so many others had claimed he died fighting at the south palisade, near the front of the church.