Remembering the Alamo (and the death of Davy Crockett)

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Dear Cecil: In the column in your archive on the Alamo (The Straight Dope: What was the Mexicans’ version of the Alamo attack?), you base most of your claims on the diary of José Enrique de la Peña. I did a bit of searching on the Internet and found claims that this diary is a fake. Is the diary real, or were you fooled? Star Was, via the Straight Dope Message Board


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I am never fooled, Star. On occasion I arrive at the truth by a circuitous route, but it’s far from clear that this is one of those times. Before we get into the controversy surrounding the de la Peña diary, I should clarify that what’s at stake — at least in the minds of the more hysterical disputants — isn’t so much the authenticity of an obscure manuscript as the legend of 19th-century frontiersman and 1950s TV hero Davy Crockett.

At the center of the debate is an account of the Texas rebellion of 1835-’36 by José Enrique de la Peña, an officer in the Mexican army who witnessed much of the conflict, including the battle of the Alamo. His version of events is far gorier and less romantic than the saga American kids have heard for decades. To many, though, his most sensational claim is that Davy Crockett didn’t go down fighting — out of bullets but flailing away with his rifle butt at a swarm of Mexican soldiers, as portrayed by Fess Parker in a 1955 episode of Disney’s weekly television series, then called Disneyland. Rather, de la Peña reports, Crockett was among a group of seven Texans who were captured in the battle and summarily executed soon afterward by order of the Mexican general and dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna.

The suggestion that Crockett’s death may have been less than glorious outraged Alamo partisans, who have been denouncing the de la Peña diary as an attack on American heroism since the first English translation appeared in 1975. Scholars, on the other hand, generally accepted the authenticity of the diary until the 1990s, when an amateur historian named Bill Groneman argued in a series of books and articles that it was a forgery. Groneman, a New York City arson investigator, pointed to a number of fishy things about the document — starting with its appearance out of nowhere in 1955, when a Spanish transcription was published by Jesus Sanchez Garza, a Mexico City antiquarian. Sanchez Garza, whose widow later sold the handwritten original to a wealthy Texan, never explained where the diary had been for the previous 120 years or how he’d come to own it. Groneman had a photocopy of the diary examined by handwriting expert Charles Hamilton, who declared the text a fake and identified the culprit as one John Laflin, who he said had forged numerous historical documents between 1940 and 1970, including some linked to the Texan revolution.

With that, skirmishing over the diary erupted into a full-fledged cultural war. Crockett boosters cited Groneman’s work as proof the diary was a fraud. The document’s most energetic defender has been historian James Crisp, who found an 1839 pamphlet by de la Peña in which the Mexican said he was preparing his diary for publication — proof that, if nothing else, the Sanchez Garza text had a historical basis. Finally, in 2001, archivist David Gracy published a detailed analysis of the manuscript, including lab results. He found, among other things, that the paper and ink were of a type used by the Mexican army in the 1830s, and the handwriting matched that on other documents in the Mexican military archives that were written or signed by de la Peña. Gracy also pointed out that Hamilton had made mistakes in other cases and that he had been working from a photocopy, increasing the risk of error. His conclusion: While the diary’s authenticity hadn’t been proven beyond doubt, the preponderance of evidence suggested it was legit.

That doesn’t settle the question of Davy Crockett’s death, though. Just because de la Peña’s diary is likely authentic doesn’t necessarily make it accurate. Even if de la Peña really did see Santa Anna order the execution of some captured Texans, how could he be sure one of them was Crockett? He’d never seen the man before, and his account gives no indication of any attempt to identify the prisoners at the time. De la Peña may have heard later (he actually wrote the diary several months after the battle) that one of the men had been Crockett, but that hardly proves anything — other witnesses claimed they’d seen the body on the battlefield.

In short, we’ll probably never know for sure how Crockett died. The real mystery, though, is why people think it matters. De la Peña never suggests the executed prisoners were cowards — on the contrary, he writes, “these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.” That may not be stirring enough for those who prefer the Disney version of history, but my feeling is, big deal.

Cecil Adams

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