The Austin Chronicle
May 5, 2000

Myth, Blood, and Ink

Was Davy Crockett Really the King of the Wild Frontier?

                           BY DAVID GARZA

                          Jose Enriqué de la Peña's version of how Texas came to be

                           José Enrique de la Peña has been telling stories, and not
                           everyone wants to hear them. A lieutenant colonel in the Mexican
                           army who fought at the Alamo in 1836, both his voice and his
                           controversial narratives survive in the form of a massive, 680-page
                           diary that details his eyewitness account of the short and brutal
                           war that led to the independence of Texas. But thanks to one very
                           brief passage in the text, the encyclopedic diary itself has been at
                           the center of a heated ideological war about how Texas should
                           view its heroes and myths since its first English translation was
                           published 25 years ago. Offering compelling challenges to the
                           traditional story of how Texas came to be, de la Peña, it seems, is
                           still fighting his tough revolution. The notorious passage, which
                           claims that the mythic Davy Crockett was captured by Mexican
                           soldiers and executed by order of General Antonio Lopez de
                           Santa Anna instead of dying in the glory of patriotic battle, has
                           severely angered those loyal to Crockett's reputation and has
                           brought rise to countless historical questions. These questions and
                           mostly unsearchable answers were the subject of a daylong
                           conference on April 29 organized by UT's Center for American
                           History and titled "Eyewitness to the Texas Revolution: Jose
                           Enrique de la Peña and His Narrative." Bringing together historians
                           and experts on the Texas campaign for independence, the panels
                           mixed high drama and deep thought to grapple with the
                           authenticity and accuracy of the manuscipt itself, as well as to
                           discuss larger trends in the formulation of cultural histories. Most
                           importantly, conference organizers promised to reveal the results
                           of scientific tests on the diary that would prove once and for all
                           whether the voice of the colonel was authentic.

                           The problem, of course, is that authenticity does not guarantee
                           accuracy. Even if it could be proven that the de la Peña diary is
                           not a forgery, there could be no way to resolve the question of
                           how Davy Crockett died. The Mexican observer could have lied
                           about what he saw, after all, or he could merely be retelling false
                           or distorted secondhand tales. Still, there was a curious mood in
                           the LBJ Library auditorium as the results of the tests were about to
                           be revealed. One group of college-aged kids started placing bets
                           on the fate of the diary: "I'll give you a dollar if this is really a fake."

                           There were those, too, in the audience who had spent years trying
                           to discredit the manuscript for whom the moment seemed
                           overwhelmingly fateful. Chief among them was Bill Groneman, the
                           New York-based author of Defense of a Legend, which claims
                           that the diary is a forgery that has irresponsibly tarnished the
                           reputation of an impeccable hero. The Crockett that Groneman
                           and his fellow defenders continue to cherish is not a man who was
                           captured and beaten, but the standard and iconic Fess Parker
                           figure, complete with the intriguing hat and surrounded by piles of
                           Mexican soldiers at his feet.

                           For those who fell somewhere in between the two sides of the
                           fight over how Crockett died, there were a number of fascinating
                           issues to consider. During his lunchtime address, novelist Stephen
                           Harrigan (The Gates of the Alamo) noted that he would not be
                           surprised if the document turned out to be fake. "There is
                           something hauntingly not quite right about it," he said, commenting
                           on the diary's shifting tone and points of view. "Something kept me
                           from falling in love [with it]." Others simply marveled at the
                           stubbornness and fanaticism of those caught up in the fight. "This
                           was like a two-headed snake that struck twice with one lunge,"
                           said Dora Guerra, who curated the diary during its previous stay at
                           the University of Texas at San Antonio.

                           So when David Gracy, a professor of archival enterprise in the
                           graduate school of library and information science at UT, took to
                           the podium to announce the results of his tests, a great many
                           people straightened up and sat at the edge of their seats. There
                           was utter silence as he vigorously and exhaustively recounted the
                           extent of the tests on the ink and the paper, the comparisons of
                           handwriting samples, and the logical arguments to support what he
                           found. "Unavoidable is the conclusion that the journal is authentic,"
                           he declared in his almost inappropriate fashion, heatedly
                           addressing many of his points directly to Groneman. And for an
                           unspeakable moment, the hero Davy Crockett seemed deader
                           than ever, marred not by blood but by ink.

                           The second most important question of the day, and the one that is
                           even harder to answer, has to do with the fascination and genuine
                           need that cultures have to create unreal myths based on historical
                           events: Why does it matter how Davy Crockett died? The facts
                           are that he fought at the Alamo, he did die, and he has been
                           honored for it. To many, it seems nothing but a technicality if he
                           was captured and killed instead of having gone down fighting. But
                           James Crisp, a professor at North Carolina State University,
                           argued at the conference that the instant legend of Crockett and
                           his colleagues had a profound effect not only on the self-image of
                           the state that they created, but on the actual immediate effects of
                           the war.

                           "Santa Anna lost two battles on April 21, 1836," Crisp said,
                           refering to the defeat of the Mexican army at San Jacinto. On the
                           one hand, he claimed, they lost an actual and present conflict on
                           the muddy fields in one afternoon. But there was also the subtext
                           of the unfinished Alamo fight, made all the more present by the
                           cries of "Remember the Alamo." It was the gravity of the myth that
                           had already been formed that changed what could have been a
                           small assault into a decisive victory that wrenched a gargantuan
                           chunk of land from the Mexican government. If the ghost of
                           Crockett had not been there, in other words, the war might have
                           continued much longer.

                           But Crisp admits, too, that the issue at stake with the de
                           la Peña diary is not just the simple question of how one
                           man died, but the issue of how history is made and how
                           voices are silenced. He's right. One undeniably crucial
                           concern which was never explicitly addressed at the
                           conference was the fact that the diary's Mexican origin
                           casts complex shadows on how it has been received in
                           an American audience. For those who have had trouble
                           accepting the fact that Crockett was captured, for
                           instance, one must wonder how much of their outrage is
                           intensified by the fact that the capture came at the hands of a
                           Mexican army. Is the actual history made all the more
                           unacceptable due to idea that not only was the adventurous and
                           physically superior Crockett executed, but that he was executed
                           by a Mexican force?

                           When a figure like Crockett becomes the symbol of the entire
                           state and its history, that question becomes a bit dangerous. The
                           factors involved in such a discussion deal with the hopelessly
                           complex relationship between two cultures and two histories. It is
                           a delicate conversation to have, for sure, but the argument over
                           whether one man's diary is real, and the argument over how one
                           soldier was killed, becomes important only in this light. In her
                           speech, Guerra joked that the fascination people have with the
                           diary is akin to tales of Elvis Presley sightings. What people have
                           invested in this debate is not some mere fandom or kitsch, but a
                           genuine passion for how the story of Texas is written and how it
                           affects real life. It may no longer matter how Crockett was killed,
                           but it does matter how we now allow him to live.