Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West / Edition 1

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Overview

"All of history is mystery," Dale L. Walker says, and he proves his point in this lively, humorous--and rational--approach to the West's greatest puzzles. Did Davy Crockett, for example, go down swinging Ol' Betsy, defending the ramparts of the Alamo--or was he captured? Who is buried in Jesse James's grave? Was the man Pat Garrett shot that night really Billy the Kid? How did Black Bart, "the gentleman bandit," disappear? Did Sacajawea, the famous "Bird Woman" who scouted for Lewis and Clark, die twice? The possibilities unfold as Walker brings together little-known facts and the elusive connections that shed light on the biggest enigmas of the American West.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Dale L. Walker's Legends and Lies is a masterwork of its kind, bringing serious scholarship and poetic prose to a subject that has too often received only tabloid treatment." --Loren D. Estleman

"Not only good reading, but good history." --Roundup Magazine

"A stunning accomplishment." --The San Antonio Express News

"A colorful, accurate, fast romp through some of the remaining mysteries of what was once the American frontier." --The Salem Statesman Journal

Kirkus Reviews
A collection of strange and intriguing tales about famous characters of American Western history. The author's research has come upon many mysteries that resist ultimate solution.

Prolific writer of the Old West, Walker (a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News) examines the life and death of Davy Crockett, Meriwether Lewis and his Indian guide Sacajawea, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Boston Corbett, the soldier who killed John Wilkes Booth, Ambrose Bierce, Custer, Crazy Horse and the Mormon leaders who instigated the mass murder of a wagon train of "gentile" men, women and children passing through "Mormon land" on their way to California. Walker, trying to fill gaps in the historical records by exposition of logical reasoning, finds conflicting testimonies, many rumors, bizarre tales and conspiracy theories, and also credible accounts of the deaths of these larger-than-life characters. Despite several Mexican eyewitness accounts of Crockett's death at the Alamo, Walker concludes that he died as he lived—heroically. The mysterious "suicide" of Meriwether Lewis opens several questions—did he know too much about the treacherous General Wilkinson and the unconvicted Aaron Burr? The song and story of Jesse James as a folk hero Robin Hood is demolished by Walker as he argues that James was a murderer-robber who stole from both the rich and the poor and kept the proceeds. He stresses the detective-story aspects behind official history. Legends and myths grow around famous figures, some true, some exaggerated, some lies that add to mysteries, but he argues that legends tend to live on, whether true or false and that myths and fictions often overcome facts.

The stories are absorbing and Walker's commentaries are instructive. They should entertain readers of American Western history and mystery fans.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312868482
  • Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
  • Publication date: 11/15/1998
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 322
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in Illinois, the son of a career army sergeant, Dale L. Walker is a journalism graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso whose 20 books reflect his varied historical interests: military and Western history, 19th century "Golden Age" journalism, biography, and Jack London studies. Among his books are Januarius Macgahan: The Life and Times of an American War Correspondent; Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West; The Boys of '98; Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders; Bear Flag Rising: The Conquest of California; Pacific Destiny; and Eldorado: The California Gold Rush. He is a four-time winner of the Spur Award from Western Writers of America, the Owen Wister Award for life achievement in the history and literature of the American West, and many other awards, and is a member of the prestigious Texas Institute of Letters.

Walker, who lives in El Paso, Texas, with his wife of 43 years, Alice McCord, has been involved in virtually every aspect of the book business. He has served as a university press director, newspaper book page editor, magazine editor, fiction editor for Forge Books, book columnist and reviewer, and has written historical books, magazine work, and fiction.

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Read an Excerpt

LEGENDS AND LIES?

A LEGEND

1
The Day Davy Died

A Rendezvous at the Alamo
One of the most indelible and enduring images of Western American history was portrayed on television on February 23, 1955, in the final episode of the Disney three-part miniseries "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier." Just before the final fadeout, Davy (Fess Parker) is seen swinging his long rifle in the midst of an attacking force of Mexican soldiers. The program, which was for kids, didn't show him dying, but kids knew, as their parents had long known, that Disney and Fess Parker got it right: that was how Davy died.
We may never have really believed he was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee or that he killed a bear when he was only three, but we knew he died at the Alamo, his dander up, in the heat of the battle, a pile of corpses at his feet, clubbing the enemy with the rifle he called "Old Betsy."
Did we buy into the myth of Davy Crockett and place a coonskin crown with a halo over it on the King of the Wild Frontier?
Well, of course we did--and what's wrong with that? He died fighting at the Alamo, didn't he?
Well, didn't he?
 

 

We begin with the battle and the part David Crockett played in it, and how, some say, he was trapped there by his own legend.
It is 161 years ago; 5:00 A.M., Sunday, March 6, 1836.
 

 

As the first glowing stripe of dawn rose on the eastern horizon there was a bugle call and shouts of "Viva, Santa Anna!" Then, 2,000 Mexican foot soldiers, cavalry, and artillerymen formed up in four columns and marched forward through the dewy grass, their breath visible in the sunrise chill, the soft morning light glinting off a hedgerow of bayonets. Each man was armed with a British-made musket, spare flints, and cartridge packs; some carried nine-foot lances, others had sabers, pistols, picks, pikes, prybars, axes, and scaling ladders.
For thirteen days General Antonio López de Santa Anna's artillery had belabored the Alamo and during the siege sharpshooters from the fortress had picked off thirty of his cannoneers. The night before he had silenced his guns, hoping to lull the weary enemy sentries into napping at their posts.
The president-dictator of Mexico, self-styled "Napoleon of the West," gambler, ruthless but charismatic politician, and egoistic general of some considerable skill, Santa Anna had come a long way to do battle. He had begun his march north from his capital on November 28, had strengthened his army in Saltillo, 200 miles south of the Rio Grande, and had crossed the river on February 16 with over 2,000 men, 21 cannon, 1,800 pack mules, 33 four-wheeled wagons, and 200 ammunition carts. On the twentieth he camped on the Rio Hondo, fifty miles south of SanAntonio de Béxar, and on the twenty-third arrived in the town and captured it without resistance.
His first act there was to order the raising of a bloodred flag from a church steeple, a warning to the Alamo defenders that there would be no prisoners, no quarter.
East of the town came a quick response--a cannon shot from the Alamo's biggest gun.
Now, after thirteen days, the siege had ended and the battle had begun.
Inside the battered walls that contained the old Spanish mission, the band of defenders, numbering on this day of reckoning probably 183 fighting men, took their places along the walls that formed the Alamo's perimeter. Some manned the eighteen serviceable cannon that were mounted on ramps and scaffolds along the ramparts and the church top and surveyed their scarce ammunition supply, including the chopped-up horseshoes, nails, and random iron pieces that would soon have to be used. Others checked their musket and pistol loads, shot pouches, and powder horns, and took their stations and waited.
On the north wall, his double-barreled shotgun propped beside him as he watched the advancing enemy through his glass, stood the commander of the Alamo's defenders, Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis of the Texan2 cavalry, a fiery, red-haired, twenty-seven-year-old South Carolina gentleman-lawyer who doted on the works of Sir Walter Scott and who believed, correctly, that his destiny lay in military glory.
Defending a portion of the south wall with his dozen Tennessee Mounted Volunteers stood David Crockett, forty-nine, the graying legendary marksman, bear hunter, backwoods orator, humorist, and three-term congressman. He had come to San Antonio on February 8, dressed in old buckskins, his fiddle and long rifle among his sparse possessions, and leading the men he had collected on his long ride from Nacogdoches. "I have cometo aid you all that I can in your noble cause," he announced. After a grand fandango was held for him and his men on the tenth, just a week before Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande, he reported to Travis for duty in the Alamo defenses.
On the roof of the Alamo chapel, helping serve the cannon there, stood Travis's South Carolina friend and fellow lawyer, Lieutenant James Butler Bonham, twenty-nine, who had journeyed to the town after Travis wrote him of the "stirring times" in Texas. As a courier, he had made a dangerous ride out of the besieged mission compound since arriving there with Bowie.
In his room in the low barracks on the southeast wall, near where Crockett and his Tennesseans were stationed, forty-year-old Colonel James Bowie lay sick on his cot. He had a persistent cold, fever, and painful cough--perhaps pneumonia or incipient tuberculosis. A Kentuckian, Bowie had a spotty history. He had sold contraband slaves in Louisiana (working, legend has it, for the pirate Jean Lafitte) and worthless land titles in Arkansas, and had drifted to Texas in 1828 where he married into the prominent Veramendi family in San Antonio de Béxar. In September, 1833, his wife died of cholera, a tragedy that lowered over him like an angry storm cloud.
He had ridden into town with thirty men on January 19 on orders from Sam Houston, commander of the Texas army, to assist in evacuating the place. Houston wanted to fight Santa Anna in a hit-and-run war of attrition in which his force would move rapidly and distantly over familiar terrain and force the Mexicans to follow, extending them from their supply bases. Houston had no interest in a standstill fight, wanted all the fortifications in Béxar destroyed and the town's occupants--including those in the Alamo--to march out and join him in the open.
Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill, an artillerist and veteran Indian fighter from Alabama, commanded the Alamo garrison and persuaded Bowie that the Alamo had to be defended, not abandoned. When Travis arrived on February 2 with thirty cavalrymen, he, too, saw the need to shore up the mission's defenses rather than tear them down.
Travis's arrival presented a problem. Governor Henry Smithhad named him commander of the Alamo garrison without relieving Neill. Moreover, Bowie, a colonel, outranked both Travis and Neill. This awkward situation was reduced but not resolved on February 13 when Neill departed on furlough to attend to illness in his family and to secure supplies, money, and reinforcements for the garrison. His departure left the Alamo in a sort of joint command between the two remaining men: Bowie commanding the volunteers; Travis, the regulars.
The two men were instantly at odds. The day Neill left the Alamo, Travis wrote to Governor Smith that Bowie "has been roaring drunk all the time ... & is proceeding in a most disorderly irregular manner ... If I did not feel my honor & that of my country compromitted I would leave here instantly for some other point with the troops under my immediate command--as I am unwilling to be responsible for the drunken irregularities of any man."
On February 24, the first day of the siege, Bowie, whose health had collapsed to the point he had to retire to his bed, turned over full command of the Alamo to Travis.
 

 

The fortress had the rough configuration of two adjacent rectangles, one large, one small, with the church at the southeast corner, next to the small rectangle that contained a hospital, horse and cattle pens, and the infantry barracks. The larger area had walls twelve to twenty-two feet high and enclosed barrack rooms, officers' quarters, a well, guardhouse, and artillery emplacements, including the "lunette," a U-shaped gun position that jutted out from the south wall. On a large barbette (platform) on the southwest corner of the plaza stood the largest of the defenders' cannon, an eighteen-pounder (for the weight of the ball it fired).
The Alamo's guns, varying from four- to twelve-pounders and with the single eighteen, were commanded by Captain William R. Carey, a Virginian, assisted by a twenty-six-year-old Tennessee blacksmith, Captain Almeron Dickinson.
Travis, even as he watched Santa Anna's army advance thatchill dawn of March 6, held out hope that reinforcements would come to assist him. Ten days earlier he had sent a courier to Colonel James Fannin in Goliad, about ninety miles to the southeast, hoping the Texas army regulars there would come as a relief force. But Fannin, who set out for San Antonio on February 26 with 320 men, suffered some minor mishaps on the trail--a supply wagon broke down, some oxen ran loose--and on the twenty-seventh marched his force back to Goliad.
On February 24, Travis scribbled a message to "The People of Texas and all Americans in the world," underlined one phrase, triple underlined the last three words, and sent thirty-year-old Captain Albert Martin, a good horseman who knew the roads around Bexar, to carry it through the enemy lines. Martin was to deliver the appeal to the town of Gonzales, seventy miles away, and to have couriers take copies of it to Goliad, San Felipe, Washington-on-the-Brazos (which, on March 1, became the first capital of the Texas Republic), Nacogdoches, south to the Gulf, on to New Orleans, and other places near and far.
Travis's message said:

I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna--I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man--The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword if the fort is taken--I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls--I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch--The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country--Victory or Death.
On March 5, Travis called the garrison together and announced that he believed there would be no reinforcements, no relief. He told his stalwarts that their options were limited: they could surrender, attempt to escape, or stay and fight. Legend has it that he drew a line in the dirt with his sword and invited all who would stay to cross the line. Only one man held back--a Frenchman named Louis "Moses" Rose who had fought with Napoleon's army and who had come to the Alamo with Bowie's men. He alone elected to escape and did so that night.
Crockett told Susanna Dickinson, wife of the artillery captain, "I think we had better march out and die in the open air. I don't like to be hemmed up."
But hemmed up they were that frosty morning of March 6, 1836, at the Alamo in San Antonio de Béxar in the Mexican province of Texas y Coahuila--about 183 fighting men facing ten times that number of advancing enemy.
 

 

The storming of the Alamo was not so much a battle as a melee and a slaughter. The Mexican columns struck the four walls more or less simultaneously. The greatest concentration of men, led by Colonel Francisco Duque (accompanied by an aide named Jose Enrique de la Peña, a name to remember), advanced on the north side of the fortress where Travis stood on the rampart shouting, "Hurrah, m'boys! Give 'em hell!" and, directing his words to Captain Juan Seguín's company of Mexican defenders, "No rendirse, muchachos!" ("Don't give up, boys!") All that followed was chaos. The Texan cannon cut a bloody swath through the enemy columns until the guns could not be depressed enough to have effect. The attackers managed to prop their scaling ladders against the walls but were repelled time and again in hand-to-hand combat with sword, shotgun, pistol, and close-range musket fire that created a dense clot of dead and wounded at the foot of the wall, the bodies trampled over by the oncoming waves of Santa Anna's troops.
As the first column--Colonel Duque's First Brigade in thevanguard--hit the north wall, Travis grabbed his shotgun and fired both barrels point-blank at the jostling enemy soldiers below. Almost instantly a sniper's bullet struck him in the head and he fell dead, rolling down the earthen cannon ramp to the ground.
Meantime, despite the withering fire from the muskets of the Texans and the devastating effect of cannon fire directed by Captain Dickinson, the Mexicans regrouped at the north and west walls and made some progress. Those attacking on the east and south, where Crockett and his men defended, were stalled momentarily by the brutal fire from the six-pounders in the lunette and the cannon on the Alamo church roof where Dickinson, Bonham, and their men furiously worked their guns.
For a brief time, the Mexican columns on the east and west side of the Alamo surged toward those still struggling for a foothold on the north, the result being the formation of a frenzied and disorganized mob being decimated by the fish-in-a-barrel musketry from above.
Santa Anna, observing the battle from an earthwork to the northeast of the fortress, now called up his reserves, including the elite grenadiers and zapadores ("sappers"--engineers), and these 400 men rushed forward as Mexican bandsmen struck up the eerie Spanish march known as the "Degüello," signifying there would be no quarter.
The Alamo's Achilles' heel--an ill-repaired weakness in the eastern sector of the north wall--was now found and exploited and the Mexicans made their way into the Alamo's central compound. At about the same time, on the west side, the thinning ranks of the Texans could not fend off the enemy pouring over the parapets and massing inside the wall. On the southwest corner, the great eighteen-pounder emplacement was captured and turned against the cannon on the church roof, killing Dickinson, Bonham, and their gunners.
Crockett and his Tennesseans were caught in the open in front of the church and hospital and all, or nearly all, killed.
As the Mexicans captured the church, Robert Evans, the Alamo's big, good-humored, Irish-born master of ordnance,though wounded, grabbed a torch and made his way to blow up the powder magazine on the north side of the building. He fell from musket fire within feet of his objective.
Santa Anna's troops, by now overrunning the entire fortress, broke into the hospital and killed forty men there, entered each room of the barracks and shot all inside, and, in the low barracks on the south wall, found the pale, fevered Jim Bowie in his cot. As he rose to defend himself with a brace of pistols--said to have been given him by Crockett--he was bayoneted to death. His sister-in-law, who was among the Alamo survivors, said the Mexican soldiers "tossed his body on their bayonets until their uniforms were dyed with his blood."
By 6:30 the fighting was over and Santa Anna hewed to his red-flag warning and to the "Degüello": all who bore arms were killed, including the two young sons of gunner Antony Wolfe. Jacob Walker of Nacogdoches, who sought protection in the church sacristy where Susanna Dickinson, widow of the slain artillery officer, awaited the end, was found, shot, and carried from the room on bayonets.
Five or six prisoners were brought before the commanding general. He was infuriated that these men had been spared even momentarily and ordered them executed on the spot. Among the captives, so said Colonel Duque's aide, Jose Enrique de la Peña, was David Crockett.
Upward of twenty noncombatants survived including several Mexican women (two of them Bowie's sisters-in-law), children, Mrs. Dickinson and her fifteen-month-old daughter Angelina, and Travis's slave, Joe.
The Mexican dead and wounded numbered about 600.
Santa Anna ordered the bodies of all the Texans burned. The Mexican dead were either placed in trenches and covered over or thrown into the San Antonio River.
 

 

For Santa Anna, the victory would be short-lived and bitter. On March 27 he ordered the massacre of over 340 Texan prisoners at Goliad (known as La Bahia to the Mexicans), includingColonel James Fannin, who had failed in his efforts to lead a relief force to the Alamo. But under the rallying cries "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember Goliad!" Sam Houston's force of 800 men met the Alamo victor and his 3,000-man army at San Jacinto on April 21, forty-six days after the fall of the Alamo. In an eighteen-minute battle, Houston, who lost two men killed and twenty-three wounded, routed the Mexicans, killing 630 and taking 730 prisoner. Included among the captives was Santa Anna who, fearing execution, signed an order for all Mexican troops to retreat south of the Rio Grande. He was released from custody in November, and after a year's absence he returned to Mexico where he retired, temporarily, to his hacienda in Vera Cruz.
 

 

"It was but a small affair," Santa Anna reportedly said of the Alamo, but Texans tend to think of it as a bit larger affair, contrasting it to the Persians and Spartans at Thermopylae, seeing the old fortified church and its grounds as a sort of Valhalla of Texas heroes and placing those ninety deadly minutes in 1836 as the cornerstone of Texas independence and, ultimately, of statehood.
In 1936, when the state of Texas unveiled at the Alamo a monument depicting Travis, Crockett, Bowie, and Bonham and listing all the Texans who fell there, the inscription on the great sculpture summed up the meaning of the place and the battle:

They chose never to surrender or retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality, that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas.
Of all who died at the Alamo, David Crockett dominates the mind and heart. He was a beloved national personality long before he ventured to Texas with his gathering of Tennesseeans. His engaging, openhanded, good-humored, guilelessly honest character had preceded him from the southern canebrakes when hefirst earned a seat in Congress. There can be little wonder that revisionist historians, forever discomfited by bigger-than-life, heroic figures, would eventually focus on him and find him a maker of self-myths, a man who made his way into history largely out of tall tales and fancy.
Clearly, there was more to him than that.
 

 

David Crockett was born in a wilderness cabin on the Nolachucky River in eastern Tennessee on August 17, 1786, the fifth of six sons of an Irish immigrant farmer who had soldiered in the American Revolution.
He grew up in Creek Indian country (two of his grandparents were killed by Indians in 1777), and left home at age twelve to work as a teamster driving cattle into Virginia. At twenty he married and with his bride, Mary "Polly" Finley, built a farm in the Duck River country, later moving to Lincoln County near the Alabama border. But he worked at the soil only intermittently, preferring wilderness roaming, hunting bear and deer. "I found I was better at increasing my family than my fortune," he admitted.
After the massacre of thirty-six white settlers at Fort Mims, Alabama, in August 1813, Crockett left his wife and his farmer's life, joined the militia, and served as a scout in the Creek War of 1813-1814, the overall campaign commanded by General Andrew Jackson.
His wife died of malaria in 1815 and soon after, Crockett, with three children to care for, married Elizabeth Patton, a widow with two children of her own plus an attractive dowry. The family removed to Shoal Creek, in Lawrence County, Tennessee. There he began his rise in politics, beginning as a local magistrate, justice of the peace, town commissioner, and colonel of the local militia. In 1821 he won election for the first of two terms to the Tennessee legislature and in 1827 ran successfully for a seat in Congress, having to borrow the train fare to Washington.
At first, he was identified with "Old Hickory," Andrew Jackson,who was elected the seventh U.S. president in 1828. Crockett seemed to be the perfect Jacksonian legislator. The two men had much in common. The president, the first one born west of the Alleghenies, came from a similar humble background--born in a log cabin in South Carolina--and became known as a "man of the people" in contrast to the New England patricians who had preceded him. Also, Jackson had been a Tennessean since after the Revolutionary War.
But Crockett soon became disillusioned with his "old chief." In particular the backwoodsman opposed Jackson's and the Democratic Party's Indian Removal Bill that proposed moving southeastern Indians from their ancestral lands into reservations in Indian Territory (Oklahoma today). The idea behind the bill was nothing new--it had first been proposed by Thomas Jefferson--but Crockett, despite the support of it in his own district, somehow found it odious and bolted the president and the party.
He served three undistinguished terms in Congress, 1827-1831 and 1833-1835, bored by tedious legislative procedures from start to end. He earned a reputation as a close friend of what he called "arden spirits," and as a storyteller, gambler, layabout, and canebrake "character." The French writer-politician Alexis de Tocqueville saw Crockett in Washington in 1831 and was horrified that such a primitive could have risen to such high station. "Two years ago," the Frenchman wrote, "the inhabitants of the district of which Memphis is the capital sent to the House of Representatives in Congress an individual named David Crockett, who has no education, can read with difficulty, has no property, no fixed residence, but passes his life hunting, selling his game to live, and dwelling continuously in the woods."
But Crockett's buckskin persona was irresistible to many. In the year of de Tocqueville's observations, a stageplay titled The Lion of the West premiered in New York City, its lead character, Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, a swaggering coonskin-cap-wearing Kentucky congressman, patently patterned after that "individual named David Crockett." The play, written by James Kirke Paulding, became an instant hit and when Paulding moved the productionto Washington in December 1833, Crockett had a reserved seat at the opening performance. At the end of the play, Nimrod actor James Hackett bowed toward the congressman, paying his respects to the distinguished guest in the audience who served as the inspiration for his character. When Crockett rose from his seat to return the bow, he brought the house down.
In the spring of 1834, Crockett toured the northeast, now a lionized national personality, leaving in his wake an image of a buckskinned frontiersman carrying an old flintlock rifle he called "Betsy," wearing a fox- or coonskin cap with the tail on, living by the homespun motto: "Be always sure you are right, then go ahead!"--Nimrod Wildfire in the flesh. His autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee, was ghostwritten and published in Philadelphia in 1834 and the next year Davy Crockett's Almanack of Wild Sports of the West, and Life in the Backwoods appeared, the first of fifty editions. The books, innocent fun in their day, have been labeled by one modern historian "mouthpieces of jingoistic expansionism."
Crockett's political career and vague presidential aspirations ended in 1835 when he was defeated for reelection to Congress. "He had two basic character flaws that doomed his political career from the start," historian Paul Hutton has written. "He was just too independent and too honest to be a congressman, much less president."
He had told his Tennessee constituents that if they did not reelect him they could "go to hell and I would go to Texas," and he kept his end of the promise. He felt pulled to Texas by the opportunities other Tennesseans had seen in the huge, raw, land-rich territory fighting for its independence from Mexico.
And so he traveled there, via Little Rock, Arkansas, and Natchitoches, Louisiana, and with his twelve Tennessee Mounted Volunteers came to Washington-on-the-Brazos in January, and rode into San Antonio in early February 1836.
"I have come to aid you all that I can in your noble cause," legend says he told William Barret Travis, and Travis assigned him and his volunteers to the log palisade between the church and the south wall of the Alamo.
 

 

Perhaps the most familiar and beloved visual image of the Alamo battle is the 1903 painting by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk. In it, Crockett is depicted dressed in fringed buckskins and wearing his coonskin cap and a big hunting knife at his belt. His flintlock rifle is held over his head like a club as the Mexicans advance through a hanging cloud of gunsmoke, through a field of dead and wounded, toward him and the half dozen of his Tennesseans left alive.
This, we knew for 119 years, is how Davy died and there exists a sizable body of evidence that seems to prove it.
Sergeant Felix Nuñez, a soldier with Santa Anna at the Alamo, was interviewed in 1889 by a Professor George W. Noel and gave his eyewitness story. Nuñez never mentioned Crockett by name--and may never have known the name--when he remembered:

He was a tall American of rather dark complexion and had on a long buckskin coat and a round cap without any bill, made out of fox skin with the long tail hanging down the back. This man apparently had a charmed life. Of the many soldiers who took deliberate aim at him and fired, not one ever hit him. On the contrary, he never missed a shot. He killed at least eight of our men, besides wounding several others. This being observed by a lieutenant who had come in over the wall, he sprang at him and dealt him a deadly blow with his sword, just above the right eye, which felled him to the ground, and in an instant he was pierced by not less than twenty bayonets.
Another statement, one of the most often quoted, came from Susanna Dickinson, widow of the Alamo's artillery commander, Almeron Dickinson. J. M. Morphis, in his History of Texas (1875), says Mrs. Dickinson gave an account of the battle years after the event in which she said, "I recognized Col. Crockettlying dead and mutilated between the church and the two story barrack building, and even remember seeing his peculiar cap by his side."
Another account was that attributed to Travis's slave Joe who stated that "Crockett and a few of his friends were found together with twenty-four of the enemy dead around them."
One of the most detailed stories of Crockett's death came from Andrea Castanon Villanueva, eighty-eight years old and known in San Antonio as "Madam Candelaria" (she was the wife of Candelario Villanueva), who was often interviewed as an Alamo survivor. In a San Antonio Express story published on March 6, 1892, she told of being in the room next to the Alamo chapel where she had been called upon to nurse Colonel Jim Bowie who lay on a cot sick with typhoid (others said pneumonia or consumption). She said Bowie died with his head in her lap minutes before Santa Anna's troops burst through the door, and added a grim detail: a soldier thrust his bayonet into Bowie's head and lifted him off her lap.
In February 1899, not long after Madam Candelaria's death, another San Antonio newspaper reprinted a longer and more detailed account of her Alamo memories, this one including her recounting of Crockett's death.
She said of "Colonel Crockett," who "frequently came into the room and said a few encouraging words to Bowie":

He was one of the strangest looking men I ever saw. He had the face of a woman and his manner was that of a young girl. I could not regard him as a hero until I saw him die. He looked grand and terrible standing in the door and fighting a whole column of Mexican infantry. He had fired his last shot and had no time to reload. The cannon balls had knocked away the sand bags and the infantry was pouring through the breech. Crockett stood there swinging something bright over his head. The place was full of smoke and I could not tell whether he was using a gun or a sword. A heap of dead was piled at his feet and the Mexicans were lunging at him with bayonets,but he would not retreat an inch ... . Crockett fell and the Mexicans poured into the Alamo.
Another professed eyewitness was Enrique Esparza, twelve-year-old son of Gregorio Esparza, an Alamo defender who died in the battle. In 1907 Esparza, then about eighty-two and thought to be the last of the Alamo survivors, told of seeking refuge in the church with his mother, sister, and brothers. Crockett, who Esparza said was called "Don Benito" by the Mexican defenders,

... was everywhere during the siege and personally slew many of the enemy with his rifle, his pistol and his knife. He fought hand to hand. He clubbed his rifle when they closed in on him and knocked them down with its stock until he was overwhelmed by numbers and slain. He fought to his last breath. He fell immediately in front of the large double doors which he defended with the force that was by his side ... . When he died there was a heap of slain in front and on each side of him.
But from the beginning there had been other versions of Davy's death; there was even momentary speculation that he didn't die at the Alamo at all. (Newspaper reports exist that state that he was not even at the Alamo, that he was hunting in the Rocky Mountains and would be returning home in the spring.)
In 1840 Crockett's son John, then a Tennessee congressman, was reported to be investigating information that his father was alive and enslaved, working in the Salinas mine near Guadalajara.
Nothing came of this.
And there were reports, soon after the battle, appearing in the New Orleans Post-Union, that Crockett and five other Alamo defenders had been taken prisoner and executed. The Louisiana Advertiser said that the entire Alamo garrison was executed after surrendering, and the New Orleans True American reported that Crockett and others had cried for quarter and when it was denied,they continued fighting "until the whole were butchered."
In July 1836, a Detroit newspaper ran a story in the form of a letter by a Sergeant George M. Dolson. This man claimed to have been an interpreter for an unnamed Mexican officer taken prisoner after the battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, in which Sam Houston and his force of volunteers defeated Santa Anna's army. Dolson wrote that the captive officer gave an account of Crockett's surrender and execution that he had heard from another officer who was present during the incident. According to this thirdhand account, several prisoners, Crockett among them, were taken by General Manuel Fernández Castrillón to the Mexican commander after the Alamo battle. Castrillón then is supposed to have announced to his chief, "Santa Anna, the august, I deliver up to you six brave prisoners of war." In Dolson's story, Santa Anna replied, "Who has given you orders to take prisoners? I do not want to see those men living--shoot them." Then, Dolson said the Mexican officer said his informant said, "As the monster uttered these words each officer turned his face the other way, and the hell-hounds of the tyrant despatched the six in his presence and within six feet of his person."
Dolson's letter to the Detroit paper was unearthed and reprinted in 1960, five years after a much more significant development had occurred in the mystery of how David Crockett died.
 

 

In 1955, the same year Fess Parker, portraying Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, faded out in the television version of the Onderdonk painting, an obscure antiques dealer in Mexico City named Jesus Sanchez Garza self-published a "diary," allegedly written in 1836 by a man who said he witnessed Davy's execution.
The diary, written by Jose Enrique de la Peña the aide to Colonel Francisco Duque, who led Santa Anna's First Brigade assault on the Alamo, was published by Sánchez Garza under the title La Rebelión de Téxas--Manuscrito Inedito de 1836 por unOficial de Santa Anna ("The Texas Rebellion--Unpublished Manuscript of 1836 by one of Santa Anna's Officers") and buried in its pages lay a ticking bomb. This was a passage in which de la Peña described how, after the fall of the Alamo, seven prisoners were brought before Santa Anna by his aide-de-camp, Brigadier General Castrillón.

Among them, De la Peña wrote, ... was one of great stature, well proportioned, with regular features, in whose face 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 Béjar 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 Castrillón'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 commander 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 moaning and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.
Here, in just over 200 words, was the first and only seemingly credible eyewitness story of Crockett's death--from an educated Mexican officer no less, and one who was clearly no admirer of President-General Santa Anna.
As subsequent research revealed, de la Peña was a sort of maverick in the Mexican army. Born in Jalisco in 1807 and educated as a mining engineer, he had entered the naval service in 1825 and later was assigned to the zapadores. He accompanied Santa Anna's army to San Antonio in 1836, served under Colonel Duque in the Alamo battle, then returned to Mexico City where he was imprisoned for taking part in a revolt against the government. He devoted much of the next five or six years (it is believed he died between 1841-1842) as a sort of armchair critic and strategist of Santa Anna's failed Texas campaign.
Sánchez Garza's privately printed Spanish language version of the de la Peña memoir remained obscure for twenty years although its existence was known to a handful of Texas history scholars and writers. Lon Tinkle, in his 13 Days to Glory (1958), listed the book in his sources but made no use of it; Walter Lord had a portion of it translated, and in his A Time to Stand (1961) still regarded as the best Alamo book, judged de la Peña's story "possible."
Then, at some unspecified date, the original manuscript of the controversial memoir was purchased from Sanchez Garza by John Peace, a collector of Texana and chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents, who loaned it to the research library of the University of Texas at San Antonio. In 1975 Carmen Perry, archivist and director of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo, translated the work and in 1975 published it as With Santa Anna in Texas--A Personal Narrative of the Revolution by José Enrique de la Peña.
Since 1975 virtually all writers of the Texas War of Independence in general and of the Alamo in particular have taken the de la Peña diary as the only reliable eyewitness account of Crockett's death.
Stephen Hardin, in his Texian Iliad (1994), subscribes to and uses the Mexican officer's account as does Crockett's most recent biographer, Mark Derr, in his The Frontiersman: The Real Life and the Many Legends of Davy Crockett (1993). Some writer-historians have hedged a bit in their use of the de la Peña book--Albert Nofi, in his The Alamo and the Texas War forIndependence (1994), calls it "pretty convincing"--while others have delighted in it, seeing it as the final opportunity to bring a legend to earth. Paul Hutton, a New Mexico-based historian who has written extensively on Crockett and the Alamo, says of the various accounts of Davy's death, "none is more reliable than that of Lieutenant Colonel Enrique de la Peña," and elaborates: "There is no doubt ... that he [Crockett] was taken prisoner, for numerous witnesses reported it. There is no eyewitness account of his death in battle, despite the wishful thinking of generations of writers and readers."
And Jeff Long, in his Duel of Eagles (1990), making use of the Dolson letter as well as de la Peña's diary, even seems to know what was in Crockett's and Santa Anna's mind, what Crockett said to his captors and what they said to him. He portrays the Tennessean cringing and wriggling on the hook, trying to convince his captors that he was merely a traveler accidentally swept into the whirlwind of the revolution. Long says Crockett, at the moment of truth, "straightened up, perhaps already formulating a speech. He folded his arms across his chest" and that Santa Anna saw before him "an arrogant mercenary with gunsmoke staining his creased face. He saw a wetback. A slave trader and smuggler. A pirate. A heretic." Santa Anna, who Long says "did not look into David Crockett's eyes," said to his officers and men gathered at the place of execution, "I do not want to see those men living," then, turning his back on the prisoners, said, "Shoot them."
Long's colorful story caused but a momentary stir among Alamo buffs and authorities, but de la Peña's book had staying power. Even the most Texan of Texas historians eventually abandoned the beloved, century-old image of Davy clubbing the enemy with Old Betsy until overwhelmed and killed in the heat of battle.
But not all who read de la Peña fell in line.
In fact, one long-time student of the Alamo battle says de la Peña's memoir is "is very likely a forgery, a fake, a lie."
 

 

Bill Groneman may seem an unlikely candidate to do battle with the Peñaphiles--many of them academic historians with Ph.D. degrees. He is a captain and former arson investigator with the New York City Fire Department and lives on Long Island, a long way from the Alamo.
But Groneman is no lightweight: he has a history degree from Manhattan College, has a variety of intellectual interests, has made a subcareer as a student of Texas independence, in particular the Alamo battle and its participants, is a member of the Texas State Historical Association and the Alamo Society. And he is the author of Roll Call at the Alamo (1985), Alamo Defenders (1990), Eyewitness to the Alamo (1996), and other works and spends a lot of time poring over the sources of Alamo history--including the original, handwritten de la Peña manuscript.
Groneman states that Crockett "went from a hero to a coward in the public's mind, based primarily on the translation and publication of the de la Peña 'diary,'" a book, he says, that contains many "anomalies, errors and misinformation," and which "may very well be a complete hoax."
In 1991 and 1992 Groneman spent time examining the original manuscript at the University of Texas at San Antonio and came away from the experience more puzzled than illuminated. Among other things, he discovered:

• the holograph document contained more than one handwriting;
• the document was written loose-leaf, on at least fifteen makes, kinds, and sizes of pieces of paper;
• the manuscript contained many errors of fact and questionable material such as the anachronistic use of the phrase "crimes against humanity," which first came into use in 1915 to describe war atrocities;
• the "diary" was dated 1836, as if written before, during and shortly after the Alamo battle, yet contained material from other sources that the author could not have known until later.
Groneman wondered how de la Peña could know that David Crockett was among the prisoners brought before Santa Anna, when the lieutenant had never been in the U.S. before, had arrived in San Antonio only two days before the battle, and would not have known Crockett on sight or been able to identify him. And he wondered about the lack of "provenance" (origin) of the diary. In the original publication of it in Mexico City in 1955, its owner and publisher, Sanchez Garza, provided forty pages of introductory material yet not a clue as to how he obtained the manuscript.
And there was yet another critical matter: the curious similarity between certain phrases in the de la Peña memoir to those in The Journal of Jean Lafitte, a book published by a vanity press in 1958 and a proven forgery by a retired railroad engineer named John Andrechyne Laflin. This man, who claimed to be the great-grandson of the notorious New Orleans pirate, traveled around the U.S. in the 1940-1970 period peddling alleged Lafitte documents (most of them ending up in Texas), and was the subject of a chapter in the book Great Forgers and Famous Fakes by the renowned handwriting expert Charles Hamilton of New York. Laflin was also believed to have forged a letter purportedly by an Alamo defender and thus had, Groneman believed, an Alamo "connection." Could Laflin have been the origin, author, forger of the de la Peña memoir?
Charles Hamilton, the handwriting authority who knew Laflin's "work" better than anyone, examined photocopies of pages of the de la Peña diary and in 1991 expressed the opinion that the pages were the work of John Andrechyne Laflin.
Groneman published his expose of the diary in his Defense of a Legend and the book stirred a lively debate (which continues to this day) among students of the Alamo battle and its participants. But academicians viewed Groneman's findings as speculative, unscientific, and unproven, an attempt to defend the Crockett legend and what North Carolina professor James Crisp, a Peñaphile, calls "the heroic and filiopietistic versions of Crockett's last stand."
Groneman says he is not trying to prove that Davy died asOnderdonk, Fess Parker, John Wayne, or any other legendary version of the Alamo story has it. "I don't believe that anyone knows how Crockett died," he says, but "Since he was an active participant in a battle in which everyone on his side was killed, it is not outrageous to conclude he died fighting." As to the execution theory, Groneman states that since there were about 250 defenders of the Alamo and only five were executed, the odds are fifty to one against Crockett being among them. "Investigation has shown that there is no credible evidence that he was one of those executed," he concludes.
 

 

Groneman and most others with an interest in the unvarnished truth agree that we do not need a Betsy-swinging balm for our national psyche, and that even if the de la Peña account is the true one, there is nothing dishonorable in the way Davy died (nor did de la Peña suggest such a thing). The defenders of the Alamo died heroically and David Crockett died as he lived--with courage.
Copyright © 1997 by Dale L. Walker.

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Table of Contents

Foreword 11
Introduction 15
1 The Day Davy Died - A Rendezvous at the Alamo 23
2 Incident at Grinder's Stand - The Last Night of Meriwether Lewis 49
3 The Life and Death of Sacajawea - The Bird Woman in 1812 and 1884 69
4 The Man Who Would Be Jesse James - J. Frank Dalton vs. DNA 87
5 "I'm Billy the Kid" - The Case of "Brushy Bill" Roberts 111
6 Bandit Laureate of the Mother Lode - A Tentative Good-bye to Black Bart 139
7 The Mad Hatter and the Assassin - Boston Corbett and John Wilkes Booth 157
8 The Old Gringo's Last Laugh - Ambrose Bierce in Mexico 180
9 "Do Your Duty!" - The Massacre at Mountain Meadows 205
10 An Afternoon on the Greasy Grass - Custer and the Little Bighorn 229
11 A Waltz in the Superstitions - The Lost Dutchman Mine 261
12 The Fall of Tashunke Witko - Crazy Horse Betrayed 275
Epilogue 301
Bibliography 303
Acknowledgments 311
Index 313
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