Dr. James Crisp

The Crockett Controversy Continues


What follows is commentary we received on "The Death of David Crockett." After the initial group of letters was received, we invited Michael Lind, the author of the piece, to respond. James Crisp, a historian at North Carolina State University — who is a recognized expert on the Crockett controversy — joined in with a return salvo.

Read Michael Lind's Article

I read with both interest and dismay Michael Lind's article on the controversy surrounding the death of David Crockett. Lind concludes that the story of Crockett's execution on the orders of Mexican general Santa Anna following the Battle of the Alamo is more likely the product of the "contamination" of history by rumor than an accurate account with corroborating evidence. Unfortunately, Lind has contaminated his own argument. He confuses disparate documents while at the same time ignoring and misconstruing some of the most important corroborative data.

At the heart of Lind's argument is a paragraph written by Lieutenant Colonel José Enrique de la Peña, whose celebrated "diary" is the most prominent of the purported eyewitness accounts of Crockett's execution.

Lind deems the paragraph critically important because in it, and thus ostensibly in the only major statement on the issue published, during his lifetime, de la Peña described the Alamo executions but failed to mention Crockett by name. Lind identifies this paragraph as coming from A Victim of Despotism, a pamphlet published by de la Peña in 1839. The quoted paragraph, however, appears nowhere in the actual pamphlet, Una Victima del Despotismo. Lind has actually quoted from a now-lost manuscript described by the Mexican editor who published a fragment of it in 1956 as an unpublished "hasty rebuttal" written by de la Peña in response to accusations made by Santa Anna against a rival. The absence of Crockett's name in an incomplete, unpublished, and apparently no-longer-extant manuscript written in the context of internal Mexican political rivalries is simply a nonfact. It proves nothing.

That Lind was ill-prepared to enter, much less to resolve, the debates over historical evidence that have been raging over the past several years, may also be seen in his handling of the most important single piece of evidence, the "Dolson letter."

George M. Dolson was a Texan officer who served as an interpreter at a prisoner-of-war camp for Mexican soldiers located on Galveston Island. On July 18, 1836, Dolson was asked to translate the statement of a Mexican officer who had witnessed the executions at the Alamo. The officer described Crockett's death, giving details of the scene that were confirmed the following year when Santa Anna's personal secretary, Ramón Martinez Caro, published an account of the incident (though Caro mentioned no prisoners' names).

The following day, Dolson wrote to his brother in Michigan, detailing the Mexican officer's story. Dolson's letter was reproduced in a Detroit newspaper in September 1836, but went unnoticed by historians until 1960. But Dolson's letter was not, as Lind claims, "the first American newspaper account identifying Crockett as one of the executed prisoners." That distinction belongs to another letter written from the same prisoner-of-war camp on June 9, almost six weeks earlier, and published anonymously in several American newspapers in the summer of 1836.

Lind concludes that the Dolson letter contains only "folklore"— its story an "erroneous rumor," one of dozens circulating in the months after the fall of the Alamo. Yet the strikingly similar stories in the two letters include details of the killings not publicly revealed by Santa Anna secretary until 1837. Their graphic content is hardly "folklore," and they offer strong corroboration of de la Peña's story.

Though Lind accuses Crockett's denigrators of having failed to read the testimony of their star witnesses, it is Lind who is guilty of this offense. He has used Carmen Perry's flawed translation (identified as such in the historical literature) of de la Peña's description of Crockett's death, and then drawn tainted conclusions from her errors. He has obviously not read Una Victima del Despotismo in the original, nor compared the English and Spanish texts for accuracy. And in overlooking the Galveston letter of June 9, he has shown his unfamiliarity with widely known evidence.

Though there are other serious errors in Lind's piece, the flagrant lapses detailed above should caution his readers against uncritically accepting his conclusion that the story of David Crockett's execution at the Alamo can be dismissed as mere "folklore."

James E. Crisp
Department of History
North Carolina State University,
Raleigh, N.C.

Should the circumstance of David Crockett's 1836 death ("The Death of David Crockett", Winter, WQ) be argued in the context of, as Michael Lind says, "...the late-20th century American culture war?"

First, any notion that out-of-context history is somehow enlightening is absurd. It is unfortunate that we have fixed so firmly on the Alamo that the cause and course of the Texas Revolution is blurred. That blurring has allowed an altered state of historical consciousness—a sort of Aquarian Age forum—to flourish for social, political, and historical revisionists. It is a crowded forum and to be heard some have shouted, "Fire!" It is the history that has suffered, and I mourn that.

We are fortunate to have the de la Peña memoir and perhaps one day John Peace will permit its authentication. Meanwhile, we must deal with what we have. The memoir is not definitive in the circumstances of Crockett's death, authenticity notwithstanding. Not only is it at odds with other "first hand" accounts, it does, in my opinion, suggest a craftsmanship which recognizes a popular sentiment of the later time. Often de la Peña—no peon by any stretch—seems to be saying, metaphorically, of course, "Me no Alamo! Me no Goliad!"

The details of Crockett's final moments are simply not established. But, diligent, objective scholarship in research and reporting may one day shed more light on the issue. In the interim, speculations from a variety of interesting, and sometimes curious, perspectives will be substituted and debated.

Darwin "Tex" Johnston
Manteca, C.A.

Thank you and Michael Lind for bringing the controversy over Crockett's death and the alleged de la Peña "diary" to a larger audience.

There is a slight error on page 53 where Lind gives a description of the executions at the Alamo, allegedly by de la Peña, and cites A Victim of Despotism as the source. The passage cited is not from that document. It appears in one of the appendixes to Jesñs Sánchez Garza's book La Rebelion de Texas and is attributed to de la Peña writing under the pseudonym "Scipion" in 1839. A Victim of Despotismdoes not mention Crockett, executions at the Alamo, or the Battle of the Alamo. However, Lind's point is still made and perhaps reinforced. Why wasn't Crockett mentioned in either of these documents as he is in the alleged "diary"?

Lind also could have mentioned that there is no record of the alleged de la Peña "diary" before 1955. In the process of it being published in Mexico and in the United States, it being acquired by John Peace and being placed at the University of Texas at San Antonio, there is no evidence that anyone ever took steps authenticate it. Sanchez Garza's book was self-published in Mexico, so it never had to undergo the scrutiny of an editor or publisher. It contains erroneous information, such as the description of Travis's death. It contains passages that resemble those of other documents, and it contains anachronistic phrases such as "crimes against humanity."

William Groneman
Malverne, N.Y.

Michael Lind replies:

I am grateful to James Crisp and William Groneman for identifying several errors I made as a result of relying on secondary sources and too-hasty revision. As Groneman observes, my mistakes, inexcusable as they are, do not invalidate my assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two sides in the debate about how David Crockett died at the Alamo.

As I argued in my essay, the greatest weakness of the execution theory is the absence of plausible firsthand accounts by Mexican participants that identify Crockett as one of the half-dozen prisoners executed after the Battle of the Alamo at Santa Anna's order. (As I noted, there has never been any doubt that the executions took place.) Even Professor Crisp, in conversation, admits that the account of the death of William Barret Travis in the controversial de la Peña memoir is unbelievable—a fact that undermines the credibility of de la Peña's account of Crockett's death.

Crisp wisely avoids relying on the de la Peña text in order to emphasize the Dolson letter, which I acknowledged to be among "the strongest potential corroborating evidence for the execution theory." Crisp can also make a case for finding corroboration in a letter from Galveston on June 9 first published in the New York Courier and Enquirer (which I accidentally misdated, on the basis of a reprint in a Kentucky newspaper last July). We have, then, two secondhand accounts of Crockett's execution originating in the Galveston prisoner—of-war camp more than three months after the battle—Dolson's account, attributed to Santa Anna's aide Colonel Juan Almonte, and an account by an anonymous American attributed to an unnamed Mexican officer.

When we turn to the firsthand 1837 account of the executions by Santa Anna's secretary, Ramón Martinez Caro, however, none of the executed prisoners are identified. Crisp claims that "though Caro, mentioned no prisoners' names:" Caro's account can be regarded as corroboration of the letters from Galveston. But this is a bit of a stretch. The fact of the executions was familiar on both sides soon after the fall of the Alamo. The question is how the alleged Mexican informants would know one detail in particular—David Crockett's identity.

According to the accounts in the Dolson letter and the anonymous June 9 letter to the Courier and Enquirer, Crockett did not identify himself to his captors by speaking; he was identified by sight Dolson writes: "Colonel Crockett was in the rear, had his arms folded, and appeared bold as the lion as he passed my informant [Almonte]. Santa Anna's interpreter knew Colonel Crockett, and said to my informant, 'the one behind is the famous Crockett.'" (The Courier and Enquirer letter does not explain how Crockett was identified at all.) Who was this interpreter who knew Crockett by sight? It cannot have been San Antonio mayor Franciso Ruiz, who later said that he found Crockett's body after Santa Anna ordered him to identify the garrison's leaders among the dead. Even if the Dolson letter is correct in every detail, the case for Crockett's execution rests on the ability of an unnamed Mexican interpreter to identify Crockett on sight and to point this out to Juan Almonte—who, curiously enough, never mentioned the incident in his diary of the Texas campaign or later during his long public career.

In his introduction to the recent edition of the de la Peña book, Crisp argues that the conclusion that Santa Anna knew that Crockett was among the prisoners is "not supported by the original text." In other words, Santa Anna did not know that Crockett was standing before him. Did Santa Anna's interpreter whisper his identification of Crockett to Almonte in a voice so low that Santa Anna did not hear him? If so, his failure to inform Santa Anna of Crockett's identity, while furtively spreading the news to others, would make this mysterious person the most incompetent interpreter in history.

Crisp objects to my description of this version of Crockett's death as "folklore." Perhaps I should have called it hearsay evidence, which appears extremely weak when compared to the eloquent silence on the subject of Crockett's execution in the accounts of the battle and its aftermath written by Almonte, Caro, Ruiz, and Santa Anna himself. If I were the lawyer for the prosecution, I would introduce the Dolson letter and the Courier and Enquirer account as Exhibits A and B, and I would call Professor Crisp to the stand as an expert witness. If I where the jury, however, I would find Santa Anna not guilty of the execution of David Crockett.

[Michael Lind]

Michael Lind states in his reply to my critique of his recent article on "The Death of David Crockett" that if he were the prosecutor in a hypothetical trial of General Santa Anna for the alleged execution of Crockett, he would introduce the "Dolson letter" as Exhibit A, and call me to the stand as an expert witness. Yet Lind maintains that if he were in the jury he would nevertheless find Santa Anna not guilty. I must say that if I were the prosecutor, Mr. Lind would find himself on the stand as a hostile witness, because nothing sways a jury like self-contradictory testimony.

In evaluating my argument that Crockett was executed with a group of a half-dozen captured Alamo defenders upon Santa Anna's direct orders, Mr. Lind acknowledged that the Dolson letter is "the strongest potential corroborating evidence for the execution theory." Roughly two-thirds of Lind's reply is devoted to an exegesis of this letter, which was written from a Galveston Island camp for Mexican prisoners by a bilingual Texan sergeant, George M. Dolson, who had on the previous day served as the interpreter during the interrogation of a Mexican officer.

According to Lind, this officer, and thus Dolson's "informant," was Colonel Juan N. Almonte. The critical two sentences leading to this conclusion bear repeating: "Colonel Crockett was in the rear, had his arms folded, and appeared bold as the lion as he passed my informant (Almonte). Santa Anna's interpreter knew Colonel Crockett, and said to my informant, `the one behind is the famous Crockett.'" Lind goes on to demonstrate the difficulties produced for the execution theory by this scenario. "Who," he asks, "was this interpreter who knew Crockett by sight?" The failure of this man "to inform Santa Anna of Crockett's identity, while furtively spreading the news to others," says Lind, "would make this mysterious person the most incompetent interpreter in history."

Lind's flawed reading of the Dolson letter is an object lesson in the dangers of superficial interpretation of evidence taken out of context. The simple fact is that Almonte could not have been Dolson's informant. The reasons are both specific and general. First, Almonte was on the mainland at the time, under house arrest with Santa Anna; he was never held in the POW camp where Dolson was a Spanish translator. Access to such arcane information was unnecessary, however, for Lind to have realized that the interrogated officer was not Almonte. This urbane colonel (educated in the United States and quite familiar with the American political scene) was perfectly fluent in English, as was well known in Texas in the summer of 1836. At the time that Dolson wrote his letter, Almonte was serving as Santa Anna's interpreter.

Lind has, in fact, made the same mistake as the late Thomas Lawrence Connelly, who as a graduate student in 1960 uncovered the Dolson letter in a September 1836 edition of the (Detroit) Democratic Free Press. It is clear that if the Dolson letter is not to collapse into absurdity, we must recognize that the newspaper's typesetter has apparently dropped an interlineated explanation by Dolson of the interpreter's identity onto the wrong side of the period between these two sentences. The "mysterious" interpreter, in other words, is Colonel Almonte himself, who understandably chose not to interfere as General Santa Anna lambasted General Manuel Castrillon for failing to carry out the "no prisoners" order of the day.

If I were sitting on that jury, I would find Santa Anna guilty as charged.

James E. Crisp
Department of History
North Carolina State University,
Raleigh, N.C.