Book Review


Three Roads to the Alamo

Three Roads to the Alamo:
The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis.

By William C. Davis

William C. Davis is best known as a Civil War historian, with many fine books to his credit. His latest book is a departure from his usual area of interest. Three Roads to the Alamo is a telling of the story of the lives of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis, leading up to their common destiny at a small mission in Texas. Virgil E. Baugh had the same idea back in 1960, when he wrote Rendezvous at the Alamo: Highlights in the Lives of Bowie, Crockett, and Travis. To some degree, John Myers Myers did the same thing in 1948. Myers devoted the middle third of The Alamo to biographies of the three Texas heroes, adding a sketch of the life of Santa Anna for good measure. However, even though this approach has been used before, none have done it as skillfully as Davis has.

Amazingly, Davis found much new primary material in the Mexican Military Archives. It is to be hoped that this gold mine of information has just been tapped, and historians will be able to uncover even more information in the future. Davis also found new information on James Bowie’s land dealings.

In Three Roads to the Alamo, Davis furnishes fresh perspectives to much previously known material. Some of Davis’ views are at odds with those of other historians, but he explains the reasons for his variant views in copious endnotes. An example of where his interpretations differ from those of previous biographers is in his explanation of why Travis left Alabama for Texas.

Davis demythologizes the lives of the Alamo heroes, but he does it without finding it necessary to diminish their exploits. All three were men with human frailties and faults. A new class of historian seems to see it as their duty to concentrate on the weaknesses and negative aspects of the people they write about, as viewed through 20th century sensibilities. Davis does not hide these aspects of their lives, but he places them in the context of the times they lived in, and he does not dwell on them.

To this reviewer, David Crockett emerges from Three Roads as the most admirable of the Alamo trinity. Long hunter, Indian fighter, politician; he was the stuff of American legend. An ambitious man, David spent his whole life trying to better himself, looking for opportunity. A representative of America’s image of the frontiersman in American history, he always looked to the West in search of those opportunities.

Crockett’s greatest strength, and ultimately his undoing, was his honesty. His favorite saying was "be always sure you are right, then go ahead," and he lived up to it, no matter how much it might hurt his political ambitions. He voted against the Indian Removal Bill because he thought it was morally wrong, even though it was popular among his constituents back home. He never seemed to grasp the way Washington worked, and the necessity for deal making to gain the support of others. As a result, he was never able to get any of his own bills passed. In the end, he was defeated for reelection. David told the voters that they "could go to Hell, and he would go to Texas." In a long, meandering trip, well described by William C. Davis, Crockett headed west, finally ending up, in February of 1836, in the small town of Béxar. Across the San Antonio River was the Alamo.

James Bowie was a slave smuggler, a land speculator in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, and a treasure hunter before becoming involved in the Texas revolution. He was also a celebrated fighter. Perhaps his most famous exploit was a famous brawl on a Mississippi sandbar, where he killed a man with the knife that would become as famous as the man who wielded it. One of his treasure hunting expeditions to find the lost San Saba silver mine ended in a fight with an Indian war party. With the onset of the Texas Revolution, Jim Bowie became one of the best commanders of the Texian volunteers. During the siege of Béxar, Big Jim was largely responsible for the Texian victory at the Grass Fight. He left the Texian army before they captured Béxar and the Alamo. In January of 1836, Sam Houston ordered him to return. There is some controversy among Alamo historians as to the reason for Bowie’s return. According to Davis, before the Mexican Army reached Béxar, Houston "hoped to have permission from Smith for Bowie to blow up the Alamo entirely and remove all the artillery and remaining munitions to Gonzales and Copano."

Much younger than Crockett or Bowie, William Barret Travis left Alabama one step ahead of creditors and a failed marriage. In Texas, Travis found a badly needed second chance, and started a highly successful law practice. Buck Travis became deeply involved with the radical revolutionary element in Texas almost from the moment of his arrival. When war came, he was among the first to volunteer his services to the new Texian army. By February 1836, he was in command of a cavalry company, which was ordered to Béxar; he arrived on 3 February. The lead actors were now on the stage, ready for the final act in the drama.

Davis does a masterful job of telling the story of the Alamo siege and final assault. Being a long-time Alamo buff, this reviewer was impressed by Davis’ account. To aid in his description, Davis includes a fine illustration of the Alamo compound by Gary Zaboly. This illustration is essentially the same that appeared in Stephen L. Hardin’s Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution. The major change Gary made was in his depiction of the latrines in the cattle pen [Kevin R. Young’s Alamo de Parras article, Where were the bathrooms?: An Informal Look at Sanitation in the 1836 Alamo].

William C. Davis describes the three Alamo heroes thus, "Crockett’s type would always be on the outer edge of the new land . . . Bowie and his kind followed in the next wave, coming to capitalize and exploit the opportunities . . . It was the Travises who made the greatest mark . . . They were the third wave of settlement . . . who came to bring stability, learning, and the rule of law."

I highly recommend Three Roads to the Alamo. William C. Davis makes some interpretations that do not agree with the views of others, but most of his conclusions are explained in over 160 pages of detailed notes. There was one area this reviewer found which might have been clarified. In several previously written books, David Crockett was said to have been a member of Captain William Harrison’s company of Tennessee Mounted Volunteers. In Three Roads, Davis has Crockett as the leader of the Mounted Volunteers, with no mention of Harrison. Then, when Crockett arrives at the Alamo, Davis has him assigned to the company of Captain William Patton. This is new information, if true, and is one of few assertions that Davis does not footnote. However, this is a very small caveat in what this reviewer considers as the best book read about the Alamo and its heroes.

By Robert Durham, Contributing Editor Alamo de Parras

Read an Interview with William C. Davis!

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