Edited By Dr. Stephen L. Hardin*
©1990, Texas State Historical Association
Originally Appearing in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly.
Used with Permission.
The body of Alamo literature is immense, but because of the nature of the source materials careful scholarly studies of the historical Alamo are few. Most of them reflect only the victors' side of the story, though many of the Mexican accounts are remarkably rich in detail.
Among them is that of alleged Mexican soldier Felix Nuñez, written in 1889 by an unnamed newspaperman from an interview with George W. Noel who claimed to have interviewed Nuñez. Many chroniclers of the battle have incorporated this narrative into their works, most to describe the death of David Crockett and to document William Barret Travis's supposed attire.
Conflicting stories regarding Crockett's death began to circulate almost immediately after the battle. In a March 29, 1836, letter Texian E. Bowker recounted the fall of the Alamo to his parents, telling how the congressman reportedly met his fate: "he was found dead with about 20 of the enemy with him and his rifle was broken to pieces [and] it is supposed that he killed at least 20 or thirty himself. " In her book Texas, which appeared in the summer of 1836, Mary Austin Holley maintained that Crockett was one of seven defenders found alive after active combat had ended. These seven "cried for quarter" but when told that none would be given Holley stressed, "they continued fighting until all were butchered. " A number of contemporary Texas letters and newspaper accounts recounted Crockett's execution to highlight their presumptions of Mexican savagery. For the remainder of the nineteenth century and throughout the first half of the twentieth, the notion that Crockett survived the fighting and was later executed did not seem to bother most people; few cared one way or another.1
In 1956, however, Walt Disney introduced San Angelo, Texas, native Fess Parker as "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier," in a television series that became an overnight national sensation. In the Disney version Crockett, clearly intended to be a role model, did not die on screen as it was believed that seeing their hero actually killed would unsettle America's children. Instead the image of "Davy" flailing away with his clubbed rifle slowly fades into one of the Lone Star flag. The 1960 John Wayne film had Crockett not only go down fighting, but blowing himself up with the Alamo's powder magazine in one last act of heroic self-sacrifice.
That Hollywood had transformed Crockett into a pop icon perhaps helps to explain the bitter controversy surrounding the publication of two studies. In 1975 Carmen Perry translated and edited the diary of Mexican officer José Enrique de la Peña. Then Dan Kilgore, a former president of the Texas State Historical Association, thoroughly analyzed all of the extant versions of Crockett's death in his carefully researched 1978 monograph, How Did Davy Die. Both works stated that Crockett survived the battle only to be executed on Santa Anna's orders. A howl of protest arose. "For many people," historian Paul Andrew Hutton surmised, "Crockett had become part of their self-identification as Americans, and to suggest that he did not perish in true Hollywood style was a blow to their fragile psyches. "2
The Nuñez account has been employed repeatedly to support the tradition that Crockett died in the thick of battle. Despite an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary, even trained historians continue to use the Nuñez version to describe Crockett's demise. The standard secondary study, Walter Lord's A Time to Stand, strongly intimates that the "tall American" whose fall Nuñez descried could well have been "Crockett himself," and as recently as 1986 historian Ben Procter employed the account in The Battle of the Alamo, published by the Texas State Historical Association.3
Lay historians seem even more unrelenting, resentful of any perceived plot to tarnish their hero. In their revisionist study, Roll Call at the Alamo, Phil Rosenthal and Bill Groneman concoct the "possibility that the Mexicans incorrectly identified one of the [executed] Texans as Crockett" and use the Nuñez account as the linchpin for their argument that the former congressman died fighting. Rosenthal and Groneman then assert that the Nuñez account was "direct and to the point" and when "tied together" with the Rafael Soldana and Susanna Dickinson accounts, neither of whom ever claimed to witness the old bear hunter's death, makes "a good case for Crockett to have lived up to his legendary status.4
Newspaperman Bob Boyd was almost belligerent in his certainty. "Davy Crockett died fighting at the Alamo," he asserts in his sparsely documented treatment:
He did not surrender. He did not ask for quarter. He did not beg for his life. He died fighting back-to-back with two of his Tennessee comrades. Before they had finished, a pile of dead enemies, estimated at between 14 and 24, lay around them.The "evidence," Boyd alleged, is "undeniable. " All this before citing Susanna Dickinson who reported seeing Crockett's mutilated corpse as she was led from the fort after the battle. Mrs. Dickinson, however, never claimed to be privy to the exact circumstances of Crockett's death. Boyd then seeks to bolster his argument by claiming that other Mexican accounts "confirm" that his hero's death was "valiant and vengeful. " Although he fails to identify who the others were, it is likely that the Nuñez narrative is one on which Boyd would rely for confirmation. Seeking to refute "international historian and linguist" Richard Santos's protestation that Crockett did not die "fighting a la John Wayne," Austin writer Arthur G. Milton cited Nuñez as proof to the contrary. 5
Nor does the debate show any sign of cooling. In the March 3, 1990 edition of the San Antonio Express and News, Santos took Texas writer Wallace 0. Chariton to task for employing the Nuñez account, claiming that it "is so full of errors and exaggerations that it is inconceivable that anyone would give it any consideration whatsoever. " Then, in a slur directed at Chariton, Santos self-righteously intoned: "Numerous other self-proclaimed historians have done likewise.6
Firing back, Chariton defended the Nuñez account. Chariton admitted that the narrative had its problems but postulated that even if Nuñez was not present at the battle he "still could have gotten correct information from an actual participant and then conveniently used that information for his own purposes. Nuñez may have been a scoundrel," Chariton insisted, "but it does not automatically follow that what he said can be totally ignored, especially if there is other fragile evidence that seems to corroborate what he said. " He concluded that in examining questionable sources he and many other Alamo scholars preferred to "cut around the fat in the survivors' stories in the hope that we can find a little historical meat left on the bone. " Chariton, however, failed to mention what other "fragile evidence" corroborates Nuñez, nor did he reveal what "meat" he found in the tale.7
The account has also worked its way into graphic depictions. In 1901 Dallas businessman James T. DeShields commissioned San Antonio artist Robert Onderdonk to paint an Alamo scene portraying "battle, murder and sudden death. " The result was "The Fall of the Alamo," finished in 1903. Probably the most reproduced of all Alamo images, the painting captures the moment just before a Mexican officer smites Crockett with his saber. Much research is apparent and it is probable that Onderdonk had read the 1889 account. Recently, the 1987 film "Alamo The Price of Freedom" incorporated a scene wherein a Mexican officer deals Crockett "a deadly blow with his sword, just above the right eye.8
Its inclusion in many standard studies notwithstanding, the Nuñez account is infested with errors. Numerous inconsistencies between Nuñez's narrative and others should have raised questions among serious historians. He was presumably questioned fifty-three years after the fact and in several places his memory was faulty. Worse still, the words often do not seem to be those of Nuñez himself. The article first ran in the San Antonio Daily Express on June 30, 1889, and was later reprinted in the July 12, 1889, edition of the Fort Worth Gazette. It appears, however, that the San Antonio reporter did not even bother to talk to Nuñez, but accepted Noel's version of what the old man apparently had told him. At best, the story comes to us thirdhand.10
There is, of course, another, more disturbing, possibility; the entire account could well be a fraud. Nuñez would have been well acquainted with local Alamo lore and merely fabricated his tale for gullible listeners. One noted scholar has proclaimed the entire narrative "worthless if not bogus. " Certainly there is little in the story that could not have been obtained by local hearsay and other Alamo accounts available by 1889.11
If the account is so patently unreliable, why should anyone bother to edit and reprint it? There are many reasons. The account is difficult to locate, even in some of the best archival repositories. The Nuñez account has not been reprinted in its entirety since 1889, and it has never been critically edited.
Even so, the major obstacle is not that so many people have been unable to use the Nuñez account, but rather that so many have used it uncritically. Practically everyone who ever cited the account failed to examine it carefully, accepting it at face value. Many who had never seen the original account simply repeated others who did, thereby continuing to distort the historical record.
The Nuñez account is so clearly wrong on so many vital points it would be folly to use any part of it to support an argument. Yet, it has been used repeatedly by reputable historians, a fact that reflects how little true primary research has been done on the battle of the Alamo. One can determine how much, if any, of the Nuñez version is accurate only by comparing it with other, more reliable, accounts.
The version that follows is the one that appeared in the San Antonio Daily Express. It is as worm eaten as Nuñez claimed Travis's jacket to be. By exposing the account to critical examination the editor hopes that future Alamo scholars will avoid past errors and present a more accurate picture of a shining moment in Texas history-one that has no need of distortion to add to its luster.
Dr. Stephen L. Hardin, Victoria College
Historical Advisor to Alamo de Parras
Click picture to continue to the Nuñez Account
Nuñez Illustration by Randell Tarin
©2000, Alamo de Parras