Davy Crockett

Most of us are familiar with the legend of Davy Crockett, the "King of the Wild Frontier." Like most legends, however, some of what we've come to accept may not be the truth—especially concerning his death. Let's look at why there is a controversy about how and where Crockett died.

After a 1955 movie starring Fess Parker came out, $300 million of Crockett merchandise was purchased by the end of the year.

Before the Alamo

No one called Crockett "Davy" during his lifetime; he went by "David." David Crockett was a frontiersman, noted story-teller, and U.S. Congressman from Tennessee. Once in favor of Andrew Jackson, Crockett broke ranks and railed against Jackson's policies—especially Jackson's Indian relocation plan. The Whig party floated the idea of Crockett as a presidential candidate in 1836 against Jackson's party. In 1835, however, Crockett was defeated for re-election to Congress. Some attributed his defeat to his anti-Jackson stand, since Jackson was also from Tennessee and loved by Tennesseans. Crockett was reported by numerous sources to have said that if he was elected, he would serve to the best of his ability, but if he lost, his Tennessee constituents could "all go to hell and I will go to Texas." He lost, and he did.

In what is believed to be his autobiography, Crockett claimed to have killed 105 bears in a one-year period between 1825 and 1826.

The Alamo

Crockett loved it in Texas. Two months prior to his death at the Alamo in March of 1836, he wrote to his daughter in Tennessee that he had picked out the land he wanted in exchange for fighting for Texas' independence from Mexico. He also wrote that he expected to be elected to the convention that would write Texas' new constitution. The leader of the Texan rebellion, General Sam Houston, sent Crockett to San Antonio to support William Travis and James "Jim" Bowie. Houston had wanted Bowie to withdraw from San Antonio, but Bowie believed a small contingent could hold off a much larger army inside the walls of the Alamo.

Travis and Bowie didn't get along, and by some accounts, Crockett played peacemaker between them. One of the survivors, Susanna Dickinson, wrote that Crockett was great for morale and would entertain the men with his violin. She also said he had his darker moments, such as when he would say that the men should march into the open and attack, because he "didn't like to be hemmed up."

After a 13-day standoff, on March 6, 1836, Mexican General Santa Anna attacked the Alamo, and in less than two hours overran the 200 defenders, killing all but Travis' slave, Joe, Susanna Dickinson and her daughter, and some Tejano civilians. The defenders became symbols of the Texan resistance. In April of 1836, Houston surprised Santa Anna and his larger army at San Jacinto. The Texans attacked with cries of "Remember the Alamo," defeated and captured Santa Anna, resulting in Texas' independence.

In 1830, James Black designed a knife for Jim Bowie, a noted knife-fighter. After Bowie died at the Alamo, everybody wanted "Jim Bowie's knife." Today, a bowie knife is defined as a knife with a cross guard and large blade with a clipped point.

The Controversy

There is no controversy regarding whether Crockett died at the Alamo. There is also little controversy that several men were captured alive and executed at the conclusion of the battle. The controversy is whether Crockett died fighting to his last breath or was one of those captured and executed.

The belief that he was executed actually started shortly after the battle. In the 1800s, newspapers copied each other to bring news to the people, similar to the way wire services like the UPI and AP work, or like retweets on Twitter today. The original story was brought via boat from Texas and reported in a New Orleans paper. It said that several men surrendered and were executed, and that David Crockett was slain. A typographical error by an Arkansas paper made it appear that David Crockett was one of the executed prisoners. It spread from the Arkansas paper to other papers as fact. It was a widely accepted view until the 1900s, when a different view became popular.

In the 1950's Disney movie, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, Fess Parker's Crockett was the last defender, going down swinging his empty rifle at the Mexicans. John Wayne's Crockett, in the 1960 movie The Alamo, was portrayed as one of the last defenders as well. In that movie, Wayne blew up a powder magazine to take as many Mexicans with him as he could—although there was no powder magazine explosion in the real battle. With these sorts of portrayals, "Davy" Crockett became an icon. And nobody likes their icons being tarnished—which is why there is such an uproar about how David Crockett may have really died.

Recent belief that Crockett was captured and executed is primarily based on the writings of Jose Enrique de la Pena, a colonel under Santa Anna. He was supposed to have written a diary of his time under Santa Anna, including the attack on the Alamo. The original manuscript was lost, but a reprint was purported to have been discovered in 1955. De la Pena stated that several of the defenders of the Alamo were captured, and that the Mexican General Castrillon tried to have them spared. Santa Anna was furious, however, and ordered them executed. Several officers, trying to impress Santa Anna, fell on the men with swords. Though it is not believed De la Pena mentioned any names in his original document, in later writings De la Pena said Crockett was one of the men.

Because the authenticity can't be proven, many historians believe it is a hoax. They state the document included information that could only have been written after the fact, and appears to have come from multiple sources. They also question why Santa Anna never mentioned having Crockett executed in any of his writings.

Others, still, have studied the De la Pena manuscript and believe it is authentic. They also point out that the execution of Crockett is supported by other sources. In 1836, George Dolson was an interpreter at a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Mexican soldiers. One prisoner told him that he witnessed the executions, and stated that Crockett was one of those executed. The officer gave details not generally known until the following year when Santa Anna's personal secretary published his account of the incident. Although Dolson wrote his brother a letter about the officer and it was published in a Detroit paper, it was not rediscovered until 1960. Another letter detailing Crockett's execution, published anonymously in American newspapers in 1836, came six weeks earlier from the same camp.

Disney reversed its portrayal of Davy Crockett in the 2004 movie, The Alamo, with Billy Bob Thorton playing Crockett bound and executed after the battle was finished.

Historians and Crockett experts are divided. How David Crockett actually died may never be conclusively settled, and the controversy continues today.

Four years after the battle, there were reports that Crockett was seen working in the silver mines of Guadalajara, where he had purportedly been taken as a captive after the battle at the Alamo.