The author has been interested in Crockett since the third grade.
By SAM HODGES
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
"Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett's Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution" by James E. Crisp; Oxford ($20)
Did Davy Crockett die fighting at the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, in which a Mexican force under Gen. Santa Anna wiped out a band of Texas separatists? Or did Crockett surrender, only to be executed on Santa Anna's orders?
This is the big enchilada controversy taken on by James E. Crisp, a history professor at North Carolina State, in his thoroughly absorbing new book "Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett's Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution."
Subject is personal
For Crisp, the subject is personal. In 1955, as a third-grader in Henrietta, Texas, he was "mesmerized" by Fess Parker as Crockett in a Disney TV series. Throughout his early years, Crisp imbibed official Texas history, especially a comic book for seventh-graders that celebrated the Anglo-American heroes of the Texas Revolution and minimized or demonized Mexicans, blacks and the Hispanic Texans called Tejanos.
Crisp went on to study history at Yale with the great C. Vann Woodward, doing a dissertation arguing that the Texas Revolution was not the result of racial antagonism between Anglo settlers and Mexicans, but the cause of it.
As a historian, Crisp has investigated whether his hero Sam Houston really gave a racist speech about Mexicans during the revolution, and whether a mulatto slave, the legendary "Yellow Rose of Texas," seduced Santa Anna in a tent at San Jacinto, contributing to the Mexicans' defeat there.
"Sleuthing the Alamo" reports on both cases, but the heart of it concerns Crockett.
From the first, accounts varied as to whether he was killed in battle or executed. Few seemed to think the latter fate reflected badly on him. But the Disney saga and the 1960 John Wayne movie "The Alamo" both vividly suggested that Crockett fought to the last. Crockett-mania followed the Disney show, with children across the country buying coonskin caps and re-enacting Crockett's heroism. Suddenly, a lot of people were invested in the idea of Davy as unyielding.
A diary was found
Meanwhile, a Mexican antiques dealer had found the diary of Jose Enrique de la Pena, of Santa Anna's force. De la Pena claimed Crockett survived the battle and stoically endured torture before being executed with a few other men.
The press got hold of the story in the 1970s, thanks to a translation of the diary by librarian Carmen Perry and a book called "How Did Davy Die?" by Texas accountant and amateur historian Dan Kilgore. Perry received hate mail for her efforts. Kilgore was vilified for siding with de la Pena.
In 1994, the plot twisted again, as a New York City arson investigator with the Dickensian name of Bill Groneman wrote that the de la Pena manuscript was forged. Crisp meant merely to review Groneman's book, but ended up wading waist-deep -- no, higher -- into the controversy.
"Sleuthing the Alamo" details Crisp's adventures, including chasing down documents, checking translations and grilling a handwriting analyst.
This well-written, surprisingly intimate book is indispensable for all who would truly remember the Alamo.