Memoir about Davy Crockett raises some experts' eyebrows
by Kent Biffle

AUSTIN - Don't wince. Take it like a man, says I. That Mexican officer's damnable memoir about Davy Crockett is legit.

The De la Peña Diary, as it is unpopularly known to Crockett fans, is for real. The memoir claims Davy didn't go down swinging Ol' Betsy during the 1836 storming of the Alamo - he gave up.

Some smart people still think the thing smells funny. But they'll just have to get over it. Science rules.

The issue ignites many Texans and others who prize kiddy memories of coonskin caps, a ditty about the King of the Wild Frontier, and, you bet, a fight to the finish on screens big and little.

So, let me quickly say something every lawyer knows. Just because a document is authentic doesn't mean it's accurate. Did de la Peña get it right?

Memoirist Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña was an ax grinder.

He detested his chief, President-Gen. Santa Anna, whose incompetence he blamed for Mexico's loss of provincial Texas. His nickname for the tyrant was a Spanish term for a male body part that shall go untranslated in today's sermon.

A few historians suspect that the memoir, published in English in 1975, is a fake. But experts find the rusty ink and bookworm bites are just right under the electron microscope. Watermarks prove it was penned on Mexican army writing paper.

Most academic historians embrace the de la Peña narrative as perhaps the best account of the dimly documented slaughter of Alamo defenders.

Five weeks of analysis convinced UT-Austin archivist David B. Gracey II. The document's physical characteristics, he said, are consistent with the 1830s-40s.

Besides, he said, no "credibly identified" forger has turned up.

Dr. Gracey's legitimization of the memoir highlighted a conference opening an exhibition that will display the de la Peña papers and other choice items under glass. The show runs through Oct. 14 at the UT Center for American History. Don't miss it.

Center director Don Carleton kept a cool hand on the controversy. As ringmaster, the builder of the center's monumental collection nodded at leading de la Peña skeptics without formally including them on the program.

Doubter Steve Harrigan was an exception. Author of the magnificent new novel Gates of the Alamo, his prose appeals to all sides.

Raising questions about the de la Peña papers before the gathering of more than 350 scholars, he was an agnostic lecturing a cathedral crowded with believers. Significantly, he had resisted use of de la Peña testimony in his book, a novel that strives for historical accuracy.

"There's something hauntingly not right about this document," he said.

"Like others, I'm troubled by its lack of provenance, and as a writer I'm puzzled by its shifting tone - now a first-person campaign memoir, now a clinically omniscient narrative that seems to suggest a strategic dependence on other accounts rather than on de la Peña's much vaunted personal experience."

He pegged it "an awkward blend of personal adventure and researched history."

The novelist referred to a fellow speaker, eloquent de la Peña champion and North Carolina State University historian James E. Crisp:

"Jim Crisp has referred to the obsessively detailed attack [researchers Bill] Groneman and [Thomas Ricks] Lindley have launched upon the de la Peña narrative as an 'attempted murder by a thousand cuts.'

"And reading all the commentary along with the narrative itself has left me with the feeling that though many of Groneman's and Lindley's thrusts have been effectively parried by the nimble Dr. Crisp, others have drawn blood.

"Neither Groneman nor Lindley are part of the official proceedings today, but they are present and assuredly full of opinions."

Be it said, the conference provided a couple of minutes at an open mike for Texas historian-New York City Fire Capt. Groneman (Defense of a Legend and Death of a Legend) and independent researcher Lindley of Austin.

Alluding to scientific findings, they both complained that they couldn't instantly respond to data that had been denied them until it was presented at the conference. Clearly, critics were frustrated. Novelist Harrigan felt they got short shrift. He commented that director Carelton understandably didn't want the conference to slide into endless argument.

Historian Stephen Hardin, who happily used de la Peña's testimony in his Texian Iliad: a Military History of the Texas Revolution, said, "The deck was stacked against Groneman and Lindley."

Dr. Hardin evoked Dr. Crisp's introduction to the 1997 edition of With Santa Anna in Texas, Carmen Perry's translation of the de la Peña memoir. Politically incorrect, the Mexican officer picked his allies poorly and ended up in prison.

Dr. Crisp wrote: "José Enrique de la Peña died in despair, crushed by his failure to make his voice of dissent heard in the land."

Dr. Hardin said, "Some voices were crushed today."

The day was a triumph for Dr. Crisp, who for years has defended the memoir's validity.

The incendiary document surfaced from nowhere in Mexico City in the 1950s. Texana collector and UT regent John Peace Jr., a San Antonio lawyer, bought it about 1974 for $5,000 from an antiquities dealer. Absence of provenance and pedigree has dogged the document ever since.

For nearly a quarter of a century, the de la Peña papers resided in the library at UT-San Antonio. After his father's death, San Antonio bookseller John Peace III said heirs decided to sell the memoir.

The memoir was snapped up at auction for $387,000 and some change by Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks of Dallas, a UT regent, and Charles W. Tate of Houston, president of Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst investments. They donated the document to the CAH.

UT grad Tate was present at the exhibition opening, beaming like a proud dad at a debutante's coming-out party. The exhibition is titled "To Whom Was This Sacrifice Useful?" - a question penned by de la Peña after his description of the killing of "High Private" Crockett and six other defenseless POWs.

Crockett had assembled a few followers before he crossed into Texas through Clarksville. Some may have been kinsmen. Ten or so of these volunteers rode with him from Nacogdoches to San Augustine. Others joined. They called themselves the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers. "Col." Crockett led 20 or so volunteers into the Alamo before it was besieged by Santa Anna's troops.

One may conjecture that if he tried to cut a deal after the Alamo fell, it was in hopes of saving his surviving men from pointless deaths. No one knows.

Here's Lt. Col. de la Peña's dramatic (overly dramatic?) account:

"Some seven men had survived the general carnage and under the protection of General (Manuel Fernandez) Castrillon, they were brought before Santa Anna. Among them was one of great stature, well proportioned, with regular features, in whose face there was the imprint of adversity, but in whom one also noticed a degree of resignation and nobility that did him honor.

"He was the naturalist David Crockett, well known in North America for his unusual adventures, who had undertaken to explore the country and who, finding himself in Bexar at the very moment of surprise, had taken refuge in the Alamo, fearing that his status as a foreigner might not be respected.

"Santa Anna answered Castrillon's intervention with a gesture of indignation and, addressing himself to the sappers, the troops closest to him, ordered his execution. . . ."

Novelist Harrigan said: "That he was killed is all we really know. And those who are heavily invested in the idea that Crockett went down fighting in the manner of Fess Parker or John Wayne will have to take it as an article of faith rather than an incontrovertible fact."

By Kent Biffle
© 2000, Dallas Morning News

Kent Biffle is a regular contributor to Texas & Southwest section of the Dallas Morning News. He can be e-mailed at