Did Davy Crockett Really Die a Hero’s Death at the Alamo?
Remember the Alamo?
That’s not a battle cry. It’s a legitimate question. If you dozed off during high school history class (like me), you might only have only a vague idea of this pivotal moment in the Texas Revolution.
Let me sum up two weeks’ worth of lessons in one sentence: in the Battle of the Alamo, the Mexican Army opened a serious can of whoop-ass on a bunch of outnumbered Americans, killing everyone — including a famous knife inventor and a Kentucky frontier dude in a coonskin hat — after a long and hard-fought siege. There were some things that happened before and after this, but that’s the gist of it.
Let’s talk about that coonskin-wearing Kentuckian.
You may have heard of him: Davy Crockett, the “King of the Wild Frontier,” which is not a real royal title. Even though he’s reached American pop culture folk-hero status, like Paul Bunyan and John Henry, Davy Crockett was an actual person, unlike Paul Bunyan and John Henry. He lived from 1786 to 1836. Remember that end date — it’ll be important.
Young Davy Crockett
Davy Crockett spent his youth playing hooky from school and being an indentured laborer to pay off his father’s debt. Fun times. He grew up to be a frontiersman, soldier, and politician — he was once a member of the Tennessee General Assembly, and the representative of Tennessee in the United States House of Representatives, despite his lack of education.
And he did it all while wearing a homemade hat made from the hide of a raccoon. Davy Crockett was a fashionista and a trendsetter!
Aside from his hat style, Davy Crockett is best remembered for dying. Thanks to Disney’s 1955 mini-series, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, starring Fess Parker, and the 1960 John Wayne movie The Alamo, Davy Crockett’s final moments of life paint him as brave, unyielding, and fierce.
“The Mexicans rush upon Crockett and his remnant. The keen, death-dealing ‘Betsy’ ahs spoken for the last time; the old frontiersman has it clasped by the barrel now. Swinging this iron war club he stands at bay, disdaining surrender. The Mexicans are piled before him in heaps, but numbers tell. They swarm about him; they leap upon him like hounds upon a great stag; they pull him down, bury their bayonets in his great heart, spurn him, trample upon him, spit upon him — so he makes a fine end.”Cyrus Townsend Brady, Golden West
According to Hollywood, Davy Crockett went down swinging; that is, literally swinging the butt-end of his trusty rifle, Old Betsy (guys in the Old West named their guns, just like blues musicians name their guitars, apparently), and swinging his Bowie knife, which he got from his buddy, Jim Bowie, the guy that invented the Bowie knife and another guy who died at the Alamo. Davy Crockett was a freakin’ hero.
But is that really how it all went down?
Maybe. I mean, I wasn’t there. But we do have first-hand accounts from people who were there (surprise!) and many of these stories tell a different version of events that cast our hero in a less-that-heroic light. Surprise again! A few of these stories even claim Davy Crockett wasn’t killed at the Alamo at all.
It may be contentious, but there is some suggestion that Crockett didn’t die the way it’s remembered in history books that fateful day in March 1836.
“Valid documentation survives, however, to support the view that he did not fall surrounded by mounds of the slain enemy, but that he either surrendered or was captured near the end of the assault and was immediately killed by Santa Anna’s order,” wrote Dan Kilgore in How Did Davy Die? And Why Do We Care So Much? “Published references indicating that Crockett surrendered have drawn loud protests from both the press and an irate public throughout the years.”
Related read: 8 Murderous Facts about John Wesley Hardin
Fun fact: the Alamo, located in San Antonio, Texas, was originally a Spanish mission — a large, impenetrable, brick mission — but during the Texas Revolution, Texans converted it into a fort. Good thinking, they thought, since it was so large, impenetrable, and bricky.
It seemed impenetrable, but on February 23, 1836, General Santa Ana and his 1,500-men strong Mexican Army laid siege to the Alamo. Inside were the Texan rebels — Davy Crockett and about 188 other men. Now, my math is a little rusty, but those odds weren’t ever in their favor.
Those Texans were a scrappy bunch. Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and the rest of them held off the Mexicans for thirteen days. But things went south on March 6, when the Mexican Army finally breached the no-longer impenetrable brick walls and overpowered the Americans.
“In the hand-to-hand fighting, the Texans, unable to reload rifles and pistols, used them as clubs; they cut with knives and swords, grappled bare-handed,” wrote J. Frank Dobie in Frontier Times. “Crockett was still defending the picket stockade when he fell.”
At the end of the day, hundreds of men lay dead: some 189 to 257 of the Americans (supposedly all of them), and an estimated 600 Mexican soldiers.
Related read: 10 Famous Guns of the Old West, from Revolvers to Rifles
The Death of Davy Crockett
The exact details of Davy Crockett’s death, however, are unknown.
There are three popular theories to explain what happened to him. The first is that he died fighting in the battle. The second is that he surrendered like a coward and was immediately executed, and the third is that he was captured and marched out of the Alamo — very much alive.
Several witnesses to the event claim they saw Davy Crockett among the dead. One of them was an African American former slave named Ben. Ben was the personal cook of one of Santa Ana’s top men. He reported that he saw the body of Davy Crockett surrounded by the corpses of a dozen and a half enemy soldiers that he killed as he died. Ben’s story was widely circulated in U.S. newspapers and helped establish Davy Crockett’s posthumous reputation as a bad-ass defender of the Alamo.
Ben’s tale is supported by accounts of Mexican soldiers who reported seeing a body that resembled Crockett among the fallen defenders. Two other Alamo survivors told similar stories, including an American officer’s wife, Susanna Dickinson, and another former slave named Joe who was employed by General William Travis.
Related read: 7 Facts about Johnny Ringo You Won’t Learn from Movies
A Texas Plot Twist
In 1955, a diary written by Colonel Jose Enrique de la Pena, a member of Santa Ana’s army, surfaced. In it, he wrote that Davy Crockett surrendered to the Mexicans during the heat of the battle and begged for mercy.
He was brought before Santa Ana, where he pleaded for his life. Santa Ana ordered him to be executed on the spot. Naturally, the authenticity of the diary was questioned, and the timing of its discovery was sus: it coincided with the release of Disney’s mini-series, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.
Were the Mexicans so angered that Disney was making a hero out of Davy Crockett that they either wanted to reveal the truth about him, or besmudge his name by speaking ill of the dead? Or was Davy Crockett more cowardly than we think?
In a letter written by George M. Dolson to his brother in September 1836, we get an inkling that something else may have happened. This letter mentions a secret meeting between Dolson, an interpreter named Mexican Colonel Juan N. Almonte, and American Colonel James Morgan that took place on Galveston Island.
At this meeting, Dolson learned that Davy Crockett and five others were captured alive at the Alamo and marched out of the fort. Six days later, all of them were executed by firing squad on order of Santa Ana.
Fernando Urissa, a Mexican Army officer wounded in the fighting of the Alamo, was treated by Dr. Nicholas Labadie. Labadie, in a clear HIPAA violation, kept a journal and named names, wrote down what Urissa told him: that the Mexican Army captured a man named “Coket” who was taken away from the Alamo.
Could it be that Davy Crockett didn’t die at the Alamo, but was executed at a different location? Maybe, but most historians pooh-pooh this notion.
The Mystery of Davy Crockett’s Death
What happened to Davy Crockett? He died. No one disagrees with this.
It is the finer details that have been questioned. Did he die like Hollywood wants us to think — as a heroic and tenacious fighter who cut down dozens of enemy soldiers before he finally succumbed himself?
Or did he surrender and try to beg for his life, only to be executed on the spot? And the craziest theory of all: that Davy Crockett was captured, removed from the Alamo, and executed a few days later.
We’ll never know for sure, but we do know Crockett was instrumental in the 13 days at the Battle of the Alamo despite the eventual fall of the historic mission.
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References & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints and angles when possible.
- Burrough, B., Tomlinson, C., & Stanford, J. (2022). Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. The Penguin Press.
- Crisp, J. E. (2005). Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett’s Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution. Oxford Univ. Press.
- Crockett, D. (2010). King of the Wild Frontier: An Autobiography. Dover Publications.
- Donovan, J. (2013). The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo – and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation. Back Bay Books.
- Kilgore, D., Crisp, J. E., & Kilgore, D. (2010). How Did Davy Die? And Why Do We Care So Much? Texas A & M University Press.
- Kilmeade, B. (2019). Sam Houston and the Alamo Avengers: The Texas Victory That Changed American History. Sentinel.
by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.