What Really Happened at the Alamo?


Mexican immigrants and new awareness among Native Americans have brought new perspectives to Texas’ War for Independence, especially regarding the Alamo.

The traditional Texas perspective holds that the revolution was an attempt to replace Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s dictatorship with democracy. The Mexican perspective is that slave owners from the United States were trying to open Texas to slavery and to annex it as a state. The Native American perspective is that two imperialist powers were fighting over land they had taken from the indigenous peoples.

Don Carleton: A Kernel of Truth

“There’s a kernel of truth in all these,” said Don E. Carleton, director of the Center of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

He called the history of the Alamo and Texas independence one of three “radioactive issues” with which the historian must contend. The others are slavery and its role in the Civil War, and the white man’s dealings with Native Americans.

The Pena Perspective

One of the more obnoxious perspectives, in the eyes of many Texans, is Col. Jose Enrique de la Peña’s purported eye-witness account of the way Davey Crockett and other heroes of the Alamo met their deaths.

According to Peña, Crockett did not die swinging his rifle, “Old Betsy” at Mexican soldiers who overran the fortified mission; he was capture, tortured, and executed on the orders of Mexican dictator Santa Anna. Peña described seven men who were brought before the Mexican dictator after the fall of the Alamo. He identified one of them as “the American naturalist,” Davy Crockett.

Peña wrote that the general in charge of the captives pleaded with Santa Anna to spare the captives’ lives since they had fought courageously and honorably.

Santa Anna ordered them tortured to death immediately, according to Peña. The Mexican officer said the Texans endured their deaths honorably.

Authentic or Fake?

Bill Groneman, author of several books on the Alamo, wrote that the Peña account “bears many indications of being a clever fake” (Eye Witness to the Alamo, Republic of Texas Press, 1996). But James Crisp, Texas-born history professor at North Carolina State University, studied the account and concluded that it was genuine.

Dan Rather Gets Involved

Crisp has written a book, Sleuthing the Alamo, in which he cites the Peña account. Garry Wills, historian and critic, took Crisp’s side and as a result tangled briefly with Dan Rather, Texas-born legend of broadcast journalism. Rather wrote, in a letter to editor of The New York Times Book Review: “Mr. Wills . . . relies secondhand on eyewitnesses testimony from a Mexican Army officer who, of all people, would have had most to gain by discrediting the defenders of the Alamo.”

Garry Wills Responds

Wills responded that Peña did not, in fact, discredit the Alamo defenders but expressed admiration for their conduct. And Peña was critical of Santa Anna’s actions.

In 1837, as Mexican generals were engaged in acrimonious debate over who bore the blame for losing Texas, Peña said, as quoted by Crisp: “I am a pygmy who is going into combat with giants; but having reason on my side, I expect to come out victorious.”

The jury is still out on the pygmy versus the giant. As Carleton told his interviewer: “I don’t know that there is a true story. The fog of battle is pretty thick when it comes to the Alamo.”