I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and that was the reason that some months ago I posted a column about America Unearthed that was mostly positive. Scott Wolter, the forensic geologist who is the host, had touched on some subjects with which I had a passing interest but no real in depth knowledge. He seemed to be interested in finding the truth and the story of the great wall in Texas, this massive thing that some believed had been built in ancient times by a race of giants, ended with his conclusion it was a bizarre natural formation. That seemed to suggest an unbiased look at these strange things he investigated.
But then he learned from a tipster that Davy Crockett hadn’t been killed at the Alamo, but survived for decades after that fight and had been granted land in Alabama by President James Buchanan. Well, the topic caught my interest and here was something with which I had a good working knowledge. I had researched the battle for a number of books and articles, have visited the Alamo twice, and knew about many of the controversies that surround it. Here was my chance to see exactly how careful his research was and how unbiased he really was.
A family in Alabama had a land grant, signed by a David Crockett and dated long after the Alamo fell. They believe that Crockett survived the battle and then a couple of decades later he was living in Alabama. In fact, they showed a newspaper article that suggested Crockett had survived the battle. And to increase the proof, they had some artifacts found on the land including a hunk of pottery and an arrowhead. They also had the story of some human bones found that were identified as human, but the bones were reinterred so that no DNA could be extracted and they had no idea if they were bones of a male or female.
My first reaction on seeing the land grant with Crockett’s signature on it was to wonder if they could compare it to real, known, authenticated signatures of Crockett. It would certainly be an easy and inexpensive way to end the story, which, of course, is not what they wanted to do because they had an hour to fill.
My second thought was to take a look at other newspaper articles published at the time of the battle… something that I had actually done as an assignment in graduate school. There are dozens of them suggesting that William Travis, one of the commanders had survived, that Jim Bowie survived and all sorts of various and inaccurate stories. A single newspaper clipping doesn’t change the historical perspective of the battle. But this isn’t questioned by Wolter; it seems to impress him greatly. I thought that maybe he should have taken a trip to a university library to look at some microfilm. He might not have been quite so impressed with a clipping that isn’t supported by stories in other newspapers.
Instead, he calls a local archaeologist with a backhoe (though I thought it was an excavator, but that would be splitting a hair) and ground penetrating radar to search a section of the farmland. I’m not sure how they determined what to check, but they found nothing more astonishing than a rock.
He also made a trip to San Antonio to show us what remains of the Alamo, or rather, the chapel. He didn’t show us any of the other structures that have survived, and he meets with a historian out in front of the chapel. He eventually tells him what he is investigating and then, to my horror, the historian said that he was a fan of the de la Pena diary (which they don’t bother to explain).
This was a diary written by Jose Enrique de la Pena, an officer with Santa Anna at the Alamo. In the diary, it is alleged that a number of the Texans surrendered at the end of the battle, only to be executed on orders of Santa Anna. Included in this number, according to the diary was Crockett. This diary, however, appeared in the 1950s with little or no provenance (which is the case we find with the MJ-12 documents, which is irrelevant here but I mention to drag some kind of paranormal or UFO aspect into this). I won’t go into the arguments about that here, but there is quite a trade in faked documents from the Texas War for Independence.
The one thing that never seems to be mentioned, even if the de la Pena diary is real is that someone inside the Alamo, thinking that Crockett’s name might save his life, lied about who he was. There is eyewitness testimony that Crockett was killed in the fighting, that his body was seen in the courtyard in front of the chapel, but I digress.
So, he talked to an expert historian who told him that Crockett had been killed in the battle, but finally got him to say that Crockett, as a Free Mason, might have given the signal of distress and therefore been allowed to escape. This is a farfetched theory but one Wolter is happy with so he travels to Minnesota to talk with a Mason to discuss some of this. He even takes the theory further suggesting that Santa Anna, identified throughout the program as a Mexican general but no mention that he was also the president of Mexico at the time, had made the same distress sign so that Sam Houston, leader of the Texas army, spared his life… no mention that Santa Anna was saved because he signed a document giving away Texas but let’s not let a little history get in the way of a good story.
Finally, we’re off to a place in Tennessee to interview a real, live, direct descendant of David Crockett. She told Wolter that Crockett preferred to be called David and signed everything as David rather than Davy… wow, some confirmation that maybe the land grant is real and Wolter overreacts to this relatively well known fact… but wait, she has copies of documents that Crockett had signed. As the program is about to end, we hear the results of the comparison of signatures. They had been given to a handwriting expert who declared they were signed by two different men… two different men named David Crockett. I hope that Wolter had concealed the date of the land grant to keep from contaminating the analysis, but we’re only told about the results, not shown anything about that analysis.
But no, the amateurs stand around and say that while the capital letters are different, the rest of the signature seems to match. They point out that a person’s handwriting and signature chance over time so that the two signatures might belong to one man. They mention that there is a story that Crockett had been shot in the arm, and if it was his right arm, then his handwriting might have been altered. Of course, this is assuming he was shot in the right arm and that he survived the battle, both of which are highly unlikely.
But then we learn that a man named David Crockett had lived in the area and had served first in the rebel army during the Civil War but changed sides. This, of course, couldn’t be the David Crockett of the Alamo because by the time the Civil War came about, Crockett would have been an extremely old man. It turns out that this man’s name was David Crockett with a surname that I’ve forgotten. David Crockett Crawley or something like that and they wonder why he didn’t use his last name. Who knows and there is no one to ask at the point which is actually not all that important.
In the end, we’re left with the real possibility that the man who signed the land grant was the David Crockett who “allegedly” died at the Alamo. They have no evidence of this, the signatures, according to the expert do not match, and the story is at odds with everything that we know… but they still think there is a possibility that Crockett had survived to live in Alabama.
This then, tells me all I really need to know about this program. I could have conducted the research from home using a computer and a scanner… scan the land grant signature and have it emailed, then compare it to known Crockett signatures. Drive over to the university library and look at the microfilm collection of newspapers from 1836 to see all the various rumors that were printed. Call the history library at the Alamo and talk to them about the idea that Crockett survived the battle. All done from home for a buck and a half (which is the cost of the gas if the university is close enough) but then that doesn’t make for dynamic television even if the story is a crock (yeah, I used that term on purpose).
Anyway, TV shows are all about ratings and if the show hadn’t been about Crockett, I wouldn’t have watched it. This one sucked me in, but then, I could see all the padding to make it an hour long, I could see where it slipped badly off the rails, and I knew what the historical errors were. There wasn’t new history here, or alternative history, just poor research and a desire to “set the record straight.” Too bad all they did was clutter it up with irrelevancies, half-truths and faulty research.