Sunday, November 23, 2014

America Unearthed and Davy Crockett Survives the Alamo

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.


Terry the Censor said...

I hereby welcome all the nutty Wolter apologists to the comments section.

Fan of History said...

I enjoy the show, as I do pick up many things unknown to me. However, I do agree with some of the criticisms leveled at the suppositions. Very few of the unearthed shows result in different conclusions compared to known or perceived history of the topics.
That being said, I truly really enjoy the show and topics presented, not only for the background, but as just plain old entertainment.

Sarge said...

I often wonder about some of these "reality" shows that claim to research anything.
All too often we see the program's main character demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge of even the basics of research that would be normal in the area being looked at.
There was a program this weekend on a man researching all the reports of "Giant" skeletons found across the country. Then in each case where they looked at a site there was not even the basics of archeological procedures in use.
If they had seen an episode of Time Team it would have helped. said...

I recommend watching one of those 'behind the scenes' shows, like the one I watched recently about the Finding Bigfoot series.

It was really a 'howto' on making a 'reality' TV show. Basically, you start with a narrative (a script, without dialog), then shoot scenes to match, then stitch it all together in post production.

Even 'real' documentaries work like this. After all the shooting is finished, everything is 'known', and the 'unknowns' can be dealt with accordingly.

Kevin, using the same procedure as outlined in your example, one could show that Hitler is alive in an Antarctic bunker, and Saddam is living in the jungles of Paraguay*.

Scott Wolter is an expert on rocks, but not the kind in his producers heads.

I gotta go...

* or is it the other way around? said...


Thankfully, we have an endless supply of quotation marks to use when discussing these "researchers".

Believability is inversely proportional to the square of the number of 'quotes' used.

Sadly, when a person of reasonable intelligence asks: "Why didn't they do thus and so?", or "Why did they do that? then it's time to switch channels :)

IRRC, mechanical excavators aren't used very often in real archeology, as quite a lot of damage can result to artifacts. Maybe a geologist looking for rocks.....

I gotta go...

Tim Hebert said...

Kevin, grew up in Texas and heard all the variations of what happened at the Alamo and who survived, etc.

The last that I had read on the subject was that Crockett had survived, but was executed, again this may have come about from the diary that you mentioned.

I enjoyed the post!

Candle Snuffer said...

Enjoyed the show to the extent of "what if" but found no real truth to the story at all of Crockett surviving the battle of the Alamo...

I think the following episode of the giant Indian speaks for the validity of this guys findings about Crockett.

Reality shows are full of fools and "what if's"

iowapilot said...

Agree with the above comments. I do enjoy watching a few of these show; however, I'm not so naive to believe that these shows aren't staged for entertainment value. Only reality shows I know of are Cops and Alaskan State Troopers. Correct me if I'm wrong.

David Schroeder said...

I just watched the Davy Crockett Survives the Alamo episode on America Unearthed. At the very end they compare the handwriting of the David Crockett who signed the land deed in Alabama, and Davy Crockett's signature from 30 years earlier. The first letter "D" was radically different between the two signatures, and there were clear variations in how other letters in the name were drawn. So, out of curiosity, since my first name happens also to be David, I compared my signature from a ledger in 1972 to one from this year (2015); or 43 years later. Amazingly, they were virtually identical, right down to the smallest detail, especially the first letter "D". I have no doubt in my mind, therefore, that the handwriting expert on the show derived the correct conclusion.

The Great Speckled Bird said...

I love the show.sure it might not be all fact and lots of suppositions but I just googled Davy Crockett signatures and found several that matched the "land claim" more so than the supposed authentic signature. My signature has changed incredible from my 20's to my 50's so I think that could be an issue. My last blast is about American history overall, there are many "facts" that just aren't true. The Americans brag about how they won the 1st and 2nd world wars,but fail to mention that the British, Canadiansand Russians were fighting against the Germans and their Allies before the Americans finally got involved. Americans also claimed that the War of 1812 was more of a draw than a win by either side. Funny since the British/Canadians managed to burn the original White House to the ground and fought the Americans all the way down to The Gulf of Mexico. That sounds like a pretty decent beating to me. So stick those facts in your pipes and smoke them!!

steveareno said...

I just recently watched the show with interest. As was the author of this article I was drawn in by the Crockett topic. While not scientific but anecdotal it was interesting. Certainly not proving anything but still bringing out some odd details. Having family from Lawrence county Tn which also boasts of a Crockett history I found this interesting. I must say in the last 43 years my signature has changed. In fact my S's have changed entirely and that helps me to believe the bulk of Crockett signature matched between what was known to be authentic and the land grant. The dispute between Crockett and Jackson was well known so there could be something to that part as well. I do wonder if there is any documentation where the Land grant was created to substantiate this. It was interesting the visit with the known family member as they could have done more to explain that was supposed to be his home or a reasonable likeness.

KRandle said...

I believe from the evidence of history, Crockett died at the Alamo. Sue Dickinson reported seeing his body as she was escorted from the Alamo by Mexican soldiers. Santa Anna asked to see the body of Crockett, Travis and Bowie and there are no indications that Crockett was missing from the dead. Having someone with the same name appeared years after Crockett died is no real mystery... If we googled David Crockett today, how many would we find?

I was interested in the show because of the connection to Crockett but I found nothing in the evidence presented to be compelling.