Ayoob Files Davy Crockett’s Shootings


Situation: Vastly outnumbered in a battle to the death, you use your signature firearm and the skills you’ve developed with it.

Lesson: Others may remember your last fight differently. Ensconced defenders have some advantages over invaders. And if you have to die early, at least die bravely.

I am a “boomer” whose childhood centered on the 1950s, in the middle of which Walt Disney captivated us, little boys, with his multi-part rendition of the story of Davy Crockett. We cajoled our parents into buying us coonskin caps (an estimated hundred million bucks worth). We played “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” a doomed hero fighting to the end for freedom and going down clubbing enemy invaders with our empty rifles. And, if you watch the Disney version carefully, sinking our knife icepick-style into the chest of one of them at the last minute.

We are a nation that does not treat its heroes well. Someone always wants to depict them as having feet of clay. So it was with David Crockett. Some historians have noted the man preferred to be called “David” and implied it was the Disney stuff that popularized “Davy.” You could even make a couplet out of it:

Davy Crockett died at the Alamo, but revisionists brought his good name low.

The Man, The Myth

Crockett was a justly famous frontiersman before he got to the Alamo. He had been elected to Congress … and then not re-elected. He had been a close friend of a President, Andrew Jackson … and had then fallen out of favor with him. Many saw his trip to Texas as an attempt to re-invent himself, as we’d say today, and there is reason to believe this was true of many who died at the old Texas mission, even of the Texas rebels’ leader Sam Houston.

I’ve found no harsher revisionists than Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford, the authors of Forget the Alamo: the Rise and Fall of an American Myth. They describe the three most famous Alamo martyrs thus: “Bowie was a murderer, slaver, and con man; Travis was a pompous, racist agitator and syphilitic lech; and Crockett was a self-promoting old fool who was a captive of his own myth.” (1)

As to Crockett, even his harshest critics admit he was a charming man with a way with words, one of the best marksmen of his time, and an extremely successful hunter. It seems uncontested he killed three figures worth of bears, primarily for their meat.

During his service with the Tennessee Militia in the Indian Wars, one of Crockett’s main contributions was shooting meat to feed the troops, who were often on the edge of starvation. According to the popular site Mental Floss, “Midway through his state assembly career, he received ‘Old Betsy,’ a .40-caliber flintlock presented to him by his Lawrence County constituents in 1822. Today, it’s in the Alamo Museum in San Antonio. During the 1830s, the Whig Society of Philadelphia gave Crockett a gold-and-silver-coated gun. Her name? ‘Fancy Betsy.’ If you’re curious, the mysterious woman after whom these weapons were christened was either his oldest sister or his second wife, Elizabeth Patton.” (2)

Crockett’s skillful riflery fed the troops, but there is some question about what else he did with a gun in his hands during that period.

The Dark Side of Crockett

In the Tennessee Militia and serving under then-General Andrew Jackson, Crockett engaged with the Red Stick Creek Indians more than once, but most notoriously at the Battle of Tallushatchee in 1813. Jackson’s forces under General John Coffee had surrounded an Indian village. Crockett was quoted as saying, “We shot ’em down like dogs.”

Richard Call, a participant in the battle, later wrote: “It was a horrible and revolting scene — the battle had ended in the village, the warriors fighting in their board houses, which gave little protection against the rifle bullets or musket ball. They fought amid their wives and children, who frequently shared their bloody fate.… We found as many as eight or 10 dead bodies in a single cabin, sometimes the dead mother clasped the dead child to her breast, and to add another appalling horror to the bloody catalogue — some of the cabins had taken fire, and half consumed human bodies were seen amidst the smoking ruins.” (3)

The saying goes, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” Those dueling perspectives were in place during the Indian war and indeed also decades later at the Alamo. One reason the Texans wanted independence from Mexico was that they sought the prosperity of Southern-style cotton plantations, which were only economically viable with slave labor at the time. Thus, the defenders of the Alamo were seen as being on the side of slavery, while the Mexican government and Santa Anna strongly opposed it. After the Alamo fell, history shows that Santa Anna did free the handful of African-American slaves who had been within its walls.

Being on the side of a force that had killed women and children was certainly not a feather in Crockett’s coonskin cap. However, it should be noted that many years later, Crockett took the side of Native Americans, even though he knew it would likely cost him his political career. He publicly spoke out against Andrew Jackson, then president of the United States, and Jackson’s plan to force native Americans of the Southeast to abandon their homeland and be sent to reservations in Oklahoma. This opposition turned the President against Crockett, and Jackson used his influence to prevent Crockett’s re-election to Congress. It was after this defeat that Crockett uttered his most famous and perhaps most fateful words:

“You all may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.”

Crockett Finds Hell

General Santa Anna had the Alamo defenders at a monstrous disadvantage. Estimates of the size of the Mexican force vary wildly. I’ve heard as many as 6,000 and as few as 1,800. Even that smallest estimate vastly exceeds the mission complex’s 185 to 188 known defenders.

One reason the siege lasted for 13 days is that while the Mexicans were armed with smoothbore muskets, the armament of the Texians and Tennesseans leaned heavily toward rifles, giving them a tremendous accuracy and distance advantage. Attempting to cross open ground to reach the walls, Santa Anna’s troops were cut down by defenders who often had three or four pre-loaded rifles and were shooting from behind cover. It is no wonder Crockett’s side was initially able to drive superior forces into retreat.

Military strategists widely believe Santa Anna ordered the final attack in pre-dawn darkness to minimize the riflemen’s ability to aim and hit his troops. According to lore, early in the siege, Crockett spotted Santa Anna at his own front lines, carefully braced Betsy, and squeezed off a shot that tore the Mexican leader’s epaulet from his shoulder. Some say another of the defenders fired that shot, and others say it never happened at all. We are left to believe what we will.

The Mexicans had gathered intelligence and knew a famous American sharpshooter was inside those walls. Decades later, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse during the American Civil War, Union General John Sedgwick rode his horse to the edge of the battlefield and into history when he noticed puffs of gunsmoke from the Confederate lines hundreds of yards away. He entered the book of Famous Last Words with the contemptuous statement, “Those idiots! They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist —”

Sedgwick’s last word was cut off between syllables when a bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly. The Confederates had been shooting rifles, not muskets. So, yes, the story of Crockett’s shot at Santa Anna is believable

The End of Travis & Bowie

Let us look at the three most famous icons of the Alamo: William Barret Travis, Jim Bowie and David Crockett. All were killed in the last attack on March 6, 1836. There are a couple of versions of Travis’ death, but most historians seem content to take the word of Travis’ slave, Joe (no last name). He claimed the 26-year-old Travis fired a shotgun blast, almost certainly killing a Mexican soldier and was then almost immediately struck in the forehead by a fatal musket ball.

James Bowie, famous for his knife and his resilience and courage in lethal duels, almost certainly was bayonetted in his sick bed. By all accounts, he was about 40 years of age, in extremis, and probably dying from typhoid, pneumonia, or a combination of the two. While at least one historian theorizes he was too weak to do anything but helplessly die, most do not contest the most popular account, in which he took three of the enemy with him. Two would have fallen from the brace of single-shot pistols he dual-wielded, the last from the namesake knife.

Why not shoot him in his bed? From both sides, every account of the final battle points out that once their single-shot weapons had been discharged, no one was standing around shoving ramrods into their muzzle-loaders. In the final fury, it had become a contact weapon melee, with swords and bayonets on one side and knives, the occasional sword, and clubbed rifles on the other in hand-to-hand combat.

Many Deaths Of Davy

Between the movies and the actual accounts of survivors, there are many versions of David Crockett’s last moments. Let us count them up.
The Disney Version. Crockett, by all accounts, was among the last to fall. In this, he is the last, swinging his clubbed, empty rifle after shooting many of the enemy and stabbing at least one. This account derives from Susannah Dickinson, the widow of one of the slain Alamo defenders Santa Anna spared after her capture.

Sixteen Dead. In many accounts, Crockett is found dead amidst a pile of dead Mexican soldiers. The number “sixteen” is often mentioned. In one variation, Crockett has somehow amassed 16 rifles and muskets, all pre-loaded, and kills an advancing enemy with each of them as he makes his doomed last stand. This is not as implausible as it sounds. There are other accounts of Alamo defenders staging multiple loaded single-shot guns at their firing points when they repelled earlier assaults on the makeshift fortress.

Shortly after the battle, one newspaper reported: “David Crockett (now rendered immortal in glory) had fortified himself with sixteen guns well charged, and a monument of [the] slain encompassed his lifeless body.” (4)

Supporting this theory is another contemporary account reported by writer Jim Motavalli, who tells us:

“(T)here are also other Mexican eyewitness accounts that say Crockett died fighting. Sergeant Felix Nunez was interviewed in 1889 (when he was 84), and he says he saw ‘a tall American of rather dark complexion (who) had on a long cuera (buckskin coat) and a round cap without any bill, and made of fox skin, with the long tail hanging down his back.’ Nunez said, ‘This man apparently had a charmed life.’ Every soldier was aiming for him, but all missed. ‘On the contrary, (Crockett) never missed a shot. He killed at least eight of our men besides wounding several others.’ A lieutenant finally took down Crockett with a sword in this account, ‘and in an instant, he was pierced by not less than 20 bayonets.’” (5)

Blowing Up The Armory. In John Wayne’s movie version, Wayne as Crockett is mortally wounded by a Mexican lancer; he clubs away from him with a flaming torch then staggers into the armory with the torch and blows it up. No one seriously believes Crockett died this way, and we don’t even know if the late actor/producer believed that. Some believe another Alamo defender named Robert Evans did throw a blazing torch into the armory, but if he did, it did nothing to change the outcome.

Captured And Executed. Long after the Battle for the Alamo, a document surfaced purporting to be the memoirs of a Mexican officer, Jose Enrique de la Peña. Peña claimed Crockett was one of a handful of survivors who were captured alive and brought before Santa Anna. Peña wrote that he and other officers begged Santa Anna to spare their lives, but the latter refused, and then junior officers eager to impress their leader rushed forward and stabbed the prisoners with swords and bayonets.

According to the de la Peña manuscript, Crockett and the others faced their death stoically and with dignity. The de la Peña manuscript has been highly debated, compared with known samples of the Mexican officer’s handwriting, and its paper and ink scientifically tested — with conflicting results as to authenticity.


Document, document, document. Had security cameras, bodycams and such been available in 1836, historians wouldn’t be debating nearly as much about who died and how. If anyone inside the garrison kept a journal daily, it apparently hasn’t survived. As you’ve noted, the recollections of the survivors vary wildly. Such is the nature of eyewitness testimony.

Later accounts of an incident may involve wild speculation. For example, did a defender named Robert Evans blow up the armory with a torch? Did David Crockett? Did anyone?

Changing social values may alter the lenses through which your actions are seen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna saw the Texian rebels as unscrupulous wanna-be slave-holders motivated by greed and disloyal to their nation, Mexico. The Texans and Tennesseans saw themselves as fighters for freedom.

Individual values can also change. Crockett was proud to be an “Indian fighter” in his younger days. By his death at age 49, he had become an advocate for the native Americans he’d fought, knowing he would suffer professionally for it.

As a footnote to that, when a nut case attempted to assassinate President Jackson and his pistols misfired, then-Congressman David Crockett was one of those who leaped forward to help restrain the lunatic. Crockett would say later, “I wanted to see the damndest (sic) villain in the world, and now I have seen him.” (6) We don’t know if Jackson remembered this when he targeted Crockett for defeat after Crockett opposed him on the native American resettlement issue.

Note the inherent advantages of the ensconced defender position. Just as assessments of the strength of the Mexican forces at the Alamo vary widely, so do casualty counts. One historian claimed that by the time the last of the defenders had fallen, they had accounted for 8.5 of the enemy apiece. Various sources put the Mexican deaths from a low of 600 to as many as 2,000, not counting wounded soldiers.

Approaching across a broad, flat plain with no cover, the unarmored soldiers were easy meat for skilled riflemen, an appellation that fits Texans and Tennesseans of the time alike. Let’s remember “rifles versus muskets.” Each of the defenders could stage as many loaded single-shot guns within reach as he could find; their opponents couldn’t very well pause to recharge their muzzle loaders while in the open under murderous fire nor carry additional heavy muskets.

The translation for home defenders today is obvious: Ensconce behind cover and wait, ready to shoot at the portal or hallway through which you know the invader must come. If the Alamo’s defenders had instead cried, “Castle doctrine! Let’s kick open the gates and go out there and hunt down those darn soldiers,” they would have all been slaughtered muy pronto.

Familiarity with guns beforehand makes better gunfighters. The native Texians and their allies from Tennessee came from times and places where men grew up shooting to feed their families, and delivering deadly accuracy was second nature to them. So, of course, was safe handling and target identification.
The opposite appears to be true of Santa Anna’s soldiers in this battle, with many deaths by “friendly fire.” We find this in de la Peña’s account: “Our soldiers, some stimulated by courage and others by fury, burst into the quarters where the enemy had entrenched themselves, from which issued an infernal fire. Behind these came others who, nearing the doors and blind with fury and smoke, fired their shots against friends and enemies alike, and in this way, our losses were most grievous … one was as likely to die by a friendly hand as by an enemy’s.” (7) There are no such reports of fratricidal killing on the Texians’ side.

In the end, whatever one’s political identity and beliefs, one must concede Crockett died like a Man with a capital M. He and his companions were up against worse odds than that other David versus that Goliath fellow, but even in de la Peña’s account, Crockett and the others died bravely. They may not necessarily have shown us how to die — to me, Nelson Rockefeller is a more desirable role model for that — but they showed us how to face death for a cause they believed in.

References:(1) Burrough, Bryan; Tomlinson, Chris; Stanford, Jason: Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, Penguin Books, 2021, page 140. (2) MentalFloss.com/article/67163/facts-about-davy-crockett. (3) Wikipedia, the Battle of Tallushatchee. (4) May 17, 1836, Richmond Enquirer. (5) Motavalli, Jim: The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Legends, Gibbs Smith publisher, Layton, UT. 2019. (6) Groneman, William III, David Crockett, Hero of the Common Man, Doherty Associates, NY, 2005. (7) Burrough, Tomlinson, Stanford, op. cit., page 121.

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