Readers, William C. Davis is here to talk to us about his book Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie and William Barret Travis, all three of whom died in the Alamo on March 6, 1836.
Davis is a professor of history at Virginia Tech and Director of Programs at that school’s Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, and has written many non-fiction books about historical figures and events.
I loved Three Roads to the Alamo; it is detailed, balanced and informative and I urge interested persons to pick up a copy.
Good job Mr. Davis, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Question–Why do so many Alamo authors/historians criticize Travis, Crockett and Bowie, accusing them of not really being heroic and being flawed people; for instance, that Travis came to Texas fleeing from debt, leaving his wife and son behind?
Davis–I can’t answer that for all historians. Many, I think give in to the notion that in order to be a hero, someone must be perfect in all respects, and live up to the standards and ethical-moral expectations of our day, not just their own. That is virtually impossible.
Judging people of the 1830s by the standards of the 2000s is just foolish, and self-defeating. Yes they were all flawed. Travis was a lousy husband and skipped out of Alabama to evade debt. Bowie was a compulsive white collar criminal with his land frauds.
Crockett was another lousy husband, and pretty much irresponsible throughout. But such are the sort of men and women who built America.
Davis–Travis was not explicit. As I recall, there were hints of a possible romantic flirtation (between his wife) with another man or men, but that story appeared well after the fact as I recall. I suspect his habitual insolvency did not help, and it does seem that he had an impulsive nature that may not have helped.
Q–Travis’s critics say he left due to debts he couldn’t pay, but you point out Travis did pay the debts when his law practice became prosperous in Texas. Is that correct?
Davis–Yes, that is correct. As I recall, he finally retired all of his old Alabama debts before his death.
Q–As you say, nobody knows how or where Crockett died in the Alamo compound. Do you have an opinion?
Even if they were still there on March 6, however, that does not tell us where he died. The possibility has to be considered that he was taken alive and then executed, but that is only a theoretical possibility.
Q–A Mexican officer supposedly left a diary in which he wrote Crockett (or somebody in a coonskin hat) was captured and executed. Is this diary authentic? What do you think about it?
Davis–José de la Peña wrote a memoir in diary form some time after the Texas campaign. I believe the document is authentic, but that does not mean it is accurate, or that de la Peña actually witnessed everything he wrote about.
There were already stories in the press about Crocket being taken alive and executed, and he could certainly have incorporated one of the stories into his narrative. This was commonplace for supposed memoirs and even “diaries” in the era.
Q–What previously undiscovered information did you find in the Mexican archives? I understand you were the first author/historian allowed access.
Davis–I think I may have been the first since Eugene Barker back in the 1920s or thereabouts. I found Mexican inventories of weapons and munitions captured in the Alamo, so we know now what the Texians were armed with—and they were well armed indeed.
There were also Mexican hospital reports totaling the numbers of dead and wounded, which had been wildly exaggerated previously.
And the reports by Mexican dragoon officers of the breakout attempts by two or three parties of Texians had been little mentioned previously, but now we have a good bit of detail on how the very last defenders died.
Q–Reading the book, I felt you admired and were fond of Crockett and Travis. Is this true?
Davis–I came to admire all three of them. Bowie was to me the most interesting and most complex.
I liked watching Travis grow up from the feckless youngster in Alabama, to the budding attorney and politician (he became) in Texas.
Crockett, for all is failings, was irresistibly interesting and entertaining.
Q–Some historians have charged David was not really a frontiersman, but a politician, so I was surprised reading the book that David (and his family) really were typical frontiersman, they embodied the typical American experience.
David’s grandparents were killed by Indians, his father fought in the American revolution and David was an avid hunter (eighty bears in one hunting season!) who typically moved up and down the frontier. Correct?
Davis–I don’t remember about the 80 bears in a season, but in all other respects Crockett was a typical poor white frontiersman, ever on the move looking for better and cheaper land, and never content to stay put on it or work it consistently.
He became a politician, of course, though not a very sophisticated one, and was a bit out of his depth in Washington.
Q–Why did the three men you wrote about venture their lives at the Alamo (and for Texas independence generally). They didn’t have to do it.
Davis–None of them went to the Alamo to die, nor did any of the other 200 or so there. They all wanted and expected to live, and up until the end they were hoping for an anticipated reinforcement that would lift the siege.
Texian independence promised all of them a fresh start, as in the case of Crockett who hoped to rekindle his political career there, or a continuation of current prosperity as with Bowie, who saw great potential for land deals.
As for Travis, he was the only state-builder of the three, and he saw creating a new nation to be worth the risk.
Q–A friend of Travis sketched him a few months before the Alamo battle; our one likeness. Do you believe it looks like Travis?
Davis–It is the only likeness we have, so we’re stuck with it. It does superficially resemble a description of Travis left by one who knew him, but that’s all we can say.
Q–Bowie was a scoundrel, but he also fought for Texas. What do you make of this contradiction? He sold fake land grants, yet seemed like a courageous man.
Davis–He was a very courageous man. Again, we need to stop expecting our heroes to be cardboard cutouts from comic books.
They were all complex. I see no contradiction in Bowie being a land fraudster and being a Texian patriot. After all, if Texas succeeded, he stood to profit enormously by continuing his schemes.
All patriotism is a bit intermixed with self-interest.
Q–For years, historians have claimed Sam Houston ordered Travis and company blow up the Alamo and retreat. But you say Houston did not order that but suggested it would be a good idea, and Provisional Governor Henry Smith ordered the Texas Army (in which Travis was an officer) to hold the fortress. How did historians make this mistake?
Davis–Carelessness, to which we are all heir occasionally.
Q–Do you believe the Texas Revolution would have ended differently if the Alamo defenders (and the men at Goliad) had not been massacred?
Davis–I’m not keen on counterfactual history. However, I don’t see that the “massacres” necessarily changed things.
If Santa Anna had captured both garrisons and just kept the defenders as prisoners, I see no reason for that to have altered his leisurely timetable or moved in any fashion different from the fatally slow pace he adopted.
Q–You mentioned David and his group of friends stopping for the night in Bolivar, Tennessee, on David’s way to Texas (where he enlisted in the Texas army). You said, “In his coming there was something out of the ordinary, as sensed by everyone.”
What something did those people sense, in your opinion?
Davis–Just the arrival of an American legend in his own time.
Q–Crockett impressed me, through your book, of having been an extraordinary man. Is this what you think?
Davis–In many ways yes. I think he was a pioneer in American idiomatic humor, that there is a fairly direct through-line from him to Mark Twain, to Will Rogers, to Garrison Keilor. Crockett is still funny today.
Q–David said, more than once, “I am rejoiced at my fate.” Do you believe he had a premonition about his fate?
Davis–No. The fate he was talking about was having landed in the middle of a revolt that looked like being successful, giving him a chance to be a military hero—as he had been, sort of—in the Creek War, and that would give him a platform from which to launch himself back to elective office.
Q–What about Travis? It seems so predestined that Travis was a man who wrote so well that his inspirational letters from the fortress have gone down in history.
Davis–Had he lived, I think Travis would have been a Senator or Governor inevitably. He had the instincts of a publicist, knew how to arouse emotions with words, and was genuinely committed to Texian independence.
Q–Travis seemed fortunate to die in the beginning of the battle (his death witnessed by his slave Joe). Do you agree?
Davis–Joe is our only witness, or claimed witness. We do have a Mexican account soon afterward that seems to agree with what Joe said about where and how Travis died, so we can reasonably accept Joe’s account.
Q–Bowie reminds me of Moses, who was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because he had killed. Bowie could not fight at the final battle because he was (probably) dying of Typhoid.
Davis–That is my conclusion. A Mexican account written just days later says Bowie was hiding under a blanket when he was killed. I think that should be interpreted to mean that he was too ill to get up and fight, and conceivably could have died before the attack.
Q–Travis had a slave, Bowie was a slave trader and a dishonest man and David Crockett specialized in hunting and killing bears. Should we repudiate them for these reasons?
Davis–Of course not. As I said above, no hero is a saint, and these men were not.
They were men of their time, and in their time slavery was lawful, and in the South a mark of social status. As for killing bears, well Crockett didn’t do it to have them stuffed or mounted on walls. He fed his family with them.