Even two full calendar years after the launch of America Unearthed in December 2012, each airing of the show—even in reruns—produces a flurry of traffic on my website, and often a barrage of email from viewers who are looking for more information about the program, and particularly those who are outraged that I would seek to evaluate the show’s claims in anything less than worshipful terms. Show host Scott F. Wolter, a professional geologist specializing in concrete stability issues, refers to me as a “hate-blogger” and has accused me of being part of a conspiracy to attack him, so it’s hardly surprising that his fans follow his lead.
If you are one of the new readers coming to this blog for the first time because of the season premiere of America Unearthed, I invite you to read the full background on my interactions with Scott Wolter which I outlined last year in my review of the second season premiere, including a threat of legal action against me A+E Networks, the parent of H2, made on his behalf. To this I must unfortunately add also more recent events, in which Wolter lashed out at me again for a news article I wrote in early 2013 noting that the honorary master’s degree he had claimed to possess for two decades was not an officially recognized award. Writing in September, Wolter threatened future legal action against me: “While the debunker’s post falls just short of the bar necessary to initiate legal action, future events could change the current situation.”
America Unearthed returns from a long hiatus with shiny new graphics and a slightly different focus than it has had over the past two seasons. Publicity materials released to promote the new season depict a program widening its scope to find new material to keep the show going and audiences interested. This season Scott Wolter will be doing less of his trademark questing for Knights Templar, Holy Bloodlines, and pre-Columbian European visitors (though all of that is coming this season) in favor of more mainstream mysteries, such as the Lost Dutchman Mine, giants, and Bigfoot. The season premiere, S03E01 “Secrets of the Alamo” is firmly in the camp of expanding the show beyond Da Vinci Code fans and fringe history true believers with an appeal to patriotism, nationalism, and the and one of the seminal events in the heroic myth of the American frontier.
The myth of Davy Crockett is as American as a story can get: A civic-minded frontiersman sacrifices everything to fight for freedom in the far parts of the wild frontier, surviving on wits and weaponry, giving his life to protect the liberty of others. The popular version was embodied in 1960’s The Alamo, with John Wayne as Crockett. But it was never that simple, not least because the freedom he died to protect was that of American colonizers seeking to detach the part of the state of Coahuila y Tejas now known as Texas from Mexico. According to popular legend, Crockett died at the Alamo on March 6, 1836, felled in defending the site against the forces of the Mexican Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna. This version of events is supported by testimony from Madame Candelaria, speaking in 1890; Felix Nuñez, speaking in 1889; and Captain Rafael Soldana, as well as American newspapers accounts from the time.
The legend, however, has been challenged repeatedly. A self-published 1955 Spanish-language text claiming to be a transcription of the diary of Mexican soldier José Enrique de la Peña (translated into English in 1975 to much controversy) asserted that Crockett actually surrendered to Mexican forces and was executed shortly thereafter by an irate Santa Anna. According to de la Peña, he was tortured and killed with swords. While the diary’s authenticity has never been confirmed, in fact similar claims from other eyewitnesses had been in print since the 1830s. The New Orleans Post-Union reported, for example, that Crockett had attempted to surrender to Santa Anna, who refused. In September of 1836, a letter from George M. Dolson to his brother appeared in several newspapers, and it claimed that a Mexican soldier had told Dolson that Crockett had been captured and taken to Santa Anna, the “monster,” who in a fit of pique ordered Crockett shot to death in front of him. A fictitious diary of Crockett’s was published in 1837 under the title Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas, and it similarly claimed that Crockett had been captured alive and executed by Santa Anna: “…a dozen swords were sheathed in his indomitable heart; and he fell, and died without a groan, a frown on his brow, and a smile of scorn and defiance on his lips.”
Thanks to Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett series and the 1960 Alamo movie, any revisionist claims that failed to cast Crockett as a hero became grist for America’s endless culture wars. But nearly all of the accounts agreed on one thing: No matter how he died, Crockett was dead.
However, from time to time faulty claims that the great hero had survived the battle of the Alamo resurfaced, notably in a widely reprinted secondhand account published in The New-Yorker on May 7, 1836, which forms part of the “evidence” for the Davy Crockett conspiracy featured in the third season premiere of America Unearthed:
Col. Crockett not dead yet.—We are much gratified in being able to inform our readers that Col. Crockett, the hero and patriot, it is said, is not yet dead. This cheering news is brought by a gentleman now in this city, directly from Texas, and who left the Colonel, as he states, three weeks ago, at the house of his brother-in-law in Texas, where the Colonel was lying quite ill, but gradually though slowly recovering from his wounds.
It’s not really much to go on, one secondhand account against all the accumulated testimony of history, but when has that ever stopped Scott Wolter? Coupled with the fact that Davy Crockett joined the Freemasons while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives (his apron is still housed at Tennessee’s Weakly Lodge), and you have all the foundation a conspiracy theorist needs to imagine that Crockett had a secret second life as a sort of frontier Cincinnatus.
We open at the battle of the Alamo and the end of Davy Crockett in one of the standard cinematic recreations typical of America Unearthed. The production values are higher this year, and the letterboxing gives a suitably movie-of-the-week flavor to the wordless proceedings as dramatic music swells. The version of Crockett’s death from the fictitious Col. Crockett’s Exploits (or, more likely, a sanitized version of the de la Peña account, subtracting the torture) is depicted, but rather than watch Crockett die, the reenactment departs from the 1837 narrative by making Gen. Santa Anna offer Crocket his hand in friendship.
We go to a revised version of the opening credits, with shiny new graphics even more closely modeled on those of Fox News than earlier versions. After this, Scott Wolter talks about his love of the 1950s Disney Davy Crockett TV series, and he outlines Crockett’s biography. Jason Nelson, a tipster, tells Scott Wolter that he has a land grant signed by Davy Crockett after the hero’s death, in 1859, which in turn proves that Crockett lived out his days in Winston County, Alabama. The land grant gives to a David Crockett a tract of land, and it is signed by James Buchanan with the presidential seal. Nelson’s mother shows Wolter the 1836 newspaper article copied above, from what she says was an earlier printing in April, which Wolter finds “compelling.”
“If anybody can get to the truth, I think I can,” Wolter tells Nelson, and Nelson’s mother tells Wolter that she believes Davy Crockett is buried on her land.
There’s a fairly obvious rejoinder: A presidential decree is a public record and therefore hardly a convenient way of hiding.
Nelson brings up some irrelevant information about the Indian Removal Act, instigated by Andrew Jackson, and Wolter suggests that Crockett purposely used the Alamo as a way to fake his own death after falling out with Andrew Jackson, who had already left office, over Indian Removal, and that Buchanan, twenty years later, gave Crockett land as a payoff. If you followed any of that, you are a better man than I because this makes precious little sense. The conclusion seems to be that Wolter wants to appear as a friend to Native Americans rather than a Eurocentric fantasist and therefore is looking for ways to fold protection of Native Americans into his historical revisionism.
After the break, Wolter gives archaeologist Mike Arbuthnot the order to start scanning the Nelsons’ home for human bones, which Arbuthnot tells Wolter will require notification to the medical examiner’s office should any emerge. Wolter takes off for the Alamo to learn more about Crockett because he finds the Nelsons’ documents “compelling.” One might think that the first step would be to check local records to see if anyone named David Nelson lived in the region in the 1850s and 1860s, or if the signature on the land grant matched known signatures of the famous Davy Crockett. A Google search found several David Crocketts in the 1850s.
At the Alamo, Wolter suggests that the Ave Maria logo on the Catholic mission is really a secret Templar-Freemason logo, but drops it to talk with historian Michael Wallis about Crockett’s actual life defending and protecting Native Americans against Andrew Jackson’s efforts. Wolter takes Crockett’s side and goes some way toward repairing his Eurocentric image, though the show fails to note the irony that Crockett, for all his love of Native Americans and disapproval of Indian Removal, died fighting to detach Texas from its sovereign government and turn it over to people who would replace Native populations with white rule. After the break, I realize that we are nearly halfway through the show but Wolter has done not a lick of actual investigation, even as Wallis tells Wolter more about Crockett’s early life, which is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Wallis repeats the information about the Alamo we heard at the top of the hour, with the same reenactment, but this time Wallis is on hand to offer some additional details. Wallis explains to Wolter that he believes that de la Peña’s version of Crockett’s death is the one most likely to be correct, but Wolter offers no background on the controversy over de la Peña’s manuscript.
Wallis tells Wolter that despite Wolter’s insistence that Crockett could have survived, the only thing to survive the Alamo was Crockett’s legend. We go into yet another commercial—H2 seems to have added an extra break this season—with a decidedly different tone to America Unearthed. This time, the producers have let the expert have the last word and to directly contradict Wolter’s ideas without being shouted down. If this represents an effort to make the show less fringe, less controversial, and more mainstream, it also has the unintentional effect of making the show less entertaining.
Seriously, at 9:30—halfway through the show—there has been just about one minute of actual content. The rest is just filler.
In the second half of the show, Wolter visits a Masonic lodge in Minnesota to talk with Jack Roberts, a Crockett expert, about his Masonic connections. Gen. Santa Anna, we hear, was a Freemason as well as Crockett. (So, too, was Andrew Jackson, Crockett’s enemy, for that matter.) Wolter is shocked that Freemasons were on both sides of the Texas conflict. He believes that Crockett was privy to a Masonic sign of distress that was actually Templar in origin—despite their being no such documentation of any such thing among the medieval Templars except in conspiracy literature—but Roberts suggests that Crockett escaped the Alamo by appealing to Santa Anna’s Masonic affiliation with the Masons’ sign of distress, since apparently Masonry is more important than politics or even war.
“Dead men can’t sign their names,” Wolter says, emphasizing that the “land grant” is strong evidence that Crockett lived on after the Alamo. He has yet to do even cursory research into who actually lived on the land in the 1850s, which should be the very first step in research. Instead, he and Arbuthnot are scanning the Alabama homestead hoping to find human bones.
After another break, there is just fifteen minutes left in the hour, so Arbuthnot and Wolter decide to use a backhoe (!) to roughly excavate what Wolter suspects is a nineteenth century human burial on the site. The backhoe cracks into something hard, and Wolter jumps into the hole and discovers—a rock.
Wolter takes off for Rutherford, Tennessee, to talk with a descendant of Davy Crockett, Joy Bland, and compare the land deed signature with one of Crockett’s authentic signatures. Bland tells Wolter that he’s full of it and Davy Crockett would never have kept quiet for 23 or more years. She tells Wolter that David Crockett was a common name at the time, and she personally knows of at least two or three others of that name from the time period. She gives Wolter a photocopy of Crockett’s signature from 1829, and we go to another commercial.
After the break, Wolter announces that there is no archaeological evidence of Crockett at the homestead. Wolter also acknowledges that a handwriting expert declares that the signatures from 1829 and 1859 are different and not written by the same man. Wolter, however, asserts that he knows better than the expert and therefore rejects the expert’s conclusion. He therefore chooses to authenticate the signature based on what he reads as the similarities. Arbuthnot, however, notes that his research determined that the land deed was likely made out to David Crockett Cagel, a resident of the area. But Nelson’s mother and Scott Wolter both reject this because Cagel failed to sign his full legal name. She is right to be skeptical, but for the wrong reasons. As pointed out in the comments by Warren Lawrence below, Bureau of Land Management records show that this piece of land and another nearby were both sold in 1859 to David Crockett and Clark Crockett, two brothers whom genealogical records indicate were the sons of Samuel and Lucinda Crockett. This is more evidence that America Unearthed failed to do even cursory research.
“I’ve seen a lot of evidence here that really questions the established history of Davy Crockett,” Wolter says, and he therefore validates the Nelsons’ beliefs as something that cannot be disproved.
And that’s the end. If this is the new direction for the show, it’s a boring one. There was even less content than last year, making it a protracted exercise in patience to watch from beginning to end in hopes of seeing a rare burst of fringe-worthy ranting. On the other hand, Wolter successfully dismissed all of the expert opinion he solicited, from the archaeologist to the historian to the handwriting analyst, asserting that he has more expertise than all of them combined, so perhaps the show is not that different this year.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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