As a controversial document from the Texas wars came to auction in Los Angeles yesterday, the passions of competing bands of historians were aflame over the historical riddle - raising the prospect of a rare auction-room tussle and a final selling price as high as half a million dollars.
The document, assuming it is genuine, is a memoir written by an obscure Mexican officer called Jose Enrique de la Pena and chronicles his army's vacillating fortunes in the war of 1836, from the brief triumph at the Alamo, outside San Antonio, to the ensuing rout at San Jacinto at the hands of the American commander Sam Houston.
The brief passage about Crockett might have passed without comment were it not for the fact that it challenges 150 years of received wisdom about the celebrated adventurer of the Old West - the man who, among his other legendary exploits, spawned a thousand imitation bear-hunting hats.
In the official version, seared into the popular consciousness through dozens of Hollywood re-enactments, Crockett at first sought refuge in the Alamo as the shooting started but then assumed his patriotic duty and was among the last of the 180 defenders of the fort to succumb to the Mexican onslaught.
His supposedly heroic stand was responsible for turning the Alamo into a battle cry for every military setback that cries out for vengeance. "Remember the Alamo!" was the rallying call with which the Americans completed their colonisation of the West - slaughtering Mexicans and Indians by the thousand as they went.
According to de la Pena, Crockett was one of seven survivors who were eventually tortured to death. While this might seem no less heroic an end, it has been bitterly contested - particularly by amateur historians in love with the image of Crockett swinging his rifle, "Old Betsy", like a bloody club at the advancing Mexicans.
They believe the de la Pena papers are a sophisticated forgery and have detailed what they see as a series of inconsistencies and anachronisms in books such as Bill Groneman's Defense of a Legend: Crockett and the De La Pena Diary.
The controversy over the memoir stems back to the mid-1970s, when the chairman of the University of Texas board of regents, John Peace, bought it from the widow of a Mexican antique dealer. A second controversy has now blown up at the university over the decision by Mr Peace's son to sell the manuscript, saying the family had grown weary of the arguments.Reuse content