THREE ROADS TO THE ALAMO: THE LIVES AND FORTUNES OF DAVID CROCKETT, JAMES BOWIE, AND WILLIAM BARRET TRAVIS, by William C. Davis, HarperCollins, 791 pages, $35.
Although more than 200 defenders died at the Alamo on March 6, 1836, the names of only three have lived in legend: Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Barret “Buck” Travis. William C. Davis, a historian and prolific writer on nineteenth-century American history, had the ingenious idea to write a triple biography of the three men, and in so doing has corrected a great deal of myth about these courageous, but often troubled, historical figures.
The group biography approach enables readers to see these men in the context of their time and to appreciate the significance of the frontier in United States history. That all three went to Texas as failures demonstrates how crossing an invisible boundary line could allow individuals to begin anew. Crockett had lost reelection to Congress and, because he refused to toe the party line, nearly all his standing in the Democratic Party. Bowie, whom Davis describes as “big, bold, and just over half dishonest,” was a forger and a perpetrator of land fraud. Travis, young enough to be Crockett’s son, was saddled with debt after failures at publishing, the law, and marriage. Crockett was already a national figure, and while heading to Texas gave him a kind of psychological lift, he didn’t need to go there to gain a reputation. Bowie and Travis remade themselves there, however, earning the prestige and standing that had earlier eluded them.
Of the three men, Crockett has been studied the most. His life was more public, and he published his autobiography. Despite their posthumous fame, neither Bowie nor Travis has, surprisingly, been well-served by biographers. Davis at first intended to write a single biography of Bowie but changed his plan out of fears that the available material would be meager. The sources proved ample, however, and Bowie’s story dominates the book, taking up 9 of its 20 biographical chapters. Indeed, Davis’s descriptions of Bowie’s shady dealings are so detailed that they tend to become fatiguing. Nevertheless, they are important.
The book benefits from Davis’ access to Mexican archives previously unused by Alamo scholars, and the depth of his research is evident in the bibliography and the impressive end notes, which readers are advised not to ignore. While Three Roads is a must read for Alamo buffs, other readers will gain much from its portrait of American frontier life.
Joseph Gustaitis is a writer specializing in popular history.