If you were to ask any number of average American adults what
they remember about Texas from high school American History
class, I betcha the first thing that would come to most of their
minds is the famous battle at the Alamo -- or at least the
famous battle cry, "Remember the Alamo," used to rally
the forces that subsequently defeated the Mexican soldiers who
decimated the small band of Texans who tried so hard to defend
their fortress in San Antonio.
It's one of those cultural icons that is imprinted on our
brains. We may not remember all the details, but we know Something
Very Important happened there.
One of those details is that the Alamo was first a Spanish
mission, not an American fort. In fact, what became later
known as the Alamo was established two
years earlier than any of the other missions in San Antonio that
I talked about in the
THE MISSION PERIOD: 1716 - 1793
Like those other missions, this one had a longer Spanish name (Misión
San Antonio de Valero). It was home to Franciscan
missionaries and Couhuitecan (including Tejas) Indian converts for over
seventy years from its establishment in 1718 by Father Antonio
Olivares until Spanish officials secularized all the area's
missions in 1793-4 and distributed the lands to the remaining
Indian residents. They continued living there and participated
in the growth of the community developing around them.
Mission San Antonio de Valero, circa 1760.
the Wall of History at the Alamo site.
THE DECLINE OF SPANISH RULE (1794-1821) & THE
STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE (1821-1835)
This site has seen more transitions than any of the other San
Antonio-area missions since its inception.
In 1803 a Spanish military unit
from El Alamo de Parras, Coahuila (currently Mexico) stationed a
cavalry unit at the former mission; don't ask me where the poor
Indians went because I don't want to know! The soldiers
referred to the former mission as the "Alamo" (Spanish for
"cottonwood," as in trees) in honor of their hometown.
According to the pamphlet mentioned above by the Daughters of
the Republic of Texas, the Alamo was home to both
Revolutionaries and Royalists during Mexico's ten-year struggle
for independence from 1811 to 1821. Spanish, Mexican, and then Rebel
soldiers continued to occupy the Alamo (in succession, not all
at once!) until
the Texas Revolution, which began in 1835.
THE BIRTH OF THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS: 1836
There are plenty of details of what happened next in books,
movies, and online. We recommend you see the IMAX film "Alamo
. . . the Price of Freedom" at nearby Rivercenter prior to touring the Alamo site
so you'll have a better understanding of the history of the
place as you walk through it. It's a powerful movie on a giant
screen. You'll feel like you're in the middle of the action.
I'll try to give an abbreviated
version based on information from the Alamo pamphlet,
signs at the site, and my 2002 AAA Texas TourBook:
Late in 1835 the Alamo and San Antonio were occupied by Mexican
forces under General de Cós, who had fortified the former
mission site to protect it from Texan rebels.
Depiction of the Alamo, circa 1835, after
General Cós had it fortified.
Picture from the
Wall of History. Current site
includes the Long Barracks and church in upper R. third of
In December, 1835 Ben
Milam and his Texan and Tejano volunteers forced the general to
surrender. About one hundred rebels remained at the Alamo -- and
fortified it even more.
That did not sit well with Mexican dictator general Antonio López
de Santa Anna. In February, 1836, Santa Anna and his army of
about 4,000 troops headed toward San Antonio to regain the fort.
When Texas general Sam Houston learned about this, he ordered
Col. James Bowie (of Bowie Knife fame) to determine if the post
could be held or should be abandoned. Bowie and his men were
determined to fight for Texas' independence and did NOT want to
Two other famous
Americans historical figures joined Bowie at the Alamo to help
defend it against the Mexican forces: Col. William Travis and
David (AKA Davy) Crockett, legendary frontiersman and former
congressman from Tennessee. Although each brought some more
volunteers to fight, the total number of men (mostly volunteers, not
trained soldiers) was only about 150-160.
From the movie "Alamo . . . the Price of
Freedom" (courtesy Rivercenter's IMAX
Those undaunted Texans and Tejanos attempted to hold the
garrison when Santa Anna and his 4,000 troops arrived in San
Antonio. Wow. Pretty crummy odds.
Just after the siege began, Bowie became too ill with
pneumonia to lead the men. Col. Travis took full command on the
second day. Couriers were sent to request reinforcements but
only thirty-two more men came to help on the eighth day of the siege.
This is part of a plea to Major General Sam Houston from Col.
Travis on February 25, 1836:
" . . . Our numbers are few and the enemy continues to
approximate his works to ours.
I have every reason to apprehend an attack from his whole
force very soon;
but I shall hold out to the last extremity, hoping to secure
reinforcements in a day or two.
Do hasten on aid to me as rapidly as possible. as from the
superior number of the enemy,
it will be impossible for us to keep them out much longer. If
they overpower us,
we fall a sacrifice at the shrine of our country, and we hope
prosperity and our country
will do our memory justice. Give me help, oh my Country!
Victory or Death!"
Sketch of the Long Barrack (left), church,
and rather flimsy wooden Palisade Wall (right)
before the siege. From a sign in front of
The situation looked impossible if the Texans
tried to beat the huge army poised outside the garrison. But they were a
determined lot, ready to give their lives for independence.
Miraculously, they held their ground for thirteen days until
Santa Anna finally had enough of "negotiating" with the rebels,
and attacked the Alamo with full force.
Legend has it that Col. Travis gathered all the soldiers together on
the twelfth day when he realized no more troops would be coming
to help. During a rousing speech, he gave the men three choices:
surrender, try to escape, or stay and fight. Travis drew a
line in the dirt and asked anyone willing to stay and fight (to
their death, obviously) to cross the line. Everyone did except one
Rose, who chose to leave. No one voted to surrender.
Artist's depiction of the battle at the
Alamo on March 6, 1836. From the Wall of History at the
Before dawn on March 6, Santa Anna's army stormed the north wall
of the Alamo, killing Travis. The desperate struggle continued
for about an hour and a half. By 6:30 AM it was over. All
189 of the defenders were dead, including Davy Crockett and
James Bowie. (But they had killed even more of the Mexican
soldiers first.) Santa Anna entered the Alamo and declared
A dozen or more women, children, and Travis' slave survived the
siege inside the Alamo, despite the rampage around them. That
says something for the Mexican soldiers, who could have easily
killed them, too.
That battle was over but the fight for Texan independence
certainly wasn't. It served to reinforce the patriots' resolve
to defeat the Mexicans, which finally happened two months later
near the San Jacinto River east of Houston when Sam Houston led
his troops to victory over Santa Anna in a fight that lasted
only eighteen minutes.
Their rallying cry? "Remember the Alamo!"
Sometimes it's nice to have the last word.
With the capture of Santa Anna, the independence of Texas was
won. The Republic of Texas was born.
FROM REPUBLIC TO EARLY STATEHOOD: 1836-1885
Between 1836 and 1876 there were many more changes at the Alamo, from
considerable deliberate destruction to the buildings when the Mexican
forces had to leave after the Treaty of Velasco, to occupation
and repairs of the ruins by the U.S. Army after Texas became a
state in 1846. At various times, both U.S. and Confederate
Armies used the Alamo as a quartermaster depot (military
warehouse, in civilian-speak).
The Alamo site, circa 1861, when it was used
by the Confederate Army as a warehouse.
Painting from the Wall of History exhibit.
In 1876 all the property except the church was sold to private
interests for commercial use. The city of San Antonio gradually
took over the former battlegrounds.
FROM WAREHOUSE TO SHRINE: 1886 TO THE PRESENT
By the early 1900s, commercial property encroached on the
historic mission buildings that remained, such as the church and
Long Barracks. Some individuals and The Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT)
recognized the importance of preserving the site for future
generations and persuaded the state to purchase the remaining
property as a shrine.
The DRT received custody of the site in
1905 and continues to maintain it "as a sacred memorial to the
heroes who immolated themselves upon that hallowed ground."
Col. Travis would be proud.
Not only were there numerous changes to the Alamo from its humble
beginnings as a mission until the state took it over, but even more changes have occurred to
the site in the past hundred years.
Plaza now covers only one city block of what used to be a large
fort and surrounding lands. A little bit of the land to the
west (the light-colored portion in the middle of the picture
above) is a narrow, block-long park in front of the entrance to the shrine
on Alamo Street. The park and grounds of the Alamo are beautiful
spaces, steeped in history but surrounded by
modern hotels and skyscrapers (this and the remaining photos are
ones I took during our recent visit to the Alamo):
Something old, something new . . . wall
around the Alamo,
modern building in the background.
When you enter the grounds of the shrine, you quickly feel transported back in time.
There is a palpable sensation of history and reverence.
Visitors to the site can view the church, which has been
restored and is dedicated to the memory of the men who fell in
defense of the Alamo. The church was never finished during the
mission period; it still lacked a roof during the famous
battle in 1836 Today this building is known world-wide as
the Shrine of Texas Liberty:
Entrance to the Alamo, Shrine of Texas
Architectural details of entrance to the church
Back side of church
Exhibits in the church and the restored Long Barracks feature
artifacts from the era of the Texas Revolution and some personal
items that belonged to the heroes of the Alamo. An old fire
station has been restored as a meeting hall on the property.
Several new buildings were constructed to house a library,
offices, gift shop, maintenance shop, greenhouse, and restrooms.
Two views of the library, above and below
Near the library is this beautiful fountain built to honor the
memories of the men who died here:
Davy Crockett, David Bowie, and William Travis garnered special
Although the stone walls and arches surrounding the site look
really old, they date from the 1920s. Yeah, eighty-something
years is a long time, but that's modern history in the
context of the Alamo!
You can still see part of the old acequia (irrigation
system) and a well in the convento courtyard that date back to
the mission period, however.
I love all the huge old trees
that shade the site, such as the 140-year-old Live Oak that
shelters the well:
Two views of the majestic old Live Oak
tree, above and below
Scheduled 20-minute history talks are offered in the Alamo
Shrine. A 17-minute documentary film produced by the History
Channel runs continuously in the museum in the Long Barracks.
Since we'd already seen the IMAX movie and read
other information about the Alamo before visiting the site, we
chose to wander around the place at our own pace. There are
numerous exhibits, plaques, and signs that explain the entire history of
This is one of the large signs from the Wall of History, source
of the period depictions of the site that I used at the beginning of this entry:
We visited the Alamo on an overcast weekday morning in January
after a rain shower. Although it was
cool and not as crowded as it is on the weekend, there were
still a bunch of people milling around. It's a very
popular tourist destination and located near other
popular sites like River Walk, Rivercenter, various museums, the
downtown visitors' center, and Hemisfair Park -- so it stays
pretty busy, and more so on nice weather days.
North side of the church
Still, we found the courtyards and passages to be pretty quiet.
People seemed respectful of the sanctity of the place and
mindful that others might want to reflect on the significance of
everything that has happened there. Compared to the other four
missions we visited, the atmosphere at the Alamo is considerably
Entry into the Alamo is free to all visitors.
With no monetary support from the local, state, or federal
government, the DRT depends solely on money from donations and
proceeds from the gift shop to preserve the complex and maintain
Parking on the street or in public lots isn't cheap unless you
walk several blocks, but it isn't as pricey as some cities we've
That's the conclusion of our visit to San Antonio. Now we're off
to Huntsville State Park north of Houston for some more Texas
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil