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Deconstructing History: Alamo

Deconstructing History: Alamo

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A bachelors degree in history provides students with a body of historical knowledge that enables them to understand local, national, and global events as well as to appreciate the range of cultural diversity that makes up the world community.

What will I learn?

  • Construct historical arguments using primary and secondary sources.
  • Describe historical narratives of multiple choices and regions across space and time.
  • Analyze these historical narratives from diverse perspectives.
  • Explain how spatial processes have shaped these historical narratives of people and regions.

What can I do with this course of study?

The bachelor's degree plan assists those who seek a career in social studies education. Additional career paths include higher education, research, publishing, information management, business, public service, law, and other positions requiring effective writing, interdisciplinary thinking, critical skill analysis skills, curiosity, and inquisitiveness.

What's special about our program?

The history course of study is special because of our students and our faculty. Students entering the history course of study are mentored by history faculties interested in having students achieve success. The course of study seeks students with inquiring minds. The course of study seeks students from diverse backgrounds, with diverse interests, ready to accept today's challenges. Faculty are devoted to encouraging student academic excellence, to developing students' critical thinking, reading, and writing skills, and to the college mission to produce informed and responsible citizens.

The myth of Alamo gets the history all wrong

The 1836 battle for the Alamo is remembered as a David vs. Goliath story. A band of badly outnumbered Texans fought against oppression by the Mexican dictator Santa Anna, holding off the siege long enough for Sam Houston to move the main rebel force east and providing them a rallying cry at the Battle of San Jacinto. As almost any Texan will tell you, their heroic sacrifice turned the Alamo into the cradle of Texas liberty.

American presidents have even invoked the Alamo myth to inspire their citizens in battles of all kinds, from Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War to then-candidate George W. Bush, who read William Travis’s iconic “Victory or Death!” letter to inspire the U.S. team to win the 1999 Ryder Cup. And in his last State of the Union address, Donald Trump, perhaps inspiring Americans to an internal battle, referenced “Texas patriots [who] made their last stand at the Alamo. The beautiful, beautiful Alamo.”

Yet, the legend of the Alamo is a Texas tall tale run amok. The actual story is one of White American immigrants to Texas revolting in large part over Mexican attempts to end slavery. Far from heroically fighting for a noble cause, they fought to defend the most odious of practices. Our newfound understanding of this history presents Americans with a long-overlooked opportunity to correct a racist myth surrounding this monument.

Anglo settlers began arriving in Texas from the United States in the 1820s, when it was part of Spanish Mexico. The Spanish government wanted them as a bulwark against the Comanche, but these new Texans had another agenda. They wanted to take advantage of thousands of acres of land in the Brazos River Valley that was available cheap for White settlers, some of which was used to cultivate cotton.

When these dichotomous visions became clear in 1822, a newly independent Mexican government in Mexico City paused further settlement. The problem, according to Stephen F. Austin, known as the “Father of Texas,” was that the new government, which took power on a racial equality agenda, would not abide slavery.

The Mexican government’s efforts to write a new federal constitution got bogged down. One of the sticking points was the question of slavery. The new government wanted slavery gone, but ending the practice would ruin the settlers. Austin, “talked to each individual member of the junta of the necessity which existed in Texas … for the new colonists to bring their slaves.”

And the Mexican government couldn’t just ignore their whims. The Anglo settlers were increasingly taking over the place and could, if their numbers increased sufficiently, break Texas off from Mexico and join the United States, which, of course, eventually happened.

So the Mexican government struck a deal with Austin. The deal allowed settlers to keep their enslaved people but banned any further trade. Enslavement took root, and in 1823, Austin received permission to increase immigration from the United States.

But constant turnover and instability in Mexico City proved problematic for the Texans. In 1824, a new government proposed measures to undo the understanding over slavery. One bill outlawed “commerce and traffic in slaves” and stated that any enslaved person brought into Mexico would be deemed free by “the mere act of treading Mexican soil.”

Potential settlers noticed. One prospective settler from Mississippi noted that the only thing preventing “wealthy planters from emigrating immediately to the province of Texas,” was the “uncertainty now prevailing” over slavery. And from Alabama came a similar message: “Our most valuable inhabitants here own negroes. … Our planters are not willing to remove without they can first be assured of their being secured to them by the laws of your Govt.” Economic opportunity made Texas alluring for cotton growers, but the political uncertainty made them hesitate. Their hesitation, in turn, increased pressure on Mexican lawmakers, who wanted to maintain control of Texas, and on Austin, whose livelihood depended on getting more people to immigrate.

Finally, in 1824, a new Mexican constitution seemed to settle the issue by leaving the slavery question to the states. The locus of Austin’s anxiety shifted to Saltillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, to which the Texas territory belonged. The state constitution of 1827 allowed settlers to import enslaved people for six more months. That September, however, yet another new government in Mexico City passed a flurry of laws curbing slavery.

By 1828, Texans had settled on an unsustainable practice: They would ignore anti-slavery laws passed in Mexico City.

Discussion that the government might actually enforce the 1827 laws, though, brought talk of war. “Many have announced to me that there will be a revolution if the law takes effect,” a Mexican military commander in East Texas wrote a superior. “Austin’s colony would be the first to think along these lines. It was formed for slavery, and without it her inhabitants would be nothing.”

This talk of secession brought crackdowns from the Mexican government, including taxes on cotton to pay for military installations in Texas and an order to close the border with the United States. Austin sunk into a depression. Mexico was threatening the foundation of Texans’ economy. “Nothing is wanted but money,” Austin wrote in one letter, adding in another, “and negros are necessary to make it.”

Cotton was booming, though, which boosted illegal immigration into Texas. Americans, though still a minority, were fast on their way to becoming a majority. This demographic shift increased Mexico’s efforts to directly control Texas, including newfound enforcement of laws. Texans, accustomed to a la carte obedience to Mexican law, took this affront as tyranny.

In April 1832, the Mexican government closed a loophole allowing settlers to reclassify their human chattel as indentured servants. This finally outlawed slavery, full stop. For Austin, this was the last straw. “Texas must be a slave country,” he wrote a friend, “circumstances and unavoidable necessity compels it.”

He saw only two options: a separate Mexican statehood for Texas with legal slavery or rebellion. “No middle course left,” he wrote.

When the Mexican government granted Santa Anna dictatorial powers in 1834, Mexican states revolted, first Zacatecas, then Coahuila, which included Texas. The Mexican army marched north to put down the rebellions. In Matagorda, a group of Anglo settlers declared that “merciless soldiery” was coming “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.”

The Texas leadership justified the war as a fight to preserve their “natural rights” and — that word again — their “property,” meaning their enslaved laborers.

Even in Washington it was clear what drove the Texans. Abolitionists denounced their insurgency as the world’s first proslavery rebellion. “The war now raging in Texas,” charged former president and Rep. John Quincy Adams (Mass.), was “a war for the reestablishment of Slavery where it was abolished. It is not a servile war, but a war between Slavery and Emancipation, and every possible effort has been made to drive us into this war, on the side of slavery.”

The Texas Revolt may have been precipitated by ham-handed Mexican attempts to exercise control over its territory, but the underlying cause, was the one thing American immigrants and the Mexican government had disagreed on since the beginning: the preservation of slavery.

Given that its defenders were fighting to form what became the single most militant slave nation in history, that men who fought at the Alamo like Jim Bowie and William Travis traded enslaved people, and Austin, the “Father of Texas,” spent years fighting to preserve slavery from the attacks of Mexican abolitionists, it is clear that rather than a courageous stand for liberty, the White men fighting at the Alamo were battling to own people of color.

To many in Texas, the Alamo is a secular shrine to conservative values on par with a Confederate monument, a metaphor made literal in 2019 when the Texas Senate specifically included the Alamo in legislation to protect Confederate monuments from removal. The debate over the history of White supremacy has only expanded since then, most recently in debates over teaching critical race theory and with the first national reckoning over the Tulsa Massacre. With the debate over our past increasingly fraught, reexamining the Alamo’s history shines a spotlight on how slavery played a role in the formation of the Southwest and how its impact has lingered, fueling an ethos at the core of Texas identity and, as Trump’s last State of the Union shows, that continues to animate conservative ideology.

Alamo site's history dates back 10,000 years, connects indigenous hunter-gatherers and mission inhabitants to present-day San Antonians

Ricky Reyes leads a Native American blessing during the "Dawn at the Alamo" ceremony at the Alamo on March 6, the anniversary of the famous battle. A panel of scholars discussed the Alamo’s ties to early indigenous people of the area during a forum Tuesday night.

Robin Jerstad /Robin Jerstad

From early indigenous hunter-gatherers to mission inhabitants to present-day San Antonians, the Alamo site has a history dating more than 10,000 years, according to scholars.

The 30-member Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee held the first of six panel discussions this week to give direction for a $450 million project that includes a museum, visitor center and plaza makeover at the historic mission and battle site.

Discussions kicked off with &ldquoAlamo: A Place to Call Home.&rdquo

For those anxious to hear experts talk about the 1836 siege and battle that made the Alamo famous, the committee will hold a discussion, &ldquoFort Alamo,&rdquo at 5:30 p.m. July 27. Tuesday&rsquos exchange established the setting for that battle, detailing the origins of the Spanish colonial village known as San Antonio de Béjar that included the 1718 founding of Mission San Antonio de Valero. That mission moved twice before settling in 1724 and becoming the first permanent local Spanish-Indigenous mission, and later the military outpost called El Álamo.

Despite its remote locale, hostile groups, disease outbreaks and other harsh conditions of the frontier, San Antonio had natural beauty, water flowing from the river and nearby creeks, an abundance of chert rock used for tools or weapons and topography that allowed for construction of acequias, an ancient engineering technique using gravity to move water for farming and personal use.

Clinton McKenzie, project archaeologist with the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the indigenous people known as Coahuiltecans, who occupied five local missions along the river, have had a lasting impact, as the village has evolved into a modern U.S. city.

&ldquoThey are still part of our community today, throughout San Antonio, throughout South Texas,&rdquo he said during the meeting at the Witte Museum.

Spanish missionaries, joined by soldiers and craftsmen, contributed to the village by creating gathering places &mdash and most importantly, relationships &mdash with and among indigenous people who became Spanish subjects, said Texas history scholar Jesús F. &ldquoFrank&rdquo de la Teja. The friars had no sociopolitical agendas but &ldquowanted to leave behind permanent communities &mdash and they did.&rdquo

Although San Antonio has always been a military town and magnet for visitors, it also has been diverse &mdash a community &ldquounder a constant strain&rdquo to redefine itself, de la Teja said.

&ldquoThe community was never homogeneous. It was heterogeneous, and it was always changing,&rdquo he said.

In an opening narrative, Melissa Simmons, exhibit designer with Alamo project consultant PGAV Destinations, noted that the 1835-1836 Texas Revolution put tremendous stress on Tejanos and their families who had lived for decades in the region. They all risked death and loss of property, whether they sided with the Mexican government or the independence movement &mdash or fled, trying to remain neutral.

Andrés Tijerina, an author and scholar based in Austin, said Tejano revolutionaries were descended from the missions. He noted that José Toribio Losoya, an Alamo defender who died in the 1836 battle, had grown up at Mission de Valero after it was secularized.

&ldquoYou want a real Texan? How about one who was born in the Alamo?&rdquo Tijerina said.

Expounding on the word &ldquohome&rdquo during his remarks, Tijerina challenged the committee to pursue a pathway for the project that connects with and benefits families of early Tejanos, including many living today on San Antonio&rsquos South and West sides, and to preserve the downtown area as a peaceful gathering space.

&ldquoYou need to include the whole family. And you&rsquoll need to include the whole community,&rdquo Tijerina said.

Project officials have said the talks would provide guidance for future displays and presentations, as well as support one of the project&rsquos guiding principles, to &ldquoembrace the continuum of history to foster understanding and healing.&rdquo

Deconstructing History

In Deconstructing History, Alun Munslow examines history in the postmodern age. He provides an introduction to the debates and issues of postmodernist history. He also surveys the latest research into the relationship between the past, history and historical practice as well as forwarding his own challenging theories.

The book discusses issues of both empiricist and deconstruction positions and considers the arguments of major proponents of both stances, and includes:

  • an examination of the character of historical evidence
  • exploration of the role of historians
  • discussion of the failure of traditional historical methods
  • chapters on Hayden White and Michel Foucault
  • an evaluation of the importance of historical narrative
  • an up to date, comprehensive bibliography
  • an extensive and helpful glossary of difficult key terms.

Deconstructing History maps the philosophical field, outlines the controversies involved and assesses the merits of the deconstructionist position. He argues that instead of beginning with the past history begin with its representation by historians.

Forget the Alamo

A new breed of scholars is rewriting Texas history to debunk the myths, explore the overlooked, and find heroism in the everyday lives of women and minorities—all while fending off charges of “flabby multiculturalism.”

With everything that T. R. Fehrenbach and David Montejano have in common, you might think they would be drinking buddies, or at least meet sometime for coffee. Both are Texas historians from San Antonio. Both have written highly praised books about the state&rsquos past. The Texas Historical Commission&rsquos annual prize for the best work of Texas history is named for Fehrenbach and has been won by Montejano. Yet the two authors have never even had a conversation. Mention to one of them the kind of history that the other likes to write and you will likely elicit nothing more than sardonic laughter.

Once the exclusive province of a few well-known academics (most of them at the University of Texas, such as Eugene Barker and Walter Prescott Webb) and amateur historians (ranging from Fehrenbach to folklorist J. Frank Dobie), Texas history today is flourishing&mdashand factionalizing&mdashas never before. History, it has been said, is what one age finds of interest in another, and the historians of our age are finding much to be interested in that their predecessors overlooked. The traditional historians tended to write sweeping, mythic sagas&mdashnone more sweeping or mythic than Fehren bach&rsquos best-selling Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, first published in 1968.

The new Texas historians can be found in universities throughout Texas and beyond, writing academic treatises that are changing the way contemporary Texans look at their state. The mythic historians wrote in generalities, preferred anecdote to factual detail, and focused on heroes, heroic events, and the uniqueness of Texas. The new social historians, or revisionists, as they call themselves, pore over census data and courthouse records and recreate the realities of everyday life. They concentrate on issues of race, class, and gender that are often glossed over by the big-picture historians. They share an antipathy for the mythic idea that history has a plot line, such as Manifest Destiny or Progress instead, they see history as directionless, a continuing story of conflict and contact between groups.

Remember the Alamo? Today&rsquos historians would just as soon forget it&mdashor redefine it. Fehrenbach, an honorary member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas, has participated in the group&rsquos rituals at the Alamo, but David Montejano (he pronounces his first name Mexican-style, with the stress on the second syllable), despite his San Antonio upbringing, never set foot in the Alamo as a tourist (although he has as a scholar). The new historians don&rsquot romanticize the frontier, they don&rsquot pay homage to cattle drives and frontier violence, they don&rsquot condemn Yankee carpetbaggers, and they don&rsquot care how Davy Crockett died. Influenced by the cultural turmoil of the sixties, they study not just heroes but common people, and not just white men but women, blacks, Mexican Americans, and nonconformists&mdashfrom abolitionists to labor organizers. As far as they&rsquore concerned, the fascination with the Alamo symbolizes all that is wrong with Texas history.

Lone Star is in no danger of being consigned to the historical scrap heap. The new historians&rsquo books are published by university presses and purchased from catalogs most would be deemed wildly successful if they sold three thousand copies. Lone Star, meanwhile, has done about a hundred times as well and continues to be sold by major bookstores. A new edition is due out this year, the book&rsquos thirtieth anniversary. But the cutting edge of Texas history clearly belongs to the new historians, partly because much has indeed been left out of Texas history and partly because the way for historians to get ahead in this nonheroic era is to write nonheroic history. The new historians influence not only each other and their students but also the authors of textbooks who write the official version of history that is taught in Texas schools. This is Texas history as the next generation of Texas leaders is learning it, and the effect on the way Texans view their state will be profound.

The Tejano School

The traditional view of Texas history regarding Mexican Americans is that Anglo-American society met the Spanish-Indian society head on, and the Anglo-Americans prevailed because of their cultural superiority. Webb, in The Texas Rangers, expressed the prevailing view of Mexican inferiority when he wrote in 1935: &ldquoThere is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe. This cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to the Indian blood.&rdquo

A new breed of scholars emerged with the Chicano political and cultural movement of the late sixties and early seventies. After a century of scholarship that cast Anglos as heroes and Mexican Americans as unworthy, the early Tejano historians tended to reverse the equation in equally simplistic ways. They gave their works titles like Occupied America: The Chicano&rsquos Struggle Toward Liberation and Foreigners in Their Native Land. In a 1978 dissertation later published as They Called Them Greasers, Arnoldo de Leon wrote that nineteenth-century Anglo Texans who saw brown-skinned murder victims often ignored them because of the common belief that the spicy diet of &ldquogreasers&rdquo rendered their corpses impervious to decay. The early Tejano scholars seemed to regard all Mexican Americans, even bandits and thugs, as victims or heroes.

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The Next Battle of the Alamo!

Since the late seventies, however, the Tejano School has concentrated more on disputing some of the old myths, such as the political passivity of Mexican Americans. University of Houston historian Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., has shown how Mexican Americans challenged the segregation of their children in public schools, and Texas A&M professor Julia Kirk Blackwelder has written about women labor organizers on the West Side of San Antonio during the Depression-era pecan shellers&rsquo strikes. The Tejano School is no longer the exclusive province of Mexican American historians, or of Texans, for that matter.

The most influential work remains David Montejano&rsquos Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836&mdash1986. Published in 1987, it is the book that won the Fehrenbach prize for its author, who is the director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at UT-Austin. Montejano holds a doctorate in sociology, but his work is unmistakably historical. Anglos and Mexicans examines the two groups&rsquo economic, social, and race relations and demonstrates that not all Anglos discriminated against Mexican Americans and that not all Mexican Americans suffered the same level of discrimination. Much depended upon how long a Mexicano or an Anglo had lived in Texas, what he or she did for a living, as well as social status. Montejano discovered, for example, that during the height of labor and social segregation in early twentieth-century Laredo, Anglo merchants and politicians favored equality for Mexican Americans more than farmers and ranchers did because equality was good for business.

Montejano sees his mission as writing a truer history than works such as Webb&rsquos The Texas Rangers, in which heroic Rangers confront border residents who are described as a &ldquoMexican horde,&rdquo a &ldquomob,&rdquo and &ldquobandits.&rdquo In the photograph of Montejano that appears on the jacket of his book, he poses with his best ironic grin and a copy of The Texas Rangers in hand. When he signs copies of his book, he has been known to write, &ldquoCuando reclamamos nuestra historia, reclamamos nuestro destino&rdquo: When we claim our past, we claim our future.

The Southern Revival School

Traditional Texas historians have always found it painful to associate the state with the vanquished, humiliated South. Before the Civil War, Texas was a relatively prosperous state with a thriving cotton-based economy. For years afterward, it was one of the poorest. During the Depression, historians seized on the optimism of the West and tried to put distance between Texas and its Confederate past. This was the era when Texas began to be regarded as Western rather than Southern&mdasha state shaped by ranching instead of farming, cattle instead of cotton, oil instead of timber, the scarcity of water instead of its abundance, the rough egalitarian frontier instead of the genteel planter aristocracy, and of course, heroes instead of losers.

Robert Calvert gets irritated by such talk. &ldquoTexas is Southern,&rdquo the A&M history professor says. &ldquoI could never relate to the ranching part of Texas history. Ranching wasn&rsquot my background. My family started out like most Texans, as landholders involved in the cotton economy. But by 1890, more than half the population, including whites, were reduced to sharecropping. My grandfather was one of them.&rdquo

Calvert&rsquos voice is so edged with good ol&rsquo boy twang that it is hard to imagine him involved in a revisionist flap. But that is what happened a few years ago. Local school board members were considering naming a campus for William Barrett Travis, and Calvert, according to the local paper, had objected that the legendary Alamo martyr was a womanizer, a slave trader, a reputed murderer, and a sufferer of venereal disease. Although the critic was actually one of his colleagues, Walter Buenger, Calvert later endorsed all of the charges. (The school board gave in and named the school for a black educator.)

It seems astonishing that today&rsquos Texas historians have to labor to prove Texas&rsquo Southern ties. Virginia native Randolph &ldquoMike&rdquo Campbell expected to miss his home state when he arrived at the University of North Texas in Denton three decades ago to teach history. But, he recalls, &ldquoI didn&rsquot notice any difference between the attitudes you hear people express in Virginia when it comes to schools, the role of state and national government, and race, and the attitudes they communicate in Texas. When I started listening to my students, I realized they don&rsquot have any idea that this is a Southern state or that slavery was really important here.&rdquo

Campbell tried to remedy the situation by writing An Empire for Slavery, published by LSU Press in 1989. He points out that on the eve of the Civil War, more than a quarter of Texas families owned slaves, and human chattel composed 30 percent of the state&rsquos population&mdashfigures that match antebellum Virginia&rsquos. An Empire for Slavery is replete with footnotes, which, if you were to follow them to their source, would take you to the newspaper morgues and county courthouses of many a Texas town. There he unearthed the moldering skeletons of the slave economy: yellowed probate records in which farmers bequeath slaves to their sons and daughters, receipts that tally the rental of slaves to other farms, and records showing how the income from leased slaves paid white children&rsquos tuition at fancy schools.

Calvert&rsquos A&M colleague Walter Buenger addresses the problem of why, fifteen years after Texas voted overwhelmingly to join the Union, it voted overwhelmingly to secede. He looked at the secessionists and found many recent immigrants from the South. But there were also immigrants with no tradition of slavery who didn&rsquot aspire to own slaves. And Anglo farmers near the Red River also had no stake in slavery because they couldn&rsquot ship cotton to market they raised crops like corn that did not require the help of slaves. By 1861 so many Texans were fighting over slavery and secession that portions of the state were close to their own civil war.

Buenger uses an unlikely metaphor to describe the misuse of Texas history: the Alamo. &ldquoOriginally it had an absolutely flat roof,&rdquo he says. &ldquoThen, in the 1840&rsquos, they added that characteristic limestone arch you see now. By the 1890&rsquos the building was in ruins, but when preservation started, instead of going back to the original flat roof, they went back to the added roof. That, to me, is how Texas history works. You never go back to the real thing you go back to what&rsquos been added on after the fact.&rdquo

The Mild West School

To many of the new historians, the real frontier heroes were the unknown ones. In Austin, St. Edward&rsquos University professor Paula Mitchell Marks has found that cloth reveals culture. &ldquoOne scrap of homemade fabric can tell us much about the realities and nuances of a woman&rsquos life, of a community&rsquos life, in nineteenth-century Texas,&rdquo she writes in her introduction to Hands to the Spindle: Texas Women and Home Textile Production 1822&mdash1880. Marks discovered that Stephen F. Austin favored homespun cloth over mass-produced fabric at his nascent colony so that everyone would appear to be on the same economic level. The newspaper of Austin&rsquos colony warned that manufactured cloth would produce &ldquodamsels&rdquo who guarded their fingernails and sought &ldquogaudy dress.&rdquo

In archives and libraries, Marks has ferreted out diaries and letters, as well as accounts of frontier Texas trade in everything from homespun cloth to hens&rsquo eggs. The documents reveal that many frontier women were the economic mainstays of their families. They were endlessly busy with food production, spinning, weaving, and other tasks that helped support their families. This female labor, Marks says, made possible the war making, politicking, land speculating, and other male wheeling and dealing that occupy the traditional history books.

The Texas frontier historians are more than multiculturalists they are also debunkers of the myths. Take the notion that frontier towns were hotbeds of gun-toting violence: Can any idea have been more central to Hollywood&rsquos idea of the West? East Texas State University historian Ty Cashion has found that the violence has often been overstated. Fort Griffin, a settlement near Abilene that once served as a pit stop for Dodge City&mdashbound trail drivers during the 1870&rsquos and 1880&rsquos, enjoys a reputation among frontier history buffs as a hell town of honky-tonks, gambling, prostitution, and random violence. The saloons and the prostitutes, with names like Polly Turnover and Slewfoot Jane, were an important part of life in Fort Griffin, but the police and court records Cashion examined show that wanton killing was relatively rare. When it did occur, it was generally carefully investigated, swiftly prosecuted, and strictly punished&mdashunless the victim was a member of an ethnic minority.

The Urban School

The traditional historians had little use for cities or for the post-frontier period of Texas history. Fehrenbach allots 45 pages of a 719-page book to a chapter called &ldquoThe Twentieth Century.&rdquo The word &ldquoSpindletop&rdquo does not appear in his index. Cities hold no fascination for him. To the new historians, the glorification of the rural culture at the expense of the urban is a serious omission in Texas history. Char Miller, who moved from Miami to San Antonio in 1981 to teach history at Trinity University, notes that the most celebrated moment in Texas history, the Battle of the Alamo, was an urban event. As small as it was, San Antonio de Béxar was the biggest settlement west of the Mississippi in 1836, which, Miller says, is precisely why the Texans chose the mission as the best place from which to harass the enemy. Nevertheless, Miller notes, the Alamo became a symbol for rural virtue and valor.

Miller coedited a collection of historical essays called Urban Texas. He introduces it to his students by handing out copies of a short story written by Stephen Crane at the turn of the century, &ldquoThe Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.&rdquo Crane describes the drunken gunslinger who arrives in a Wild West town near the Rio Grande as &ldquo[a] man in a maroon-coloured flannel shirt, which had been purchased for purposes of decoration, and made principally by some Jewish women on the East Side of New York.&rdquo To Miller, the passage&rsquos deliberate connection between frontier and metropolis shows that the West was never isolated from the city. &ldquoBoots, clothing, barbed wire&mdashthey all came from manufacturers in cities,&rdquo he says. Portrayals of cattle drives as purely rustic are belied by their routes, which took them through cities the Chisholm Trail ran along San Antonio, Austin, Waco, and Fort Worth because these cities were not only collection points for cattle but also outfitting centers for saddles, ropes, and groceries.

The new urban historians have made some surprising findings about the development of Texas cities. Texas Southern University&rsquos Cary Wintz has used turn-of-the-century census data to outline the development of residential segregation in Houston. The same data, however, also showed that white and black families often lived on the same streets in those days and even roomed and boarded with each other. The rigid residential patterns of later years, Miller&rsquos research has shown, were the result of the growth of suburbs, where property was expensive and deeds often had racial exclusions.

Miller thinks it is silly for any rural symbols to define Texas today. Since 1950, most Texans have lived in urban areas, and for most of the twentieth century, cities were gaining population at a faster rate than the country. But when traditional historians write about Houston or Dallas, they focus on entrepreneurial giants and their virtues of rugged individualism. &ldquoDallas, San Antonio, Houston&mdashthey&rsquove all grown by intense government and business cooperation, drawing heavily on federal money,&rdquo Miller says. San Antonio was subsidized by military bases, Dallas by defense industries, Houston by a ship channel, federal investment for wartime petrochemical industries (arranged by Houston&rsquos Jesse Jones, who was both Secretary of Commerce and head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation), and NASA. &ldquoI doubt,&rdquo says Miller, &ldquothat the Marlboro Man could have swung those deals.&rdquo

The Last Traditionalist

The one area in which traditional historians are no match for their mythic predecessors is the ability to bring history alive. Lone Star is, above all, a great read. &ldquoThe Texans,&rdquo Fehrenbach writes, &ldquocame closest to creating, in America, not a society but a people. . . . The closest 20th-century counterpart is the State of Israel, born in blood in another primordial land.&rdquo Into this holy territory, Sam Houston leads the charge at San Jacinto, &ldquohis heart thudding in a tremendous passion, cooly, cooly with his soldier&rsquos brain, knowing no power on earth was going to stop this headlong charge.&rdquo Melodramatic sometimes to a fault, Fehrenbach colors his language in the hues of an earlier time: The Indians are &ldquoStone Age savages,&rdquo blacks after the Civil War &ldquolacked motivation.&rdquo

But one can also find in Lone Star some of the very research of which the new social historians are so proud. To cite one such passage: &ldquoThe entire existence of this glittering cotton empire was based on the subordination and labor of the Negro slaves. There were 182,000 blacks in bondage in Texas, approximately one-third the entire population. Slavery was not completely popular. It was disliked by most free farmers, on racial, social, and competitive grounds.&rdquo Nor was Fehrenbach hostile to the cultures that the Texans conquered he has written admiring histories of both Mexico and the Comanche. His great difference with the social historians is that he does not approach nineteenth-century attitudes with a twentieth-century sensibility.

Today, at 73, Fehrenbach apologizes for the stale cigar smell of his office, but he makes no apology for his version of history: &ldquoRangers, cattle drives, Injuns, and gunfights may be mythology. But it&rsquos our mythology.&rdquo These romances, he says, are vital to Texans&rsquo ability to see themselves as a people and to confront the future of the state. Nonsense, retort the revisionists. Let the old myths die so we can get on with the modern world, a world in which very soon the majority of Texans will be what are now called &ldquominorities.&rdquo Now if only someone would write a revisionists&rsquo version of the history of Texas.

&ldquoI&rsquom optimistic that someone could do a book that would say to the public, &lsquoHey, look how far history has come! Look how many different stories we have today,&rsquo&rdquo says Paula Mitchell Marks. But, she cautions, &ldquoIt&rsquos going to require tremendous care to include all the different groups who made the history and their various viewpoints. The danger is that in trying to address everything, the book could become clunky and pedantic.&rdquo To all this Fehrenbach shrugs. Common people will never accept the attempt to demythologize Texas&mdash&ldquoEspecially,&rdquo he says, &ldquoif the alternative is flabby multiculturalism.

&ldquoI have no real use for the present,&rdquo he allows. &ldquoI don&rsquot believe in social science or all those tables and statistics. All the great historians have been great writers. But most of the new ones write small things. Hell, I read three pages of their work and my eyes dull.&rdquo Lone Star, he says, &ldquorepresented the worldview of the native Texan of mid-century, of my generation. Now, whether it makes sense for the youth of the nineties, I couldn&rsquot tell you. Every generation has to rewrite its history&mdashthat&rsquos a normal, psychological reaction against the fathers. But the book has lasted almost thirty years. That&rsquos longer than I ever dreamed.&rdquo

Deconstructing History

In Deconstructing History, Alun Munslow examines history in the postmodern age. He provides an introduction to the debates and issues of postmodernist history. He also surveys the latest research into the relationship between the past, history and historical practice as well as forwarding his own challenging theories.

The book discusses issues of both empiricist and deconstruction positions and considers the arguments of major proponents of both stances, and includes:

  • an examination of the character of historical evidence
  • exploration of the role of historians
  • discussion of the failure of traditional historical methods
  • chapters on Hayden White and Michel Foucault
  • an evaluation of the importance of historical narrative
  • an up to date, comprehensive bibliography
  • an extensive and helpful glossary of difficult key terms.

Deconstructing History maps the philosophical field, outlines the controversies involved and assesses the merits of the deconstructionist position. He argues that instead of beginning with the past history begin with its representation by historians.

Forget the Alamo unravels a Texas history made of myths, or rather, lies

It doesn’t look like that will change any time soon. On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill creating “The 1836 Project,” designed to “promote patriotic education” about the year Texas seceded from Mexico. In other words, the law will create a committee to ensure that educational materials centering “Texas values” are provided at state landmarks and encouraged in schools. This comes on the heels of the “critical race theory” bill that has passed through the Legislature, which would restrict how teachers can discuss current events and teach history. The American Historical Association has described the bill as “whitewashing American history,” stating: “Its apparent purposes are to intimidate teachers and stifle independent inquiry and critical thought among students.”

Nevertheless, a new book co-authored by three Texas writers, Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, urges us to reconsider the Alamo, a symbol we’ve been taught to fiercely and uncritically remember. The authors are aware that their book sounds like a desecration. Starting with the cover of Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of An American Myth, out this week from Penguin Press, the authors lean into associations of defacement with the title scrawled in what looks like red spray paint across an image of the old mission.

Written for popular audiences, the book challenges what the authors refer to as the “Heroic Anglo Narrative.” The traditional telling, which Texas public schools are still required to teach, glorifies the nearly 200 men who came to fight in an insurrection against Mexico in 1836. The devastation at the Alamo turned those men into martyrs leaving behind the prevailing story that they died for liberty and justice. Yet the authors of Forget the Alamo argue that the entire Texas Revolt — “which wasn’t really a revolt at all” — had more to do with protecting slavery from Mexico’s abolitionist government. As they explain it, and as Chicano writers, activists, and communities have long agreed, the events that occurred at the Alamo have been mythologized and used to demonize Mexicans in Texas history and obscure the role of slavery.

Taking a comprehensive look at how the mythos of the Alamo has been molded, Burrough, Tomlinson and Stanford paint a picture of American slaveholders’ racism as it made its way into Texas. In their stories of these early days, they peel back the facade of the holy trinity of Alamo figures: Jim Bowie, William Barret Travis and Davy Crockett. All three died at the Alamo and their surnames are memorialized on schools, streets, buildings, and even entire counties. They pull no punches describing Bowie as a “murderer, slaver, and con man” Travis as “a pompous, racist agitator” and Crockett as a “self-promoting old fool.”

In the nearly 200 years that followed the battle, we learn about the mechanics of how false histories were reinforced by patriotic white scholars and zealous legislators, including the “Second Battle of the Alamo,” when a Tejana schoolteacher fought to preserve a significant area of the compound. Ultimately she was silenced by the moneyed white elite in San Antonio who sought to transform it into a flashy park instead, and the authors suggest that this moment “represented the victory of mythmaking over historical accuracy.”

Well into the 20th century, it was rare that critical studies of the Alamo were taken seriously, although Latinx writers in the 1920s and Chicano activists in the 1960s wrote their own accounts of Tejano history. Starting in the middle of the century, Hollywood further cemented the profoundly conservative folklore through mass entertainment: In 1948, Walt Disney, fed up with left-leaning labor unions, made a television series on Davy Crockett to encourage “traditional” American values like patriotism, courage, self-sufficiency, and individual liberty, the authors write. John Wayne, a rabid anti-Communist, had similar motivations behind his vision for the film The Alamo, in 1960. Meant to draw parallels with the Soviet Union, Wayne’s characterization of Santa Anna was intended to portray “a bloodthirsty dictator trying to crush good men fighting for self-determination.”

Burrough, Tomlinson, and Stanford are all white male writers, which raises questions. Will this book be afforded the attention and legitimacy that related works by non-white authors haven’t been? Probably, but it shouldn’t. The authors are transparent about the fact that they are far from the first to present an alternative to the “Heroic Anglo Narrative,” and cite Latinx scholarship and perspectives throughout. “We trace its roots to the oral traditions of the Mexican American community, elements of which have long viewed the Alamo as a symbol of Anglo oppression,” they write early on. They dedicate multiple sections to the Mexican American experience of the Alamo myth, highlighting how widespread it is in the Latino community to experience shame and harassment within their school classrooms for being associated with the “bloody dictator” Santa Anna and being “the bad guys.”

The book is aimed at white readers and toward people who haven’t heard these alternative tellings before, which leads to a slightly more moderated tone, and despite their robust critiques, the authors seem conflicted about how strongly to indict Texas history overall. There’s still so much more to unravel about early Texas, especially for Native Americans, whose histories they rarely delve into: The story of the Alamo before 1800 — it was built in 1718 by Spanish missionaries to convert Indigenous people to Christianity — is reduced to about a page. If Forget the Alamo becomes a definitive text of revisionist Texas history, there’s a serious question of whether non-white writers, activists, and scholars will ever get their due. There’s also a question of whether the truth they’ve voiced for generations will prevail: When will it finally be normal within Texas history scholarship to call the whole foundation rotten?

Still, the book provides strong, provocative critiques of U.S. imperialism and colonialism. The writers make clear that even before Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, U.S. presidents and Washington insiders were invested in — and had a hand in — destabilizing the region in the hopes of eventually annexing Texas. Forget the Alamo also turns to LBJ, who once said, “Hell, Vietnam is just like the Alamo,” and suggests that the patriotic, pioneering myth of the Alamo has been used to buttress justifications for war across the globe and to the present.

The myth of the Alamo, as we know it, is a lie. It’s been a part of the lie students have learned in school, and animates the lies peddled by legislation like the 1836 Project and the critical race theory bill. But if you want to truly remember the past, you first have to forget it.

This article was originally published by the Texas Observer , a nonprofit investigative news outlet.

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Articles Featuring Battle Of The Alamo From History Net Magazines

February 23, 1836, began the siege of the Alamo, a 13-day moment in history that turned a ruined Spanish mission in the heart of downtown San Antonio, Texas, into a shrine known and revered the world over. But what is it that makes this one battle so different from any other battle fought in the name of freedom? The people involved? Yes, that’s part of it. The issues at hand? Yes, that’s another part. Or can it be that the mysteries, myths and legends surrounding it are still tantalizing minds even today? Yes. Yes. Yes. All of these things have made the battle stand apart and have caused it to be so well remembered throughout the nation 160 years later. Yet, as historian Walter Lord said in 1960, ‘It is…a rash man indeed who claims he has the final answer to everything that happened at the Alamo.

History records three revolutions that led to the Battle of the Alamo. The first, the Spanish revolt against French occupation of Spain, occurred in 1808. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain, and it took six years for Spanish resistance forces to oust the French emperor and restore Ferdinand VII to the throne. The fires of the Spanish revolt crossed the ocean, and in Mexico Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bells of his small church in Dolores at midnight on September 15, 1810, to herald the beginning of the second revolution. This Mexican revolt against Spanish occupation traveled quickly across Mexico and into the northern frontier of the Mexican territory of Texas. San Antonio de Béxar, the capital of Texas, became a center of revolutionary activity and a haven for resistance fighters. One revolutionary, Captain Jose Menchaca, was captured by Spanish troops, shot and beheaded. His head was then stuck on a pole in front of the Alamo. Instead of setting an example for the other insurgents, however, Menchaca’s execution only added fuel to the revolt.

After an 11-year struggle, Mexico gained its freedom in 1821. Within that same year, Agustin de Iturbide, a Spanish general turned rebel and a hero of the revolution, became emperor of the new nation. But his regime was too extravagant for some tastes, and in no time a revolt led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna brought about Iturbide’s downfall and established a Mexican republic.

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Under Iturbide, American colonists had been allowed to settle in Texas. About the only condition to owning land was that all immigrant landowners had to be Catholic, an easy enough problem to overcome for non-Catholics. William Travis, for instance, became Catholic to purchase land, but remained a staunch Methodist until the day he died at the Alamo.

Unfortunately, the fledgling Republic of Mexico was born bankrupt and ill-prepared for self-government. In fact, during its first 15 years of independence, it had 13 presidents. All of them struggled for power, shifting between the liberal-leaning Federalists and the dictatorial Centralists. The first president was a Federalist, General Guadalupe Victoria, a hero of the revolution who had changed his name from Miguel Felix Hernandez to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, for his victory. It was he who established the liberal Constitution of 1824 that so infuriated Santa Anna and that would lead to the Battle of the Alamo 12 years later.

It was also during this tumultuous struggle for control of Mexico’s presidency that the northern territory of Texas was mostly neglected. When Mexico redefined its territories in 1824, Texas was the only separate territory to lose its independence. It was joined to Coahuila and the capital was moved from San Antonio de Béxar to Saltillo. Armed citizens gathered in protest. In September 1835, they petitioned for statehood separate from Coahuila. They wrote out their needs and their complaints in The Declaration of Causes. This document was designed to convince the Federalists that the Texans desired only to preserve the 1824 Constitution, which guaranteed the rights of everyone living on Mexican soil. But by this time, Santa Anna was in power, having seized control in 1833, and he advocated the removal of all foreigners. His answer was to send his crack troops, commanded by his brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cós, to San Antonio to disarm the Texans.

October 1835 found San Antonio de Béxar under military rule, with 1,200 Mexican troops under General Cós’ command. When Cós ordered the small community of Gonzales, about 50 miles east of San Antonio, to return a cannon loaned to the town for defense against Indian attack–rightfully fearing that the citizens might use the cannon against his own troops–the Gonzales residents refused. Come and take it! they taunted, setting off a charge of old chains and scrap iron, shot from the mouth of the tiny cannon mounted on ox-cart wheels. Although the only casualty was one Mexican soldier, Gonzales became enshrined in history as the Lexington of Texas. The Texas Revolution was on.

On December 5, 200 Texan volunteers commanded by Ben Milam attacked Cós’ troops in San Antonio de Béxar, which was about 400 yards from the Alamo compound. The fighting in Béxar raged with a house-to-house assault unlike anything the Mexican army had ever before experienced. Cós finally flew the white flag of surrender from the Alamo on December 9. More than 200 of his men lay dead, and as many more were wounded. He signed papers of capitulation, giving the Texans all public property, money, arms and ammunition in San Antonio, and by Christmas Day, the Mexican army was back across the Rio Grande. To the Texans, who lost about 20 men, including Ben Milam, the victory seemed cheap and easy.

The siege of Béxar and Cós’ surrender brought immediate retaliation from Santa Anna. He whipped together a force of 8,000 men, many of them foreign adventurers from Europe and America. One of his deadliest snipers was an Illinois man named Johnson! Santa Anna, the self-styled Napoleon of the West, marched at the head of the massive army he was determined to stamp out all opposition and teach the Texans a lesson. The word went out to his generals: In this war, you understand, there are no prisoners.

Although it was midwinter, Santa Anna pushed his army mercilessly toward Texas. The frigid, wind-battered deserts of northern Mexico took their toll. Men and animals died by the hundreds and were left on the trail, and the brigades strung out for uncounted miles. When the big siege guns bogged down in one of the many quagmires, Santa Anna pushed on without them. Nothing would stop him. Meanwhile, after the defeated Mexican force under General Cós had left San Antonio, Colonel James C. Neill had assumed command of the Alamo garrison, which consisted of about 80 poorly equipped men in several small companies, including the volunteers. The rest of the soldiers had returned home to their families and farm chores. In this command were an artillery company under Captain William R. Carey known as the Invincibles, two small infantry companies known as the New Orleans Greys under Captain William Blazeby, and the Béxar Guards under Captain Robert White.

On January 17, 1836, Sam Houston, the commander of the revolutionary troops, sent Colonel Jim Bowie and 25 men to San Antonio with orders to destroy the Alamo fortifications and retire eastward with the artillery. But Bowie and Neill agreed that it would be impossible to remove the 24 captured cannons without oxen, mules or horses. And they deemed it foolhardy to abandon that much firepower–by far the most concentrated at any location during the Texas Revolution. Bowie also had a keen eye for logistics, terrain, and avenues of assault. Knowing that General Houston needed time to raise a sizable army to repel Santa Anna, Bowie set about reinforcing the Alamo after Neill was forced to leave because of sickness in his family.

Colonel William Travis arrived in San Antonio on February 2 with a small cavalry company, bringing the total number of Alamo defenders to about 130. Although spies told him that Santa Anna had crossed the Rio Grande, Travis did not expect the dictator before early spring. He sent letter after letter, pleading for supplies and more men. He and Bowie also competed for command of the garrison before it was decided that Bowie would command the volunteers and Travis the regular army. On February 9, David Crockett and the 14 other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers (only three were actually from Tennessee) rode into San Antonio. Alarmed by the Mexican army on the outskirts of town, Travis vigorously renewed his pleas for help. His February 24 letter, To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World….I shall never surrender or retreat….Victory or Death! is considered one of the most heart-wrenching pleas ever written. Travis sent the message out with Captain Albert Martin.

The day before, February 23, Santa Anna had reclaimed San Antonio. To the triumphant music of a military band, he took possession of the town, set up headquarters on the main plaza, and began the siege. He had his standard-bearers climb to the top of the bell tower of San Fernando Church and unfurl the scarlet flag of no quarter. Inside the Alamo, Travis and the Texans fired their message to Santa Anna with a blast from their 18-pounder. They had their music, too, with Davy Crockett’s fiddle and John McGregor’s bagpipes. In fact, Davy’s fiddle-playing and outlandish storytelling kept up the spirits of the besieged defenders.

Santa Anna ordered his men to pound the fortifications with cannon and rifle fire for 12 days and nights. His idea was to wear out the defenders inside, giving them no chance for rest or sleep. He reasoned that a weary army would be an easy one to defeat. But the noise worked on his own army, too. Unable to hear clearly through the din, they allowed courier after courier to escape from the Alamo. On March 2, racing through the enemy’s lines, the last group to reinforce the Alamo arrived. These men were the relief force from Gonzales, the only town to answer Travis’ pleas to send help. The total number of Alamo defenders now stood at between 180 and 190.

At 4 o’clock on the morning of March 6, 1836, Santa Anna advanced his men to within 200 yards of the Alamo’s walls. Just as dawn was breaking, the Mexican bloodcurdling bugle call of the Deguello echoed the meaning of the scarlet flag above San Fernando: no quarter. It was Captain Juan Seguin’s Tejanos, the native-born Mexicans fighting in the Texan army, who interpreted the chilling music for the other defenders.

Santa Anna’s first charge was repulsed, as was the second, by the deadly fire of Travis’ artillery. At the third charge, one Mexican column attacked near a breach in the north wall, another in the area of the chapel, and a third, the Toluca Battalion, commenced to scale the walls. All suffered severely. Out of 800 men in the Toluca Battalion, only 130 were left alive. Fighting was hand to hand with knives, pistols, clubbed rifles, lances, pikes, knees and fists. The dead lay everywhere. Blood spilled in the convent, the barracks, the entrance to the church, and finally in the rubble-strewn church interior itself. Ninety minutes after it began, it was over.

All the Texans died. Santa Anna’s loss was 1,544 men. More than 500 Mexicans lay wounded, their groans mingling with the haunting strains of the distant bugle calls. Santa Anna airily dismissed the Alamo conquest as a small affair, but one of his officers commented, Another such victory will ruin us.

As many of the Mexican dead as possible were given the rites of the church and buried, but there were so many that there was not sufficient room in the cemetery. Santa Anna ordered all the bodies of the Texans to be contemptuously stacked like cord wood in three heaps, mixed with fuel, wood and dry branches from the neighboring forest, and set on fire–except one. Jose Gregorio Esparza was given a Christian burial because his brother Francisco was a member of General Cós’ presidio guards.

Six weeks after the Alamo, while the Mexican wounded still languished in San Antonio, Santa Anna met his Waterloo at San Jacinto. The men who died inside the walls of the Alamo had bought with their lives the time needed for General Sam Houston to weld a force that won Texas its independence. The great sacrifice would not be forgotten by history, nor would the Alamo’s many legends and stories, most of which can never be proved or disproved because all the defenders died.

One of the most enduring questions is whether Travis really did draw a line in the earth, the grand canyon of Texas, and ask all to step over who were willing to die for the cause. It is probably based on fact. Travis anticipated a battle to the death. Since he was also one for fairness, it’s logical to believe that he would give the men an opportunity to leave the ill-fated garrison. It is a fact that one man did leave. Louis Rose was from France, and he had already served in one bloody war as a noncommissioned officer in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. Before the final assault on the Alamo he left, sustaining many leg wounds from cactuses and thorns during his escape that plagued him the remainder of his life. Asked why he chose not to stay with the rest, he replied, By God, I wasn’t ready to die. It is Rose’s tale of the line in the dust that has become legend.

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Two of Santa Anna’s earliest opponents were Erasmo Seguin and his son Juan, of San Antonio. In fact, it was Juan who became one of the staunchest fighters for Texas freedom, forming his own band of Tejanos to stand alongside his Anglo counterparts. Juan Seguin was on a courier mission for Travis when the Alamo fell, but he vowed to one day honor the Alamo dead in a church ceremony, a ceremony that had been denied by Santa Anna. Legend claims that Seguin collected the ashes and placed them in a casket covered with black. Inside the lid, he had the names of Travis, Bowie and Crockett engraved. He then buried the casket. Where? No one knows. Shortly before his death, when he was in his 80s, Juan Seguin stated that he had buried the casket outside the sanctuary railing, near the steps in the old San Fernando Church. In 1936, repair work on the altar railing of the cathedral led to the unearthing of a box containing charred bones, rusty nails, shreds of uniforms and buttons, particles of coal, and crushed skulls. From that discovery arose a controversy that continues to this day. Are they the bones of the Alamo defenders? Many believe yes, but since the defenders did not wear uniforms, many others think not.

Questions also still remain about the death of David Crockett, who, without doubt, was the most famous defender of the siege. Shortly after the capture of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, rumors began to circulate that 49-year-old Crockett had not died alongside his men in the final moments of the Alamo. Conflicting testimony claimed that Crockett and a handful of others–including Lieutenant James Butler Bonham, who rode back into the Alamo on March 3 knowing full well that it was a death trap–survived the siege, only to be destroyed on the orders of an enraged Santa Anna a few minutes later. True…or not? No one may ever really know. But most people prefer to believe that Crockett died a heroic death inside the Alamo.

Davy Crockett was a national folk hero long before the events of the Alamo. Born August 17, 1786, in an East Tennessee wilderness cabin in what is now Greene County, he struck out on his own at the tender age of 12 to help drive a herd of cattle to Virginia. By 1813, he was serving as one of General Andrew Jackson’s scouts in the Creek War. He apparently did not enjoy fighting Indians and returned home as soon as his 90-day enlistment was up. In 1821, he was elected to the Tennessee Legislature for the first time, representing a district of 11 western counties in the state. He later served two terms in the United States Congress.

Crockett was always one for adventure. When defeated at the polls for a third term in Congress in 1835, he turned in typical Crockett fashion to the cause of Texan freedom as a way to completely cut off one phase of his life and begin another. Before leaving for Texas, however, he gave his constituents one last speech. He concluded …by telling them that I was done with politics for the present, and that they might all go to hell, and I would go to Texas. After arriving in San Antonio in early February 1836, Crockett and the other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers eventually retreated into the Alamo.

The old fortress spread over three acres as it surrounded a rough rectangle of bare ground, about the size of a gigantic city block, called the plaza. On the south side of this plaza and detached from the church by a distance of some 10 feet was a long one-story building called the low barracks. Adobe huts spread along the west side, which was protected by a 12-foot-high stone wall. A similar wall ran across the north side. A two-story building called the long barracks/convent/hospital covered the east side, along with the church, which sat in the southeast corner, facing west.

Crockett and his men defended a low wooden palisade erected to breach the gap between the church and the low barracks of the south wall. The position of the low barracks was in front of, and perpendicular to, the right side of the church–an area that is now covered in flagstone. This palisade consisted of two rows of pointed wooden stakes with rocks and earth between the rows. All combatants considered the position to be the most vulnerable and hardest to defend area of the fortress. But Crockett and the other Tennesseans were expert marksmen, the best the small Texan army had. They most likely held their position until death.

As news of Crockett’s death swept across America, some stories portrayed him as standing in the thickest of the fighting, using his trusty flintlock rifle Old Betsy like a club, until being cut down by Mexican bayonets and bullets. Well…maybe that’s the way it really happened. Then again…maybe not.

Minutes after the fighting ceased, Santa Anna instructed Alcalde Francisco Ruiz to identify the bodies of the dead Texans, especially those of the leaders. According to the alcalde, Toward the west and in a small fort opposite the city, we found the body of Colonel Crockett…and we may infer that he either commanded that point or was stationed there as a sharpshooter. The only logical explanation is that the small courtyard bounded by the palisade on the south, the church on the east and the hospital on the north, where Crockett and the Tennesseans were stationed, was considered a small fort all its own.

But one month later, the imprisoned General Cós told Dr. George Patrick that Davy Crockett had survived the battle. According to Cós, Crockett had locked himself in one of the rooms of the barracks. When the Mexican soldiers discovered him, Crockett explained that he was on a visit and had accidentally got caught in the Alamo after it was too late to escape. Cós further said that Crockett wanted him to intercede with Santa Anna, asking for mercy, which Cós agreed to do–only Santa Anna had ordered no quarter and was incensed at such a request. The Mexican leader refused to spare Crockett’s life.

In 1878, writer Josephus Conn Guild offered a similar version in which Crockett and five others survived the siege. When overrun by the Mexican soldiers, the Alamo survivors surrendered to General Manuel Castrillón under promise of his protection, …but being taken before Santa Anna, they were by his orders instantly put to death. Colonel Crockett fell with a dozen swords sheathed in his breast. Actually, much of the same story had appeared as far back as 1836, when the diary of Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña was published in Mexico City. When the diary was finally published in English in the 1970s, it stirred up those Americans who felt the heroic Crockett never would have surrendered.

Another account, from Mexican Sergeant Felix Nunez, related details of the death of a Texan on the palisade: He was a tall American of rather dark complexion and had a long buckskin coat and a round cap without any bill, made of fox skin with the long tail hanging down his back. This man apparently had a charmed life. Of the many soldiers who took deliberate aim at him and fired, not one ever hit him. On the contrary, he never missed a shot. He may not have been describing Davy Crockett, but who else dressed in that fashion?

Susanna Dickinson (sometimes spelled Dickerson), one of the noncombatant survivors of the battle, stated in her memoirs that she saw Crockett and a handful of others lying mangled and mutilated between the church and the two-story barrack building, and even remembered seeing his peculiar cap laying by his side, as she was led from the scene by a Mexican officer. Perhaps she had seen Crockett after his execution, which supposedly occurred near the front of the church. But some people just won’t buy a capture-execution scenario. And perhaps Reuben Marmaduke Potter had it right all along when he wrote, David Crockett never surrendered to bear or tiger, Indian or Mexican.

There is also a controversial story about the Alamo’s secondmost legendary figure. That story, which has never been proved one way or the other, says that Bowie was the last to die in the fighting at the Alamo.

Jim Bowie, whose exploits made his name familiar in almost every American home during his lifetime, was born about 1796 (in either Tennessee, Kentucky, or Georgia–sources vary). When Jim was in his teens, the family settled at Bayou Boeuf, Rapides Parish, La., where he later operated a sugar plantation with his brother Rezin. It was his involvement with the pirate Jean Lafitte in the slave trade, though, that earned him a measure of notoriety. In September 1827, he killed a man with his huge knife during a brawl on a Mississippi sandbar just above Natchez. It was the Vidalia sandbar fight that firmly established him as a legendary fighter throughout the South.

Bowie left for Texas in 1828 to settle in San Antonio de Béxar, where his land dealings made him modestly wealthy almost overnight. Bowie also became a Mexican citizen and married into the Mexican aristocracy, which, more than anything else, gained him the friendship, confidence and support of the Mexican population. By 1831, he was fluent in Spanish.

Since he had been a colonel in a Texas Ranger company in 1830, he carried this title and authority when he answered the call for Texan volunteers. The 40-year-old frontiersman and Indian fighter was described as a normally calm, mild man until his temper was aroused. Absolutely fearless, he gave orders to the volunteers at the Alamo while 26-year-old Colonel Travis, a disciplinarian, took charge of the regulars and cavalry. The difference in their personalities, coupled with the difference in their ages, resulted in the two men sharing a somewhat antagonistic competition for command of the entire garrison. On one point they did agree: The Alamo was the most important stronghold of Texas.

Sometime around February 21, 1836, Bowie decided to help construct a lookout post or gun garrison along one of the walls. Although there are conflicting opinions on what actually happened, most accounts think that he lost his balance on the scaffold and fell 8 feet to the ground, breaking either his hip or his leg. This incident has also been called hogwash by other historians, who claim that Bowie never suffered any accident while at the Alamo. Whether or not he also suffered from tuberculosis, diphtheria, or the dreaded typhoid pneumonia is also a matter of conjecture. In any event, Bowie’s incapacitation left Travis with full authority from that point onward.

Bowie took to his sick bed in the low barracks on or about the second day of the siege, and there’s little doubt that he would have succumbed to his illness in a matter of days had not the Mexican soldiers dispatched him when they did.

On the final day of the 13-day siege, legend claims that it was Crockett who stole into Bowie’s room and gave the sick man two pistols to be used for defense. Most accounts agree that Bowie was found dead on his cot, but since his nurse, Madame Candelaria, never told the exact same story twice about the sequence of events, who really knows what happened that day? Bowie probably participated in the battle, dying in the fall of the Alamo with the other defenders. But was he the last to fall? Everyone agrees that the last position to fall was the church, and Bowie wasn’t even close to the church. As the Mexican soldiers stormed over the walls of the compound, the defenders raced to the long barracks, where there was no exit, and to the church. None of them ferried a sick man on a cot.

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Still, the Mexican soldiers could have taken pity on Bowie when they saw him more dead than alive, prostrate on his cot in his room in the low barracks. In fact, an odd report claims that as the funeral pyres blazed high and soldiers heaped dead Texans on the pile, some soldiers carried out a man on a cot, a man the captain of the detail identified as no other than the infamous Bowie. Although the man was still alive, Santa Anna ordered him thrown into the fire along with the rest. Would Santa Anna be so cruel? Yes, especially if the man were a Mexican citizen fighting in the Texan army.

Although the fact remains that no one knows why some 188 men chose to die on the plains of Texas in a ruined Spanish mission that required at least 1,200 men to adequately defend all its acreage, their sacrifice brought Texas independence, which paved the way for expansion to the Pacific and added more than a million square miles to the American nation at that time. And because of their sacrifice, the Alamo is now a shrine respected and revered throughout the world. Remember the Alamo became the battle cry that broke Santa Anna’s back.

This article was written by Lee Paul and originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!

References & Further Reading

Daughters of the Republic of Texas. "History of The Alamo." The Official Alamo Website. Daughters of the Republic of Texas, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://www.thealamo.org/history/index.html>

Jerry Patterson. The Alamo: 300 Years of Texas History. San Diego: Beckon Books, 2004.

John Wayne. The Alamo (Film). Hollywood, CA: United Artists, 1960.

Richard G. Santos. "Mythologizing The Alamo." San Antonio Express News. 3 Mar. 1990, Volume 125: 6-C.

Unknown. "The Alamo, Shrine of Texas Liberty." San Antonio Light. 18 Apr. 1926, Volume 45: 6.

Wild West History. "The Alamo: The Real Story (Wild West History Documentary)." YouTube. YouTube, 12 May 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oueKEtP1pl8>

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