Introduction to the Alamo

The Alamo today
There have been a wide range of films and TV programs made about the Alamo and the famous battle between Texans and Mexicans, some more historically accurate, while others stretched the truth to breaking point.

What was the real story - why did Bowie, Crockett and Travis take part and what role did they play? Who lead the Mexicans?

Were all the heroics in vain and who survived? Were they all Texans?

Three and a half million people visit the Alamo each year to remember it’s eventful history.

We endeavour to reveal the facts from the legend.

To do so, we will have to travel back in time to set the scene - right back to 1718 in fact. Read on…….

Originally built in 1718 on the east bank of the San Antonio River by Father Antonio Olivares and called Mission San Antonio de Valaro, the Alamo was one of five Catholic missions giving shelter to the missionaries and their Indian converts, during the Spanish colonisation of Texas, north of the Rio Bravo and Rio Grande, in the centre of Texas, teaching cattle rearing, weaving, carpentry and stone masonry to the local Indians. At first the mission was a cluster of temporary thatched log buildings on a three acre site surrounded by a 12-foot high stone wall, containing irrigated crops of corn, melons, grapes and beans, and the first ranch in Texas with cattle and horses. Across the river was the town of San Antonio de Bexar, situated on one of the major roads through Texas.

In 1724, it was rebuilt in adobe and stone on it’s present site, on the west bank of the San Antonio River, due to a hurricane destroying the original buildings. A two-story building was added in 1727, incorporating living quarters for the priests, offices, dining hall and kitchens, called the Long Barracks. A stone church was built in 1744 in the southeast corner of the Long Barracks, which collapsed due to faulty construction. Two years later, the construction of a new church commenced, but it was never completed.

In 1793, the missions were abandoned by the Spanish church and handed over to the civil authorities of Texas. The Spanish Cavalry garrisoned the missions, including the Mission San Antonio de Valaro, who had Spanish troops from Alamo de Parras in Mexico. They renamed the mission El Alamo, after their home, which took it's name from the large cottonwood trees nearby, the Spanish word for Cottonwood being "Alamo". It was further guarded by means of a cannon and a stone tower. Other buildings included a granary, blacksmith and weaving workshop. The incomplete church also had a cemetery with records showing 1000 burials. Local Spanish settlers received surplus land, while the converted Indians continued to farm the original fields.

A Cottonwood tree
In 1803, the first hospital in Texas was established in the old priest’s quarters upstairs, and a doctor installed. At the time, responsibility for Texas was given to the governor of Coahuila, Manuel Antonio Cordero y Bustaniante, who was concerned that frontier soldiers had no medical facilities in central Texas. He ordered the establishment of a 30-bed infirmary and hired a doctor, attendants and cook to treat the patients. Unfortunately, difficulties in obtaining medical supplies and equipment from the Spanish government together with a lack of qualified staff hampered the whole operation and it was eventually closed in the 1820s.

Between 1811 and 1821, the Alamo was involved in the Texan revolution against Mexico for independence, and ownership changed many times. In 1822, the Spanish troops moved out following Mexico’s independence, to be replaced by Mexican Cavalry troops who took over residency of the mission, bringing their families to form a community of over 250. Mexico, eager to colonise Texas, gave permission for a colony of 300 American families to settle in southeast Texas. These were known as the "Old Three Hundred". Although Anglo-Americans were already living in Texas at the time, the settlement was the official beginning of Anglo American colonisation in Texas. By 1836, between 35,000 and 500,000 people had settled in Texas, most of them illegally.

When Santa Anna assumed the Mexican presidency and overhauled the federalist administration in favour of a centralist one, tensions between his government and the Texans began to mount. After Mexico independence in 1821, the Alamo became a symbol of Mexican authority on the Texas frontier. Growing tension in Texas was the result of cultural, political and religious differences between the Anglo-Americans and the Mexican government. The Texans wanted to govern itself, independently from Mexico. In response, Antonio de Santa Anna, the president of Mexico, reinforced Mexican troops in Texas. A battle was fought at Gonzales on 2 October 1835 by General Martin Perfecto de Cos, in which the Mexican forces were defeated trying to retrieve a cannon, taunted by the famous flag bearing the words 'Come and Take It', after a two-month siege which ended when Texans retaliated in a five-day attack, known as the Storming of Bexar.

The Alamo was then fortified by General Cos to repel Texas rebels, and during the battle of Bexar, Mexican forces of over 1000 men divided between the two missions, held out for 56 days until lack of food generated an amnesty. Cos finally surrendered and left Texas in disgrace in December 1835, leaving the victorious rebel army to take over the Alamo and the town. Though there were earlier minor skirmishes, the Battle of Gonzales is generally considered to be the first battle for Texas' independence.

The rebels organised an attack on Matamoros in Mexico, taking weapons, supplies and men from San Antonio, leaving only 100 men to guard both the Alamo and Bexar. Col. Travis bought a small reinforcement of 30 to the Alamo to assist Col. Neill. Col. Bowie arrived later with another 30 volunteers. The Alamo mission itself was already in a state of disrepair, including the low barracks building on the south side. On the west side of the Alamo were a series of adobe huts protected by a stone wall which ran across to the north side; on the eastern side of the Alamo was a two story building which contained the long barracks, convent and hospital; the Alamo church sat in the south east corner facing west. It was only through the military engineer Green Jameson's inspirations that the Alamo mission could be fortified. Despite it's 18 cannons the Alamo was considered by most military experts not able to be suitably defended. Military Historians later agreed the Alamo would have taken over one thousand men to properly defend. The 189 strong band of defenders in the Alamo had very little chance of success. Outriders were sent to look for Santa Anna and his troops and reported on the proximity of the troops. Col. Crockett arrived with 12 men. Shortly after, Col. Neill received word that his family were ill and he was needed at home. As Travis had arrived, Neill was granted furlough and set off homeward, hoping to return before the Alamo was attacked. Travis sent riders with messages for assistance, and food. He hoped to hold out until reinforcements arrived. Travis commanded the Alamo's regular troops and Bowie commanded his own volunteers, as neither side wanted to take orders off another commander. They all worked ceaselessly fortifying the walls, installing cannon, erecting palisades and strengthening their defences, whilst Santa Anna and his troops grew ever closer. They all knew their numbers were insufficient, but hoped to buy enough time for extra soldiers to arrive to increase both their numbers and chances of success. Col. Travis again sent out for help to when word arrived that Santa Anna was closer. Eventually, the Mexican forces arrived and Santa Anna called for the Alamo's surrender. Travis answered with a cannonball. His intention was clear - there would be no surrender. Angry, Santa Anna had his bugler sound the Deguello meaning No Quarter (death). The men inside the Alamo knew what it meant, surrendering was no longer an option. For 12 days, Santa Anna bombarded the walls with his cannon, with no respite for sleep, hoping to wear down the Texan fighters. Bowie became ill, some say he fell from the wall and injured himself; either way, he was incapacitated and taken to a bed. His men now took command from Travis, and fought alongside the regular troops. Despairing, Travis again sent a plea for help - the famous line of "Victory or Death" - to anyone who would come to assist. He gathered everyone in the courtyard and drew a line in the sand with his sword, asking all who would stay with him to fight to the death to cross it and join him. Those that chose not to cross could leave with no qualms. Everyone crossed the line to Travis.

After 12 days of continual bombardment and scouting of the walls by the Mexican troops, a point of weakness had been found. Santa Anna drew up a plan to breach the north wall of the Alamo, which was the weakest, attacking before daybreak. He ordered a lull in the cannon fire, hoping the Texans would take advantage of sleep. The Texans mounted a guard on the walls and most of them were resting when the Mexicans began their final attack. The first columns of Mexican troops advanced and were shot by the guards on the wall; the remaining guards rushed to the north side, stirring the rest as they went. All defenders gathered on the wall, and shot at the next wave of Mexicans. The next wave reached the wall and went over. As soon as the Mexicans were in the Alamo, Travis called his men behind palisades erected near the church. From there they fired on Mexican soldiers as they came over the wall, until Mexicans who had landed safely then turned the Alamo's cannon on the men inside. Before long, most of the firing had ceased. All 189 men had died, with the loss of between 600 and 1,400 Mexican soldiers. Some say a few were captured - Crockett, and 6 others - who were taken before Santa Anna who had them tortured and killed. Other reports say only women, children and slaves were spared, who were taken before Santa Anna, then released.

Santa Anna gave his dead a Christian burial. He had his soldiers build a large fire and ordered the bodies of the dead Texans to be thrown on the flames. Two fires were built, cremating the Texans. Only one of the Texans was afforded a burial. He was Enrique Esparza, who had a brother in Santa Anna's army. His brother asked and received permission to bury him. Santa Anna allowed the women, children and slaves released to take the news of the fall of the Alamo. The Alamo and its battle had very little significance in halting Santa Anna and the huge Mexican Army physically but the defeat induced emotional rage throughout Texas. Defeat at the Alamo stirred a cry for revenge.

The cannon
The Mexican Army then stationed 1001 soldiers at the Alamo and, for the next 90 days, repaired the damaged Fort. A subsequent massacre of Texans who had surrendered at Goliad on March 27, 1836 led to the battle cry of Texas' independence, 'Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!' Texas independence was finalised at the Battle of San Jacinto with the battle cry being, "Remember the Alamo!" In May 1836, after the Battle of San Jacinto, orders were received to destroy the Fort and retreat. Eighteen Mexican soldiers of the old Alamo Company remained until the Fort was turned over to Juan Seguin and his Texan forces. During the next 9 years, the ruined Alamo was occupied at various times by the Republic of Texas Troops; twice, in 1842, by the Mexican Army troops; and by local Texans and Indians under Juan Seguin. Most of the walls were gone or in ruins and a few local Mexican families rebuilt their homes along the west walls. In 1840, the San Antonio City Council sold rocks from the Alamo at fifty cents a cartload.

Following the annexation of Texas in 1845, the Alamo Plaza area underwent massive development. Sam Maverick, formerly a member of the Alamo defenders who left prior to the siege, acquired most of the land around the Alamo and subdivided the old fields for a development called Alamo City. In 1841, the U.S. Army moved into the old convent and re-roofed the building in 1847. In 1850, a new roof and parapet was added to the old Alamo Church. The parapet may have been moved from nearby Mission San Jose. The Army used the building for quartermaster supplies for all the frontier forts in Texas in the 1880’s.

Since then, the Alamo has been in the hands of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas who maintain the site, manage the library which they set up there, and welcome tourists who come to visit the museum and shrine that the Alamo has become. The Alamo is open to the public Monday to Saturdays, (except on America's public holidays) where they are happy to give a guided tour of the buildings and grounds to all interested in learning the Alamo's history.

Vistors come from all over the world to view the site where a handful of people showed courage for a cause they believed in and were prepared to die for, against massive odds.

©RIYAN Productions