By Gregg Reese
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
— from the 1962 revisionist western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
During the settlement of the “New World,” American history and mythology evolved simultaneously, to the point where the lines between each became blurred. Among the most prominent of these is the saga of the Battle of the Alamo circa 1836, an old Texas Spanish mission wherein a few intrepid Anglo settlers made a gallant last stand against a numerically superior force of Mexican troops under the command of dictatorial Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna. Rather than succumb to the dictates of their tyrannical Mexican oppressors, legendary figures Jim Bowie, William B. Travis, and Davy Crockett fought to the death, and paved the way for Texas’ independence and eventual entry in the Union.
Alas, that is just part of the story.
Shaping a colony in the New World
Like much of the Americas, the area we know as Texas was caught up in the European tug-of-war called colonialism. By the 1800s, Spain had wrestled the Mexican territories from their primary rivals, the French (who left a legacy of Cajun/Creole language dialects in their wake), solidifying the network of settlements they’d been cultivating for generations. These included a complex of battlements and a Franciscan chapel, comprising a religious mission near present-day San Antonio. It became known for the grove of cottonwood trees (“álamo” in Spanish) nearby.
As time passed, east Texas attracted Anglo settlers from the southeastern United States, eager to exploit the vast acres of fertile land in the Brazos River Valley. This area was especially suited for growing cotton and sugar, crops these newcomers had became proficient in cultivating through the use of slave labor.
The Mexican government (newly independent from Spain) which had jurisdiction over the land, initially welcomed these settlers, in part because they provided a buttress against the Comanches and other Indian tribes who’d previously allied with the Spanish, but now regularly raided Mexican landowners for horses and supplies. The newly established government was cash-strapped with little funding to protect these isolated ranches. The Anglo settlers in turn earned the animosity of the Indians by slaughtering herds of buffalo, which the Comanches depended on for food.
The newly formed Republic of Mexico, caught up in the fervor of revolutionary idealism, was compelled to deny these latecomers’ plan to continue the practice of servitude, especially in light of the presidency of Vicente Guerrero (1829), a man of mixed parentage who abolished slavery.
Early controversies in immigration
“I am the owner of one slave only, an old decrepit woman, not worth much, but in this matter I should feel that my constitutional rights as a Mexican were just as much infringed, as they would be if I had a thousand.”
—Stephen Fuller Austin, the “Father of Texas”
responding to the 1829 decree freeing all enslaved people in the territory of Texas.
The influx of newly arrived immigrants and the inevitable clash of cultures were exacerbated by the newcomers insistence on continuing the slave practices they’d perfected in the southern United States. Among these were the “Old Three Hundred,” Southern Anglo immigrants who brought previously owned slaves onto the land they’d purchased from entrepreneur Stephen F. Austin, who was instrumental in establishing Anglo colonies in Texas by securing land grants from the Mexican government.
Austin was by turns a slave owner, land speculator, and habitual drunkard, but above all, a pragmatic businessman. Subscribing to the notion established by predecessors like President Thomas Jefferson who held that slavery was “a necessary evil,” he knew that slave labor was indispensable for the farmers lured to his new colonies to survive.
“Nothing is wanted but money,” he said in an assessment of the situation.
“…and Negros are necessary to make it.”
The settlers he’d lured to this new frontier in turn ignored anti-slavery edicts from their Mexican masters.
The question of bondage
and military intervention
“Texas must be a slave country, circumstances and unavoidable necessity compels it.”
— from a 1835 letter by Stephen F. Austin
To drive home this point, Austin made an impassioned trip to Mexico City to present his case in the hope that authorities would agree to reforms agreeable to their American neighbors. For his trouble, Gen. Santa Anna had him imprisoned for eight months for inciting an insurrection. During his incarceration, his colonists became increasingly rebellious, leading to the formation of the Republic of Texas (1835-1846), with Sam Houston as president of this sovereign (independent) state, breaking completely free of Mexican control.
By this time, Santa Anna, bestowed with full dictatorial powers, marched north to confront the first pro-slavery rebellion. Newspapers of the day prompted the Texas homesteaders to steel themselves in preparation for the onslaught of “…the merciless soldiery,” who would “…give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves,” as recounted by author Benjamin Lundy in the 1836 volume “The War in Texas.”
Convinced of their inalienable right to defend their “property” and the preservation of their chosen way of life, the garrison of the Alamo was abetted by a veritable “who’s who” of legends from the canon of the Wild West. Among these were Col. James Bowie and Lt. Col. William Travis who commanded a contingent of perhaps 200 troops. Bowie, best known for his introduction of “the Bowie Knife” to the frontier, was a land speculator like Austin who’d indulged in slave smuggling with celebrated French pirate Jean Lafitte. Also a slave owner, Travis was a lawyer by training who’d distinguished himself in skirmishes against Mexican rule. He’d been appointed by Huston to lead a group of volunteers to reinforce the troops already in place at the Alamo.
Joining them was frontiersman “Davy” Crockett. A veteran of the War of 1812 with tenure as a Congressman in Tennessee, he traveled to Texas to reinvent himself and make his fortune.
Event and aftermath
With a force in the thousands, Santa Anna easily overwhelmed the mission’s defenders, and those who weren’t killed in the 13-day battle were executed, possibly with swords and bayonets. Survivors included several women and children, and an indeterminate number of slaves, including “Joe,” a young man belonging to Travis.
The carnage ended on March 6, 1836, as Santa Anna ordered his men to gather their enemies’ bodies for collection and incineration on a funeral pyre.
The aftermath is where the real story begins. News of the events galvanized the American community and “Remember the Alamo” became a rallying cry, and a month later a force of Texans under Sam Houston soundly defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, paving the way for Texan independence (officially March 2, 1836).
God’s Mandate: Settle, Conquer, and Prosper
Manifest Destiny: The 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the US throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.
Today, of course, the Alamo is perhaps the most revered historical site in the state, as everyone in middle school is expected to remember pertinent details of this event. Generations of children have been indoctrinated with the narrative that heroic Texans made a gallant last stand against the treachery of the Mexican interlopers. Just before the drama of Alamo and his death, Davy Crocket began his own cycle of self promotion with the publication of an autobiography, leaning towards tall tales and exaggerated truths. The circumstances of his last stand provided a vehicle for opportunists like Stephen Austin and Sam Houston to weave their own version of the triumph of good over evil, and spawned the seeds of Texas mythology.
Included in this tapestry was the subliminal message of Anglo superiority and the need for the subjugation of people of color (who by their nature were incapable of self-government).
With the advent of electronic media came another methodology to further their original agenda. Fess Parker’s portrayal of Davy Crockett on the eponymous television series, and John Wayne’s star turn in the 1960 movie “The Alamo,” reinforced these themes, at least in the psyche of the American populace.
More recently the progression of social movements prompted a re-examination of the status quo. This in turn collided with plans to renovate the Alamo to the tune of upwards of $450 million. Complications include the consideration of the pre-Alamo existence of an ancient Native American burial ground, and the concerns of increasingly vocal Hispanic political interests. This all but ensures a transition from the original folktale about martyrs to the cause of courage, to include the true motivations of these Southern patriots who believed in promoted, and practiced slavery.