One of my favourite cities to visit is San Antonio, deep within the heart of Texas. I wrote an article about it for Focus Magazine in 2014, and talked about the city, its sights and experiences. One of the more recognizable buildings in North America, is the Alamo Mission, located in the centre of the old part of San Antonio.
The Alamo is best known for the battle between Texas and Mexico where the likes of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis lost their lives, in an effort to gain freedom and Independence for the territory of Texas. Interestingly enough, the facts of what happened, have been lost through legends and folklore, so today I am going to set the record straight.
When Fess Parker, rode across the silver screen, wearing his famous raccoon skinned hat, Davey Crockett, Tennessee and the Alamo became household words. Tales of Texas started to evolve and the bad guy, Mexican general, Santa Anna, became a villain.
The 1836 conflict actually took place in what was then Mexico. White settlers, from across the US, were lured to the snake-infested state of Tejas ( Spanish spelling, which means ‘friend’). They were promised farmland, and after settling, decided they wanted autonomy.
Nearly 200 of these Texian, the new name for the rebels, occupied the ruins of Mission San Antonio de Valero, nicknamed ‘the Alamo’, after the Spanish word for cottonwood.
Outmanned and outgunned by the Mexican army, the rebels were nearly all slaughtered, and their bodies were burned on pyres in the adjacent plaza. The Texians lost that battle, but soon after, won their war for independence after defeating Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto.
From there, conflicting stories of what really happened began to surface. Today there is a $450 million plan to restore the site. This aggressive scheme wants to preserve the chapel (which is falling apart), close surrounding streets to car traffic, and build new museums to tell the site’s centuries-long history.
I remember seeing the Alamo Mission for the first time, and was shocked at how small it was. The Museum is limited to a one-room building, and a few plaques stand in the surrounding gardens. The other surprise I could not get over, was the Alamo sits in the centre of San Antonio’s bustling main square, not on a battlefield, as I expected. Ironically, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a few souvenir shops and a wax museum is right there on land where Mexican and Texian fighters fell. To cap it, the average visitor spends 15 minutes at the Alamo, and 45 minutes at Ripley’s.
Another little known fact is the area in front of the Alamo is actually a graveyard, covered in a tiled, pedestrian walkway. Fighters on both sides, as well as Indigenous mission residents, died there and were covered with dirt.
The battle of the Alamo is a typical heroic tale of a handful of good guys, annihilated by a massive, evil force. This is really not the case. Yes, they were outnumbered, but remember, the mission was not on their land. Some of the fighters were slave owners, fighting to retain those rights.
No sooner had the cannons ceased firing when the tales began to spin. Crockett went out rifle blazing, although in reality, he was captured and executed. Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword and as the bell rang, the battle began. Unfortunately, the bell was installed a decade later by the U.S. Army, when the chapel became a storeroom, and the line in the sand was a tall tale.
Texas mandates that school children be taught about the Alamo defenders using heroic language. Earlier this year, a Republican state representative introduced legislation to block the Alamo from mentioning slavery as one of the causes of the Texas revolution.
Singer Phil Collins, has spent thousands of dollars amassing a collection of artefacts from the battle of the Alamo. These included a rifle, which was said to belong to Davey Crocket, a fact which could not be proven. Recently, however, the initials D.C. appeared out of nowhere on the rifle.
Most people focus on the one event of 1836, but the mission dates back to 1718, and is steeped in history.
It is the first of five missions built in the area, meant to convert local Indigenous people by force and to teach them Spanish. They lived, farmed, and worshipped within the stonewalls. In the 1800s, as Mexico sought independence from Spain, the mission became a fortress, first for Spanish forces, then for Mexicans, and finally, Texians. During the Mexican-American war, the Alamo turned into a busy U.S. Army storage depot. Today, the five missions form a National Historical Park.
Due to the controversy surrounding the facts, and the government’s attempt to make the Alamo the single most important event in Texan history, major donors to the Alamo Plan are dropping out.
Texas Monthly magazine ran a cover story suggesting doubts over the Collins collection. Slowly though, things are beginning to happen. Alamo Street is closed to traffic, after fierce local opposition. Costumed historic interpreters can now interact with tourists on the plaza, and relay any facts they wish.
The Alamo Trust announced it would break ground this summer on a state-of-the-art exhibit hall, much larger than the current one. It will showcase historic artefacts, including the Collins collection.
A second proposed space will serve as a visitors centre and museum, which is dedicated to telling the ‘real’ facts of the Alamo. Slated to open in 2025, if funds can be raised, that museum will incorporate, of all things, a Woolworth’s (don’t ask me why).
Regardless of the truth behind the Alamo, San Antonio is a fantastic city to visit. The Riverwalk is a 14km tree-lined waterway, dotted with numerous restaurants and shops. The surrounding missions are steeped in history and the nightlife is great. As the pandemic is starting to slow down, perhaps the Alamo Mission can go on your bucket list.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com