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The Official Site of the Alamo

Visiting The Alamo

Who are the Texas Indians?



Remember the Alamo!
(But for the right reason!)

Stephanie admires a statue of The Virgin
As a native Texan, I love nothing better than a tall tale -- and what greater tale does my state have to offer than the Alamo? I myself have shed buckets of tears for those brave white men who died so that Texas might be free of Mexican tyranny. First, there was Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Rumor has it that he died brandishing his beloved rifle, Old Betsy, above his head. Then there was Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis. Who could forget his valiant gesture of drawing a line in the dirt with his sword to test his men's loyalty? And, of course, we can't forget John Wayne. Why, he could take down half a dozen Mexicans with one hand tied behind his back!


The grand tour: You can tell a lot about a person by their living environment, so here's the lowdown on The Warrior.

What? John Wayne didn't fight in the Alamo? Oh yeah. I meant Jim Bowie. Why, it took a whole squadron of Mexican soldiers to hold that tiger down! But he still brought the defenders to a stunning victory in the war for Texas independence! Yeeeee-haw!

What? The defenders lost the battle?
Gee. Maybe I should brush up on my history.

Legends and lies like these have plagued Texan history since the battle took place in 1836, but today we're going to set the record straight, breaking it down tale by tale:

Texas Tall Tale #1: The Alamo is that little white building you always see on postcards and T-shirts.

Well, not exactly. That building is actually a church called the Mission San Antonio de Valero. The Alamo was the name of the walled town that once surrounded the church. Those walls have long since crumbled, and an assortment of Pizza Huts and Haagen Dazs have cropped up in their place.

Nick scales the Alamo
But let's back up a millennium or two. This area of Texas used to be the stomping ground of several hundred bands of indigenous people who had their own ways of surviving the scorching heat. Each tribe had a unique culture that included an oral language, governing system and religion, but the Spanish did their best to change that. Hoping to expand and secure their empire in the "New World," the Spanish crown sent Franciscan friars out to comb the area in the 1700s and establish missions.

Initially, the South Texas Indians had no intention of joining the missionaries, but over time, two factors convinced them otherwise: the influx of European diseases and the brutal raids by bands of Lipan Apaches and Comanches. Fearful they'd die otherwise, tribes like the Coahuiltecan gave up their ancient way of life and turned to the Spanish for help. The friars promptly turned them into Catholics and taught them a whole host of skills, including church building. The Indians then constructed six missions along the San Antonio River, including San Jose and the infamous Alamo.

The architecture is exquisite
These missions eventually became sophisticated walled towns, with irrigation systems, granaries, ranches and populations of several hundred.

But the Indians never truly converted to the Spanish way of life. They practiced their own religion behind the friars' backs and upheld their customs and beliefs. They also failed to build immunity against the white man's many diseases, and as a result, they died by the thousands. By the end of the 1700s, the San Antonio missions were mostly secularized.

The Mission de San Juan
Texas Tall Tale #2: This was the white man's land!

Guess again! All of Texas (and California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming) belonged to Mexico back then. But in 1821, filibusters started moving to Texas by the tens of thousands in search of land, power and adventure. Only a handful of defenders at the Alamo had been in Texas longer than five years. Most were certainly not fighting for their homeland. The Mexicans were the ones defending what was rightfully theirs (but we'll refer to the filibusters as the "defenders" in this dispatch).

Texas Tall Tale #3: The Alamo defenders died for Texas' independence!

If that were the case, they would have all died in vain. Just a few days before the siege, an agreement had been signed to establish the Lone Star State's liberty. Rather, these men died for something called Federalism.

Back then, there were two trains of thought on how Mexico should be governed. The Federalists (a.k.a. Liberals) wanted to establish a federation of provinces that would be ruled locally. The Centralists (a.k.a. Conservatives) wanted the sprawling country to be controlled by a strong, central government. A civil war ensued, which the Centralists won. Their leader, General Santa Anna, then decided to cut the link between the booming economies of Texas and the United States, and to reroute some of that money to Mexico. As soon as he cut off those trade connections, he had a revolt on his hands.

Native Americans built these beautiful missions 250 years ago
Texas Tall Tale #4: The Alamo defenders fought for justice!

Wrong again. As I mentioned earlier, the bulk of these men were filibusters who came to Texas in search of money and adventure, eager to snatch up the land Mexico was handing out by the acre. In doing so, they agreed to two things: They would convert to Catholicism and become Mexican citizens. Few did either.

Once in Texas, the filibusters realized there was much money to be made in Mexico's cotton industry. The only problem was the amount of labor involved, but they quickly solved that through slavery (which Mexico, incidentally, had banned). Shocked by the rapidly rising rate of Anglo immigration and appalled by their use of slavery, the Mexican government started slapping on restrictions, which, of course, riled a few feathers. Tall Tales would lead you to believe that the battle of the Alamo was fought for justice, but in reality, the war was actually waged over issues like Federalism, slavery, immigration rights, the cotton industry and above all, money.

Texas Tall Tale #5: The Alamo was defended by white men.

Ever heard of Gregorio Esparza? How about Juan Abamillo, Juan A. Batillo, Carlos Espalier, Antonio Fuentes, Jose Maria Guerrero, Toribio Losoya, Andres Nava or Damacio Jimenes? These brave Tejanos - Texas Mexicans - fought right alongside Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie inside the walls of the Alamo. They too were against General Santa Anna's idea of a strong central government.

Why do you suppose their voices have been silenced all these years?

Texas Tall Tale #6: It took 40 days and 40 nights for the Mexicans to break through the Alamo's mighty walls!

Try 30 minutes.

Mexican General Santa Anna headed down to San Antonio with thousands of troops in late February 1836. Their arrival took the defenders by surprise, and Travis sent out a plea for help, declaring: "I shall never surrender or retreat." The exact number of his defendants has been the subject of controversy for years. We saw figures that fluctuated from 150 to 183 to187 to 189, all the way up to 250. Santa Anna purportedly claimed to have slain 600 men (but then -- he was known to lie). Regardless, the defenders were greatly outnumbered and knew they would most likely lose the battle. Yet all but one stayed to fight.

Santa Anna led his attack at daybreak on March 6. It took Mexicans roughly 30 minutes to scale the north wall and 15 minutes to get through the courtyard. The last of the defenders were captured and executed. And that is all historians know for certain of that fateful morning.

Texas Tall Tale #7: There were no survivors at the Alamo.

In addition to hundreds, if not thousands, of Mexicans, some "defenders" walked away from the battle as well. Historians say as many as 16 women and children and one slave lived to tell their side of the story.

Whew! That was quite a few tall tales, even for a native Texan. Now why do you suppose these lies and legends have lingered for so many years -- especially when it creates such divisiveness between Mexicans and Anglos? Gilberto M. Hinojosa, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, has come up with a few ideas. The Tall Tale version of the Alamo "...justifies the slaughter of Mexican soldiers at San Jacinto, the killing of women and children by Texan volunteers during the Mexican War, the dispossession of Mexican Americans of their property under a rule of terror in the 1800s, and the discrimination and exploitation of the 20th century," he said.

And that's not all. Americans were obsessed with "Manifest Destiny" back then, and stopped at nothing to conquer the continent. To justify this greed, they couched their revolts in political, cultural and philosophical terms. These were battles between democracy and dictatorship. Americans and Mexicans. Good and evil. People held onto these Tall Tales tightly back then, and many continue to do so today. Dr. Bruce Winders, the Alamo's curator, has been flat-out told by visitors, "We don't want our history debunked."

"When told in simple terms, the Alamo represents values such as self-sacrifice, courage, honor and devotion, and some people don't want that to change," he said.

I certainly understand that, but why can't the truth be thrown in there too? Wouldn't the story of the Alamo be that much better if it included Tejano defenders like Gregorio Esparza and Antonio Fuentes? After all, the Alamo is a symbol of Texas. It shouldn't just be another Tall Tale.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Nick - A dreamer dodges the border patrol
Becky - Henry David Thoreau, busted! And a nonviolent political tool is born
Neda - The Republic of California, a 24-day wonder
Nick - The winning, er, uh, wresting away, of the West
Stephanie - The King Ranch, just another slice of corporate American pie?
MAD - English only? No, nyet, nein!