One hundred and seventy five years ago, on March 6, 1836, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Colonel W. B. Travis, and about 180 other brave men were killed trying to defend the Alamo. Their deaths have come to symbolize courage and sacrifice for the cause of liberty, and the call to “remember the Alamo” survives even today. There is, however, a great deal of history surrounding the Alamo that many have forgotten.
The Alamo compound was established in 1718 as a Catholic mission, one of 38 such compounds that Spanish Franciscans built across Texas in the 1700s in an effort to spread Christianity through the region. These missions were self-sufficient communities, with farms, cattle ranches, and homes for teachers, nurses, guards, and the Indian converts. There were also schools, hospitals, guard posts, and carpentry and textile shops.
Toward the end of the 18th century, Spain began cutting back on its support for the missions. In 1793, the Alamo was secularized and turned over to civil authorities. Ten years later, a company of Mexican soldiers took up garrison duty at the mission. These soldiers were from the pueblo of Santiago del Alamo, and that is how the mission/outpost got its name.
In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and it took over the governance of Texas. “Mexican Texas” liberalized its immigration policies, at least partially because it was thought that a larger population would help counter the frequent Indian attacks. New immigrants were required to practice Catholicism, learn Spanish, and have a craft or useful profession. In exchange, they were given a homestead.
This was an attractive offer, and the Texas population grew rapidly. In 1825, Texas had a population of about 3,500, most of them of Mexican descent. Nine years later, the total population was about 37,800, and only about 7,800 of them were of Mexican descent.
Native Mexicans did not like being outnumbered by white people. Moreover, many of the immigrants openly flouted Mexican law (including the requirement to practice Catholicism and the 1829 Mexican prohibition against slavery). Mexican authorities decided in 1830 to prohibit any further immigration from the United States. New laws also called for the enforcement of customs duties, and several new outposts were established to monitor immigration and customs practices. This angered both recent immigrants and the native Mexicans.
The colonists argued that Mexico had invited them to move to the country under one set of rules, and now those rules were being changed. In 1832, they held a convention to demand that U.S. citizens once again be allowed to immigrate. Another convention the following year proposed that Texas become a separate Mexican state. Although Mexico implemented certain measures to appease the colonists (for instance, English was recognized as a second language), they were not satisfied.
In 1829, Spanish troops had landed on the eastern coast of Mexico in an attempt to reclaim the country for Spain. When the Spanish troops were defeated, Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was hailed as a hero. In 1833, he was elected the president of Mexico, and he appointed Valentín Gómez Farías as vice president.
At first, Santa Anna largely let Farias govern the nation. The new vice president implemented several unpopular reforms, many of them aimed against the Catholic Church. This included secularizing Mexican education, eliminating mandatory tithing, and seizing church property and finances. Succumbing to mounting pressure, Santa Anna eventually denounced Farias and took over management of the nation. Unfortunately for the citizens of Texas, his administration was not much of an improvement.
Santa Anna revoked the Mexican Constitution, dissolved the Congress, and transformed Mexico from its federalist origins. His regime became a centralized dictatorship backed by the military. Although Texas would be the only one to eventually win its independence, several Mexican states rebelled. Unrest erupted into armed conflict, and that turned into the Texas Revolution.
Santa Anna personally led an army to put down the revolt. In Zacatecas (the largest Mexican state), he killed more than 2,000 noncombatants and let his troops loot for 48 hours. This brutality motivated the Texan forces. They stormed San Antonio, took it over, and left a small garrison at the Alamo. That garrison was strengthened by a company of native Mexicans (Tejanos) under Captain Juan Seguin, Crockett and his followers from Tennessee, and a unit of Texans organized by Colonel Travis.
On February 23, 1836, advance troops from Santa Anna’s army reached the outskirts of San Antonio. They hoisted a red banner of “No Quarter” from the cathedral. This meant that the Texans could immediately surrender, but if they fought, the Mexicans would take no prisoners: All would be killed. The answer from inside the Alamo was a cannon shot.
The Alamo was large enough to hold about 1,000 soldiers, but fewer than 200 were inside as thousands of Mexican soldiers gathered outside. Day after day, Santa Anna fired upon the Alamo. Travis appealed for support from outside, but none was forthcoming. The Texans hunkered down and awaited the onslaught of a force ten times larger than their own.
The final assault came before daybreak on March 6, 1836. Cannon and small-arms fire from inside the Alamo beat back several advances, but the Mexicans eventually scaled the walls and rushed into the compound. Bloody hand-to-hand combat spread through the streets. Eventually, the remaining Texans retreated into the church building. The Mexicans used a captured canon to blast open the barricaded doors. The defenders were overwhelmed. Only a handful of women and children were permitted to live.
Santa Anna’s forces won the battle, but they suffered significant losses, estimated at about 600 men. The time it took to overcome the Alamo also gave other Texans time to marshal forces and prepare for later battles. The following month, soldiers under Sam Houston shouted “Remember the Alamo!” as they routed Mexican forces at the battle of San Jacinto. Santa Anna was captured and forced to sign a treaty guaranteeing the independence of Texas.
Crockett, Bowie, and Travis are the names most remembered from the Alamo, but honor also belongs to Catholic heroes. Charles Despallier was a Catholic Cajun from Louisiana; Andrew Duvalt and John Gavin were among the eleven Catholic men from Ireland; and there were the Catholic Tejanos who fought for Texas independence. One of the Tejanos, José María Esparza, literally fought against his brother at the Alamo. When the battle was over, José’s brother, Francisco Esparza, recovered his body and arranged for a Catholic burial. Santa Anna had the other bodies piled up and burned.
As Albert Nevins wrote in his classic work Our American Catholic Heritage (1972), “The Alamo is a sacred spot where Catholics and Protestants and men of no religious belief stood together against tyranny and where death made brothers of them all.” Remember the Alamo indeed.