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A Trio of Texas Authors Take on the Many Myths of the Alamo

A photograph of Alamo Plaza from approximately 1910, showing the Hugo & Schmeltzer building attached to the Alamo church.
A photograph of Alamo Plaza from approximately 1910, showing the Hugo & Schmeltzer building attached to the Alamo church.
Adina Emilia De Zavala Papers, di_10567, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
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It is, likely, the most cherished and entrenched story in Texas history. How in late February/early March of 1836, heroic Texas defenders including marquee names like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Barret Travis fought a pitched but losing battle inside an old Spanish mission against a bloodthirsty and overwhelming Mexican army led by Santa Anna, hell bent on keeping Texas from becoming independent of Mexico.

At least that’s the story of the Alamo as told to generations of Texas schoolchildren in their state-required junior high and middle school Texas History class. It’s also a story promoted by proud denizens of the Lone Star State and perpetuated by Hollywood and myth.

But the real story strays far from that version, and a new book by a trio of accomplished Texas writers hopes to set the record straight and expose uncomfortable truths in Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (416 pp., $32, Penguin Press).

A highly engaging and lively-written work, it’s the collaboration between book author Bryan Burrough (Days of Rage, Public Enemies); author (Tomlinson Hill), former AP reporter, and Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News journalist Chris Tomlinson; and journalist/former political consultant Jason Stanford. Burrough and Tomlinson jumped on a Zoom with The Houston Press to discuss the myth-busting work.

“The idea was to try to write a book for people who didn’t even know they were interested [in the subject], and definitely not make it dry,” Bryan Burrough says.

Forget the Alamo brings light to truth on three major issues: That the Heroic Anglo Narrative utterly dismisses the contributions of Tejano Alamo defenders and supporter like Juan Seguin and Lorenzo de Zavala as well as Mexican intentions; that defenders of the Alamo wanted to keep slavery while Mexico moved to abolish it; and that the Americans were very, very bad guests.

Asked what they each found most surprising in their research, Chris Tomlinson’s choice was a letter from Santa Anna in which he laid out his intention to end slavery in Texas once and for all. “And then Juan Almonte, the officer who would later serve as Santa Anna’s chief of staff, was an abolitionist who wanted to settle free blacks in Texas. It was a Mexican perspective I hadn’t heard before.”

For his part, Burrough was initially skeptical about the slavery angle, saying it sounded like some “Lefty, woke crap.” But when they drilled down, he says the results were “undeniable and profound.” And he learned how crucial slavery was to the state on a purely economic basis.

“There were so many other surprises to me as well,” Burrough adds. “I had grown up this [traditional Alamo storytelling]. I never knew that Travis had offered to surrender. I never knew a third to a half of the Alamo defenders clearly ran for their lives and were run down by Mexican cavalry outside the walls.”

The Mexican government had opened Texas to American settlers, many of whom proceeded to cross borders illegally, ignore Mexican law, condescend to their hosts, and refuse to pay taxes. Oh, the irony.

“I know, right?” Burrough says. “The only thing missing here was the President of Mexico trying to put up a wall to keep the Americans out! They were poor visitors. When the Mexicans had the temerity to tax the American colonists, they shot and killed Mexican soldiers.”

Tomlinson concurs. “These are polarizing times. I’m sure there’s some Texas militiaman out there someplace who’ll see this as proof that the Mexicans are going to try and take the state back.”

The “Holy Trinity” of Alamo heroes: Jim Bowie, William Travis, and Davy Crockett themselves were hardly pillars of piety and sacrifice. The authors call Jim Bowie a “seasoned swindler”; William Travis is “histrionic, melodramatic, oversexed, under principled.” Davy Crockett—the hero of Walt Disney and a generation of red-blooded American kids—was a failed politician and wild exaggerator of his own exploits.

And Mexican general Santa Anna? In truth not a screaming, bloodthirsty dictator, but rather a quiet and astute politician. Even Jim Bowie himself had written that “He is very friendly to Texas.”

The authors also contend that those who died at the Alamo died needlessly. The location was not a strategic military location. And since it was an abandoned mission and not a fort, hardly defensible by even the most seasoned soldiers. The truth may be that those inside simply overstayed, not believing that Santa Anna’s army would actually visit. Until it was too late.

1960's "The Alamo" with John Wayne as Davy Crockett promoted the Heroic Anglo narrative.
1960's "The Alamo" with John Wayne as Davy Crockett promoted the Heroic Anglo narrative.
Screen grab "The Alamo," 1960.

The legend grew from contemporary accounts given by survivors Susanna Dickinson (whose story evolved over the years) a slave named Joe, and pulpy, sensationalist newspaper and book writers. And while the myth has Bowie rising from his bed to kill one last Mexican as the bayonets went into his body, or that Crocket — out of bullets — swung his rifle to a desperate last “heroic” act, some evidence points otherwise.

Forget the Alamo proffers that Bowie was too weak to put up much of a fight, and that Crockett actually surrendered after the battle, but was summarily executed. And there’s no proof that Travis ever put sword to ground to draw the famous “line in the sand.” But that doesn’t make a good story for the public or rallying cry for the Texian troops who eventually won Texas independence under Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto.

As the decades passed, the Alamo Myth grew. Chapters in the book detail the “Second Battle of the Alamo” (which pits preservationists-with-different-agendas of the early 1900s Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll against both each other and the Texas government), the Walt Disney Davy Crockett TV series, and The Alamo movie with John Wayne.

There’s an adage that journalism is the first draft of history. Another goes that history is written by the victors. So the question begging to be asked is: When is history actually “history” and facts aren’t open to reinterpretation or revisionism?

A photo of the interior of the Alamo church from the 1910s.
A photo of the interior of the Alamo church from the 1910s.
Adina Emilia De Zavala Papers, di_10569, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

“Every generation takes away from the past the lessons it needs the most. They look back on events with slightly different perspectives because that’s what they need,” Tomlinson says.

“But there’s always a selectivity in what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. We’ve had this white supremacist culture that needed to justify its [agenda]. Now, we’re looking at a much more balanced picture. The facts stay the same, it's which ones we choose to highlight that make the difference.”

So where does this leave things in June 2021? Well…a mess. The city of San Antonio, Texas General Land Office (which oversees the site) and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and many city, ethnic and racial groups are all fighting for their vision of both the Alamo story and the actual building, which is currently crumbling.

Then there’s the proposed $450 million planned revitalization of the Alamo Plaza which will house the 200+ piece collection of Alamo artifacts collected by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Phil Collins (donated to the State under the condition of building the museum). Finally, Bush recently announced he’ll be challenging Ken Paxton for the Texas Attorney General’s office, which would seemingly leave the future of the Alamo off his radar and scope of interest.

A rendering of the master plan for the renovation of Alamo Plaza.EXPAND
A rendering of the master plan for the renovation of Alamo Plaza.
Graphic courtesy of the Alamo Trust, Inc./Provided by Penguin Press

“If Allen West [who just announced his resignation as Texas GOP Chairman] gets the Republican nomination [to replace Bush], we’ll go back to the hardcore form of Heroic Anglo Narrative like we’ve never seen before,” Tomlinson says. “On the other hand, a progressive city council member just ousted a moderate Democrat for the San Antonio district that includes the Alamo itself. In some ways, this battle is just beginning. But George P. can’t get far away from it fast enough. And I can’t say that I blame him!”

As excerpted in Texas Monthly and the Houston Chronicle, the authors do break some new news in questioning the authenticity of some of the Collins’ collection, including personal effects of the Bowie, Travis, and Crockett that would be the prime attractions for any museum. And their findings are pretty convincing.

“We wrote the book with the best of intentions. But some people just aren’t willing to open their minds to the possibility that something they always believed might not be true,” Burrough sums up. “I hope in some small way, we can broaden our own understanding of Texas history, and move the conversation forward.”

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