Created Wednesday, 02 March 2011 14:57
The Old Spanish Mission at the Edge of Town
And that’s what it was – a hundred and seventy-five years ago this spring – when the Alamo achieved fame immortal, just before sunrise in the spring of 1836. Visitors are usually taken back to discover that it is so small. I was, the first time I visited it as an AF trainee on town-pass in 1978; a little Spanish colonial style chapel, in limestone weathered to the color of dark ivory.
The church and the ‘Long Barracks’ are the only buildings remaining of Mission San Antonio de Valero; the northernmost of a linked chain of five missions complexes, threaded like baroque pearls on a green ribbon, and originally established to tend to the spiritual needs and the protection of local Christianized Indian tribes. The missions were secularized at the end of the 18th century; their chapels became local parish churches and the oldest of them all became a garrison.
I have a full-sized copy of a birds-eye view map of San Antonio in 1873, which shows a grove of trees in rows behind the apse of the old chapel. In that year those surviving buildings served as an Army supply depot, and the plaza a marshalling yard. Did the Army supply sergeants or the laborers unloading the wagons ever wonder about the building they worked in. What did they think, piling up crates, barrels and boxes where a handful of survivors had made their last stand against the tide of Santa Anna’s soldiers flooding over the crumbling walls? Probably not much- whitewash covers a lot.
A useful, sturdy building is just that – useful. By the 1870s, those Regular Army NCOs were veterans of the Civil War, and perhaps haunted enough by their own war. The growing city had spread beyond those limits that William Travis, David Crocket and James Bowie would have seen, looking down from those very same walls.
In 1836 the old mission sat some distance from the outskirts of a little provincial town, out in the meadows by river fringed in rushes, willows, and cottonwood trees. Cottonwoods grow wherever there is water in plenty, their leaves trembling incessantly in the slightest breeze. Otherwise, it would have been open country, rolling meadows star-scattered with trees, and striped across by two roads; the Camino Real, the King’s road, towards Nacogdoches in the east, and the road south towards the Rio Grande. It is a challenge to take away the tall glass buildings, the lawns and flowering shrubs, to ignore the sounds of traffic, the SATrans busses belching exhaust, and see it as it might have appeared, a hundred and seventy-five years ago
Those northern provinces of the nation of Mexico were in ferment in the 1830s, some of which might be chalked up to the presence of settlers who had come to Texas from the various United States looking for land. Many like Stephen Austin were honestly grateful for the free land and consideration from the Mexican authorities, and initially had no thought of trafficking in rebellion. But rebel they did; the old Alamo was strategic; but too large to be effectively defended.
The rebels and their leaders chose to stand fast in the old mission, for reasons that they perhaps didn’t articulate very well to themselves, save for in William Travis’s immortal letters. James Bowie was deathly ill and David Crockett was new-come to the country, in search of adventure more than glory. None of them perfect heroes by any standard, then or now… but of such rough clay are legends made.
Events to commemorate the 14-day long siege are scheduled for March 5th and 6th, to include displays and reenactments by the San Antonio Living History, to include their annual Dawn at the Alamo ceremony, at 6 AM, March 6th. Other events include performances of period folk music, a flyover of Air Force jets and the placement of 30,000 yellow roses on the lawn in front of the chapel.