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The Alamo is the top historic attraction in Texas, drawing an estimated three million visitors each year. Its colorful history includes, most notably, the 13-day 1836 siege by Mexican soldiers and the battle cry it inspired, “Remember the Alamo!” The event has been portrayed in many movies and TV shows over the years, but many people’s understanding of the Alamo’s history is a little skewed because of this. The truth is rather different from the John Wayne movie. In honor of the 185th anniversary of the start of the battle on February 23, read on to learn more about the San Antonio landmark and its fascinating past.
It Was a Mission and a Hospital Before It Was a Fort
Long before it was a fort, the Alamo was the chapel of a Roman Catholic mission, a temporary structure erected in 1718 by Franciscan missionaries. The Spanish laid the foundation stone for the first permanent building at the site in 1744. After it collapsed in 1756, construction began on a second chapel that was never completed before it was handed over to local authorities.
Later, part of the site served as the first hospital in San Antonio. Beginning in 1805, the Long Barrack was used to treat soldiers who had been injured on the frontier. But by 1835, when the buildings were used as a makeshift fort, they were already in a state of decay.
It's Named After a Tree
Today, a sprawling oak stands in the heart of the Alamo courtyard. However, the site owes its name to another type of tree.
The Alamo’s original name was Mission San Antonio de Valero, which gave rise to the name of the modern city where it stands. The Spanish military took over the mission in the late 18th century, and by 1803, soldiers and their families were living there. It was around this time that the site became known by its current name. The Spanish soldiers stationed there were a cavalry unit previously based in the town of Alamo de Parras, Mexico. The soldiers had adopted the informal name of the “Alamo Company,” and eventually their new quarters became known as the Alamo. The word itself is derived from the Spanish word for cottonwood trees, which grew throughout their hometown.
The Soldiers Were Ordered to Run
Today the Alamo is a symbol of Texan grit, but back in the day, General Sam Houston, leader of the Texan forces, didn’t think it was worth protecting. He gave orders to destroy the Alamo, abandon the city of San Antonio, and bring back the men and weapons. As it happened, Jim Bowie didn’t agree with his orders and decided to stay put, along with 200 other Alamo defenders in the Texas army — including fellow commander William Travis and frontiersman Davy Crockett. When the Mexican army, led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, arrived at the Alamo, there would still have been time to follow Houston’s orders. Santa Anna didn’t block the exits for the first few days, and they could have easily left.
There Might Not Have Been an Actual Line in the Sand
According to famous local legend, William Travis used his sword to draw a line in the sand, telling his men that those willing to fight to the death should cross it. Even Jim Bowie asked to be carried across from his sickbed. Whether the moment really happened, however, is unknown.
The first time the line in the sand was mentioned in print was in an 1888 history book. There were quite a few survivors of the Alamo, including family members, enslaved peoples, and even some soldiers. One might think that at least one of them would have recounted the famous speech from Travis at some point in the 50 years following the battle. Because of this, many historians believe the story was invented by the book’s author as a pro-Texan literary flourish.
No One Knows Exactly What Happened to Davy Crockett
Davy Crockett was a legendary American frontiersman and folk hero who served in Congress before heading to Texas to rally men for what he believed to be an inevitable revolution for independence. He arrived at the Alamo in early 1836, just in time to calm tensions between commanders Travis and Bowie. Crockett’s exact fate at the Alamo is uncertain. Some eyewitnesses say he was killed while fighting in the final battle against Santa Anna’s men. Others say that he was captured, along with some other men, and that they were executed. The truth is lost to history.
The Ruins Were Untouched for Decades
Today, we view the Alamo as an important historical site, but that wasn’t the case during much of the 19th century. After the battle, Santa Anna ordered the Alamo to be burned, and the ruins lay abandoned for the next few decades. Some reconstruction work began in 1854 and was ongoing when the Civil War broke out. At that point, the building work stopped, and it served as a base for area Confederate soldiers.
After the war, the state of Texas bought the site. It was used as a meat warehouse during the 1870s, and a grocery store operated out of the barracks which had once been a hospital. Toward the end of the 19th century, two local women decided that the site was one of historical significance and should be preserved. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas campaigned to save the buildings, and in 1950, the government bought the Alamo and appointed the women’s organization to manage it; they still oversee it to this day.
Phil Collins Is an Alamo Fanatic
Rock musician Phil Collins has been fascinated by the history of the Alamo since he first watched Disney’s Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier movie as a child. Since then, he has amassed possibly the world’s largest collection of Alamo memorabilia. His collection includes original weapons, documents, Davy Crockett’s bullet pouch, and other artifacts. In 2014, Collins donated it all to the Texas General Land Office. Curators at the Alamo are cataloging the vast collection for display at a special museum that will be part of the site’s restoration. In return for his donation, Collins was awarded honorary Texan citizenship.
Yes, There's a Basement
Tour guides say this is one of the most frequently asked questions. Despite what many learned from the movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, there are two basements at the Alamo. To be fair, the historic buildings don’t have any lower levels. However, there is one used for storage below the gift shop, while another, underneath Alamo Hall, is loaned out as a wedding venue. Pee-Wee won’t find his red bicycle in either of them.