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"To ... All Americans in the World"
IN THE BARE HEADQUARTERS room of an improvised fort called the Alamo, Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis picked up his pen and began to write. Travis was a rebel, commanding some 150 other rebels, in the insurgent Mexican territory of Texas. He was hundreds of miles from the United States border—two weeks from New Orleans, a month from Washington—but it never occurred to him that his words were of limited application. With bold, unhesitating strokes, he addressed his message "To the People of Texas & all Americans in the world."
Outside, his men went about their duties. It was late afternoon, and some were already cooking supper in the large open space that formed the heart of the Alamo compound. Others hoisted the fort's best gun, a fine 18-pounder, onto a new mounting. Hot work, for it was surprisingly warm for this time of the year—February 24, 1836.
Still other men crouched behind the walls and barricades, squinting across the flat Texas landscape toward the hills to the north and east, some shanties to the south, or the little town of San Antonio de Bexar directly to the west. Here they could see a red banner flapping from the top of the town's church tower. And occasionally they also saw tiny figures moving about in the distance—soldiers of His Excellency General Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of the Republic of Mexico.
It was growing dark now—a good time for a courier to slip out unseen. Travis scribbled on, filling the page with dashes and hasty abbreviations, somehow in keeping with his quick, abrupt way of doing things. But there was always time to underline—once, three times a single phrase—and this too seemed in character, for he had a great flair for theatrics. Briefly, he explained his situation:
Fellow citizens & compatriots—I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna —I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man—The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken—I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls—I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch—The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country-Victory or Death.
A pause; then a short, moralizing postscript: "P.S. The Lord is on our side—When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn—We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 heads of Beeves."
No time for more. Now to get it out. A tricky assignment, which Travis gave to 30-year-old Captain Albert Martin. He came from Gonzales, the first stop some seventy miles away, and knew the country like a book.
The Alamo gate flew open, and before the startled Mexicans could move, the young Captain galloped off into the dusk. First south along the irrigation ditch ... then left, onto the Gonzales road. Up the hill, by the white stone walls of the powder house, and out into the country.
Across the dry, little Salado Creek he raced, and on over the bare, winter landscape. No more houses now, just the scrubby mesquite trees, the occasional live oaks, the endless, rolling prairie. The only sound: his horse's hoofs, pounding through the silent, empty night.
All next day, the 25th, Martin rode on. Behind him he could hear the distant rumble of a heavy cannonade. They must be attacking, he thought, and rode harder. It was late afternoon when he passed Bateman's—his first house the whole day—and headed down into the flatland, or bottom, of the Guadalupe River. He splashed across the ford, up the bank, and onto a straggling little street of one-story frame houses. He had reached Gonzales at last.
"Hurry on all the men you can," Martin wrote on the back of Travis' dispatch. Young Launcelot Smithers, who would relay the message on, didn't need to be told. He had arrived from the Alamo himself the day before, bringing a brief estimate of the Mexican strength. Now he was rested, ready to ride to San Felipe, next stop to the east.
Smithers galloped off into the night. Ninety miles. The weather had shifted; a hard, icy wind now blasted his ears—one of the famous "northers" which Texans already boasted about with a streak of perverse pride.
It was early Saturday, the 27th, when Smithers finally reached San Felipe. He pounded down the main street—an uneven double row of houses, stores and saloons. This was the metropolis of Texas—the center of business and political life— and the news put the place in an uproar. At 11 A.M. the citizens held an emergency meeting and spent the next hour debating and shouting interminable resolutions. Smithers himself, a simple man, seemed closer to the heart of the matter. Adding his own postscript to Travis' dispatch, he scrawled, "I hope that Every one will Randeves at Gonzales as soon poseble as the Brave Soldiers are suffering. do not neglect the powder. is very scarce and should not be delad one moment."
More couriers sped the news on. Fanning out over the faint trails and roads, they headed north for the ambitiously christened new capital, Washington-on-the-Brazos ... east for the lively gambling town of Nacogdoches ... south for Columbia and the thriving Gulf settlements.
In ever widening circles, hurry and confusion, alarm and excitement. When the courier stopped by Dr. P. W. Rose's place at Stafford's Point, Mrs. Rose read Travis' message aloud to the children, and 11-year-old Dilue burst into a flood of tears. She recalled the time Travis had stopped at their place and sent her a little comb afterward.
No time for weeping, she was told; she spent the rest of the day melting lead in a pot, dipping it up with a spoon, molding homemade bullets. The older men in the family rushed to get ready for the army, and Mrs. Rose sat up all night sewing two striped hickory shirts—her idea of what a good militiaman should wear.
Now the news was at Columbia, thirty miles further south. Here the courier's horse broke down. No men around, so 15-year-old Guy Bryan jumped into his saddle and carried the word on to Brazoria and the Gulf. He reached Velasco late at night—probably March 4—feeling every inch a hero as he gave the message to the men at the little trading post.
Here the coastal schooners took over—spreading the story to the bustling cotton ports that dotted the Gulf Coast—Galveston ... Mobile ... Pensacola ... and, of course, New Orleans.
It was early in the morning of March 16 when Captain Flaherty's boat brought first word to New Orleans, but by that afternoon it was all over town. Crowds milled around the True American's bulletin board, where Travis' dispatch was posted. That night there was talk of little else at Hewlitt's Coffee House. "This town is like a barracks," a New Orleans businessman wrote a friend back East.
River steamers soon relayed the news up the Mississippi ... rickety little railways carried it inland ... coastal packets headed for the Atlantic ports. Everywhere the reaction was the same—intense excitement, indignation meetings, angry editorials.
New York heard when the steamboat Columbia arrived from Charleston on March 30. By afternoon the Evening Post was hawking the story. "LATE FROM TEXAS," ran that journalistic innovation, the headline.
At 4 o'clock that afternoon the Providence steamer pulled out, and next day—only five weeks after Travis wrote his message—even faraway Boston knew. Again, excitement erupted everywhere—at the auction sales of coffee and spices, at the tables of the Tremont House, in the lobby of the Lion Theatre, where a new producer named W. Barrymore was putting on Little Goodie Two Shoes.
Washington learned the same day, and here, as always, the subject took on political overtones unknown to the rest of the country. What would this do, asked the hangers-on at Brown's Indian Queen Hotel, to the rumored negotiations for the purchase of Texas from Mexico? A new Mexican Minister, Señor Don Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza, had just been presented to President Andrew Jackson—how would he take the news? The Whig paper National Intelligencer, against all such foreign adventures, happily prophesied an end to the scheme. But others saw it differently—these men in the Alamo were fellow Americans; they must be helped.
Whatever the reaction, the whole country was shaken. William Barret Travis knew what he was doing when he addressed his words to "all Americans in the world."
But how did he know? Travis was, after all, writing from a remote garrison in a distant land belonging to another country. And he himself carried no weight. Nobody even knew how to spell his name—the New York American called him "Travers" and the New Orleans Bee "Fravers." What made this unknown man in a faraway fort intuitively realize that his message was immensely important to all Americans everywhere? The answer lay in the years just past—a brief, turbulent period that shaped not only the future of Texas, but that of America itself for centuries to come.CHAPTER 2
"I Am Determined to Provide for You a Home"
AMERICA WAS ALREADY CALLED the land of opportunity, yet it must have seemed anything but that to John Hubbard Forsyth of Avon, New York, on December 25, 1828. For him, nothing had ever gone quite right. His father had given him the best schooling—far better than most upstate farm boys got—yet he never made much use of it. Later, he studied medicine but didn't do anything with that either. And now, his wife had died on Christmas Day.
There are times when every man longs for a fresh start, and at this point John Forsyth decided to move. He packed his gear ... left his baby son with his father ... and headed west.
There were thousands like him—all trying to take advantage of something that had never happened before. For centuries men yearning to better their lot could do little about it: few opportunities, poor transportation kept them glued to one place. Even the opening of the New World didn't help much—travel remained as primitive and difficult as ever. Now suddenly all this was changing. Alongside the newspaper ads for candle tallow, sealskin caps and powder horns, strange new notices began to appear for things called boiler tubing, flywheels and steam presses. New inventions, new machinery —that whole complex miracle called the industrial revolution was bursting into focus, changing the ways of centuries ... waking people up ... getting them on the move.
"This is the age of locomotion," marveled the Baltimore American. "For one person that traveled a hundred years ago, there are now not a hundred, but a thousand." And it was true. Passengers swarmed over the flimsy new railroads that fanned out from the Eastern cities. Thousands more jammed the steamboats that puffed along the rivers and the coast—by 1830 seven lines served New York alone.
Time ceased to be an insoluble problem. The Boston-Philadelphia mail now took only thirty-six hours—against twenty-one days a few decades ago. The New York Commercial Advertiser found a Boston man who made a business trip to Manhattan and back in less than thirty-three hours.
Along with the commercial travelers went a growing tide of people with no set goal in mind. Discontented, disappointed, or merely restless, they regarded the railroads and steamboats as heaven-sent blessings that would let them escape from their rut. Often they went first to the big cities—New York grew 30 per cent between 1830 and 1835—but sooner or later, they usually drifted west. Here, in the new towns springing up—or along the vast, untouched frontier—hope and opportunity loomed brightest of all.
John Forsyth, crushed by his wife's death on Christmas Day, was just such a man. So was John Flanders of Salisbury, Massachusetts. Working in the family business, he had fought with his father over foreclosing a mortgage. Young Flanders lost ... the situation was impossible ... he cleared out.
Nor did it need a great family crisis to put a man on the road. When Dr. Amos Pollard felt his New York practice lagging, he simply took down his shingle and left. Dolphin Floyd, a carefree North Carolina country boy, found farm life unbearably dull. Gaily telling his family he was off to marry "some old rich widow," he sauntered westward and never returned.
Usually these men had no particular destination in view—just something better than they left behind. Young Daniel Cloud, a struggling Kentucky attorney, headed for Illinois where he heard there were more clients. But he found the weather too cold, the fees too low, and the "Yankee lawyers" too active. He pushed on to Missouri—and found the same story. Moving on to the rich Red River Valley of Arkansas, he finally discovered the life that suited him. He felt he could stay here forever.
For others it wasn't so simple. By 1830 far more people were on the move than the bustling but simple towns of the West could absorb. The Alexandria Gazette warned that the tide of immigrants to the Southwest was far too great and rapid. The New Orleans Bee lamented that the city was glutted with lawyers, doctors and accountants.
Yet New Orleans remained an irresistible lure. The city was no longer the easygoing Creole town of ten years earlier —the steamboat had changed all that. Now the waterfront was always jammed with steamers from St. Louis, Cairo, Louisville, a dozen other river ports. And as gateway to the interior, the harbor teemed with great sailing ships from all over the world. The shops bulged with New Bedford sperm candles, Richmond tobacco, New York lace goods, Swiss muslins, French cologne water, Naples umbrellas. The population was soaring toward 60,000, the sixth largest city in America.
It was almost inevitable that Dolphin Floyd, the gay Carolina farm boy, should drift here. Likewise Amos Pollard, the wandering New York physician; and John Flanders, still smoldering over the fight with his father back in Massachusetts. Mingling with them in the crowded arcades and coffee-houses were others with even less roots—men like dark, brawny Robert Cunningham, who left a secure Indiana home to float down the river on flatboats.
Together, they helped compose the busy, cosmopolitan world of New Orleans; yet basically, they were still drifting, and the fresh start remained as far away as ever. For only shrewd insiders were getting rich in this lively city, where the banks were chartering railroads and the railroads were chartering banks. The unknown and the unlucky continued to roam, searching for chances that never came. Even the great open land farther west was no longer a way out. The federal government, harassed by its own financial troubles, had stopped selling homesteads on credit.
Then suddenly word spread of still another opportunity— a new hope brighter than all the rest—a promised land just over the horizon: the Mexican province of Texas. It was said that the young republic was practically giving the place away—immense tracts for as little as four cents an acre. Perhaps here was that fresh start after all.
Hoping to develop her vast stretches of empty territory, Mexico had embarked on an ambitious program of colonization. Under laws of 1824 and 1825 foreigners were invited to settle in Texas and live for ten years free of taxes and duties. Every family got 4,428 acres of land for a nominal payment of $30—padded perhaps to $200 by the time Mexican bureaucracy had taken its bite. In return, the colonists had only to take the Mexican oath of allegiance and promise to be at least nominal Catholics. The whole program was put in the hands of contractors, called empresarios, who received huge grants of land in return for establishing colonies and bringing in settlers.
Excerpted from A Time to Stand by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1961 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 13, 2013
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