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The Blood of Heroes The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo--and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation
By Donovan, James
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2012 Donovan, James
All right reserved.
Just past nine o’clock, sometime after darkness had fallen and before the near-full moon rose, a fleet mare slipped out the south gate of the battered old mission. Riding bareback, using only a bridle—every ounce counted now if he was to outrun General Ramírez y Sesma’s lancers—the rider leaped over the moat, spurred his horse to a full gallop, leaned low to hug her neck, and held on for dear life as man and mount thundered through the Plaza de Valero amid scattered musket fire, hoofbeats echoing against the fortress walls. He headed southeast, along the San Antonio River, toward Goliad—or Fort Defiance, as Colonel James Fannin had dubbed the presidio there.
Fannin and his four hundred men were at least two full days’ ride away. If the colonel could be persuaded to lead his force to Béxar, it might be four or five days before they arrived. That might be too late. But perhaps they were on the march already.
The Mexican army besieging the fort for the past twelve days outnumbered the small garrison ten to one. Their artillery had bombarded the Alamo almost constantly, though not one Texian or Tejano defender had been killed. But around five that afternoon, the earsplitting barrage had stopped.
James Allen’s swift horse and his own slight frame had been two important reasons the post commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis, had chosen the twenty-one-year-old college student from Missouri to deliver another desperate plea for assistance from the run-down fort.
That Saturday, March 5, 1836, had dawned cool and clear—clear enough to reveal that the Mexican lines surrounding the fortress had moved closer again the previous night, the eleventh since the Texian forces had retreated into the compound at the approach of Santa Anna’s army; an artillery battery now stood just two hundred yards from the north wall. The red flag hoisted above Béxar that first day had made clear the fate of any rebel, Anglo or Mexican, taken alive while fighting for Texas independence: death.
Over the previous twelve days, almost a dozen couriers had made it through the Mexican lines and reached the two closest Texian communities east of Béxar—Gonzales, seventy-five miles away, and Goliad, ninety-five miles downriver, where Fannin and his volunteers held the presidio there. Travis’s requests for food, clothing, ammunition, ordnance, and, most important, reinforcements, had gone unanswered, at least as far as the garrison knew, save for thirty-two brave souls sent from the town of Gonzales five days earlier. Other than that, nothing—no word from the provisional governor and council in San Felipe, eighty miles beyond Gonzales, or from Fannin… only a message two days earlier from Travis’s warm friend Major Robert “Three-Legged Willie” Williamson, stationed in Gonzales, who entreated them to hold out and who promised to send aid soon.
Travis’s two-hundred-odd men were exhausted and bedraggled from twelve days of almost constant bombardment and little sleep. They had done all they could to fortify the old mission, but the stone and adobe walls had been erected as protection against Indian attacks, not artillery. Though the enemy’s largest fieldpiece was only an eight-pounder, the incessant shelling had taken its toll on the walls, particularly the weak northeastern section, which had begun to crumble. Worse, the compound was far too large to be ably manned by so few defenders. With Fannin’s four hundred, they might have a chance, but an all-out attack seemed imminent—probably even before the rest of Santa Anna’s army, comprising thousands more men, reached Béxar. As it was, the Mexican entrenchments were moving closer every night.
As the rider disappeared into the darkness, the Mexican troops lay back down to sleep, or tried to. Tomorrow, and its bloodshed, would come soon enough.
He hungered and thirsted for fame—not the kind of fame which satisfies the ambition of the duelist and desperado, but the exalted fame which crowns the doer of great deeds in a good cause.
On a cold day early in February 1836, a well-dressed young man on a horse trotted along the road—little more than a well-worn cart path, really—from the small town of Gonzales westward to San Antonio de Béxar. He was twenty-six, and he had already written his autobiography. He exuded self-assurance, and ambition burned in his breast, but he could be brusque, and perhaps because of that, the men under his command respected him, but did not warm to him. The rebel Texian army had no money for arms and ammunition, much less clothing for its few hundred soldiers, and the uniform he had ordered had not been delivered yet. Thus, despite his newly appointed rank of lieutenant colonel of cavalry in the regular army, he wore the fine clothes of a gentleman.
His civilian dress was no indication of a lack of courage. He had proven his mettle several times in the past few years—at the port village of Anahuac, staked to the ground with Mexican riflemen aiming at him; then three years later, leading a group of militia to seize the garrison there; and at the siege of Béxar this past fall, in the thick of things with his company of mounted scouts.
His name was William Barret Travis, and he did not want to return to Béxar. A few weeks before, his good friend Henry Smith had been elected governor by the Consultation, the meeting of representatives of most of the Texas settlements that was convened to discuss the increasing friction with Mexico and organize a provisional government to handle matters. The Consultation had been held in the town of San Felipe, the center of the Anglo colonies, where Travis resided. At Travis’s own suggestion, Smith appointed him lieutenant colonel and commander of cavalry, then charged him with raising a legion of dragoons—one hundred armed horsemen—to reinforce the depleted garrison at Béxar. All signs pointed to a large Mexican army on the march to Texas to quash the nascent rebellion in the troublesome colony.
Almost three weeks of recruiting had yielded only thirty-five men, and several of those had deserted the unit on the road. With a legion, a man could make a mark; a third of that number, not so easily. Travis himself had to provision, equip, and sometimes supply mounts for his volunteers, and the job kept him fully occupied. His personal affairs and business concerns suffered, particularly his successful law practice, though the recent acquisition of a partner had helped the latter somewhat. But the unceasing work took its toll. On January 28, soon after leaving San Felipe, dog-tired and disillusioned, Travis had written to Smith from Burnham’s Crossing on the Colorado River, just thirty miles west on the Béxar road, and asked to be allowed to return:
I shall however go on & do my duty, if I am sacrificed, unless I receive new orders to counter march. Our affairs are gloomy indeed—The people are cold & indifferent—They are worn down & exhausted with the war, and in consequence of dissentions between contending & rival chieftains, they have lost all confidence in their own Govt. & officers. You have no idea of the exhausted state of the country…. I have strained every nerve—I have used my personal credit & have slept neither day nor night, since I recd orders to march—and with all this exertion, I have barely been able to get horses & equipment for the few men I have.
He was still at Burnham’s Crossing the next day, gathering supplies and preparing to move out toward Gonzales, when he wrote Smith again. This time he asked to resign.
Not having been able to raise 100 volunteers agreeably to your orders, & there being so few regular troops altogether, I beg that your Excellency will recall the order for me to go on to Béxar…. The fact is there is no necessity for my services to command so few men. They may now go on to San Antonio under command of Capt. Forsythe…. I hope your Excellency will take my situation into consideration and relieve me from the orders which I have hitherto received, so far as they compel me to command in person the men who are now on the way to Béxar. Otherwise I shall feel it due to myself to resign my commission.
Travis was a revolutionary, of the most extreme type. He had already demonstrated, more than once, his willingness to sacrifice his life for the cause of freedom for Texas. Just a few months earlier, it was his leadership during the assault on Anahuac that had galvanized the rebellion. His War Party held political sway, the revolution was in full swing, and the colonists now overwhelmingly favored independence. Whatever might happen next, William Barret Travis had already made his mark. But the new commander of cavalry was not a happy man as he rode west.
This dissatisfaction would have been hidden from the men he commanded. By nature, Travis kept his own counsel. Not even the detailed diary he maintained, in which he listed (in Spanish, to be discreet) his many romantic conquests, told all, though it did reveal his innate stubbornness. After failing to ford a surging creek on a visit to one inamorata, he had written, “This is the first time that I have given up.”
He possessed other qualities that shaped him every bit as powerfully. He was intelligent and good with words, both spoken and written. A born romantic, he had been raised on Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels and Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs, a glorified account of Scotland’s fight for freedom. Like Samuel Adams in the American Revolution sixty years before, he was an effective and energetic firebrand, and no man in Texas could claim more credit for the present uprising. The grand gesture, the dramatic phrase, appealed to Travis, and he made good use of it. He was also a man who not five years earlier had deserted his wife and family, who had slunk virtually penniless out of Alabama to escape debtors’ prison. He was living proof of the widely held belief that a man could remake himself in Texas. And like many of the men of the American Revolution, or any other revolution, he was fortunate in that his ambition did not interfere with his patriotism.
WILLIAM BARRET TRAVIS HAD COME into the world August 1, 1809, in Edgefield, South Carolina, the first of ten children born to Mark Travis, a farmer, and his wife, Jemima. His father moved his large family to Alabama when William was eight. His was a family with deep American roots: Travises (or Traverses) had emigrated from England to the colonies almost two hundred years before William Barret’s birth.
Near the small town of Sparta, Alabama, young Travis attended a better school than most rural areas could boast of, then finished his education with a few years at a local academy that stressed classical learning. During these years he developed a passion for reading that would never flag.
The boy with reddish-brown hair and blue eyes grew into a tall, handsome man. Not long after finishing his studies, during a brief stint as a teacher, Travis fell in love with one of his students, the lovely Rosanna Cato. They married in October 1828—he was barely nineteen, she was sixteen—and moved into a small house in the town of Claiborne, Alabama. Nine months and thirteen days later they were blessed with a son, Charles Edward.
Travis’s ambitions could not be contained by a classroom, however. Several months before he married he cast about for a more lucrative profession. He soon found it, and made the acquaintance of James Dellet, one of the best attorneys in the area, who agreed to take him on. After a year of intense study, Travis passed the state bar. He began practicing in February 1829; he was not yet twenty. He also became involved in other activities. He was appointed adjutant of the local militia regiment, and joined the Masonic order. But a plethora of attorneys in the area made work for a new one hard to come by, and his earnings were meager. The cost of maintaining a household consisting of a young wife, an infant, and three slaves on loan from his parents was more than he could afford. So the enterprising Travis bought a printing press and began a newspaper, publishing and editing it himself. He even took on outside printing jobs to pay his mounting bills, but those jobs soon dried up, and the newspaper failed early in 1831.
That same year he abandoned his pregnant wife and son. The reasons bandied about were varied: Travis suspected Rosanna of infidelity; he killed a man, perhaps the object of her indiscretions; he lost a heated political dispute. These and other explanations circulated for decades afterward. In fact, Travis would later write in his autobiography that “my wife and I had a feud which resulted in our separation”—but he assured his wife that he would return for them or send for them as soon as he could. But the main reason he left was the least glamorous one: debt. A judgment for several unpaid bills was brought against him in court, and he faced a possible prison term. And while Travis may have genuinely planned to send for his family, or return at some point, as he told his wife, he would do neither.
Instead, Travis left for the Mexican province of Texas, the destination for many a desperate man running from the law, creditors, or any number of other troubles or mistakes—even from himself. GTT, for “gone to Texas,” was a familiar catchphrase in the Southeast, often seen scrawled on an empty shack after its inhabitant had packed up and left, usually in the middle of the night. Land in Texas could be had for a pittance. Word was that a man could make a new beginning there, even forge a new life, free from lawmen or creditors once he crossed the Sabine River, separating Mexico from the United States.
Though a law the previous year had made immigration from the United States illegal, it did little to stem a steady tide of newcomers to Texas. In the spring of 1831, Travis crossed the Sabine and made his way to the heart of Anglo settlement in Texas—San Felipe, the bustling town of about fifty log houses and stores in Stephen Austin’s colony, the earliest and the largest of the chartered settlements granted by Mexico. There he introduced himself to the slight, soft-spoken Austin, and met Frank Johnson, the local alcalde, an official whose duties combined those of mayor, marshal, and judge. In May, just a few weeks after his arrival, Travis made a down payment of ten dollars for a title to land—the standard 4,428 acres (one league) due a single man, as he listed himself. He would never settle on it, but he was a landowner, at least, and commanded all the respect due to one. His new life had officially begun.
But since San Felipe had its share of enterprising young attorneys, he soon moved sixty miles east to Anahuac, on the northeastern end of Galveston Bay near the mouth of the Trinity River. Located on a bluff near the water, the sparse settlement comprised a couple dozen small log houses and shops, and served as the customs port of entry into Texas. That meant paperwork and negotiation, and Travis soon found legal employment. He began learning the official language, Spanish, and the laws of Mexico. Before he left San Felipe, he had asked Austin to recommend him to the U.S. Senate in a bid to become the American consul for the Galveston coastal area. Austin had agreed to do so, and though in his letter of recommendation he admitted that his knowledge of Travis was limited, he mentioned that Travis was well thought of by other respectable citizens. Though Travis never pursued the post, Austin’s letter indicates how quickly Travis was accepted into the community, and how impressive other men found him. In Anahuac, he shortly made a name for himself as a capable attorney—and enough money to begin looking for more land in the area. He also became known as an activist in local politics. For more than a decade, the Anglo colonists had gotten along fine without any help from Mexico. But the Mexican government’s increasing intrusion into their lives in the way of import duties and taxes, and curtailment of rights they had become accustomed to as Americans—such as an efficient local judicial system—was not appreciated by the settlers. Rebellion was simmering, and Travis eagerly jumped into the cauldron.
His baptism by fire came in the spring of 1832. Late in the previous year a Mexican garrison and customs house had been installed on the northeastern edge of Galveston Bay. Colonel John (Juan) Davis Bradburn was sent there to enforce the collection of duties and help control the increased smuggling of goods, slaves, and illegal immigrants through the area. He named the settlement Anahuac—which means “place by the water” in the Aztec language. Bradburn’s seventy-five soldiers built a barracks and office a half mile south of town and settled in, and with the arrival of a customs collector, began to uphold the law. Colonists had enjoyed a seven-year exemption from tariff duties, and they resented the resumption of charges—though according to the agreements negotiated by the empresarios, or land agents, the exemption period had expired in November 1830.
Bradburn, a Virginia-born mercenary, had served in the same militia unit as frontiersman and land speculator James Bowie during the War of 1812. Soon after, he fought for Mexico’s independence and was rewarded with a colonelcy. At first the Anahuac community greeted him warmly, hoping for leniency from a fellow American. But Bradburn had become a Mexican citizen, and a staunch patriot, and their feelings cooled as he made clear his enthusiasm for his work—indeed, he had been promised a promotion for a job well done.
The April 6, 1830, ban on immigration had placed the still-in-process legal titles of many long-established settlers in jeopardy—many empresario contracts were in danger of suspension, and others in colonies with few inhabitants would be canceled. When the tactless Bradburn refused to allow the Mexican authorities to issue settlers’ titles, tension was further increased. Colonists held meetings down the coast in Brazoria, and sent a delegation to protest the continual collection of tariffs, to no avail. The fact that Bradburn’s soldiers—some of whom were conscripted convicts—terrorized the citizenry without reprisal, by means of drunken insults, fights, and at least one reported rape, only raised the temperature. A showdown was inevitable.
The men in Anahuac organized a militia company, ostensibly for protection against Indians, electing as their captain attorney Patrick Jack, who shared an office with his friend William Barret Travis. Jack was arrested for accepting the position, since a militia was in violation of Mexican law, but was soon released. Meanwhile, the owner of two runaway slaves had hired Travis to recover the men; Bradburn had given them sanctuary and used them as laborers on his barracks, and he refused to yield them despite repeated prodding from Travis. When a mysterious cloaked figure delivered letters to a Mexican sentry that announced a militia marching on Anahuac for the purpose of taking the blacks by force, a nettled Bradburn suspected a hoax, with Travis behind it. On May 17, he sent a dozen soldiers to the attorneys’ office to take Travis into custody for questioning. When Jack barged into Bradburn’s office demanding his friend’s release, he, too, was arrested. Fifteen other purported troublemakers would eventually join the pair as Bradburn attempted intimidation.
Travis and Jack were first placed in the guardhouse, then moved to an empty brick kiln. No formal charges were filed, though Bradburn announced a military trial for the prisoners to be held in Matamoros, three hundred miles away in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. These developments further enraged the Anglo colonists, who sometimes failed to remember that they were no longer in the United States and that their civil rights were no longer protected by the U.S. Constitution. “They all go about with their constitution in their pocket, demanding their rights,” wrote one Mexican general after an 1828 tour of Texas. Soon, about 160 settlers from Austin’s colony organized and marched toward Anahuac. Led by Frank Johnson, the vocal leader of the independence movement, and Robert “Three-Legged Willie” Williamson, the handsome, fun-loving San Felipe attorney whose wooden leg never seemed to impede his movements, the group reached the town on June 10 and approached the garrison.
Bradburn ordered the two prisoners bound and staked to the ground. Guards were posted around them, their rifles pointed at the pair. The colonel threatened the prisoners with death if the colonists opened fire. Travis, his hands tied over his knees, shouted at Johnson’s group to ignore his personal safety and attack the fort in the name of a higher duty. He would die like a man, he told them.
Both sides stood down. The colonists left after issuing a warning to Bradburn threatening action if any harm should come to the two attorneys. Over the next few days there were skirmishes, including a small battle at Velasco, seventy miles down the coast, and a near siege of Anahuac. Finally Bradburn’s superior arrived from Nacogdoches and negotiated a truce, removing the colonel from command. Travis and Jack were released on July 2, after seven weeks of imprisonment. Bradburn, fearful for his life, stole out of town and made his way east to New Orleans.
Stephen Austin was eventually able to persuade the authorities that the fracas merely indicated the colonists’ hatred of Bradburn, not a desire to rebel against their adopted homeland. But Travis and his compatriots were feted as heroes of the emerging Texian cause—whether it be independence, statehood, or just the civil rights every American immigrant expected.
Perhaps in an effort to capitalize on his newfound fame, in August Travis moved inland, west to San Felipe and its five-hundred-odd inhabitants. He had been an unknown when he arrived there a year earlier; now he hoped his celebrity and experience would bring in enough business to support him. His gamble paid off. Though there were still several capable attorneys in the area, this time he found all kinds of work, from land dealings and slavery transactions to wills and colonization cases and criminal defense. He soon developed a thriving practice, earning enough to rent a house for a year and buy another house and a hundred acres east of town for investment purposes. He also sent a man back to Alabama to pay his debts there. Travis continued to buy even more land, and eventually owned so much that he was able to donate five hundred acres on the Brazos River to an enterprise attempting to introduce a steamboat into the interior waterways of Texas. He employed a French gardener, and rented or bought a few slaves, among them a woman named Matilda and a twenty-year-old man named Joe, who hailed from Kentucky—“five feet ten or eleven inches high, very black, and good countenance,” according to a friend of Travis’s.
He also developed a busy social life, and engaged in the usual pursuits of a single man in such a place: gambling, Masonic meetings, stag parties, horse races, and the occasional dance or ball. He liked to dress well. As his income increased so did his wardrobe, and he became fastidious about washing his clothes (not a particularly common affectation in his part of the world at the time). He enjoyed buying gifts for others, particularly children, and frequently contributed to charitable causes. He continued his voracious reading, mostly history and historical novels—whatever he could buy or borrow in the small frontier town. He never was much of a drinker beyond the occasional social libation, but he began to play at faro and other card games, losing a bit more than he won. And he cut quite a swath through the small group of single women in the area, some of them proper, but more of them prostitutes.
Late in 1833 he met a young woman named Rebecca Cummings, a few years older than he, who helped her brother John run an inn on Mill Creek about seven miles north of San Felipe. He continued to see other women (and occasionally bed them) while courting her, but he spent more and more time at Mill Creek, and not just for the superior food and comfortable lodging. Soon he fell in love with Rebecca, and gave up other assignations. He eventually told her about Rosanna, having changed his mind about returning to his wife and family in Alabama, if that had truly been his intention at all. By mid-April 1834, Rebecca agreed to marry him once his divorce was finalized in Alabama. Rosanna had acquiesced to an official end to the marriage and agreed to grant Travis custody of Charles Edward, a concession Travis lost no time acting upon. Within a month, he had met with her in Brazoria and returned to San Felipe with his four-year-old son. Though the Alabama legislature still needed to legally dissolve the marriage, and that could take some time, he was confident that it would happen, particularly since Rosanna had also found someone else, a man who wanted to wed her.
San Felipe was not only the headquarters of Austin’s colony; it was truly the center of Anglo Texas. Everyone important eventually came through the town, and politics was the lingua franca at every tavern. After the Anahuac disturbance, Travis had remained uninvolved in such discussions for a time, but he was soon swept up into the political maelstrom. For the moment, those favoring peace held sway in most of Texas. Disenchantment with the Mexican government was growing, however, and San Felipe was the beating heart of the revolutionary spirit.
For a while relations remained peaceful. In February 1834, Travis accepted a position as secretary of the San Felipe ayuntamiento (city council), and worked closely with his friend Robert Williamson, the new alcalde. The job put him in the middle of things, politically speaking, and increased his influence. He also began mixing with other members of the fledgling War Party, young hotspurs dissatisfied with the thought of Texas as a Mexican state. For these War Dogs, as they were called, independence was the only answer—and if that meant war, so be it, and the sooner the better.
In June 1833, Austin had been sent to Mexico to deliver the colonists’ proposal for statehood. He would not return to Texas again until September 1835, almost two years after his arrest and imprisonment for treason. By that time, events outside his control would be set in motion, events that would decide the future of Texas, and Travis would find himself in the thick of them. Once again, the flash point was Anahuac.
Since the 1832 disturbance, customs collection in the area had been neglected. In the spring of 1835 the cash-strapped Mexican government sent another customs officer to Anahuac, with another company of troops to assist him in carrying out his duties. There followed the inevitable clashes between soldiers and citizens, who felt that the taxes were unfairly levied. When a friend of Travis’s, an Anahuac merchant named Andrew Briscoe, was jailed for suspicion of smuggling—or perhaps for embarrassing the new customs officer, it was not quite clear which—the news spread through the colonies. At a secret War Party meeting held in San Felipe, a plot was hatched to free Briscoe from jail—and Anahuac from military rule. Travis was not only at its center, he was elected to lead the ambitious attempt. The two dozen volunteers for the expedition elected Travis commander. Their password slogan, likely his suggestion, was “victory or death.”
Down the coast from Anahuac, they chartered a sloop, mounted a six-pound cannon, and sailed into Galveston Bay. Late in the afternoon of June 27, they reached Anahuac and fired a cannon shot to announce their presence. The rebels rowed ashore in two small boats, then sent a demand for surrender to the officer in charge, Captain Antonio Tenorio. At some risk to his life, Travis met with Tenorio and insisted on an immediate capitulation. After a period of discussion, the Mexican garrison of forty-four men surrendered, and were paroled after pledging to leave Texas.
A few days later, Travis returned to San Felipe to find himself castigated for his actions. The Peace Party still prevailed, and the majority of Texian colonists were fearful of reprisals, with good reason: a federalist uprising in the Mexican state of Zacatecas in May had been brutally crushed by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the recently elected president, and the news of his punitive actions there was both fresh and frightening. Several Texian communities issued resolutions condemning the Anahuac action and pledging their loyalty to the Mexican government, Travis being prominently—and pejoratively—mentioned in more than one. His Mexican counterpart, Captain Tenorio, rode to San Felipe and was received as a hero.
Travis, angry and dismayed, published a notice in a newspaper asking the public to withhold judgment, an announcement that satisfied no one. Then he wrote to the military commander in Béxar, Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea, suggesting they open a correspondence that would allow Travis to explain his actions. He received no reply. Instead, the Mexican authorities issued orders in August for the arrest of Travis, Robert Williamson, Frank Johnson, and several other agitators. Santa Anna himself issued the orders.
Most of the Anglo colonists were not happy with Travis’s actions. They had worked long and hard for what they had, and any trouble with Mexico might cause them to lose everything. But if Travis was a hothead, he was their hothead. The thought of several of their most prominent citizens being seized and put on military trial, and perhaps executed, was intolerable, and the local authorities refused to carry out the arrest orders. More meetings were held in Anglo communities throughout the province. Another convention, this one referred to as a Consultation, was called for October 15 in Gonzales, the center of empresario Green DeWitt’s colony to the west of San Felipe, and the call went out for delegates from every settlement in Texas.
Travis hoped to attend as a delegate. He spent a good deal of his time writing letters to influential friends and acquaintances, stirring them to the banner of rebellion. “We shall give them hell if they come here,” he wrote in late August 1835, upon hearing the news that two hundred soldados (soldiers) would be garrisoned in San Felipe within a few weeks:
Keep a bright lookout. Secure all the powder and lead. Remember that war is not to be waged without means. Let us be men and Texas will triumph…. If we are encroached upon, let us resist until our bodies & our property lie in one common ruin, ere we submit to tyranny.
Travis even advised Austin, who arrived in San Felipe in mid-September, on the delegate elections and the upcoming convention. But before the Consultation could convene, the war that Travis had advocated so enthusiastically broke out in earnest. In the village of Gonzales, colonists resisted attempts by Mexican troops to confiscate a single unmounted cannon tube. It was hardly a battle—hardly even a skirmish—yet the shots fired there finally ignited Texian passions in a way that Travis’s mere words had so far failed to do.
THAT WAS IN OCTOBER. It had brought Travis the rebellion he had longed for. And then, in the chilly first days of 1836, his orders to reinforce Béxar.
Now, early in February 1836, at the age of twenty-six, Travis, like some romantic hero of yore, commanded a cavalry legion (or what passed for one). Three months after entering the service as a lieutenant, he had been unanimously elected lieutenant colonel—and that after his recommendations for a corps of cavalry had been accepted and then implemented with only a few changes. His name was known in every household in Texas, and respected in most of them: public opinion had changed drastically over the previous few months, and few colonists still supported the status quo. Travis was present at the dawn of a new country, instrumental in its birth and fighting for its existence against a despot, much as his two grandfathers, both of them veterans of the American Revolution, had done sixty years before. Anything seemed possible: greatness, riches, even immortality. Just the previous August he had written to a friend, echoing Thomas Paine: “Huzza for Texas! Huzza for Liberty, and the rights of man!… God grant that all Texas may stand as firm as Harrisburg in the ‘hour that will try men’s souls.’… I feel the triumph we have gained and I glory in it. Let Texas stand firm and be true to herself and we will have nothing to fear.”
He had led his command from San Felipe west to Beeson’s Ferry on the Colorado River, where they had stopped for a few days to scour the countryside for more necessities. They came up with some provisions, a horse, saddles, bridles—some charged to the government, some to Travis’s personal credit. He managed to recruit one volunteer, but the new man hardly made up for those whom Travis had lost. By the time the legion arrived at Burnham’s Crossing, twenty miles upstream, a few days later, nine others had deserted the group, a dispiriting turn of events. Then Travis had written the two letters to Smith, asking for new orders in the first and offering his resignation in the second. He lingered on the Colorado, hoping for a quick reply from Smith, but none came. He traveled west toward Gonzales, and somewhere on the road decided to go on ahead alone to Béxar. The men were in good hands under his second in command, Captain John Forsyth, a New Yorker who had relocated to Kentucky after the death of his wife in 1828. Forsyth had raised a company of volunteers when war in Texas broke out, and joined Travis’s mounted spies at Béxar; soon after the battle he received a commission as a captain in the Texian cavalry. He had spent every penny he had helping Travis with expenses. His commitment was not in doubt, nor was his competence; Travis could confidently leave him in charge.
Indeed, he had already done so once—for entirely personal reasons. Before Travis left the Colorado River area, he had made a special trip to spend some time with his son, then six, at the home of David Ayres, a friend of Travis’s upriver in Montville. Charles had only recently begun boarding there; he would soon begin attending the school that was scheduled to open on February 1. Before Travis had to leave, the boy whispered in his father’s ear, asking for fifty cents to buy a bottle of molasses to make candy. Travis handed him the four bits, so Charles and the other children would have their candy that evening—a pleasant thought for Travis while riding away.
TRAVIS’S LEGION WAS HARDLY WORTHY of the name, a source of some embarrassment. Which was not to say there were not good men behind him: William Garnett, the young Baptist preacher from Virginia; the small, redheaded jockey from Arkansas, Henry Warnell, who always had a chaw of tobacco in his cheek (his wife had died in childbirth, and Warnell had left his infant son, John, with friends to seek his fortune in Texas); and his personal aide, Charles Despallier, the young Louisiana Creole whose brother, Blas, counted James Bowie as a good friend. Still, Travis hoped an express from Henry Smith or Sam Houston was on the way from San Felipe that would relieve him of his current orders. Until then he would do his duty. His country—for he did think of Texas, the land he had lived in for less than five years, as his country—needed him.
He passed the first of the markers on the crude road—the numeral 1 emblazoned on a stake beside the trail, signifying one mile from Béxar. A few minutes later he reached the empty thirty-foot-high watchtower and the other old, abandoned Spanish army structures on Powder House Hill, where he could look down the gently sloping road into the tranquil and lush San Antonio River valley. A half mile away was the battered town of Béxar, still recovering from the previous winter’s siege and battle, and the high bell tower of the Church of San Fernando looming over the town’s pale stone buildings.
Even closer, on the east side of the shallow San Antonio River, was the dilapidated mission turned fortress called the Alamo.
“O! He Has Gone to Texas”
A vast howling Wilderness of wild things, wild cattle wild Horses wild Beasts and Birds, and wild Men savages hostile in the extreme…
JAMES HATCH, Lest We Forget the Heroes of the Alamo
The very earliest explorers—Spanish conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado—marched deep into the heart of the wilderness in search of gold and other precious minerals. The kingdom of Gran Quivira, where everyone ate from dishes and bowls of gold… the Seven Hills of the Aijados, where gold was even more plentiful… the Sierra de la Plata, or the Silver Mountain—all these had lured men seeking fortunes. But these searchers found no gold or silver, and the land they called Tejas, or Texas, an Indian word meaning “friend,” was ignored for a century and a half. Early in the eighteenth century, Catholic missionaries ventured north from New Spain in search of souls to save. Soldiers accompanied them for protection against the Indians, who liked their souls just as they were.
The men who followed the priests, almost without exception, came for the land.
BY THE MID-1600S, the Spanish claimed all the territory from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico and more beyond—from California to the Florida peninsula. (France, Spain’s chief rival in North America, claimed Louisiana, the Mississippi Valley, and Canada.) Since Cortés had conquered the Aztec empire in 1521, Mexico City had become the center of Spain’s empire in the New World. The wealth of the Aztecs, and that of the Incas of Peru, had funded Spanish wars and further voyages of exploration. But after two major expeditions in the mid-1500s—Coronado’s epic trek across much of the American Southwest, and Hernando de Soto’s journey through the Southeast, neither of them finding the fabled cities of gold or any wealth at all—Spain abandoned any further exploration into the far northern frontier of its colonies.
In 1690, the church-controlled Spanish authorities decided to establish missions near the Rio Grande to Christianize the natives there, not just for altruistic reasons but also for political reasons, to help guard New Spain’s borders. Nacogdoches, in the far eastern reaches, was established in 1716, then a few others in the area followed, each with a presidio to house a company of soldiers. Two years later, in 1718, came the mission of San Antonio de Valero, situated in a picturesque valley watered by a small river. Other missions and presidios followed.
By the early 1800s, after the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the subsequent political maneuvering, much of the region’s ownership had changed hands—sometimes more than once. The British had claimed much of the Floridas over the previous century, and in 1763 Spain ceded that province to them in exchange for Cuba. Twenty years later, England returned Florida to Spain, which had also added Louisiana to its empire a year earlier. Despite its extensive holdings in the New World, there remained only a few Spanish settlements east of the Mississippi.
Three years after Spain returned Louisiana to France in 1800, a cash-strapped Napoleon sold Louisiana to the fledgling United States, doubling that young nation’s territory. Though the phrase “manifest destiny” would not be coined until 1845, its doctrine of God-approved expansion across the continent had already taken hold. The Louisiana Purchase, it seemed, had only whetted the young republic’s appetite. President Thomas Jefferson claimed Texas as part of the deal, and in 1806 sent troops to explore the limits of lower Louisiana much as he had sent Lewis and Clark to follow the Missouri west to the Pacific two years earlier. (The prescient Jefferson was convinced of the region’s value: fourteen years later, he would write to President James Monroe, “The province of Techas will be the richest state of our Union, without any exception.”) Spanish troops were sent to block them, and the two columns met in east Texas; war was averted when the opposing army commanders wisely agreed to a twenty-mile-wide Neutral Ground between Louisiana and Texas, which was allowed to stand by their respective governments. The dispute was finally solved in 1819, when Spain ceded the Neutral Ground to the United States for $5 million and the American renunciation of any claims on Texas they might have held from the Louisiana Purchase.
But it would not be long before the United States made overtures to Spain about the availability of Texas. Though no deal was struck, Spain was now fully alerted to the intentions of its hungry neighbor to the north. Texas was emerging as an increasingly important buffer zone, both against rapacious European powers and the intransigent aboriginals who fiercely resisted encroachment on their homelands. The Spanish government countered with attempts to bring Mexican settlers into the area to populate the territory and tame the wilderness—but found few takers.
Then, in December 1820, a risk-taking fifty-eight-year-old American named Moses Austin arrived in sleepy Béxar, the capital of the province, with a plan of colonization: he would bring three hundred American families to Texas to do what New Spain could not.
Austin had some experience with this. Two decades earlier, he had, with the permission of the Spanish authorities, established a lead-mining operation and colony in northern Louisiana; the venture was successful, and made Austin a rich man. But the War of 1812 had drained his manpower and forced him to substitute slave power; he spent too much money feeding and housing them, driving him into deep debt and reducing his fortune to nothing. When his business failed in March 1820, he was jailed for nonpayment of debts and his lead works auctioned for a fraction of their worth. He was released from prison to find himself virtually penniless. A lesser man would have fallen into the poorhouse and obscurity, but the resilient Austin had already come up with another colonization scheme, again in a Spanish territory.
He thought his plan would be irresistible to Spanish authorities eager for industrious settlers in their far northern province. Austin would publicize the opportunity and procure the immigrants, taking care to accept only those who could prove their responsibility and good citizenship. He knew the Panic of 1819 had resulted in many Americans losing their land, and many more unable to afford the land they wanted and needed. In a predominantly agrarian society, land was as necessary to liberty—true liberty, meaning the freedom to work for oneself—as anything on a piece of paper.
Austin would handle all sales of land. Settlers would swear to become dutiful citizens of New Spain, their fealty to include the practice—or at least the outward assumption—of Catholicism, Mexico’s national religion. For a nominal fee, which would cover Austin’s administrative costs—about a tenth of the price of government land in the United States—they would receive full and legal title to generous territorial grants, and exemption from taxes and import tariffs for seven years. In return, New Spain’s new citizens would develop the country through the cultivation of sugar, corn, and cotton, and strengthen Spanish claims of possession; Americans were already crossing the Sabine River into the eastern portion of Texas, but these colonists would enter on Mexican terms, and swear allegiance to New Spain. For his part, Austin would be compensated by large land grants, which he could then sell for profit—if he was successful.
Similar colonization plans had been proposed before: in 1813, royal permission had been granted to an American named Richard Raynal Keene to import settlers into the province, but political upheavals had waylaid that enterprise. Now the Mexican governor, wary of anything American, refused to listen to Austin’s proposal and ordered him to leave immediately. That same afternoon, disappointed and resigned to defeat, he prepared to depart on the long trek home. But as he walked across the main plaza of Béxar, he ran into a slight acquaintance—a Dutchman he had met twenty-three years previously in a Tennessee tavern when he was canvassing for Louisiana colonists. The man was now calling himself Baron de Bastrop for added prestige, and serving as second alcalde of Béxar. Austin told him his story, and persuaded Bastrop of the viability of his own colonization plans. The “baron”—like Austin, an opportunist—was cash-strapped at the moment, but he saw a chance to make some money by aiding Austin. He was not without influence with the authorities, and he agreed to intercede. He obtained another audience with the governor, and a few days later he and Austin explained the proposal, no doubt emphasizing its advantages to New Spain. This time, the governor approved, and forwarded the petition to the proper authorities.
A jubilant Austin returned home to Missouri, confident his plan would be approved. Many months on the road had worn him thin, though, and the cold, wet journey across the desolate territory of east Texas induced pneumonia. By the time he reached home he was in bad shape. He never fully recovered. Five days after his reunion with his family, he received word that his petition had been approved. He threw himself into preparations for his return to Texas, eating and sleeping little. He died a few months later. His wife later wrote that before his last breath, he gasped out his dying wish: that his son Stephen would “prosecute the enterprise he had commenced.”
Stephen Fuller Austin was not by nature the risk taker his father was. But he was endowed with a unique combination of qualities essential to his new position of immigration agent/administrator—empresario—of a country within a country. He possessed intelligence, integrity, levelheadedness, and tact, and his frail physique belied a quiet determination that would be necessary for the many trials ahead. He had just finished a legal education when he was informed of his father’s death—and of his final request. Moses Austin had been imploring Stephen to join in the enterprise, and he had been considering it. Now, with the approval and the financial backing of his legal mentor, he accepted his new fate and headed west—only to find that Mexico had recently won its independence, making his father’s deal null and void and requiring Austin to travel to Mexico City, where he spent eleven months, until he finally won the new government’s approval. By 1825, despite several obstacles—among them a failed crop, repeated Indian attacks, and a cargo ship that ran aground, destroying all the supplies on board—Austin settled the three hundred families he had promised under contract to bring to Texas (297, actually). After enduring more than its share of growing pains, his colony began to thrive.
A new law enacted that year permitted individual Mexican states to form their own colonization policies, and some two dozen other empresarios—all but a few of them Anglos—soon followed Austin’s lead, receiving extensive land grants covering almost the entire territory. None of them was as successful as Austin, but over the next decade they brought in thousands of colonists. Thousands of others streamed into Texas without permission, and many of them—in a time-honored American tradition reaching back two hundred years—set down stakes wherever they found unoccupied land. By 1835, Texas claimed some thirty-five thousand residents, all but a few thousand of them Americans, most from the southern states of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri. Not all shared the high moral character of Austin’s original Old Three Hundred, as they came to be known. Some were fugitives from the law, or from family or creditors. Others moved to Texas intent on shady pursuits, such as smuggling or speculating in land or slavery.
They all found a land abundant in the things that mattered to an agrarian society. Though there was no river approaching the size of the Mississippi, a half dozen or so waterways, rather evenly spaced and somewhat navigable, coursed through most of the central, eastern, and southern parts of the province and drained into the Gulf of Mexico. Rolling prairies ideal for grazing or farming made up much of the terrain, and the climate was healthy and the temperatures moderate. “It’s fine rich land, high and healthy and free from mosquitoes and in short it is the richest, most beautiful country I ever beheld, fine lumber for every purpose and plenty of it,” wrote one colonist to his wife back in the United States. Another settler with fewer specifics but more poetry declared to a friend back east: “Every poor man in your country that fails to come to Texas and inherit the goodly country does not only stand in his own light he does injustis to his posterity hear is the land that flows with milk and honey come all of you and posses it.”
And possess it they did. By the mid-1830s, there were more than a dozen settlements stretching from the Sabine River on the east to Béxar, three hundred miles to the west, all in the southern half of the province and all but three of them Anglo in origin. Most structures were crude wooden houses, with just a few mercantile establishments. But surrounding them in every direction were thousands of farmers and their families, industriously working their land and slowly building new and better lives for themselves. As word of the rich new land spread via letters and advertisements and returning travelers, immigration rose sharply.
It was not all milk and honey. The land itself could be unforgiving; a drought leading to a bad crop, or a dangerous “norther” (a sudden drop in temperature accompanied by a frigid winter wind that would come slicing down from the north), could spell the difference between meager prosperity and bare survival—or even death. “A vast howling Wilderness of wild things, wild cattle wild Horses wild Beasts and Birds, and wild Men savages hostile in the extreme,” was the way one early immigrant described Texas.
Wild horses, beasts, and birds could be advantageous to a frontiersman, but “wild Men savages” often spelled trouble. Some of the tens of thousands of Indians in Texas in the 1820s—the Wacos, the Tawakonis, and others—had grudgingly accepted the presence of the white invaders. But others resisted fiercely. Neither the cannibalistic Karankawas along the coast, nor the Apaches in the far west around Béxar and south of there, could boast sufficient numbers to mount large-scale attacks. But a much more populous tribe to the north posed a far more serious threat: the Comanches, the People of the Horse.
Like many other Great Plains peoples, the Comanches took to the horse and gun—both introduced by Europeans—with relish. Before these innovations, the short, stocky Comanches, an offshoot of the Shoshone tribe, were a semisedentary population of hunters on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. By the early nineteenth century, they had become the finest horsemen on the continent, roaming the southern plains as far as the Rio Grande and beyond in search of the great herds of buffalo, their staff of life—and in search of more horses, as well as captive women and children to replenish their numbers. They had driven the less populous Apaches out of the south Texas area and terrorized the Spanish inhabitants for a century. For the most part, they remained north of El Camino Real, the “Royal Road” of the Spanish empire that belied its name: a simple cart path that arced from the Rio Grande through Béxar all the way to Nacogdoches in east Texas and beyond.
If the Comanches had been better organized and their resistance better planned, colonization in Texas would have been impossible against ten thousand motivated horse soldiers. One measure of the Comanches’ ferocity could be found in their elite warrior society, the Lobos (Wolves), who were not allowed to retreat from the scene of a battle, not even when they were vastly outnumbered—each brave had pledged to die rather than surrender his ground, even if the other warriors were in full retreat. But the Comanches possessed no form of government, roaming the country in nomadic bands that had little contact with each other. The immigrants, on the other hand, as their own numbers increased, turned to collective action for strength. Some organized militias to defend themselves against the Indians. More often, “ranging companies”—the precursors of the Texas Rangers—would venture far from home in search of Indians. These sweeps proved effective, and some smaller bands and tribes negotiated truces or gave the Anglo settlements a wide berth. The Comanches continued their raids on outlying or vulnerable farms or settlements, though some would trade with white men for goods they needed.
After a decade of empresario-induced immigration, settlers had little to complain about aside from intermittent Indian attacks. They were slowly but steadily taming the Texas wilderness, and some were doing more than just surviving. Farms throughout the territory were producing enough crops to feed families and take to market for sale or barter. Near the coast, extensive river-bottom plantations were springing up to take advantage of a highly profitable cash crop: cotton. These large enterprises required plenty of manpower, and that meant, for optimum results, slave power.
Slavery had recently been made illegal in Mexico, and that included Texas. (Never mind that Mexico had its own “peculiar institution”—its peonage system—in which dirt-poor peasants toiled on huge haciendas with little chance of earning freedom. They were burdened with massive debt, and, like southern slaves, endured hopeless conditions such as corporal punishment and severe penalties for escape. The sale of these human beings resembled slavery to a discomfiting degree.) But this abolition was roundly ignored by Texians, as they called themselves, most of whom had come from southern slave states, and it was not long before they figured a way to get around it legally: a slave owner would force his chattels to enter into contracts as indentured servants, whose length of service—usually ninety-nine years—and pitiful rate of compensation made it impossible for them to earn their freedom. Even without such pretense of legality, slaves were openly bought and sold, and advertised in the colonists’ newspapers. The Mexican authorities made no effort to police these widespread violations. Though slave-owning colonists were in the minority, by the mid-1830s slaves would make up a tenth of the Texas population.
In this and other matters, the distant Mexican government interfered little with the affairs of their new citizens, and for the most part this laissez-faire approach was appreciated by the colonists. True, there was little in the way of government services or infrastructure, such as good roads, public schools, a just and efficient court system, and other necessities that Americans were accustomed to. But while each empresario acted as a one-man government, settling disputes and organizing militia and issuing rules and laws when necessary, the level of freedom enjoyed was extraordinarily high. No effort was made to enforce the Catholic religion, conscript soldiers, or levy taxes, even after the seven-year grace period had elapsed. The colonists were left alone to handle virtually every aspect of their lives. For most of them, the situation was more than tolerable.
But events several hundred miles to the south would change everything.
AFTER THE MEXICANS HAD OVERTHROWN their Spanish oppressors, they adopted a republican form of government in 1824 that was in some ways more liberal and federalistic than that of the United States. Battered by the country’s weak economy and inexperience with democracy, Mexico went through several leaders and coups d’état in the ensuing years, until one leader, the conservative Anastasio Bustamante, executed his predecessor. When his centralist party, desirous of curtailing states’ rights, extending privileges to the military and the Church, and effecting a regime headquartered in Mexico City, came to power in the early 1830s, things began to change—especially with respect to the nation’s most distant territory. Mexico regarded its neighbor to the north with great suspicion, convinced that the United States hungered after Texas. (In fact, the U.S. government had made several overtures about buying the area, and had tendered several offers for it, from the Adams administration onward.) Spurred by a detailed report that vividly described a plethora of industrious, thriving Anglos eager to re-create their United States on Mexican soil, the new regime decided to take action. A law passed in April 1830 provided for military occupation of Texas, in the form of garrisons in the larger municipalities, and called for customs houses to be erected in several towns, which would act as ports of entry and would collect duties on imports. Worst of all, any further American immigration was prohibited.
The diplomatic Stephen Austin managed to obtain a temporary exemption from the immigration ban, but as troops—largely unschooled peasants pressed from the fields—began to march into Texas, the colonists’ dissatisfaction with the new regime continued to escalate. And with thousands of Americans each year illegally entering Texas across the Red River to the north and the Sabine to the east—many of them rough elements and squatters who felt less loyalty to Mexico than those who had received land grants—rumors of an American invasion, whether government-sponsored or fostered through independent filibustering schemes, increased, and Mexican distrust and jealousy kept pace.
After another round of political maneuvers in Mexico City, an ambitious military hero of the revolution named Antonio López de Santa Anna—a tall, charismatic criollo hailed as the savior of Tampico, the coastal city where he had driven off an invading Spanish force—swept into power in late 1832. Since he fought on the federalist side, with those favoring the liberal constitution of 1824 and stronger states’ rights, Texians eager for separate statehood hailed the general’s victory and looked forward to his support. Bored with the actual work of running a country, and aware that the capital was a hotbed of centralists, the new president retired to his extensive hacienda in Jalapa, in the state of Veracruz, and left his liberal vice president, a former physician and professor named Valentín Gómez Farías, in Mexico City to run the country. But he kept his finger to the wind.
A change in its direction was not long in coming. Farías initiated several expansive reforms, most of which reduced the power of the Church and the military, but resistance from those two institutions and the landed gentry pushed Mexico deeper into political chaos and potential civil war. Representatives of those three classes made the journey to Santa Anna’s hacienda to implore him to help. The new system was not working, they told him, and stronger leadership was required. Fortunately for them, Santa Anna’s only loyalty was to his own ambition.
In April 1834, fifteen months after his retirement, Santa Anna made a triumphant return to Mexico City and seized the reins of power from his vice president. Making short work of the liberal constitution of 1824, he assumed near-dictatorial powers, dissolved the country’s Congress, and canceled Farías’s republican legislation. Mexico, Santa Anna decided, was not ready for democracy. “A hundred years to come my people will not be fit for liberty,” he told the former American minister to Mexico. “They do not know what it is, unenlightened as they are, and under the influence of a Catholic clergy, a despotism is the proper government for them.”
When he called for greatly reducing the independent state militias and declared that state governors and legislatures would be controlled by the central government, almost half the country’s nineteen states expressed their dissatisfaction in some way, several in outright revolt. Those states farthest from Mexico City protested most.
The liberal-leaning city of Zacatecas, home to several rich silver mines, refused to disband its large, well-trained militia. Santa Anna decided to act quickly to crush the uprising there first. He knew the region well, having spent years as a young cadet with General Joaquín de Arredondo hunting down insurgents and Indians throughout the area.
In April 1835, he led a four-thousand-man army out of Mexico City north to Zacatecas. Three weeks later, before dawn on May 11, he met the city’s four thousand militiamen on the outskirts of the mountain city. They were well armed and supplied, but undertrained and badly led, and their commander, former Zacatecas governor Francisco García, lacked military experience. The apparently evenly matched contest proved to be no contest at all. The centralist artillery and infantry successively battered and overwhelmed the cívicos, and when the latter turned and ran, the government cavalry turned the right flank and swooped down on the survivors from the rear. After two hours, the battle was over. The centralists incurred only a hundred casualties; the Zacatecan militia lost as many as twelve hundred citizens. “The field of battle presents a most horrifying picture,” exulted Santa Anna after the carnage, in a letter to Mexico City.
Santa Anna’s soldados were rewarded with a period of forty-eight hours in which to sack Zacatecas, and they responded enthusiastically in a riot of destruction, rape, pillage, and murder. Foreigners, especially the British and Americans, were paid particular attention, and many were killed. The city would not recover for years. The victorious commander returned to Mexico City in a triumphal tour that wound through several cities, whose inhabitants turned out to celebrate him with parades and parties.
When news of the Zacatecas butchery reached Texas, Anglo colonists took note, and some settlements organized Committees of Safety and militia companies. They knew that Santa Anna would likely attend to them next. He had visited punishment and death without mercy on his own people. They were in no doubt as to what he would do to those born on foreign soil.
Soon after his return to Mexico City, the “Hero of the Fatherland” met with an Anglo political prisoner. At the April 1833 Consultation, Texian delegates had drafted a constitution for statehood, and Stephen Austin had been chosen to deliver it to the Mexican authorities. He arrived in Mexico City a few months later and presented the petition to acting president Farías, who ignored Austin for several months. A disgusted Austin wrote a letter in October to the Béxar ayuntamiento recommending that they organize a state government without permission. The letter contained several incendiary statements, including “The country is lost if its inhabitants do not take its affairs into their own hands.” Soon after, Austin succeeded in persuading the government to repeal the April 1830 immigration ban, and gained several other concessions—though statehood was put on hold.
In January 1834, on his journey home, Austin was arrested at Saltillo on suspicion of attempting to incite insurrection in Texas: his October letter had fallen into the wrong hands and been sent to Farías in Mexico City. The man who had preached and lived allegiance to his adopted country for so long was transported to the capital in irons and jailed in the century-old Prison of the Inquisition. He was denied a trial, and kept in solitary confinement for three months. The authorities moved him to another jail, and then another. He was finally freed eleven months later, on December 25, under a general amnesty for political prisoners. But he was not allowed to leave the city until June. He reached the port city of Veracruz in July 1835 and prepared to sail for New Orleans.
But the weary empresario ran into trouble leaving the country—a not-so-simple matter of the wrong papers. To gain permission to leave, he called on Mexico’s president, the general again relaxing at his hacienda just outside Veracruz. The hero of Tampico, and now Zacatecas, the self-styled Napoleon of the West, cleared up the problem, and told Austin he would visit Texas the following March—as a friend. Austin took his leave, but was unconvinced. “His visit is uncertain—his friendship more so,” Austin wrote of his meeting with Santa Anna. His suspicions would prove to be well founded.
“The Celebrated Desperado”
He seemed to be a roving man.
CAPTAIN WILLIAM Y. LACY
On the warm, clear morning of September 19, 1827, two groups of well-dressed men made their way by small boat, by horse, and then by foot to a peninsular sandbar on the Mississippi side of the Mississippi River, just above Natchez. A duel had been arranged between Samuel Wells and Dr. Thomas Maddox. There was bad blood between the two, and between several other members of this unusual excursion party, most of them prominent gentlemen from Rapides Parish in Louisiana.
Samuel Wells had brought with him one brother, two cousins, and two other friends, one of whom was thirty-year-old James Bowie.
Ten men and several servants accompanied Dr. Maddox, including Major Norris Wright, the former sheriff of Rapides Parish—a small man but a crack shot with a pistol who had slain more than one enemy in a duel. A year earlier, Wright and Bowie had crossed paths at an Alexandria, Louisiana, hotel card game, and a long-simmering enmity between the two—likely a mix of politics and personal animus—erupted. Bowie, having heard that Wright had been slandering him, confronted the major; in response, Wright had fired a pistol at point-blank range. Somehow, the bullet—perhaps deflected by a pocketknife or a silver dollar—only bruised the target’s left side, and the tall, thickly muscled Bowie pounced on the smaller man and had to be dragged off before he strangled him.
The single-shot flintlock pistols of the day were unreliable and took time to reload, and might “snap,” or misfire, for one reason or another. After the altercation, Bowie decided to carry a large hunting knife in a leather scabbard for protection, as a regular part of his dress. He would not be found defenseless again.
Most of the men this September day were armed with one or two pistols. At least a couple in the Maddox party carried shotguns, another a hunting rifle, and two others wielded sword blades concealed in canes. Five doctors in both groups were present to minister to any wounded.
Previous incidents in the long-simmering feud included political arguments, unpaid loans, personal insults, a sword-cane stabbing, shootings, and, inevitably, an insult to a woman’s name. Several other dueling challenges had gone unanswered; this one would decide, in an instant, whose side would claim the greater honor.
The location on the Mississippi side of the river had been chosen because dueling was illegal in Louisiana. The sandbar was heavily wooded, save for an open area in the center, where only an occasional piece of driftwood jutted out from the bare sand. For decades men had fought duels here—a Mississippi governor for one, the military man Winfield Scott for another—and some had died here.
Now, under a bright sun, with the loud murmur of the river in the background, Bowie and the Wells faction stood less than a hundred yards from the field of honor, in a grove of willows above the beach. The Maddox party gathered a few hundred yards away at the opposite end of the sandbar.
Just after the appointed time of noon, the two duelists, Wells and Maddox, took their places eight paces apart in the sand, their pistols at their sides. On the count of three they raised their weapons and fired. Neither scored a hit. Another round was fired—the code duello required at least two exchanges of fire—and neither man’s aim was any better. Some of the onlookers, and certainly the two principals, breathed a sigh of relief, hoping for an amicable settlement. Neither Wells nor Maddox held any special animosity for the other, but had simply been caught up in the rigid code of honor peculiar to the American South. Now that honor had been upheld on each side, the two shook hands, and Maddox suggested they all celebrate with a glass of wine—his friends had brought some. They turned and walked across the sandbar in the direction of the Maddox party.
Had some blood been spilled, that might have been the end of it.
Both groups of observers emerged from the willows and made their way toward the principals. The Wells faction was much closer, and they hurried across the sand at an angle, arriving first to confront the duelists—that Wells and Maddox had settled did not mean everyone else had. One of Samuel Wells’s cousins, the volatile Samuel Cuny, confronted Colonel Robert Crain, of the Maddox party. “We might as well settle our troubles here and now,” he said, and began to draw his pistol. Trying to prevent bloodshed, Cuny’s brother stepped in front of him, and Wells grabbed his shoulders. Crain stepped back, but when James Bowie moved toward him, he let loose with one of his two pistols.
The ball missed Bowie, who fired a second later, yelling, “Crain, you have shot at me, and I will kill you.” Crain turned and retreated a few steps, jumping across some gullies in the sand. By this time Cuny had freed himself and moved toward Crain, who fired his other pistol at him, hitting him in the thigh. Cuny fell backward to the sand, blood pumping from his injury; the ball had severed his femoral artery. He would die from severe hemorrhage within minutes.
Bowie drew his knife and charged Crain, who turned and threw his spent pistol at Bowie, knocking him off his feet. As Bowie stood up, Maddox grabbed him, but Bowie threw him off. Norris Wright and two of his cohorts, the Blanchard brothers, ran up. Bowie veered off to a thick driftwood tree stump sticking six feet out of the ground and took cover behind it. Wright strode forward and drew his pistol.
“You damned rascal,” yelled Bowie. “Don’t you shoot.” Someone scampered over and handed him a pistol and Bowie and Wright fired at each other, both missing. Wright leveled another pistol at Bowie and pulled the trigger; the ball slammed into Bowie’s chest, traveled through his lung, and exited out his back. Bowie staggered, then plowed through the sand toward Wright before a shot from one of the Blanchard brothers passed through his thigh, and he finally fell to the ground.
Wright and one of the Blanchards unsheathed their sword canes and fell upon the downed Bowie. They stabbed him several times, but Bowie fended off some blows with his knife and free arm, though one stroke tore into his free hand. Another found his breastbone, which bent the blade.
Somehow Bowie found the strength to sit up and grab Wright’s cravat. Wright reared back, pulling Bowie to his feet. Bowie put all his remaining strength into one thrust with his big knife into Wright’s chest, then he twisted the blade. Wright collapsed, dying, onto Bowie, pinning him to the ground. Blanchard stabbed again at Bowie, but then Thomas Wells shot him in the arm, allowing Bowie to reach up and slice Blanchard in the side. Blanchard retreated, the melee ended, and the Sandbar Fight quickly passed into legend.
Excerpted from The Blood of Heroes by Donovan, James Copyright © 2012 by Donovan, James. Excerpted by permission.
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