Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend

Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend


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Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend by Ron J. Jackson, Lee Spencer White

If we do in fact “remember the Alamo,” it is largely thanks to one person who witnessed the final assault and survived: the commanding officer’s slave, a young man known simply as Joe. What Joe saw as the Alamo fell, recounted days later to the Texas Cabinet, has come down to us in records and newspaper reports. But who Joe was, where he came from, and what happened to him have all remained mysterious until now. In a remarkable feat of historical detective work, authors Ron J. Jackson, Jr., and Lee Spencer White have fully restored this pivotal yet elusive figure to his place in the American story.

The twenty-year-old Joe stood with his master, Lieutenant Colonel Travis, against the Mexican army in the early hours of March 6, 1836. After Travis fell, Joe watched the battle’s last moments from a hiding place. He was later taken first to Bexar and questioned by Santa Anna about the Texan army, and then to the revolutionary capitol, where he gave his testimony with evident candor.

With these few facts in hand, Jackson and White searched through plantation ledgers, journals, memoirs, slave narratives, ship logs, newspapers, letters, and court documents. Their decades-long effort has revealed the outline of Joe’s biography, alongside some startling facts: most notably, that Joe was the younger brother of the famous escaped slave and abolitionist narrator William Wells Brown, as well as the grandson of legendary trailblazer Daniel Boone. This book traces Joe’s story from his birth in Kentucky through his life in slavery—which, in a grotesque irony, resumed after he took part in the Texans’ battle for independence—to his eventual escape and disappearance into the shadows of history.

Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend recovers a true American character from obscurity and expands our view of events central to the emergence of Texas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806147031
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 03/02/2015
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 871,771
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Ron J. Jackson was a staff writer for The Oklahoman for fifteen years, where he won numerous awards for his reporting. He has published four articles in True West and is the author of three books, including Alamo Legacy: Descendants Remember the Alamo (Eakin Press, 1997).

Lee Spencer White is an independent researcher, preservationist, and consultant for the History Channel, Dearg Films, and the BBC.

Phil Collins is best known as a singer-songwriter for the English rock band Genesis and as a solo artist, with hits such as “In the Air Tonight” to his credit. He is also an aficionado of Alamo history and the author of The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey (State House Press, 2012).

Read an Excerpt

Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend

By Ron J. Jackson Jr., Lee Spencer White


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4703-1


MARCH 5, 1836

As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. —Psalms 103:15–16

Beads of wax trickled down candles that burned brightly, casting shadows of the two men against the dank stone walls of their room. Their silhouettes betrayed the ethnic and social differences between them—one a southern, American-born, white slaveholder, the other a southern, American-born mulatto slave.

To night those differences seemed moot.

Beyond the walls of their old missionary refuge lay anywhere from fifteen hundred to six thousand Mexican Army soldiers, waiting to pounce in the sacred name of country and honor. Neither man knew the exact strength of the enemy—only the desperation of their own situation.

By the folly of fate, they had found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with roughly two hundred Texian revolutionaries, ready to die in defense of freedom and independence. Joe, the slave, surely comprehended the gravity of the situation as well as anyone in the fortification called the Alamo. He would have seen it with great clarity each time he stared into the intense, blue eyes of his master, William Barret Travis, co-commander of the entrapped rebel force. Or each time he watched his master hand another plea for relief to a brave courier. Or whenever he peered beyond the walls across the river at the San Fernando Church in San Antonio de Bexar. A blood-red flag whipped ominously in the wind above the church. The Mexican Army's flag symbolized what Joe clearly understood: No quarter. No mercy. Survival looked bleak.

Although only in the twenty-first year of his life, Joe understood survival as well as anyone within the Alamo's stout, limestone walls. He came from a long line of survivors—people who had endured chains and whips and the sale of loved ones. He had inherited their legacy of physical and emotional scars. In truth, Joe probably visited death daily, if only by wondering what had become of his siblings. For him, they walked among slavery's living dead—a language all too familiar to those in bondage.

Joe had already earned the stripes of a master survivalist. But every life has a beginning and an end, and like every other soul trapped within the Alamo, Joe soberly embraced the realization that this indeed might be his time. Twelve days of continual bombardment by Mexican artillerymen erased the doubts, if any ever existed. Joe likely smelled grave danger the moment he first saw the enemy stream into Bexar in seemingly endless numbers.

Severe fatigue showed on the faces of every defender. The constant threat of incoming cannonballs and grapeshot tested the nerves of those besieged, depriving them of ample sleep.

Joe sat at the edge of his bed, dirt smeared across his clothes and exposed flesh. His rifle lay close by his side. Earlier in the day the Mexican cannons roared with a brisk fury, only to stop suddenly. The weary yet spirited Texans took advantage of the lull to fortify their walls with mounds of dirt, laboring as nightfall arrived and exhaustion settled into their bones.

Outside, there were occasional yips of a coyote or faint noises from the Mexican encampments encircling the compound, but within the Alamo's walls it was silent, except for the occasional bellow of cattle. Surely Joe had experienced the same quiet while watching the Mississippi River flow quietly past his riverfront home on humid Missouri summer nights. Those times had not been long ago, but at this moment they must have seemed a lifetime removed.

Less than a decade earlier, Joe and his family had lived and toiled together on an old plantation. There he drew sustenance in the bosom of extended kinship; elders enchanted him with stories and cloaked him in love. There he walked among living legends of his own race, men of color with Herculean strength and mystical powers.

Joe's physical appearance had probably changed since he had last seen some of his family in Missouri. He now filled out a relatively tall frame, standing between five foot ten and five foot eleven, and by one observer's estimation, he appeared older than his age. Joe's looks deceived in more ways than one. His coal-black skin belied his mulatto bloodline. But only slaveholders and slave traders took note of such details. Joe's family members would have looked into his heart. On this cloudy night, he must have yearned for their companionship and love, perhaps missing the way they insisted on calling him by his full name, Joseph. Then there was his beloved mother, a pillar of strength. Surely Joe wondered if he would live to embrace her once again.

Across the room his master tossed restlessly under his blanket, prepared for the worst, his sword and shotgun within reach. Nearby sat the table where Joe had watched his master feverishly scratch out pleas for aid. The quill pen now lay silent in the flickering glow of the candlelight.

What ever remained to be said, Travis and Joe surely said it that night, but probably not as a master and slave would talk. Given their perilous position, they likely spoke as equals, as two souls standing on the doorstep of eternity.



This white man can't whip me himself, and therefore he has called you to help. —Randall, Dr. John Young's slave

Slaves on Dr. John Young's plantation simply called it the "Negro-whip." Its handle stretched about three feet from a butt-end filled with lead, and the whip itself extended another six or seven feet to the end of a strip of rawhide capped by platted wire. No slave needed a second glance to remember its wicked details, but one could spend a lifetime trying to forget its purpose.

On Young's plantation this whip was carried by a hardened overseer named Grove Cook. He used it whenever his mood dictated. Cook often boasted how he would "flog any nigger" who didn't obey him, and he routinely followed through on his claim. The slaves knew Cook as a drunkard and, when the least bit intoxicated, an extremely dangerous man. Over time Cook earned a reputation on the plantation for unmercifully whipping slaves whenever drunk, which was frequently.

Physically, Cook offered an intimidating presence. He stood tall and large with rough features, red hair, and large, bushy eyebrows similar to those on a spaniel. Yet his most chilling features were his eyes. Cold gray.

Joe spent much of his childhood avoiding the glare of those eyes, as well as the wrath of the "Negro-whip." Warned by his mother and other elder slaves, one of Joe's earliest lessons in life would have been to fear the whip.

Fear came easily. Avoiding Cook didn't. All too often a slave unknowingly encountered Cook's bad side. That's when Joe's senses were branded with the crackle of the whip and the wails of the soul on its receiving end. Cook's whip had an everlasting effect on those who saw it in action. For Joe, it likely launched a life with an emphasis on sheer survival.

As an infant, Joe was one of dozens of slaves brought to the Missouri Territory by Young in 1816 from a farm near Lexington, Kentucky. Joe was most likely born in 1815, probably at Young's Mount Sterling farm, where the enterprising physician meticulously logged the births of his slaves in a book.

Joe's mother was a mulatto slave named Elizabeth, one of Young's most prized field hands. Noted for her strength of body and mind, Elizabeth gave birth to seven children. Aside from Joe, Elizabeth had five other sons—Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Millford, and William—and one daughter, also named Elizabeth. No two children had the same father.

Despite their varied bloodline, Joe and his siblings forged a loving bond. From infancy, they learned to shield one another from the dangers that surrounded them. They protected each other the best they could under their restricting status as slaves. Their love flourished inside a one-room log cabin, where daily hardships were eased by the comfort of kinship. Marthasville was home. In Marthasville, at least, Joe and his family had each other.

They were also blessed with the necessities of life. Food was bountiful in the fertile valley where they lived, a breathtaking place that produced giant pumpkins, squash, melons, apricots, peaches, and pears by the barrel. Juicy red apples were also grown to perfection, along with a variety of grapes harvested throughout the summer, fall, and even winter months. Potatoes, carrots, and spinach were cultivated in great abundance. No crop in Missouri surpassed that of Indian corn in terms of quality and quantity. Farms generally yielded close to seventy-five bushels an acre, enough to feed a small village.

Slaves were generally allowed to partake in the bounty if they maintained their own gardens—an industrious endeavor many shouldered after laboring for their master from sunrise to sunset. In Missouri, Saturday afternoons were generally designated as a time when slaves could hire themselves out if they desired. Joe may have helped his elders in this way by delivering messages or pulling weeds in the garden, jobs often dolled out to slave children.

Marthasville provided a world of wonderment for a boy eager to explore its frontier treasures. On Sundays or holidays, if Young's slaves were not bound by harvest, Joe and other children from the plantation were allowed the freedom to do as they wished. Adventure beckoned a short distance from their cabins. Countless hours were undoubtedly spent racing through the tall prairie grass that canvassed the undulating terrain and maze of ravines north of Marthasville. Black bear, deer, squirrels, and panthers wandered through the region, and for the experienced youth, that sometimes meant fresh game to proudly present back at the family cabin. Territorial law allowed plantation slaves to keep and use guns with a permit issued by the local justice of the peace, and Young found no objection to the practice. The doctor allowed his slaves the freedom to hunt and fish on Sundays, in addition to tasks such as weaving baskets and making splint brooms.

Joe and his playmates discovered a magical forest beyond the ravines, with towering oak, ash, and walnut trees that guarded the children from gusty winds. Walking through the trees was a peaceful experience: only the rustling of leaves could be heard in even the harshest of storms. (Later, upon returning to their family cabins, they would discover the effects of wood ticks and mosquitoes that laid claim to their bodies in the thick brush of the woods. But such discomforts were considered a small price to pay for children at play.) Every once in a while, Joe and his companions probably passed one of their master's wandering cows or horses grazing in the woods. The horses generally roamed in herds and could easily be located by a bell hanging from the neck of one known to be a leader. Servants and free settlers in the region also frequented the woods, riding on horse back to hunt. When a hunter reached a spot where he wanted to dismount and walk, he simply turned his horse loose to rejoin the farm's herd. The hunters therefore preferred to ride atop a blanket rather than a bulky saddle.

As entertaining as the forest may have been for Joe and his companions, there lurked dangers including, at times, marauding Indians. Women and children were forbidden from wandering too far. Elders routinely implored children to stay close to the farm, and few needed to be told twice. Everyone in the region had heard the harrowing tale of the Ramsay family.

The tight quarters of a slave's cabin invited such storytelling. It is likely that on cold, stormy nights the slaves huddled around the fireplace, clamoring to hear an elder tell the tale. Few words were needed to set the scene in the Ramsay saga, and even fewer were needed to embellish the horrific details.

On the morning of May 20, 1815, a year before Young's arrival in the Missouri Territory, a Sauk war party attacked the cabin of Robert Ramsay's family some seven miles northwest of where Marthasville would eventually be established. News of the attack spread quickly. Several miles away, a messenger interrupted exercises by the fighting men of the Charette settlement. As fate would have it, the famed trailblazer Daniel Boone was there, in charge of a fortified cabin known as Callaway Post, when the news arrived. For Joe and his siblings, the mere mention of Boone probably stirred their blood. Joe had surely heard his mother often refer to Boone as her father. By then the rugged outdoorsman was already a living legend known far and wide for his daring wilderness exploits.

On this day, despite the weight of eighty years, Boone shouldered a rifle and followed the messenger back along the thickly wooded trails to the Ramsay family's remote cabin. In a clearing Boone gazed upon the three Ramsay children lying in pools of blood. Each had been savagely tomahawked, their bodies were mangled and now riddled with flies. Nearby, neighboring women tended to the children's dying, pregnant mother. The Sauk warriors had struck her first, as she milked a cow, before her peg-legged husband could reach his firearm. Now she shrieked uncontrollably as the women assisted her in the premature birth of her child.

According to one storyteller, the bloody scene left Boone's lips compressed as "a fire gleaned from his eyes." Robert Ramsey had suffered a shot in the groin, and Boone calmly extracted the ball and dressed the wound. But there was no saving the life of the mother and infant, and Boone headed off through the deep woods on the trail of the war party.

No matter the dangers lurking within, the woods presented a mystique and an allure few children could resist. So did Marthasville's bluff, where Joe's curiosity was likely stirred. The settlement's few log buildings were perched atop a magnificent bluff with white stone outcroppings wrapped in a thick array of greenery. From this perch Joe could look out over the fertile, black soil of the Missouri Valley below, where the approach of a stagecoach or a visitor on horse back could be seen from miles away. Carving the base of the bluff were the gentle waters of Tuque Creek, where Joe and his friends probably fished for bullhead catfish and crawdads. Farther south flowed the swifter currents of Charette Creek, once part of the route taken by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their great exploration. Years earlier, a half mile below Marthasville, French trappers had established a settlement along the creek called La Charette. As late as 1811 it boasted as many as thirty families who primarily raised corn and hunted. But Marthasville would slowly engulf La Charette until that village became a faded memory.

To the east, Joe could see the tree line of the mighty Missouri River a mile away. The magnificent view was surely tantalizing to the imagination. Somewhere beyond the Missouri and below the North Star lay the land the slaves called "Liberty." Joe likely overheard the elders talk about this land in the shadows of their cabins. A few called it the "Land of Freedom." Its true name was Canada.

Of equal interest were the mysteries along the upper Missouri River. Early settlers heard tall tales from vagabond fur trappers and traders who ventured the river, or from second- and third-hand stories published in St. Charles and St. Louis newspapers, which arrived in Marthasville two days after going to press. These tales eventually trickled down to the slave community. In 1822, the year Joe turned seven, news circulated with great enthusiasm to even the most remote settlements outside St. Louis. A fur company was financing a major expedition upriver beyond the Pawnee, Otoe, and Sioux villages. The following advertisement, which appeared March 20, 1822, in a St. Louis newspaper, sparked the excitement:

To enterprising young men. The subscriber wishes to engage one hundred young men to ascend the Missouri river to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years. For particulars enquire of Major Andrew Henry, near the lead mines in the county of Washington, who will ascend with, and command, the party; or of the subscriber near St. Louis. [Signed] William H. Ashley.


Excerpted from Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend by Ron J. Jackson Jr., Lee Spencer White. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Foreword Phil Collins xi

Preface xiii

Acknowledgments xxiii

1 March 5, 1836 3

2 Marthasville 6

3 Chattel 23

4 St. Louis 36

5 This Side of the Grave 46

6 Gone to Texas 58

7 Harrisburg 70

8 North Star 79

9 Another Soul Gone 87

10 William Barret Travis 94

11 Shadowing Legends 106

12 Dogs of War 125

13 Into the Unknown 133

14 A Passing Comet 142

15 The Wolf 153

16 Besieged 158

17 Fate 165

18 Defining Hour 171

19 The Hourglass 178

20 Between Two Worlds 184

21 March 6, 1836 188

22 From the Ashes 199

23 "Travis's Negro" 209

24 The Estate 216

25 Legendary Journey 223

26 Shadows and Ghosts 239

Afterword 247

Notes 255

Bibliography 299

Index 313

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Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You need to read this...100 STARS to the authors for never giving up on Joe, proving that he, a Black SLAVE, fought for Texas and loved his country. Thank you for bringing to everyone's attention a true LEGEND.... because of your devotion, his life long journey can now be traced with accuracy. This needs to be mandatory reading in schools for history to be told correctly!!! Live on forever Joe!