Published: January 12th 2013November 9th 2011
Texas' most famous historic site
After some time in this state, I’ve gotten the impression that Texans view their home a little differently to how most Americans view theirs.
People from other states tend to see themselves as US citizens first, and residents of their states second.
Texans, by contrast, give the distinct impression that they view themselves as Texas citizens first and US citizens as almost a side effect of that.
Locals like to call this attitude ‘Texas Pride
'[WARNING: May be offensive].
Those from nearby states tend to call it things that can’t be repeated in public
. [WARNING: Not Safe For Work]
Remember the Alamo
Whatever one thinks of this way of looking at the world, it’s grounded in real history
Texas is the only state to win, by itself, independence from a foreign power; and the only one to join the United States by a formal treaty.
Texans like to gloss over the fact it was forced to rejoin the union after the Civil War, though.
San Antonio, the capitol of Texas under Mexican rule, is the place to explore this unique heritage.
I started at the Alamo
Letter from the Alamo
William Travis's most famous letter. Note the triple underline near the bottom
THE talisman location of Texas patriotism
Many Americans venerate places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was drafted in 1776; and Bunker Hill near Boston, site of the first major battle against the British.
Combine them all, and the fervor will approach how Texans feel about the Alamo.
A group of Texas settlers fought here
against an overwhelming Mexican army in 1836, making ‘Remember the Alamo’ a touchstone of Texas identity ever since.
Ironically, the battle itself was quick and bloody, and those patriots were all killed.
next to the site itself covers the story.
To fully appreciate the place, see it first.
The state now known as Texas was originally occupied by the Spanish
They called it Tejas.
As part of settling their new territory, Spanish priests set up a series of missions, just as Juniper Sierra had in California [see California Coast and Open Road
was founded as the main mission for San Antonio in 1718.
The church itself was the center of a large complex.
The complex is rebuilt at this point; only the church itself is original.
Memorial to those who lost their lives at the Battle of the Alamo
After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, it was officially a constitutional republic
Like New Mexico [see Santa Fe, Art Magnet
], Tejas was a sparsely populated province on the far frontier.
The local leaders wanted settlers, so the Mexican government gave American Sam Austin
a large land grant and permission to bring people to Tejas.
The lure of cheap land and the ability to escape troubles elsewhere brought people in droves.
Two years later, General Santa Ana
took over the Mexican government in a coup and set up a dictatorship.
One of his acts was to disband the provincial governments and implement direct control from Mexico City.
The large contingent of Americans in Tejas did not take well to this.
The museum heavily pushes the viewpoint that they saw direct parallels between Santa Ana’s actions and those of King George that led to the American Revolution sixty years earlier.
Americans in Texas (note the name change!) began a series of actions that culminated in a war with Mexico for independence.
The museum pushes the point even more heavily that if Santa Ana had followed a different
Six Flags of Texas
The flags that have flown over Texas. From right to left: Spanish colonial, French colonial, Mexican, Confederate, Republic of Texas, United States
course, subsequent events would not have happened.
The war itself began with a battle over a cannon
The Mexican army had lent the cannon to a group of American settlers in the town of Gonzalez.
In 1835, Santa Ana sent an army to get it back, by force if necessary.
The Texans responded by unfurling a huge banner with a picture of the cannon, a large blue star, and the words “Come and Take It!”
The Mexicans proceeded to open fire, and the battle was on.
The star on that flag is the source of the Lone Star
that is now so much a part of Texas identity.
Santa Ana responded to this battle and others by personally leading much larger army into Texas.
They attacked and overran San Antonio early the following year.
Settlers regrouped and launched a surprise raid
, fighting literally house to house through the city.
They succeeded in driving the Mexicans out.
This rebel group knew that Santa Ana’s retaliation was only a matter of time.
They set up a fort in the Alamo.
A sample of the countries from which people have immigrated to Texas
Undermanned, their commander William Travis
sent out a series of increasingly desperate letters for reinforcements
The last one ends with a phrase that has become iconic, “Victory or Death!”
Those letters now have the same meaning for Texans that speeches like Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give me Death!” have for other Americans, but they had little effect at the time.
Only five settlers ever showed up.
Travis could write, but he wasn’t known as a great strategist.
Many settlers joined military groups in other parts of the territory, including a large army led by Sam Houston.
Santa Ana finally attacked on March 6, 1836.
His forces stormed the Alamo in the middle of the night and simply overwhelmed the defenders.
Many men died fighting.
Those that survived were summarily executed.
Ana’s forces also found groups of women and children
hiding in side rooms, whom they captured and then escorted out of San Antonio.
The most famous participants in the battle besides Travis are David Crocket
and Jim Bowie
, who are larger than life figures in the mythic version.
Items from the time when Texas was part of the Spanish frontier
Both joined the group of rebels in the initial raid on San Antonio.
Davey Crocket, a former Congressman, led a group of Tennessee volunteers to Texas specifically to join the battles.
He saw parallels between the Texans’ struggle and the original American Revolution.
Jim Bowie was a soldier from Louisiana who earned his reputation as a knife fighter.
He invented a combat knife which is now named for him.
The museum doesn’t mention that both have far larger roles in the mythic history than the real one.
In the mythic account
, both fought bravely against an overwhelming horde, and died leading their fellow rebels.
In reality, at least one historic account states that Crocket surrendered once things became hopeless and was executed.
Jim Bowie, believe it or not, was too sick with the flu to fight and spent the entire battle in bed.
The Alamo battle was a quick bloody atrocity.
Its role as a Texas icon comes from what happened afterward.
Other commanders, particularly Sam Houston, used it to motivate their troops to fight against Santa Ana.
“Remember the Alamo”
Exhibit on Jewish immigrants in Texas
became even more urgent after Santa Ana’s army subsequently massacred a rebel force at Goliad.
Santa Ana finally pursued the largest Texan army under San Houston
, figuring it would end this little rebellion for good.
Houston, the best strategist in Texas, surprised the Mexicans with a dawn attack at San Jacinto
, near the city now named for him.
Despite smaller numbers, the Texans won and captured Santa Ana.
Many soldiers wanted to kill the Mexican dictator as revenge for the Alamo, but Sam Houston had bigger ideas.
He forced Santa Ana to sign a treaty recognizing Texas independence in return for sparing his life.
Settlers formed the formal Republic of Texas
soon afterward with Sam Houston as its president.
The last part of the history exhibit shows Texas pride at its largest.
It describes the legacies of the Alamo and the Texas Revolution.
The battle’s ultimate legacy isn’t the founding of the Republic of Texas, although that was very important.
It’s when the republic joined the United States
in 1845, provoking the Mexican American War.
The American victory led to the country seizing
Recreation of a typical cowboy camp on the Texas frontier
enough Mexican territory to increase its size by a third; quite a result for one massacre.
Remember the Alamo indeed!
Like all history museums, this one has many artifacts.
The displays call attention to those that were owned by key participants, displayed like icons.
According to the write-ups, such items rarely appear in public.
The museum has one of Santa Ana’s swords and Sam Houston’s walking stick.
It has a small collection of knives Jim Bowie designed
, wide blades with curving points designed to do heavy damage.
The display also has William Travis’s personal Bible.
The path from the museum to the Alamo itself passes an old well.
It’s not marked, surprising for something so historic.
The well provided water to the entire mission complex, including the time the Alamo defenders were based here.
Note carefully that it was (and is) located OUTSIDE the church walls, so keeping people supplied was dangerous business.
It’s yet another example of how William Travis was not the best strategist.
The Alamo itself is the original mission church.
It’s built from
Stories of African American cowboys on the Texas frontier
the same type of adobe bricks as the Caramel Mission in California, and has the same yellow color.
It has only three doors and few windows, part of what made it attractive as a fort.
The path passes two plaques with copies of Travis’s letters.
Notable phrases are underlined, and ‘Victory or Death!’ is underlined three times.
A sign at the entrance calls this “the Shrine of Texas Liberty”.
Inside, the building contains a long room shaped like a cross with a barrel ceiling.
Smaller rooms branch off on both sides.
Plaster peels from the thick walls.
Signs warn to not touch anything.
The main feature is at the back, a series of plaques listing those massacred by the Mexican Army, in alphabetical order.
Surrounding this are the flags of every state and country the defenders came from, including a surprising number of European ones.
Make no mistake: for Texans this room is more than just a war memorial; it symbolizes the core of their very character.
Sadly, the Alamo is popular enough that the surrounding streets have become filled with tourist
Typical cabin for an 1800s Texas immigrant
All of them are quite familiar from other tourist heavy areas, such as a branch of Madame Tussard’s wax museum.
I tried to pretend they didn’t exist.
I ate street food for lunch, which was a pleasant surprise.
Many hipster food vendors in the United States sell Mexican Coke
, which is made with sugar and sweeter than the US version.
In San Antonio, they sell it in liter bottles, along with Mexican Pepsi!
Genuine Mexican junk food for desert (with wrappers in Spanish) completes the picture.
Institute of Texas Cultures
San Antonio’s other essential Texas history site is the Institute of Texas Cultures
Many different ethnic groups have immigrated to Texas over the years.
In the middle 1800s, the state had the same reputation that the American colonies did before the Revolution, a land of endless resources to create a fresh life.
“Gone to Texas
” became a catch phrase for starting over.
The Institute tells the stories of the many ethnic groups that moved to the state.
The Germans of Fredericksburg were just one of them.
A large group
Riverwalk by day
The linear park through downtown San Antonio
of flags flies outside, one for every country that sent large numbers of people to Texas.
The displays have an odd feel to them.
With two exceptions, I got the impression that they were created by descendents of the groups themselves, with a particular point of view.
All of them extol the benefits of people immigrating to Texas, and how they adapted cultural traditions to this new world.
The difficult parts are mostly left out.
The displays have lots of old photos and some impressive cultural artifacts.
The exceptions, of course, are Hispanics and Africans.
To Spanish and Mexican settlers, Texas (then called Tejas) was just a frontier of the Spanish empire.
The first explorers passed through in the late 1500s.
Settlers were very sparse, however, until the founding of San Antonio in 1718.
Ranchers and farmers then moved in.
Like in California and New Mexico [see Historic California
], the Catholic Church played a huge role in the community.
Friars set up a series of missions, one of which later became the Alamo.
The displays are filled with religious artifacts, all of
Sculpture along the Riverwalk
which resemble those from elsewhere in the Spanish new world. Africans
are unique of Texas ethnic groups for having arrived in bondage.
Eastern Texas is well suited to plantation agriculture, and the first African slaves were brought by the Spanish.
The pace greatly increased after Texas joined the United States in 1845.
The eastern slaveholders maneuvered Texas into the Confederacy
when the Civil War started.
After the war ended African Americans faced the same segregation
imposed elsewhere in the south.
These policies existed uneasily with much more egalitarian ones on the western frontier, which featured black ranchers
and buffalo soldiers
A thriving, and largely invisible, middle class developed.
The situation lasted until the civil rights protests of the 1960s finally led to official integration.
One set of displays covers the tradition most people associate with the state, cowboy culture
Ironically, this most American of occupations is actually Spanish. Spanish settlers
from Mexico first brought beef cattle to the state in the early 1700s.
Many different immigrant groups ultimately became ranchers.
The form most people (including Texans) consider ‘ranching’ evolved during the
Canal and bridge
Another section of Riverwalk
era of the large open cattle drives
of the late 1800s.
The museum has a replica of a typical camp, with cast iron pots over coals, spurs, and lariats.
Many Texans still identify with this tradition, even when the closest they come to a steer is passing one on the roadside.
A museum docent filled me in on another Texas cultural obsession, high school football
The movie (and TV series) Friday Night Lights
exaggerated certain things, but captures the overall flavor well.
Southerners in general love the game.
Texas has a large number of rural communities, and high school sports bring residents together.
A state as big as Texas requires a long playoff system to determine a football champion every year.
All those well publicized games turned an expression of local pride into something much more significant
Football in Texas is not life or death; it’s bigger than that
My final item for today was San Antonio’s most famous public park, the Riverwalk
The San Antonio River runs right through downtown.
Historically, it flooded on a regular basis.
Example of the mosiacs found under bridges along the Riverwalk
the 1930s the Works Progress Administration built a series of dams and canals to tame it.
City leaders then had the farsighted idea to line the canals with walking paths, landscaping, and Venice-style bridges to create a linear park
, the Riverwalk.
In the 1960s, less farsighted leaders decided to cover over the canals to create more space for buildings.
Neighborhood activists rebelled.
They convinced people that the correct solution to downtown redevelopment was to line the Riverwalk with restaurants and retail shops
to lure people into the city.
It worked beautifully, and the Riverwalk has been a centerpiece of San Antonio ever since.
These days, the park feels incredibly schizophrenic.
The central core looks and feels like an unadulterated tourist trap.
Here, the canal is lined with chain stores, chain restaurants, and some of San Antonio’s most overpriced bars.
I wanted to get out of there quickly, and did.
Away from the center of downtown, on the other hand, it looks like a beautiful park.
The canal flows through grass and trees, fountains, and occasional public art.
The bridges all have mosaics.
Riverwalk by night
Part of the canal after dark, close to Acenar
Stairways lead up to various streets.
These parts can be pretty empty at night, though, so be careful.
With its Hispanic heritage, San Antonio should have the best Mexican restaurants in Texas.
That it does.
Unfortunately, it also has some of the worst, thanks to visitors whose knowledge of Mexican cuisine ends at tequila and nacho chips.
The people at my hotel knew the difference.
They pointed me to Acenar
, a restaurant on a quieter section of the Riverwalk that serves what they call ‘creative Mexican’.
The food resembled what a trendy restaurant in Mexico City would serve, and was very good.
For the first time on this trip, I had a genuine Mexican dessert, a spicy pastry filled with ice cream.