Mission San Antonio de Valero, popularly known as the Alamo, has become a gift that keeps on giving to archaeologists and historians. New archaeological digs around the Alamo in what is now downtown San Antonio have uncovered 1,700 artifacts in a mere four weeks, including pieces of ceramics of both colonial and indigenous design. The archaeologists believe they have uncovered the parts of the original mission inhabited by Indian converts.
My generation grew up on Walt Disney’s mythology of Davy Crockett on the ramparts of the Alamo, overrun by evil Mexican soldiers while laying about his Kentucky rifle, Ol’ Betsy, using her as a club when the soldiers were coming too quickly to allow for reloading.
It turned out that nearly every detail of the myth was historically incorrect. The Battle of the Alamo lacked the moral clarity of the fiction. The “freedom fighters” supported slavery, which Mexico had outlawed, and the Anglo settlers had winked at their promises to become Catholics as a condition of being granted land in Catholic Mexico.
In fact, Crockett preferred to be called “David,” and he gave away the rifle he called “Old Betsy” to his son before he headed for Texas. Crockett was captured alive and subsequently executed. Even the façade of the Alamo looked nothing like it was presented in the movie and on many modern trademarks at the time the iconic battle took place.
The Catholic missions of Texas were located according to the currents of power politics among the European invaders. In 1716, the Spanish established a number of missions in East Texas for the purpose of beating the French to the fertile farmland that was the economic center of Texas before oil displaced King Cotton.
The “Fall of the Alamo,” painted by Theodore Gentilz in 1844, depicts the Alamo complex from the south. The Low Barracks, the chapel, and the wooden palisade connecting them are in the foreground.
The first of the East Texas missions was Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de los Nacogdoches, named for a band of the Caddo Indians, whose property the Spanish and the French were disputing. The primary purpose of the missions located along the San Antonio River was to halve the distance between the missions in East Texas and the nearest Spanish settlements in the Mexican state of Coahuila. A secondary purpose was to convert or enslave the local Indians, depending on your point of view.
As the East Texas missions took Caddo land, the Central Texas missions took resources from the Coahuiltecans, sedentary farmers in the area dependent on the water sources that also attracted the Spanish. The available water also made the area a stop for indigenous traders—Jumanos and others—travelling between the Caddo Confederation and the Pueblos of what is now New Mexico.
The Spanish introduced technology that disrupted trading relationships as well as disease that weakened the indigenous farmers. Those Coahuiltecans that survived Spanish diseases became dependent on Spanish technology, converted to Catholicism, and helped the Spanish hold the water supplies when first the Apaches and then the Comanches became dominant on the Southern Plains.
By 1793, all the sedentary Indians available for conversion had either converted or died and the converts lived in as much fear of the Plains Indians as did the Spanish. San Antonio de Valero was secularized and began a new existence as a storage facility. It is thought the term “Alamo” came into use after the Spanish term for the cottonwood trees that grew near the water.
It was in this incarnation as a storage facility that the Alamo was fortified by Anglo settlers disobeying the direct orders of General Sam Houston to take what supplies they could carry, destroy the rest, and retreat before the Mexican army arrived. After the devastating defeat of the Anglos that was utterly foreseeable and in fact had been foreseen by Houston, the Alamo fell upon hard times.
As the eventually defeated Mexican army retreated, it tore down walls and set fire to what would burn at the Alamo. After the U.S. annexed Texas, the army used what remained of the Alamo once more for storage and it was some time in the period after the battle that the façade we associate with the Alamo was constructed on the front of the old chapel.
This image of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, or the Alamo, was taken in 2009 and shows the façade that many associate with the Alamo.
Late in the 19th century, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas formed and began organizing the preservation of the Alamo ruins. In 1905, the state bought the remaining buildings and gave “the shrine of Texas liberty” over to the DRT for preservation as what became a major tourist attraction in San Antonio.
Over the years, archaeology was at best sporadic and there was much criticism of the stewardship of the DRT. A major criticism was neglect of the story of Tejanos who sided with the rebels in defense of the Alamo and complete erasure of Indians from the popular historical narrative.
It was not until 1994 that the DRT erected a marker recognizing that the Alamo site had once contained Indian burial grounds. This was partially in response to agitating by local people who had been able to prove their direct descent from Coahuiltecan mission Indians using Spanish colonial records of births and deaths and marriages.
In 2015, the Alamo and the other four San Antonio missions were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the state of Texas reclaimed control of the Alamo. The state reasserting control over the site has begun major changes in the Alamo Plaza, which is now the center of a tourist district in downtown San Antonio.
The first objective is to find the boundaries of the original mission and learn whether any original walls are still in place. The scientific team has also been asked to find the original ground surface of the mission and how it relates to the San Antonio River.
These goals will necessarily result in more discoveries showing that the Spanish were not the first humans to settle around the reliable water sources in the thirsty part of Texas.