While many San Antonio visitors are surprised to see how small the actual structure is, there’s no doubt that the history surrounding the Alamo continues to be larger than life. Historians are continuing to learn more about the site even today.
If the stories below whet your appetite for Alamo history, you should consider taking the on-site guided tour. The tours are led by knowledgeable historians, and you even get your own headset, which receives a direct transmission from the guide. This is helpful since the Alamo is always crowded, and it would otherwise be impossible to hear the guide. Arrive as early as possible in the day when the site is usually less crowded.
British musician Phil Collins has been obsessed with the Alamo since he was a child. In 2014, Collins donated his $15 million trove of artifacts to the Alamo. The collection includes Bowie knives, Davy Crockett’s leather bullet pouch, a Mexican army helmet, Spanish swords, flintlock pistols and dozens of historical documents. Some of the items are currently on display in rotating exhibits, but the museum is working on creating a new space to house the extensive collection.
While the Alamo has undergone many repairs over the years, pockmarks from bullets fired during the Battle of the Alamo can still be seen on the front of the building. They can be hard to spot, but a guide can help point them out. Inside the building, another historical oddity can be spotted if you look carefully. Bits of old bottles poke out from some of the walls because soldiers doing the repairs in the mid-1800s gathered fill material from the local dump.
The first Spanish mission in the region was known as Mission San Francisco de Solano, and it was built near the Rio Grande River in 1700. The central location of San Antonio was later determined to be an ideal jumping-off point for the continued expansion of Spanish missions in Texas. The mission now known as the Alamo was originally called San Antonio de Valero. Construction started on the building and surrounding complex in 1744.
While the Spanish missionaries did try to convert the Native Americans to Catholicism, that was only part of the plan. They wanted to turn them into farmers and ranchers and, ultimately, Spanish taxpayers. The original Alamo site was surrounded by farmland and ranching facilities. The tribes that cooperated with the Spanish often had ulterior motives of their own. Some were simply poor and starving, and the Spanish offered food and shelter. Others sought protection from the Apaches and Comanches in the region. Plagues of smallpox and other European diseases periodically decimated the native population, making the Spanish expansion plan unworkable.
By the 1790s, the Spanish military had taken over San Antonio de Valero. In 1803, a new group of soldiers and their families moved onto the site. Their Spanish name translates as the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras. “Flying companies” were those that were trained to fight on horseback. They had previously been based in a town called Alamo de Parras. Alamo is the Spanish word for cottonwood trees, which are common in the region. The soldiers were informally known as the “Alamo Company,” and the name was later extended to the site itself.
After Texas won its independence, Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna continued a rocky military and political career in Mexico. In one of his efforts to raise money and stage a comeback, he presented an investment idea to American inventor Thomas Adams in New York City. Santa Anna thought that Mexican chicle, a tree resin chewed in Mexico since Aztec times, might be useful as a cheaper substitute for rubber. That plan didn’t work out, but Adams later made a fortune by turning chicle into a more refined chewing gum.
From 1803 to 1835, Spanish soldiers lived and worked on the Alamo grounds. The convento, or priests’ quarters, was converted into barracks. The second floor of the convento became a hospital. While the soldiers often wore thick leather “armor” and carried leather shields, they still sustained frequent injuries at the hands of hostile tribes in the area.
In 2015, the Alamo and the four other San Antonio missions were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, joining the ranks of the Taj Majal and Stonehenge as among the most historically important structures in the world. The organization points out that the sites represent an “interweaving of the cultures of the Spanish and the Coahuiltecan and other indigenous peoples.” Though not as famous as the Alamo, the Concepción, San Jose, San Juan and Espada missions each tell an important piece of Texas history.
During the famous battle and throughout much of the building’s early life, the main chapel at the Alamo had no roof. In fact, the building’s original design bore little resemblance to the building that exists today. It was intended to have two bell towers on either side of the building and a dome in the middle. But construction plans changed repeatedly over the years due to changes in ownership and worker shortages (largely due to disease). The first roof was added in the mid-1800s when the building was under control of the U.S. Army.
Perhaps the most famous symbol connected to the Alamo, the arched parapet on the front of the chapel was added long after the famous battle, in the 1850s. It was not a popular feature at the time, with some critics suggesting that it made the facade look like a headboard for a bed. For much of the Alamo's early history, the front of the chapel was basically a high stone wall with an ornate door.
Although many indigenous peoples in Texas were decimated by war and disease, the long-term intermingling of the Spanish and the native tribes led to the virtual disappearance of some tribes through marriage. Of course, this only became legal after the indigenous people abandoned their own religion and converted to Catholicism. The blending of Spanish and indigenous bloodlines also occurred throughout Mexico, where family trees are often difficult to trace back to their indigenous origins.
When the Alamo and the other missions failed to make settlers out of the native populations, at least not to any significant degree, the Spanish government decided to encourage residents of the nearby United States to move to the region, which was then known as Coahuila y Tejas. Initially, the region was hard to govern from Mexico City because it was remote and sparsely populated. After the influx of newcomers from the United States, the region became largely ungovernable because of the sudden growth in the population and the Americans’ demands for basic human rights and fair representation. Many people don’t realize that the first major colonist, Stephen F. Austin, was essentially acting as an agent of the Mexican government. Before moving toward independence, the new settlers simply wanted Tejas to be its own Mexican state. Instead, it was lumped into the sprawling Coahuila province, and most of the leaders with real political power lived far away.
It was actually the Spanish soldiers in the Alamo Company who sparked the initial conflict that would lead to the larger battle at the Alamo. The Spanish army had loaned the settlers in Gonzales a small cannon to help them protect themselves from the Comanches. When the soldiers came to take the cannon back, they were met with cries of “Come and Take It.” The colonists opened fire on the Spanish soldiers, giving rise to the Texas Revolution. To this day, the flag with the image of a single cannon and the words “Come and Take It” is used to express various forms of rebellion.
In 1903, the Long Barrack portion of the Alamo was almost sold and converted into a hotel. School teacher Adina de Zavala convinced Clara Driscoll, daughter of a wealthy rancher, to buy the structure and donate it to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Adina de Zavala was also the granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, who was a vice president of the Republic of Texas. When the building’s future was again threatened in 1908, de Zavala locked herself inside to prevent the building’s destruction. Throughout her life, de Zavala continued to advocate for the preservation of other Texas historic sites including the Spanish missions and fought to ensure that Texas history was taught in public schools. During the building's long path to preservation, portions of it were used as a warehouse, a smokehouse, a store and an arms depot. Portions of the original complex are now covered up by modern office buildings and hotels, but efforts continue to unearth more of the Alamo's secrets. In 2016, archaeologists discovered an adobe wall less than 2 feet underground. Experts believe the wall may have been part of one of the structures used for Native American housing.
Though several movies have been made about the Alamo, the first one was a silent film called The Siege and Fall of the Alamo. It was shown at the Royal Theatre in 1914, but the film itself appears to have been lost to history. All that survives of the movie are descriptions written as part of its copyright registration for the Library of Congress and advertisements published in a San Antonio newspaper.
While rock star Ozzy Osbourne never actually urinated on the Alamo, he did relieve himself on the nearby Cenotaph monument. As if that weren't strange enough, the incident occurred in the middle of the day, and Osbourne was wearing a long dress. Osbourne was banned from performing in the city for 10 years, but he tried to redeem himself by donating $10,000 to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in 1992. Osbourne returned to the Alamo in 2015 to film a segment for Ozzy & Jack’s World Detour, a reality TV series.
Several weeks before the historic battle, General Sam Houston had concluded that the mission was indefensible with the available soldiers and equipment. He sent Colonel James Bowie and 30 soldiers to the Alamo with orders to remove the weapons and destroy the mission. Upon arrival, Bowie discovered that there weren’t enough donkeys and horses available to transport the heavy artillery. Bowie and Colonel James C. Neill made the case to Houston that the loss of the Alamo would be strategically devastating. Despite their pleas for reinforcements, only a few more soldiers arrived before the battle. One of the few survivors of the battle was William Travis’ slave, Joe. General Santa Anna spared Joe in the hopes that he would spread the word among other slaves to support the Mexican government instead of the Texan rebels.