Safeguarding Texas historical treasures

The Travis letter in its specially designed case on display in the lobby of the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library Building.

The Travis letter in its specially designed case on display in the lobby of the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library Building.

Today is a special day at TSLAC and for the state of Texas. Today marks the first day of the exhibit of the “Victory or Death” letter, written by Col. William Barret Travis from the Alamo on February 24, 1836. In that letter, Travis appealed to his fellow Texans for the reinforcements needed to withstand the vastly overpowering Mexican army. “I call on you,” Travis wrote, “in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & of every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid.” As history attests, aid did not arrive and the 150 defenders of the Alamo perished on March 6.

This iconic relic of this pivotal historical event has been in the custody of the state archives since 1893 when it was first purchased by the state for $85 from a descendant of Col. Travis. The letter was first owned by our precursor agency, the Department of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics and History, then later, by the modern state library and archives agency formed by statute in 1909. Over those 122 years, the document has been safeguarded and protected along with many thousands of other documents and artifacts of Texas history, for the enjoyment of future generations of Texans in perpetuity.

The public has a rare opportunity to see the Travis letter during these “13 days of glory” today through March 6, after which it will go back into its archival storage for at least another two years. Why is it displayed so rarely? The item is very fragile and like any historical document, it is subject to light damage. Sustained exposure to ultraviolet light even in low levels can damage the letter. That is why the letter is displayed now in a special case purchased specifically to protect this and other precious documents while being displayed to the public. The case is climate controlled with glass that blocks damaging light from outside while providing safe lighting within.

The care provided by our staff of professional archivists is critical to safeguarding this and other treasures of our collection. In 2012, the Travis letter travelled to San Antonio for display at the Alamo. While that journey was extremely popular and a great opportunity for many people to see the document in its original historical setting, our conservation team documented slight but discernible damage from light exposure resulting from its trip to San Antonio.

We take our custodianship of the Travis letter as well as every other item in our care extremely seriously and are committed to applying the professional expertise of our staff and the highest standards of archival preservation to protecting and preserving these documents so that every future generation of Texan will be able to read, study, and appreciate the historical record of Texas.

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