William Barret Travis' Letter from the Alamo, 1836
About the Letter
At the Alamo in San Antonio, then called Bejar, 150 Texas rebels led by William Barret Travis made their stand against Santa Anna's vastly superior Mexican army. On the second day of the siege, February 24, 1836, Travis called for reinforcements with this heroic message:
I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism, and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch. ...VICTORY OR DEATH.
Little help came. Santa Anna's troops broke through on March 6. All of the defenders of the Alamo died.
This historic letter was carried from the Alamo by 30-year-old Captain Albert Martin of Gonzales, a native of Rhode Island. The next day, en route to his hometown, Martin heard the distant rumble of artillery fire. At the first opportunity he stopped and added a postscript:
Since the above was written I heard a very heavy Cannonade during the whole day. think there must have been an attack made upon the alamo. We were short of Ammunition when I left Hurry on all the men you can in haste...
When I left there was but 150 determined to do or die tomorrow I leave for Bejar with what men I can raise & will be there Monday [a?] at all events - -
Col Almonte is there the troops are under the Command of Gen. Seisma.
Martin arrived at Gonzales on the afternoon of the 25th. He passed the dispatch to Lancelot Smither, who had arrived from the Alamo the day before with an estimate of Mexican troop strength. Smither felt obliged to add his own emphatic note to the back of Travis' letter:
N. [B ?] I hope Every One will Rendevu at gonzales as soon as poseble as the Brave Solders are suffereing do not deglect the powder. is very scarce and should not be delad one moment
There is evidence that Smither extracted the essence of the letter and deposited this copy with Judge Andrew Ponton before he departed Gonzales. Ponton prepared other copies and forwarded these to Nacogdoches and other population centers in the province. One such copy existed in the C.H. Raguet Papers in Marshall and was reproduced in full by Amelia Williams in her "Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo."
Smither left that evening, heeding the admonition to forward the dispatch to San Felipe "by express day and night." Fighting an icy north wind, he covered the distance in less than 40 hours and delivered the appeal to the citizens' committee in that town. The proceedings of the citizens' meeting and a reasonably accurate printing of Travis' message are preserved ina broadsheet printed by Joseph Baker and Gail and Thomas Borden entitled "MEETING OF THE CITIZENS OF SAN FELIPE." Two hundred copies of this broadsheet were printed order of the committee, and at least three other preproductions of the letter were completed by Baker and Borden. One was a separate printing of the letter exhibiting further variations from the original holograph, another printing of 200 copies with "THE LATEST NEWS" appended, and a third printing of 300 copies with a proclamation of Provisional Governor Henry Smith. Although there were five distinct printings of the Travis letter by Baker and Borden, there were only two versions, and neither provided an accurate transcription of the famous appeal.
The Texas Republican was the first newspaper to carry Travis' letter in the March 2 issue; the Telegraph & Texas Register printed the letter on March 5. Both of these printings drew on the variant copies produced by Baker and Borden, not the original letter. The same is true of a dozen or more reproductions of the Travis message appearing in various Texas histories, published between 1836 and 1891. This supports the contention that the original holograph was returned to the Travis family shortly after the Revolution.
According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1891, the February 24 appeal came into the possession of Travis' daughter, Susan Isabella Travis, who was less than five years old at the time of her father's death. The letter passed to her daughter, Mary Jan Grissette, and hence to great grandson John G. Davidson.
On February 16, 1891, Davisdon forwarded the heirloom to L.L. Foster, Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics, and History, to be placed on temporary loan until called for by the family. On March 23, 1893, Davidson offered to sell the letter, owing to personal hardship. He repeated his offer on May 8, this time specifying his desire to recover $250 and an accurate transcription of the same. Davidson pointed up that the family had once been offered twice that amount for the letter. At the time, this figure represented half of the Department's entire appropriation for the collection of historical manuscripts, and acquisition would be impossible without an additional appropriation from the legislature. Davidson contacted the Department again on may 16, offering to "sell it to the state $25.00 cheaper than to any society or individual as I know it would be safe."
Commissioner John E. Hollingsworth replied on May 17 that he wanted Davidson's "very best terms." On May 24, Davidson reduced the price to $85.00 and a warrant was issued five days later to purchase the document.
The acquisition of this famous document is memorialized in the Museum accession log (accession #39) of the Texas State Library and Eighteenth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics, and History (1892). It was exhibited in a "locked glass showcase" with other manuscripts, artifacts, and rare books, according to another accession log, which also documents the loan and final acquisition of the letter along with the family Bible and a copy of Colonel Travis' last will and testament. The exhibit was apparently permanent as the Twenty-ninth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics, and History (1903) mentioned that the letter is on exhibition in the main room of the State Library, along with other relics, including the San Jacinto battle flag and President Lamar's pistols.
Custody of the letter devolved upon the Texas State Library and Historical Commission on March 19, 1909, and only once left the protective environment of that agency. On June 22, 1936, the Texas State Library and Historical Commission approved the temporary loan of 143 documents, including the Travis letter and the Texas Declaration of Independence, to the Committee on Historical Exhibits, Texas Centennial Central Exposition.