For three days in 1908, a crusading preservationist barricaded herself inside the Alamo to prevent the destruction of one of its most historic structures.
Adina De Zavala sat alone in a dark corner of the Alamo, the scampering rats and the ghosts of Texan martyrs her only company. Hours before, as dusk settled over San Antonio on February 10, 1908, the 46-year-old former schoolteacher had locked herself inside the compound’s former convent to prevent its possible destruction. Although she shivered from the cold, a fire burned inside De Zavala that was stoked by the same battle cry that had fueled her forefathers during the Texas Revolution—“Remember the Alamo!”
Texas history coursed through De Zavala’s veins. The granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, the Texas Revolution leader who served as vice president of the Lone Star Republic’s provisional government, she was born close to the San Jacinto battlefield where Texas won its independence from Mexico. Dismayed at the condition of San Antonio’s historic missions, she founded one of the state’s first preservation groups, which affiliated itself with the newly formed Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) in 1893.
By that point, nearly six decades after the Texas Revolution, it appeared that many had actually forgotten the Alamo. The patriotic shrine had become a crumbling ruin, neglected by time and chipped away at by souvenir-seeking tourists. The 50th anniversary of the iconic 1836 Battle of the Alamo had passed without any formal ceremony at the site. The former convent building, which had been the scene of the battle’s bloodiest fighting, had been converted into the Hugo & Schmeltzer wholesale grocery with a two-story arcaded wooden building constructed around the original stone foundation. Billboards affixed to its sides hawked ice cream and chewing tobacco.
De Zavala convinced the grocery’s owner to give the DRT the first right to purchase the property when he decided to sell, which occurred in 1903. Needing to raise $75,000 to save the building, also known as the “long barracks,” De Zavala found a deep-pocketed ally in 22-year-old Clara Driscoll, daughter of a wealthy Texas rancher and oilman who shared her interest in historic preservation. When public campaigns raised only paltry sums and the Texas governor vetoed funding because it was “not a justifiable expenditure of the taxpayers’ money,” Driscoll fronted most of the $75,000 sale price herself.
Finally shamed into action, the Texas government reimbursed Driscoll, took title on the property and named the DRT as the Alamo’s custodian. Driscoll and De Zavala, however, had very different visions for the Alamo. The wealthy socialite thought the Hugo & Schmeltzer building “unsightly” and wanted to tear it down to create a lush Spanish garden that would showcase the chapel, whose bell-shaped façade has become synonymous with the Alamo. De Zavala, however, wanted to restore the convent building to its former condition and preserve the original walls that she said still stood beneath the wooden exterior. She argued that this section of the Alamo was of greater historic importance than the chapel, which was roofless and unfit for use during the battle, because it was “where the heroes died and piled the enemy before them in heaps, where the floor was shoe deep in the blood of friend and foe.”
Driscoll and her supporters left De Zavala’s DRT chapter to form a rival group, and the two claimants went to court in a battle for custody of the Alamo. With rumors flying on February 10, 1908, that the disputed building would be converted into a vaudeville hall or torn down to make way for a hotel, De Zavala decided to act. “My lawyers on whom I depended were out of the city,” she said later, “but I had heard that ‘possession is nine points in the law.’ Something had to be done, and quickly. So I took possession.”
De Zavala locked herself inside the Hugo & Schmeltzer building and turned the sheriff away when he attempted to serve an injunction. The authorities cut electricity and telephone service to the building and refused food to be delivered to the crusader. The Alamo’s resident rats, however, prompted more fear in De Zavala than anything the law could do, and sleep proved elusive.
The “second battle of the Alamo” quickly became front-page news across the country, and telegrams of support flooded San Antonio. Friends managed to smuggle a paper bag of sandwiches to De Zavala, who used a string to hoist them up to her second-floor perch. Relenting to public pressure, the authorities restored electricity and allowed De Zavala to drink water poured through a tiny peephole, although her head continued to pound from her inability to quench her coffee addiction.
Speaking to a reporter, De Zavala channeled the spirit of those who first defended the Alamo in 1836. “They have the might, of course, but we have the right, and you know Davy Crockett said, ‘Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” On the third day of her one-woman siege, she posted a banner that echoed an old Texas Revolution rallying cry: “If you want the fort, come and take it.”
Once the Texas governor offered to take temporary custody of the Alamo until the court case was decided, De Zavala ended her occupation. To the cheers of supporters, she emerged at 6 p.m. on February 13, nearly 72 hours after the protest began.
The court ultimately declared the Driscoll faction the Alamo’s official custodians, and the DRT expelled De Zavala from the organization. However, like her predecessors in 1836, De Zavala may have lost the battle but won the war because newly elected Texas Governor Oscar Colquitt announced in 1911 that he would restore the convent to its former condition. Workers were able to confirm De Zavala’s claim that the building’s west and south walls were part of the original mission structure.
After her Alamo occupation, De Zavala continued her preservation work, served as a charter member of the Texas State Historical Association and organized the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association, which erected 38 historic markers across the state. She encouraged the statewide recognition of Texas Independence Day on March 2. In 1955, De Zavala died on the eve of the holiday she championed, and four days later her casket, draped in the Texas flag, was carried past the Alamo, its original convent walls still standing as a lasting tribute.