On February 23, 1836, the Mexican army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna, arrived in San Antonio de Béxar and surrounded the Alamo, a former mission occupied by some 200 Texas forces. The next day, Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis, leader of the Alamo’s defenders, sat down to write a letter addressed to “the People of Texas & All Americans in the World.” In the now-famous missive, Travis appealed for help, but expressed no fear or despair at the ever-mounting odds against his men. Instead, he vowed to “never surrender or retreat,” but to fight to the end. As we all know, help never came. To this day, however, Travis’ letter stands as an emblem of courage and self-sacrifice, and a vital piece of the enduring legend of the Alamo.
Who was William Barret Travis? Born and raised in South Carolina, he studied law and found work as a teacher before marrying young, at the age of 19. His wife, Rosanna Cato, was one of his students. In 1831, after working as an attorney and a newspaper editor, Travis made the decision to abandon his failing marriage and make a new start in Texas. (He was also likely facing mounting debts.) He left his wife, young son and unborn daughter in South Carolina and applied for a land grant in the new colony formed by Stephen F. Austin.
By 1834, after being arrested in a clash with troops from the local Mexican garrison in the community of Anahuac, Travis returned to San Felipe and joined the local government there. As simmering tensions with Mexico threatened to boil over into rebellion, Travis was one of the first to sign up for the Texan forces. At one point, Santa Anna personally ordered his arrest, boosting his profile exponentially among the Texas rebels. By late 1835, Travis had risen in the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel of cavalry in the Texan volunteer army.
In December 1835, at the outset of their war for independence, Texans drove Mexican forces from San Antonio de Béxar and occupied the Alamo. The following month, Travis was ordered to reinforce Colonel James C. Neill at the former mission, entering with only 30 men (after being unable to raise the expected 100). After Neill left to care for his family, Travis and Col. James Bowie took command of the Alamo’s defenders.
A vanguard of Mexican dragoons under General Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma arrived in San Antonio on February 23, followed by General Santa Anna himself later that day. The Mexicans surrounded the Alamo, Travis began writing pleas for help. One of his messages, sent via courier to Gonzales (70 miles away), read: “We have 150 men and are determined to defend the Alamo to the last. Give us assistance.” A company of Texas Rangers in Gonzales answered the call, riding out to San Antonio on February 27. A total of 32 men riding with them entered the Alamo on March 1, and were the only reinforcements Travis and his fellow defenders would receive.
On February 24, Travis wrote another letter, which would later be reprinted in newspapers around the country, as well as in Europe. It is arguably the most famous document in Texas history. (The original is now located in the Texas State Library and Archives in Austin.)
Commandancy of the The Alamo
Bejar, Feby. 24th. 1836
To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World—
Fellow Citizens & compatriots—
I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna — I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man — The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken — I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls — I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch — The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country —
Victory or Death.
William Barrett Travis.
Lt. Col. comdt.
P. S. The Lord is on our side — When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn — We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.
Travis turned to another Gonzales Ranger, Captain Albert Martin, to carry his most famous letter, penned on February 24, from the Alamo. Martin handed the letter off to one Lancelot Smither, and both men added postscripts to the missive including estimates of Mexican troop strength. Smither delivered the letter to a citizens’ committee in San Felipe, capital of Austin’s Texas colony, less than 40 hours after it left the Alamo. Newspapers began publishing transcripts of the letter as early as March 2, the same day on which delegates to the Convention at Washington officially declared Texas’ independence.
Some mistakenly believe the appeal written on February 24 was Travis’ last letter; in fact, he wrote at least four more, including one sent to the delegates at Washington. Dated on March 3, it arrived on March 6—too late. Before dawn that day, after a 13-day siege, Mexican troops overran the former mission. Travis, Bowie, Davy Crockett and the rest of the Alamo’s defenders were killed in the fierce struggle that followed. Their courage and sacrifice would be remembered five weeks later, as Sam Houston led Texan troops to a decisive victory over Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto—and they are still remembered today.