Early History of the Alamo
Spanish settlers built the Mission San Antonio de Valero, named for St. Anthony of Padua, on the banks of the San Antonio River around 1718. They also established the nearby military garrison of San Antonio de Béxar, which soon became the center of a settlement known as San Fernando de Béxar (later renamed San Antonio). The Mission San Antonio de Valero housed missionaries and their Native American converts for some 70 years until 1793, when Spanish authorities secularized the five missions located in San Antonio and distributed their lands among local residents.
Beginning in the early 1800s, Spanish military troops were stationed in the abandoned chapel of the former mission. Because it stood in a grove of cottonwood trees, the soldiers called their new fort “El Alamo” after the Spanish word for cottonwood and in honor of Alamo de Parras, their hometown in Mexico. Military troops–first Spanish, then rebel and later Mexican–occupied the Alamo during and after Mexico’s successful war for independence from Spain in the early 1820s. In the summer of 1821, Stephen Austin arrived in San Antonio along with some 300 U.S. families that the Spanish government had allowed to settle in Texas. The migration of U.S. citizens to Texas increased over the next decades, sparking a revolutionary movement that would erupt into armed conflict by the mid-1830s.
The Battle of the Alamo
In December 1835, in the early stages of Texas’ war for independence from Mexico, a group of Texan (or Texian) volunteers led by George Collinsworth and Benjamin Milam overwhelmed the Mexican garrison at the Alamo and captured the fort, seizing control of San Antonio. By mid-February 1836, Colonel James Bowie and Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis had taken command of Texan forces in San Antonio. Though Sam Houston, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Texan forces, argued that San Antonio should be abandoned due to insufficient troop numbers, the Alamo’s defenders–led by Bowie and Travis–dug in nonetheless, prepared to defend the fort to the last. These defenders, who despite later reinforcements never numbered more than 200, included Davy Crockett, the famous frontiersman and former congressman from Tennessee, who had arrived in early February.
On February 23, a Mexican force comprising somewhere between 1,800 and 6,000 men (according to various estimates) and commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna began a siege of the fort. The Texans held out for 13 days, but on the morning of March 6 Mexican forces broke through a breach in the outer wall of the courtyard and overpowered them. Santa Anna ordered his men to take no prisoners, and only a small handful of the Texans were spared. One of these was Susannah Dickinson, the wife of Captain Almaron Dickinson (who was killed) and her infant daughter Angelina. Santa Anna sent them to Houston’s camp in Gonzalez with a warning that a similar fate awaited the rest of the Texans if they continued their revolt. The Mexican forces also suffered heavy casualties in the Battle of the Alamo, losing between 600 and 1,600 men.
Legacy of the Alamo
From March to May, Mexican forces once again occupied the Alamo. For the Texans, the Battle of the Alamo became a symbol of heroic resistance and a rallying cry in their struggle for independence. On April 21, 1836, Sam Houston and some 800 Texans defeated Santa Anna’s Mexican force of 1,500 men at San Jacinto (near the site of present-day Houston), shouting “Remember the Alamo!” as they attacked. The victory ensured the success of Texan independence: Santa Anna, who had been taken prisoner, came to terms with Houston to end the war. In May, Mexican troops in San Antonio were ordered to withdraw, and to demolish the Alamo’s fortifications as they went.
In 1845, the United States annexed Texas. For many years afterward, the U.S. Army quartered troops and stored supplies at the Alamo. In 1883, the state of Texas purchased the Alamo, later acquiring property rights to all the surrounding grounds. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a women’s organization including descendants of the earliest Texan residents, has managed the Alamo since 1905. Today, more than 2.5 million people a year visit the 4.2-acre site, which includes some original structures dating back to the mission period.