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'Forget The Alamo' Author Says We Have The Texas Origin Story All Wrong

Visitors walk around the outside of the Alamo in San Antonio.
Jill Torrance
Getty Images
Visitors walk around the outside of the Alamo in San Antonio.

Remember the Alamo? According to Texas lore, it's the site in San Antonio where, in 1836, about 180 Texan rebels died defending the state during Texas' war for independence from Mexico.

The siege of the Alamo was memorably depicted in a Walt Disney series and in a 1960 movie starring John Wayne. But three writers, all Texans, say the common narrative of the Texas revolt overlooks the fact that it was waged in part to ensure slavery would be preserved.

"Slavery was the undeniable linchpin of all of this," author Bryan Burrough says. "It was the thing that the two sides had been arguing about and shooting about for going on 15 years. And yet it still surprises me that slavery went unexamined for so long."

In their new book, Forget the Alamo, Burrough and co-writers Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford challenge common misconceptions surrounding the conflict — including the notion that Davy Crockett was a martyr who fought to the death rather than surrender.

"Most academics now believe, based on Mexican accounts and contemporary accounts, that, in fact, [Crockett] did surrender and was executed," Burrough says.

The story of the Alamo has been central to the "whole Texas creation myth," Burrough says. But he adds it's past time to look critically at the "heroic Anglo narrative" associated with the site.

"One of the reasons that it matters most is that Latinos are poised to become a majority in Texas, according to census data," he says. "So if there's ever been a time for there to be a robust civic conversation ... about this, about the place of the Alamo in our history, about Texas history itself, we hope it was now."

Interview Highlights

On how Texas history often fails to address slavery

It still surprises me that slavery went unexamined for so long. But then you have to understand: The Texas revolt, for 150 years, was largely ignored by academics, in part because it was considered déclassé, it was considered provincial, and because the state government of Texas, much as they're doing now, has for 120, 130 years, made very clear to the University of Texas faculty and to the faculty of other state-funded universities that it only wants one type of Texas history taught ... and that if you get outside those boundaries, you're going to hear about it from the Legislature.

On how Mexican Americans were largely written out of Texas history

The Tejanos, who were the Texians' key allies and a number of which fought and died at the Alamo, were entirely written out of generations of Texas history [as it was] written by Anglo writers. This was mirrored very much in the kind of ethnic cleansing that went on after the revolution in which hundreds of Tejanos were pushed out of San Antonio, in Victoria and existing towns, their lands taken, laws passed against their ability to marry white women and hold public office.

On the myth that the Alamo defenders fought to the death

[Mexican Gen. Antonio López de] Santa Anna is coming north with 6,000 troops. [The Alamo defenders have] maybe 200 guys at essentially an indefensible open-air Spanish mission. There has always been this great mystery of why on earth [Lt. Col. William] Travis and [James] Bowie stay, and the best argument there is probably because they believe reinforcements would be forthcoming. Every other day they send off these plaintive, dramatic letters asking for reinforcement that, by and large, never came.

But the truly perplexing thing is that in the two weeks leading up to the arrival of Santa Anna's forces in San Antonio, Travis and Bowie are getting almost daily warnings of the progress. They know they're coming and yet still they stay there. It makes absolutely no sense of why they stayed there, except for the fact that these are men who, by and large, have never been in war. You get a sense that Travis never really believes something bad can happen to him. I mean, the idea that Mexican soldiers would show up and kill them all just seems like a notion that he never really accepted, that somehow something would happen to spirit them all the way to safety. And of course, it doesn't happen. And of course, this leads to one of the great myths, which is the bravery of the Alamo defenders, how they fought to their death and everything. And when you look at the facts, they never made a conscious decision to fight to the death. There was no line in the sand drawn. ...

What we now know is because Mexican accounts — accounts from Mexican officers and soldiers — a number of them, a dozen of them have come to light over the last 50 years, show that between a third and a half [of] the Texas defenders actually broke and ran. They ran out into the open where they were unceremoniously run down and killed by Mexican cavalry. Now, neither we nor the academic authors who first found this say that this means anybody was a coward. It was just that the place was overrun. It wasn't like every man fought to his death in place, as generations of historians have taught us.

On how the 1960 John Wayne movie The Alamo perpetuated these myths

[Wayne] made the movie basically because he wholeheartedly believed that America was falling apart, that it was going to the dogs and that somebody needs to stand up for what are today called "patriotic values," "family values," "American values." And it's also pretty clear ... [Wayne] was ardently pro-Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign and ardently anti-Kennedy and in his mind, believed that this type of huge shout-out of American patriot values could somehow defeat John F. Kennedy.

The movie, most reviewers would tell you, is a mess. It perpetuates every hoary Alamo myth. And yet it spoke to a certain cross section of American and international viewers. It was really the thing that more than anything, caused the Alamo to become the international icon that it's become.

On how the Anglo-centric narrative of the Alamo history has affected Latino kids

Mexican American kids can grow up in Texas believing they're Americans, with the Statue of Liberty and all that, until seventh grade when you were taught, in essence, that if you're Mexican, your ancestors killed Davy Crockett, that that's kind of the original sin of the Texas creation myth. It has been used just anecdotally for generations to put down Mexican Americans, a big beefy white guy going up to the little Mexican guy and punching him in the arm and saying, "Remember the Alamo," that type of thing.

To an amazing degree, maybe because the Texas media [are] still dominated by Anglos as well as the Texas government, that viewpoint has just never really gotten into the mainstream. ... By and large, any time you've had any type of Latino voice come out and question the traditional Anglo narrative, they've been shouted down.

Roberta Shorrock and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.