FORGET THE ALAMO, The Rise and Fall of An American Myth
By Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford
Penguin Press, New York 2021, 386 pgs
Reviewed by Robin Breon
The following article is reprinted here from the current issue of CURATOR, the Museum Journal https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/21516952
If it is true, as Jacques Le Goff observes in his book History and Memory (Columbia University Press, 1992), that “Every history should be a social history,” then the evolution of The Alamo and its interpretation as a historic site should be a classic example.
The contended past, jousting as it does with social conservatives who cling to fictitious notions of heritage as heroic folklore versus scholars who study events that occur under complicated and sometimes quite tragic circumstances and attempt to explain them, is the order of the day. In Forget the Alamo, the authors take up this competition with great enthusiasm while bolstering their arguments with rigorous research by way of cited primary documents, first person interviews and a critical eye toward great reams of popular culture that has become part and parcel of the Alamo’s story over the years.
Is there a more storied state anywhere in the history of the United States? In books, fictional novels, films, television shows and popular song, the history, legends and myths of Texas -flavored as they are with no small amounts of nationalist ambition, racialist romanticism and nostalgia – presents a political and culturally complicated past encompassing a panorama of events local, national and international in scale. For the most part, the authors’ timeframe for this historiographical romp begins in the 18th century, comes to a head in the 19th century and continues right into the contemporary dialog of the present.
As a current case in point, one might honestly want to know: who is responsible for formulating this culturally hegemonic “Heroic Anglo Narrative of Texas history” (as the authors call it) and why is it so contentious within the state history curriculum as well as the museum community? It is a good question to be asking right now, given the events unfolding in the Lone Star State, including the passage of new legislation in a Republican-dominated legislature that severely limits a woman’s right to abortion and (in separate legislation) implements voting restrictions that will, according to reportage in the New York Times, “cement Texas as one of the most difficult states in the country in which to cast a vote” (Goodman et al, 2021).
Finding the answer has provided an opportunity for a riveting Texas yarn told seamlessly by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford – Texans all – who don’t hesitate to wrest asunder the traditionalist narrative of the Alamo built on folklore, old racist canards and sloganeering.
But don’t look for any thanks from the governor’s office or the Texas State Preservation Board.
When the authors scheduled a panel discussion at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin this past July (2021), as part of their virtual book tour, they received word four hours before the sold-out event that the museum, whose stated mandate is “dedicated to interpreting the continually unfolding Story of Texas,” had backed out, citing “increased pressure on social media” (Stanford, 2021)
The authors soon found out that the museum was not capitulating to social media pressure at all, but to a directive that came straight out of the governor’s office. Firing off a tweet the day after the cancelled presentation, the Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, stated: “As a member of the Preservation Board (the state agency that oversees the museum), I told staff to cancel this event as soon as I found out about it. This fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place @BullockMuseum” (Stanford, 2021). Cancel culture Texas style.
Jason Stanford volleyed a response on behalf of the authors by way of The Washington Post’s op-ed page on July 6th. Taking aim directly at Patrick, he noted dryly: “Apparently the state history museum was no place to discuss state history” (Stanford, 2021). Displaying a disquieting obstinacy, the Battle of the Alamo has lurched from one epoch to another.
In framing this review, I was moved by the events described above to visit the website of the Bullock Texas State History Museum in November 2021. One is immediately drawn to a special exhibition on view entitled “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” with the subtitle, “America has a century-old debt to pay contracted on Emancipation Day.” The exhibit (developed in cooperation with the New-York Historical Society), is accompanied by period artifacts and commemorates the day on June 19th, 1865, when 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, and announced that the 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state, were free by executive order. Interestingly, the website content studiously avoids any reference to the popular term, “Juneteenth” and substitutes instead, “Emancipation Day.” Texas authorities have banned references to Juneteenth, the 1619 Project, and critical race theory in school curriculum, textbooks and ancillary educational institutions funded by the state, including museums, as contrary to the catachetic, pedagogy of those currently overseeing the statehouse in Austin.
Forget the Alamo is really a book in two acts, with a short prologue/introduction to start things off. In the interest of not spoiling it for the reader, I’ll just say here that two British rock stars, Phil Collins and Ozzy Osbourne make brief cameo appearances. Osbourne was revealed to have engaged in an ignoble encounter with the Alamo cenotaph in what could be construed as a symbolic gesture of what is to come with regard to the authors’ treatment of the officially received history of the Alamo over the years. Later in the book, Phil Collins provides a textbook model of how not to construct donor/institution relationships.
ALAMO: THE EVENT
Act one is a necessary primer on the history of Texas and the Texas Revolution which culminated in 1835-1836. The authors describe this period succinctly in their opening paragraph:
On March 6, 1836, during what’s been known for almost two centuries as the Texas Revolution, around two hundred men were killed by Mexican troops at an old Spanish church outside San Antonio known as the Alamo. On this we can agree. But after that, pretty much everything – who died, how they died, why they died, and what they represented – has been a topic of debate ever since. (p. 1)
The cast of characters who enter and exit this history is large and diverse. Some names will be familiar to many people, others less so. Unless you are an amateur Texas history buff or occupy one of those rarefied professorships within the academy that specializes in the subject, much of this material will be new to the general readership, perhaps even revelatory.
Indelibly limned within the stone walls at the Alamo are the revenants of slavery. The authors have here willfully pushed personalities aside and moved slavery and the liberation of the enslaved from the margins of Texas history to center stage in order to advance their thesis and give this conflict agency and priority of place within the battle of the Alamo narrative.
The book makes very clear in its early chapters, that when Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, the land that is now Texas was in fact Mexico. Modern day Tejanos (descendants who claim Hispanic roots) are fond of saying: “My ancestors never crossed the border, the border crossed us!” In 1821 the border was clearly Mexican territory and after repelling centuries of Spanish conquistadors, the new Mexican government was not about to embrace institutions that had oppressed them for so long.
One of their first acts was to abolish slavery in Mexico by presidential decree.
The new Mexican Republic was fraught with internal wrangling and debates on how to form a government. A constitutional monarchy, or a strong executive branch with a legislature following the U.S. model, were under discussion until they landed on a federal republic of organized free states.
Stimulating economic development in the region of Mexican Texas was also a top priority. Land grant incentives were offered to American born immigrants who wanted to settle there and the word started to spread. For the Southern planters it was soon discovered that this vast territory was a very fertile area for growing cotton. But what about this business of no slaves? One of the early empresarios (well credentialed settlers who were awarded large tracts of land by the Mexican government and encouraged to invite additional settlement into the region), Stephen F. Austin, known as the “Father of Texas,” sought to calm the fears of potential settlers by putting it this way in recruiting correspondence: “Nothing is wanted but money, and negroes are necessary to make it” (p. 34).
Enter James (Jim) Bowie, a bold frontiersman from a large Louisiana family and one of the first to make the scene. “The holy trinity,” as the authors call them, included two other members, William Barret Travis and David (Davey) Crockett who came later on.
The authors make quick work of debunking the hagiographic myth surrounding these three men:
To learn the real lessons of the Texas Revolt, we need to learn the truth about Bowie, Travis and Crockett. Bowie was a murderer, slaver and con man; Travis was a pompous racist agitator and syphilitic lech; and Crockett was a self-promoting old fool who was captive to his own myth. They can no longer be the holy trinity of Texas, nor can the Alamo be the Shrine of Texas Liberty. (p. 340)
Ostensibly, the United States had made the importation of enslaved people illegal in 1808. New Orleans was the principal port that acted as the conduit of the slave trade. But this did not stop privateers like the notorious Lafitte brothers, Jean and Pierre, from smuggling African slaves from Cuba and auctioning them off to buyers at their home base on Galveston Island. Bowie, and others like him, acted as middle men for the Lafittes and profited handsomely. With some hasty paper work emblazoned with legal seals and stamps, Black people quickly had the terms and conditions of their enslavement transformed into contracts making them “indentured servants” for a period of 99 years. Many ended up working the cotton fields in Mexican Texas.
Over the years, this cynical subterfuge was not lost on the Mexicans. The month before the Battle of the Alamo, the politician and general, Antonio López de Santa Ana, wrote:
There is a considerable number of slaves in Texas also, who have been introduced by their masters under cover of certain questionable contracts, but who according to our laws should be free. Should we permit those wretches to moan in chains any longer in a country whose kind laws protect the liberty of man without distinction of caste or color? (p. 82).
Here we’ll fast-forward past the details of the battle that ensued at Misión San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) except to say no one can deny that these men fought ferociously for their cause, as misguided as it was. But they were fighting primarily for their own nationalist interests and the freedom to protect and expand a political economy that was based on slavery. In that regard, white supremacy was their ideological keystone. Religion too played a role. The state religion in Mexico was Roman Catholic and no other was permitted to be practiced. As the authors put it, “It’s a short hop from anticlericalism to overt racism.” (p. 146)
After the defeat of the Alamo and the later victory of the Texians over Santa Ana’s army at the the Battle of San Jacinto a few months later, the newly formed provisional government for the independent Republic of Texas was quick to put their ideological beliefs on full display by way of their newly drafted constitution. Say the authors:
The Texas constitution remains the only one in world history to guarantee slavery and actually outlaw any and all emancipation. No free Black people were to be allowed. In a direct reflection of cotton’s wholesale dependence on slave labor, Texas was to be the most militant slavocracy anywhere. (p. 111)
Previously lost or diminished within the narrative shuffle that prevailed at the time were compelling life stories of the Tejanos who were settled and living in the region since the sixteenth century. These people included the Mexican revolutionary and abolitionist, Juan Almonte (1803-1869); the paradoxical Lorenzo de Zavala (1788-1836) a physician, politician, diplomat and author who participated in the drafting of the first Constitution for the Republic of Mexico in 1824; and Juan Seguín (1806-1890), the notable Tejano leader who fought with the Texians against Santa Ana.
This was a period of rapid growth for the fledgling Republic, especially by way of the influx of American small farm squatters and land hungry speculators from other parts of North America. The authors tabulate “there were more millionaires per capita in Natchez than in either New York City or Boston” (p. 5).
These financiers made large profits off the free labor of thousands of enslaved people in the region, some of whom were already starting to revolt. The political climate was changing rapidly with pressure building to ensure stronger defenses against General Santa Ana who still commanded the Mexican army and who served, variously, as president of Mexico 11 times over a 22-year period! By now he had started to compare himself to Napoleon and thought the title of emperor better suited him than president. On December 29, 1845, Texas formally became the twenty-eighth state in the United States.
THE ALAMO AS CONTESTED CULTURAL MARKER
Soon after the founding of the Republic of Texas, the myth of the Alamo and the holy trinity became increasingly enmeshed in Texas culture and dialogue. This myth villainized Tejanos and Mexicans alike:
For generations Mexican Texans simmered mostly in silence, suffering the indignity of an Anglocentric narrative that implied they were the murderers of Travis, Bosie and Crockett. Even today, many Tejanos describe the history class Texas children take in middle school as a humiliating experience. Among themselves they often tell a different story of the Alamo. (p. 219)
For historic sites such as the Alamo, commemoration is important. Wherever one is, in whatever country in the world, a place of conflict where human life was lost is entitled to veneration and respect. From Gettysburg to Antietam and beyond, numerous Civil War battlefields in the U.S. are interpreted to explain the traumatic events that occurred and the human suffering involved in the aftermath.
Odd then, that at the first real historical marker for the Battle of the Alamo in 1885, fifty years after the event occurred, the citizens of San Antonio were not all that interested in remembering it. In Forget the Alamo, we learn that “there was no commemoration, no services, no fireworks, no nothing, nor the slightest impulse toward historical preservation: at that point the largest building of the old compound – the Long Barrack – had been turned into a grocery store” (p. 165).
After the fiftieth anniversary passed unobserved, the San Antonio Daily Express was moved to call for the formation of an organization “to see that the prominent anniversaries of Texas histories are observed” (p. 166). Two extraordinarily talented women came forward to take up the task, Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll. The story of their meeting, their early friendship and their collaboration to preserve and restore the Alamo as a historic site, coupled with the eventual bitter and very public falling out they had, in no small way was due to the privileged ascendancy of the Heroic Anglo Narrative.
De Zavala was a Tejana, a school teacher, and granddaughter to Lorenzo de Zavala who played a foundational role in the drafting of the Mexican Constitution of 1824. In 1889 she founded a group called De Zavala Daughters whose mandate it was to “green the memory of the heroes, and founders of the pioneers of Texas” (p. 167).
Clara Driscoll was a daughter of privilege and a philanthropist (her father was one of the richest men in Texas) who also claimed direct lineage to the Texas Revolt by way of both her grandfathers, who had fought Santa Ana at the battle of San Jacinto. The group she eventually joined was called the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT or popularly, “the Daughters”) whose mandate was to “implant in the minds and hearts of succeeding generations a desire to emulate the example and maintain the high principles of patriotic devotion bequeathed them by their ancestors” (p. 168).
The two groups eventually merged, with De Zavala’s group becoming the De Zavala Chapter within the larger DRT. For the first decade not much happened, which is to say that the DRT was more of a social club with tea parties and the occasional fundraising event as their main activity. It was not until 1903 that the two women met.
De Zavala had learned through a friend that the family who owned the property that was once the Long Barrack (then converted to a warehouse) was going to sell the property to a hotel chain. She also learned that Clara Driscoll had just returned from vacationing in Europe and was staying in a local hotel. De Zavala rushed to the hotel and requested a meeting with Driscoll. The result was a bonding that was based on a passionate desire to preserve, conserve, and restore the Alamo and the Long Barrack and to develop a strategic plan that might guide the DRT as the vehicle for its preservation as a historic site.
The schism that eventually developed between the two women was based on two different visions about how to interpret the Alamo. Driscoll, who represented the majority of opinion at the time within the DRT, thought of the site as a shrine and a quiet memorial park. Meanwhile De Zavala, who was really the first to have researched the importance of the Long Barrack as the site where the actual battle ensued, thought more in museum terms that would educate and interpret a complicated period in Texas history.
After these differences began to air publicly, De Zavala became more alienated within the DRT just as Mexican Americans as a group were becoming an increasingly alienated and racialized minority within what was once their own country. Driscoll died in 1945 and her body lay in state in the Alamo chapel. When De Zavala passed away a decade later, the authors note that the DRT would not give her equal status. “Instead, the funeral procession made do with driving past it on the way to the cemetery” (p. 191).
In tribute to De Zavala’s wish that the Alamo would someday be remembered by a proper museum that could not only commemorate but also include a more multicultural historical context, in 1965 the Long Barrack site of the property was finally turned into a small, single-story museum that was erected close to the church.
The details of what happened over the next several decades provide a truly enlightening look at the role of popular culture in building the myth of the Alamo. Popular films both reflected and promoted a specific narrative. They began with D.W. Griffith’s Martyrs of the Alamo (1915) which was Griffith’s sequel to Birth of a Nation and equally as racist. Next there was the much watched Disney series featuring Fess Parker as Davey Crockett, “king of the wild frontier.” Similar films followed, right up to John Wayne’s portrayal of Crockett in the 1960 film, The Alamo, a three-hour $12 million epic which he also directed. In the film, Wayne swung his musket, “old Betsy,” at the Mexicans just as assuredly as he did more modern weaponry at the Vietnamese communists in The Green Berets (1968). Over this period, the Alamo of folklore, myth, and legend was certainly beginning to prevail as more and more tourists turned up in San Antonio asking for directions to find the place.
And why should this not be the case? Messrs. Burrough, Tomlinson, and Stanford astutely point out that serious scholarship attempting to widen the aperture of history and begin to take in more focused points of view really only began to take shape and have some effect around the decades of the 1980s and 90s. The authors locate the social upheavals of the 1960s as the period when this narrative began to be revised. Today, groundbreaking books such as Andrew J. Torget’s Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800–1850, are recommended for anyone wishing to take a deeper dive into the period.
Every story has to reach a climax and truly one of the most curious episodes of this saga comes with the entrance of a man who is no stranger to the international stage, the enormously popular (and quite wealthy) pop star, Phil Collins. Like many of his age demographic, as a youth growing up in England, Mr. Collins was quite taken with the Disney bio series on the life and times of Davey Crockett that featured Fess Parker as the Tennessean in his bespoke buckskin fringe jacket and trousers. Collins began to collect Alamo memorabilia with perfervid dedication and soon became the gift that keeps on giving for a few San Antonio-based collectors who dealt in artifacts of the period. He reportedly paid $1.4 million for the knife that Jim Bowie was purported to have carried on his person at the Alamo.
When Collins started to speak about his love for the Alamo, even more people started to listen. One was the newly elected land commissioner for the Texas General Land Office, whose name had a familiar ring. George P. Bush was the son of Jeb (the former governor of Florida) and Columba (his mother, who was born in Mexico), and nephew to George W., former governor of Texas and later the 41st president of the United States. Upon encountering Collins, George P. saw an opportunity to make political hay while the sun shined on the Alamo. Collins announced that he wanted to donate his entire collection to the city of San Antonio if they would commit to building a museum to house it, and George P. said he was all in. At a press conference in June 2014, Collins announced, “These artifacts are coming home” and stated further that the terms of his donation gave the city ten years to get the museum built. George P. sweetened the pot with additional information that plans were being drawn up right then and there to make this a done deal and that the state of Texas would raise a whopping $450 million to get the job done right.
But first there was one piece of unfinished business George P. had to settle. After 110 years of serving as proprietors, he felt it was time for the Daughters to move on and let the state handle the massive revitalization project that he had in mind for the Alamo. In March 2015, the day after the state legislature named Collins an honorary Texan, George P. Bush announced that a state audit had revealed improprieties in the Daughters’ bookkeeping and that the organization would be ejected as the current landlords. Public disputation followed, but in the end it was all over for the DRT.
Predictably, many people balked at the sticker price for the new museum and began asking questions about the Phil Collins collection and its provenance. Turns out there wasn’t too much paperwork generated in that regard, certainly not the kind of research and verification that would land this stuff under a glass case that meets the rigorous standards of a top tier international museum. Like a bass grabbing a shiny lure, young George P. soon found himself hooked and deep in the weeds. That is where the matter rests for state leaders as the debate continues.
THE ALAMO AS HISTORY AND MEMORY
The final coda offered here is dedicated to museum professionals the world over who take up these kinds of problems every day, sometimes under very complex circumstances. Expanding our understanding of history to include the voices of the marginalized and the excluded only strengthens the stories that we tell in museums, galleries, and historic sites. The challenges facing those who want to re-write the mandate and develop the Alamo into a museum that is inclusive and diverse is no different than what many other institutions worldwide have done at some point in their history. For many years, Colonial Williamsburg, a U.S. heritage site and living history museum in Williamsburg, Virginia, did not include any interpretation of slavery or give representation to the presence of the African American community although Williamsburg itself was forty percent Black in the eighteenth century. How African American life is interpreted at Colonial Williamsburg today is the result of research and discussion that has been filled with creative tensions at the institution since the 1970s.
Similarly in Canada today, where I live, there is talk around the council tables of the Indigenous community about what to do with the Residential Schools that dot the country in almost every province. These schools for Indigenous youth were run by the Catholic, Anglican, and United Churches. In May 2021, 215 bodies of children were found in a mass grave at a Residential School site in Kamloops, British Columbia, that was active from 1923 until its closing in 1978. The deaths of the children were never reported or officially recorded by the nuns who ran the school and who were affiliated with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate order. Since that time there have been discoveries at other Residential School sites and the numbers keep climbing.
Should these buildings be torn down or should they be retained as sites of memory and conscience? Which would be the best way to aid the healing of the survivors and honor the memory of those who perished there?
Go to the official website of the Alamo today (November 2021) and peruse the various ways in which the site is interpreted. You will read much conversation about bricks and mortar and how the state of Texas is approaching the serious issues of conservation, preservation, and restoration. They even advertise a public tender that invites architectural firms with experience in heritage restoration to apply for various projects. They go to special lengths to show how the state has increased security around the site to protect the area against any untoward activity.
There is also a detailed description of the battle itself, cannon and artillery placements, the use of muskets and their various firing ranges with accuracy of the rifles and cannons determined by the make of the weapon. All thoroughly researched.
But read closely the sections that outline the historical high points of the Mission and the surrounding territories from the point of European contact in the sixteenth century onward to see if there is any mention at all about the role slavery played within the political economy of Texas from its founding in the pre-Republic period. You will see none.
During my tenure as administrator and internship coordinator for the museum studies program at the University of Toronto, I would occasionally get an eleventh-hour call from a frustrated graduate student midway through their summer internship with regard to some crisis that had befallen the institution where the student was working. Perhaps it was a controversial exhibit that was receiving a strong critique in the media or a public division within the board of directors around some issue or other that had left the student unnerved.
My words of counsel were always along this line: Relax, this is not a calamity for you; this is a real opportunity to engage in up-close critical thinking and problem solving within the organization. You now have a front row seat so watch, listen, and learn – and take notes. You might very well have an interesting article or paper for one of your classes when you return to school in the fall.
If a student were to ask me today if they should intern at the Alamo, I would answer affirmatively. Regardless of the fate of Phil Collins’ questionable artifacts, I fervently hope that the people of Texas will be given the opportunity to see their history reflected in a new museum some day. They have nothing to fear from history – it is their political leadership right now that is the problem.
History and memory are always many layered experiences and it is difficult, perhaps impossible to tell everyone’s story in one book, or in one museum as it were. This includes the role of Native Americans who are referenced throughout the book. For millennia, they were the original inhabitants of all the lands and territories where the events of this chronicle take place. The Spanish Conquest that came in search of gold, power, and extended dominion made merciless war against the Indigenous people for over two centuries. The tribes identified on the maps of Nueva Espana as “Comancheria” and “Apacheria” were further decimated by wars promulgated by settlers in Texas and the United States in the nineteenth century during the early period some historians still refer to as “Manifest Destiny.” Their histories too deserve inclusion in the revitalization of the Alamo story.
The new museology seeks to encompass these big, unwieldy, and overlapping legacies. The problems at the Alamo are daunting, but they are not unique. The stories are all there, they just need to be told.
1. Juneteenth. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juneteenth.
2. 1619 Project. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html.
3. Critical Race Theory. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimberle_Williams_Crenshaw.
4. The Alamo. https://www.thealamo.org/.
Goodman, J. D., Corasaniti, N.,&Epstein, R. J. (2021 August 21). Texas G.O.P. passes election bill, raising voting barriers even higher. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/us/politics/texasvoting-rights-bill.html
Le Goff, J. (1992). History and Memory. Columbia University Press.
Stanford, J. (2021 July 6). Texas republicans do some cancelling of their own. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/07/05/texas-republicans-rush-guard-alamo-facts
Torget, A. J. (2015). Seeds of empire: Cotton, slavery and the transformation of the Texas borderlands, 1800–1850. University of North Carolina Press.