The first thing that struck me about the Alamo when I visited it with My Own True Love back in October* was how small it is.** It casts a historical shadow disproportionate to its size.
The Alamo is billed as “the shrine of Texas liberty”. Consequently, I expected a monument to the famous last stand of a small band of Texan soldiers*** against Santa Anna and the Mexican Army in 1836. I wasn’t disappointed. There was definitely a monument in the best heroic tradition.
But the modern historical site is more than the shrine it claims to be. The exhibits at the site definitely tell the story of the besieged garrison–and tell it well. More interesting, at least to me, they also place the event firmly in the larger historical context of the region.
Here are some of the details that caught my attention:
- The Alamo was originally built as the church for the mission of San Antonio de Valero in 1718–part of a string of missions built by the Spanish to strengthen their claim to the region in the face of French incursions. (It’s no accident that San Antonio and New Orleans were founded the same year.)
- The mission was supplied with water using technology that was a direct descendent of Arab technologies for making the best use of scarce desert resources–brought to Spain by the Muslims in the 10th century CE. (We divide history up into academic fields for reasons of convenience, but it really is all connected.)
- Alamo is the Spanish word for cottonwood. (I’m not the only one who wants to know this kind of thing, right?)
- The story of how the Alamo was saved as an historical monument was interesting in its own right. Adina de Zavel, granddaughter of the first vice-president of the Republic of Texas, was dedicated to the preservation of Texas historic structures. In 1908, “Miss Adina” barricaded herself in the structure for three days and nights to prevent it being razed–a heroic stand on a smaller scale.
The Alamo is a “must-see” if you’re in San Antonio. If you’re in the area, up for a drive and a hard-core history buff, I recommend that you also visit Fort Martin Scott outside of Fredericksburg, which served as a frontier army post for the United States Army from 1848 to 1853. The buildings were closed when we were there, but the site is designed for self-guided tours.
* What can I say? It’s been a busy time here in the Margins. I finally put a sticky on my computer that said “Remember the Alamo”. Which made me laugh for several weeks even if it didn’t get this post written any faster.
*** Loosely defined