Mission San Antonio de Valero ("The Alamo")
Bearing the history of Texas itself, the Mission San Antonio de Valero (known as the Alamo) has passed through multiple hands in its nearly 300-year history. It has belonged to Spain, Mexico, Texas, the United States, and the Confederacy. Though the structure is famous for being the site of the 1836 battle between Texas revolutionary forces and the Mexican army, it played an important role in the events that led up to that infamous battle and the later course of Texas history.
The Alamo was originally established by Catholic missionaries in 1718. One of five that eventually dotted the San Antonio landscape, it fell under the jurisdiction of the College of Santa Cruz of Querétaro. Founded to convert the area's original inhabitants -- Native American tribes including the Apache, the Karankawa, the Tacame, and the Pamaya -- to Catholicism, it was followed by a regional military outpost, San Antonio de Béxar Presidio, and by a civilian settlement, San Fernando de Béxar. The three settlements competed for the area's water and land resources, but joined together to defend themselves from Native American attacks.
Military Base and Hospital
In 1793 the Spanish Crown secularized the mission, splitting all but its religious offices among the growing Béxar community of presidio soldiers, settlers, and Native Americans connected with the mission. In the 19th century, the structure served a variety of functions. A mobile squadron, the compañia volante("flying company"), quartered there and patrolled the region. The company, from a pueblo Alamo de Parras in Coahuila, gave the mission the name of their town of origin -- and the name stuck. Later the mission served as a hospital to the region.
After Mexico independence in 1821, the Alamo became a symbol of Mexican authority on the Texas frontier. When Santa Anna assumed the Mexican presidency and subsequently overhauled the federalist administration in favor of a centralist one, tensions between his government and the Texans began to mount. When the tensions ignited in the Battle of Gonzales, sparked by Anglo colonists' refusal to cede a cannon to Mexican troops, Santa Anna sent a garrison under General Martín Perfecto de Cos to San Antonio. They seized the town and fortified the Alamo. The two-month siege ended when Anglo and Tejano revolutionaries retaliated in a five-day attack, known as the Storming of Béxar. Cos surrendered and left Texas in disgrace in December 1835.
Now in the hands of the rebels, the Alamo was the site of a particularly important election in the Tejano community. On February 1, 1836, nearly one hundred Tejano citizens of Béxar held a meeting inside the Alamo's walls to elect who among them would go on to Washington-on-the-Brazos as their representative at Texas' Independence Convention. They chose forty-one-year-old José Antonio Navarro and his uncle, Colonel José Francisco Ruiz. Both men had been prominent leaders in the community for so me time.
Anticipating the Mexicans' return, the Texas army fortified the Alamo. On February 23, 1836, Santa Anna and his Army of Operations entered Béxar and the Alamo became a fortress for the rebel fighters, a hiding place for most of the women and children of San Antonio, and a battleground. After a twelve-day seige, the compound, including its chapel, was overrun by the Mexicans and badly damaged. In the bloody aftermath, the Alamo was littered with the bodies of its defenders, and those of the 600 Mexican soldiers they had killed.
After the United States annexed Texas in 1845, the U.S. military occupied the Alamo, and during a brief period during the Civil War, it was held by the Confederacy. The late nineteenth century brought more newcomers to San Antonio, and the city gradually built around the aging mission. In 1883 the state of Texas bought the chapel, which had survived virtually intact from the Catholic church. In 1905 it bought the other buildings, and granted custodianship of the site to a private organization, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which maintains the Alamo as a San Antonio tourist attraction today.
The Santa Fé Expedition
In the early days of the Texas Republic, the Santa Fé Trail ran from Santa Fé, in Mexican territory, into Missouri. The busy trade route looked like a ripe opportunity to Texas' president, Mirabeau B. Lamar.
A Road to Riches?
Aiming to alleviate the substantial debts of the young republic, Lamar set upon the idea of redirecting the trail to the Southwest, through what would be Texas' new capital city, Austin. Without legal sanction, Lamar sent a group of commissioners, merchants, and militiamen into Mexican territory on the Santa Fé Expedition. José Antonio Navarro was among them.
Navarro was reluctant to enlist in the scheme. Perhaps hoping Navarro would facilitate communication with the area's native Mexican population, Lamar personally persuaded the senator to join the group. With misgiving, Navarro accepted the appointment. He hoped that he would be able to protect the area's Spanish-speaking residents if they did come under Texas rule.
The group left Texas in mid-June of 1841. Four months later, starved by poor provisions, beset by Indian attacks, and bedeviled with faulty navigation, the expedition met Mexican militia in the outlying settlements of western New Mexico. The Mexicans had heard of their quest, and seized the members of expedition, marching them to Mexico City.
The U.S. government intervened and the American citizens in the group were released. Navarro, however, was at the mercy of the Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna. Calling him the "vilest of traitors," Santa Anna sentenced Navarro to life in prison.
As Navarro suffered in prison, his San Antonio home was invaded twice by Mexican troops. In the years of his absence, relations between Anglos and Tejanos there had deteriorated. Anglo-American volunteers who had come to Texas' aid in securing independence from Mexico made no distinction between Tejanos -- Spanish-speaking Texas citizens -- and the Mexican aggressors. Incited by rumors of Mexican insurrection and treason, Anglos in San Antonio even threatened the life of the Texan revolutionary hero, Juan N. Seguín.
In 1844 Navarro escaped from prison. A British vessel took him to Cuba and New Orleans as he made his way back to Texas. His affiliation with the Santa Fé Expedition and his sojourn in a Mexican prison added to his already lustrous reputation for having signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, and he arrived a hero. The following year, Navarro played a key role in Texas statehood.
Prelude to War
The Santa Fé Expedition may have failed, but it was just a prelude to further American encroachment on Mexican territory. Believing that it was America's manifest destiny to occupy the North American continent all the way west to the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. continued provoking its Southern neighbor right up until 1846, when the two nations would go to war over contested lands.
Texas Annexation and Statehood
On February 19, 1846, in Austin, Texas, the Texas Republic's president formally transferred power to the new governor of the U.S. state of Texas. The Texas Republic officially became part of the United States. The transfer, welcomed by the majority of Texans, was the culmination of years of negotiation and effort.
As early as 1826, the U.S. had tried to acquire the territory, when President John Quincy Adams offered the Mexican government a million dollars for it. Four years later, President Andrew Jackson upped the offer to $5 million. The territory was rich in fertile land, and by 1830 counted 30,000 Americans among its inhabitants. When Texas won its independence following the Texas rebels' defeat of Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna, U.S. annexation seemed the closest it had ever been to a reality.
Long Road to Statehood
Yet obstacles in the U.S. Congress and in Texas political circles would delay entry into the Union for nearly ten years. Behind these obstacles were arguments over the extension of slavery into the territory, and the all-encompassing question of what to do with the area's "Mexican" population -- really Spanish-speaking Tejanos born and raised in Texas, many of whom had supported Texan independence from Mexico.
New Englanders in Opposition
When Texas officials, lead by the Republic's president, Sam Houston, first sought U.S. annexation in 1837, the request was met with a storm of protest from Northeastern Americans. They feared the extension of slavery and the tipping of the balance between Northern and Southern states in Congress. In order to avoid a split in his own Democratic Party over the issue, President Martin Van Buren rejected the annexation request.
A Failed Land Grab
The struggling Texas Republic, burdened with debts, sought sources of revenue. Under President Mirabeau B. Lamar, a group of Texans set out on the Santa Fé Expedition in 1841. Their mission was to seize New Mexico, a Mexican territory rich in minerals, and incorporate it into the Republic. At Lamar's personal request, an otherwise reluctant José Antonio Navarro joined the group. As the only Tejano, Navarro hoped to monitor the treatment of the area's Mexican population. The expedition failed, however, when Mexican militia captured the party near Santa Fé and took them to Mexico City, where they were imprisoned.
International power struggles ultimately led to U.S. annexation. In 1842, in an attempt to re-take Texas, Mexico attacked and twice occupied the community of San Antonio de Béxar. Adding to the continued threat of Mexican re-occupation were Great Britain's intentions toward Texas. Desiring to check U.S. expansion, the British offered assistance to the struggling Republic. The threat that Texas might become a British satellite territory forced U.S. President John Tyler to reconsider the prospect of annexation.
Once again defeated in the U.S. Congress in 1844, annexation became one of the most salient issues of that year's presidential election. James K. Polk, a Democrat from Tennessee, demanded annexation and claimed that the Louisiana Purchase had included the territory. Polk's Whig opponent, Henry Clay, vacillated on the issue. With his pro-annexation platform, Polk won the election. Tyler, as one of his last acts, recommended that Texas be admitted by a joint resolution of Congress, which would require only a simple majority vote in both houses. This resolution was accepted and Texas entered the Union as a slave state on December 29, 1845. James Pinckney Henderson became the state's first governor.
Tejano Civil Rights
The struggles behind the ratification of the state's first Constitution foreshadowed the poor treatment of those in Texas who were of Mexican descent. Navarro was the only Tejano delegate to the constitutional convention, which met in July of 1845. While he supported U.S. annexation, he aggressively fought against early drafts of the constitution that were aimed at disempowering the Tejano community. While he did not have much success at retaining their rights to Tejanos' ancestral lands, Navarro was instrumental in ensuring their voting rights as American citizens. By arguing to omit the word "white" from voting restrictions, Navarro was essentially doing away with any legal rationale for the unfair treatment of Tejanos. Although the Tejano community would continually come under attack, especially with the advent of the Mexican American War in 1846 and the subsequent transfer of large parts of the Southwest to the United States, they could take their grievances to American courts. Navarro's efforts at the 1845 constitutional convention in Austin ensured that much.