How Alamo mythology got the upper hand on its history and misled the Raccoon People
Published: April 18, 2012
Patterson heads the Texas General Land Office, which was charged by the Texas Legislature last September with assuming oversight of the Alamo. The Alamo grounds belong to the State of Texas, but the Daughters of the Republic of Texas have been custodians of "The Shrine of Texas Liberty" since 1905. For years, the DRT was criticized by different camps for presenting the Battle of the Alamo as a fight between freedom-loving Anglo colonists and tyrannical Mexicans.
While that simplistic, and racially tinged, representation may have been true of the DRT at one point, the Alamo museum today includes mention of the battle site's origin as Mission San Antonio de Valero built by Franciscan friars and local Indians in 1718. And the history of the conflict includes Latinos on the Texan side, such as Lorenzo de Zavala, first vice president of the nascent Texas Republic; Juan Seguin, mayor of San Antonio during the Republic years; and Jose Antonio Navarro, the representative from San Antonio who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence.
We may be living in more equitable times, but when did the myth of the Texas Revolution as race war begin? And how much has been corrected since?
On a national level, the words "Manifest Destiny" — the notion that Americans, specifically Americans of white European stock, were destined to possess the North American continent — were first evoked to justify the Mexican-American War, 1846-48, a conflict that led to U.S. military occupation of Mexico City and the loss of Mexican territory from disputed Texas all the way to California and across the Rocky Mountain West.
Attitudes changed wildly in the 20th century, too, according to Richard Bruce Winders, historian at the Alamo. In the 1920s, for instance, Winders says American historians by and large saw the Texas Revolution as just part of the larger struggle in Mexico. Many places besides Texas (which was then a department of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas), including the states of Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, and the Yucatán, rebelled in favor of Mexico's 1824 Constitution, which Santa Anna declared void when he gathered all control to his small clique, known as the Centralistas. But that more unified version of history began to drift in 1936 when the centennial of the Texas Revolution arrived during the Great Depression, which brought with it "the idea was we need to accentuate the positive, we need heroes," said Winders.
"The Alamo fit that bill pretty well. Then in the 1940s we were at war." Even though Mexico fielded forces that cooperated with the U.S. during WWII, xenophobic patriotism in the United States became the norm. And that defensive trend continued during the 1950s with the arrival of McCarthyism and the anti-Communist witch hunts.
The '50s also brought television to mass audiences. Walt Disney's series Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier became an international hit. It offered a simple image of American valor in a world of simple oppositions: brave frontiersman versus hostile nature, brave frontiersman versus sneaky Indians. It was clear that real Americans (and others who aspired to heroism) were not indigenous people. Pictured in the past, Davy Crockett was a paragon of the modern ideals of progress and conquest.
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