Monday, April 23, 2012

What Happened to Jim Bowie’s Knife?

I’m working with a young man named Devin Costlow who aspires to become an Alamo historian and writer (see February 1, 2012, blog post).  Devin located an excellent article about the development and disposition of several weapons that claim to be a “Bowie Knife”.

According to this article some historians claim that Jim Bowie and his older brother, Rezin P., sponsored the production of many knives by as many as eight cutlers and blacksmiths.

Others claim there was only one, the “big butcher knife” that Jim received from Rezin P. and used in the famous “sandbar fight”.

Several of the documented knives exist today in museum collections, including at least three at the Alamo.  All are single edged, and range in length from six to ten and one quarter inches.  Some have the famous clip point and some do not.

Two owners claim that their knife was taken from the Alamo after the 1836 battle, one by a Mexican soldier, the other by a woman who claimed that she nursed Jim Bowie.

If “The Bowie Knife” exists, the former of these two is probably it.  Now called the “Bart Moore knife” it was made by Arkansas blacksmith, James Black, and is on display in the Alamo Gift Museum.  This knife is eight and one quarter inches long and has a clip point.  The article reports that the blade has "J. Bowie" scratched on one side and the initials J.B. on the other.

Thanks Devin for this enlightening article.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why Didn’t They Just Retreat?

At the very least, Santa Anna arrived at the Alamo twenty-two days before he was expected.  Why didn’t Travis lead a retreat?

Question - Was Travis afraid that the men who were loyal to Bowie would not follow an order to abandon the Alamo?
Answer - The men would probably have obeyed Travis because on the second day of the siege Bowie had ordered them to.

Question – Were the Alamo and the heavy artillery located there strategically important?

Answer – The Texicans had proved in December, 1835, that they could take the Alamo from the Mexican army and they could probably have done it again.  Most of the artillery in the Alamo was probably too heavy to be removed and used in the field.

Question – Was there a place for them to retreat to and still delay Santa Anna?

Answer – They could probably have withdrawn to Goliad where Fannin and three-hundred men were waiting in the Presidio La Bahia, which was an actual Spanish fort, not a mission like the Alamo.

Question – Would they have been able to escape through the Mexican lines?

Answer – As late as the eighth day of the thirteen day siege it was proven that the Mexican army lines were permeable when thirty-two men from Gonzales rode through the lines and into the Alamo without being detected. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

For Texans Too

At the Alamo I meet almost as many people from Texas as from elsewhere.  At first I was puzzled, as I would be should I meet a significant number of New York residents at the Statue of Liberty.  Then I began to notice that, many times, I was meeting the whole family.

Finally, the mystery was solved when someone explained that Texas public school students get a heavy dose of Texas history in the fourth grade and again in the seventh.  Obviously, a by-product of this instruction is a trip to the Alamo for mom, dad, and all the siblings.

As the San Antonio River bubbles forth from the Blue Hole on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word, year after year a steady stream of visitors to the Alamo is flowing from the Texas public education system.

The future of the Alamo as a tourist destination now seems bright, as we end a period of over one-hundred years of ownership by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) and begin a period of ownership by the State of Texas.

Fortunately, the Alamo will still be managed by the DRT, whose caring and knowledgeable members provide a broad range of services to the people of Texas, free of charge, and often without public recognition.

Therefore, may I say thank you from all of us to our fourth and seventh grade teachers who include a word or two about the fine work of the DRT, in their Texas history lesson plan.  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Signed at the Alamo

When I’m signing books in the Alamo Gift Museum I get requests for all kinds of inscriptions, for example; “Keep the Alamo spirit”, “To a true lover of history”, “Thanks for supporting the Alamo”, and of course, “Remember the Alamo”.  But the most popular, by far, is “Signed at the Alamo”
I believe, if a single word can describe what makes the Alamo important to people, that word is honor, and people seem to feel that written evidence of their visit there is a badge of honor, like honor is contagious and they can take some home with them.

Before I began spending time at the Alamo, like many members of my generation, I was beginning to wonder how honorable Americans are today, in terms of their willingness to defend the country with their lives. 

I was raised during the time of the military draft, when most American men served.  Although most of us complained, we were secretly proud of our service then and we are openly proud of it now.
But today I hear others speculate about our ability to raise an adequate fighting force, should we ever become involved in another world war.

I wish those people could experience the seemingly endless parade of patriots coming through the Alamo, as I do regularly, so they would know not to worry.  They would understand, as I do now, that honor is still important to Americans and may yet be the foundation of our character.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Shameful Roots?

Historians write that the American Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery.  But, if owning slaves was the defining state right, is this position accurate, or simply an attempt to disguise a shameful root.

Similarly, was Mexico’s prohibition of slavery a precipitating factor in the Texicans’ rebellion.  It is true that most of the major players, including Austin, Houston, Travis, Bowie, and many others, were raised in southern states and taught to advocate slavery.

Conversely, it was well known that Austin was personally opposed to the institution of slavery, even though he was responsible for disguising it as indentured servitude so it could be practiced in Coahuila-Tejas.  Equally puzzling were the facts that Bowie and his family made a living working and trading slaves, but Jim Bowie himself abandoned both when he moved from Louisiana.

Most published historians who specialize in the Texas Revolution do little more than mention slavery as an issue.  That Texas joined the Confederacy is ample evidence that its citizens favored slavery.  Would the prestige of Texas’ founding fathers be diminished if it were widely acknowledged that they fought to own slaves?  Has such knowledge effected how we feel about Washington and Jefferson?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Did Santa Anna have a personal vendetta against Jim Bowie?

Two affronts that were committed by Santa Anna on the first day of the Alamo siege were probably aimed directly at Jim Bowie.  First Santa Anna hung his blood-red, death-flag from the top of the San Fernando Cathedral bell tower, then he placed his first battery of cannon in the backyard of the Veramendi Palace.  Better sites were available for both.

The death flag was located over a mile from the Alamo and could barely be seen from the walls, while the cannon could have been placed closer to the Alamo, with better cover, and still across the river from, and beyond the range of the Alamo sharpshooters.

The sites Santa Anna did choose were both significant in the life of Jim Bowie.  In the San Fernando Cathedral, on April 25, 1831, Bowie had married Maria-Ursula-Fructuosa Veramendi-Navarro, the beautiful daughter of the Vice-Governor of the Mexican state of Coahuila-Tejas.  In September, 1833, as the senior male member of the Veramendi family, Bowie had gained control of the Veramendi Palace, when his wife and children, and her parents, all died from Cholera.

After joining the Catholic Church and swearing allegiance to Mexico in 1830, Bowie had given every indication that he intended to become an exemplary, Mexican citizen.  But, following the death of his Texas family, Bowie became an instigator and leader in acts of rebellion against Santa Anna and his government.

Without a doubt these acts would have caused Santa Anna to consider Bowie a turncoat.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why Were They Spared?

According to Susanna Dickinson, the wife of Captain Almeron Dickinson, the last Texan to die in the Alamo battle was Major Robert Evans, a thirty-six year old Irishman who came to Texas from New York.

Evans was Master of Ordnance and he had orders to detonate the Alamo gun-powder supply, rather than allow the enemy to capture it.  Had he succeeded, the names of as many as nine women and ten children might appear on the Alamo Cenotaph beside the one-hundred-eighty names of their husbands and fathers, there now.

Evans did not fail for lack of effort.  His body was found on the chapel floor outside the sacristy, where he had been speared by enemy bayonets.  He had poured a trail of black powder into the powder magazine, two rooms to his left, and was preparing to ignite it with a torch found in his dead hand.

Just how much powder was in the magazine is not known, but it is more than probable that, had it exploded, it would have killed Mrs. Dickinson, her daughter, and all of the other women and children huddled in the sacristy, and might even have destroyed the iconic chapel that is our focus today.

What prevented this disaster?  Did Evans look into the eyes of one of the terrified women or hear the cry of a child, and hesitate a moment too long, until the enemy was upon him?  We will never know.

But I think we can consider Robert Evans a hero of the Alamo, both for what he did and for what he did not do.