A Brief History of an Old Building: The Alamo

The Alamo,
 seat of Texas history.

The viceroy of Mexico authorized a mission in 1716, but it was not until 1744 that the first stones of the present Alamo were laid. Priests had the Catholic mission San Antonio de Valero built to use to convert the native Indians. The structure collapsed by 1756, and the building was rebuilt. Construction ceased in 1762, and portions again began collapsing. In 1793 the church was turned over to the town and the religious artifacts moved to the San Fernando church. At that time the roof again fell in, and the building continued to decay.

In 1803 the church became the barracks for the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras soldiers of the Spanish Army from Álamo de Parras, Coahuila, and the church became known as the Alamo. It may have gotten its name from these troops as they recalled the cottonwood trees back home. Álamo is the Spanish word for cottonwood. The troops remained there until 1825, when once again it became vacant.

In 1835 General Cos and his Mexican Army troops occupied the church and compound and began preparations to use the area as a military fort. The immigrant settlers and local Tejanos who were rebelling against the authority of the Mexican government defeated the troops of Gen. Cos and took occupancy of the compound.

Lt. Col. James Neill assumed command of the Texian volunteer troops at the fortress and began making preparations to defend it against the Mexican Army under Santa Anna. When Neill left to attend to his sick wife, William Travis assumed command. The building and the compound was the site of the battle of the Alamo in 1836.

After the 1836 battle of the Alamo, the church was a collection of rubble and once again was not used. In 1848, after statehood, city officials leased the building to the United States government, which restored it by putting on a roof and doors in order to use it as a military storage depot. It was not until the 1850s that the now-famous parapet was added above the original church’s unfinished façade.

During the 1850s a dispute arose between the Catholic Church and the city of San Antonio over ownership. Although the Catholic bishop won the court case, the Church gave up its interest, and again the city leased the church to the United States government. During the Civil War it continued in use as a commissary and storage depot. A fire occurred in the stables and sheds next to the Alamo in 1875, but the Hook and Ladder Company arrived, along with the Alamo steam engine, and managed to save the main buildings of the compound. A zinc roof was added in 1878 to further improve the facility.

A movement began in 1877 to preserve the Alamo to perpetuate the memory of Texas Independence, but Honoré Grenet had purchased all the buildings on the grounds except the church and erected a mercantile store. In 1884 tourists were chipping away at the church, taking mementos. The governor ordered the mayor to lock the Alamo to prevent its destruction by visitors. The building was closed until the city could provide a suitable custodian.

In the early 1900s the De Zavala Chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) and Clara Driscoll purchased the church, and restoration started. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas were appointed the official guardians of the Alamo, and under their care it was renovated, restored, and reroofed to the present structure. The Alamo memorializes defenders, who fought for liberty and independence from Mexico against overwhelming odds. It has become a patriotic symbol and metaphor for courage and heroism.

Frederick C. Chabot, The Alamo: Mission, Fortress, and Shrine (San Antonio: Frederick C. Chabot, 1936).
Arvelia Williams, "Alamo", vol. 1 The New Handbook of Texas. (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996), p. 82.