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‘Victory or death’ letter returns to Alamo - El Paso Inc.: Local News

‘Victory or death’ letter returns to Alamo

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Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2013 6:00 pm

“I hope they remember. I hope Texas remembers.”

So said Sam Houston, as portrayed by actor Richard Boone, in John Wayne’s 1960 epic movie, “The Alamo.”

El Paso recently got an early reminder of its Texas ties from state land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and news of a major coup for his office, one that’ll surface this week in San Antonio.

Patterson spoke with El Paso Inc. while in town Feb. 8, meeting with residents of the Ambrosio Guillen Texas State Vet Home in Northeast El Paso.

This Friday, Feb. 22, is the day when one of the most hallowed documents in Texas history emerges for public viewing. It is the letter Alamo commander William Barrett Travis wrote on Feb. 24, 1836, addressed “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World.”

In it, Travis pledged that he would “never surrender or retreat” and swore “Victory or Death.” The letter was also a plea for help, and even though more troops came to San Antonio, they were too few and too late to avert disaster. Travis was among the first to die in the battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836.

Now his letter is returning to the Alamo for the first time since courier Albert Martin rode out with it in 1836. Plans call for the 177-year-old document to be displayed inside the Alamo from Feb. 23 through March 7, mirroring the Alamo’s 13-day siege.

This is a precursor to more important dates in Texas history, starting with March 2, Texas Independence Day, when in 1836, Texas declared itself independent from Mexico.

When the Alamo fell four days later on March 6, overrun by Mexican president-dictator Santa Anna’s troops, the defenders never knew they died fighting for an independent republic.

March 27 was the day of the Goliad Massacre. Then April 21 is San Jacinto Day, the day that remnants of the Texan army, commanded by Sam Houston, routed the Mexican army at San Jacinto and captured Santa Anna. The Texas Revolution was over and a republic was born, paving the road to eventual statehood.

Letter travels

After considerable effort, negotiation and voting, the state land office pried Travis’s letter from the state archives. Like many a Texan, Patterson is excited about this.

“It looks a lot like some of the higher-quality reproductions of it that I’ve seen,” he said. “I’ve seen both sides of it and it is deteriorating.”

On Feb. 22, state troopers will escort the letter to San Antonio, and archive experts will place it in a $20,000 UV-proof glass case at the Alamo.

At a reception, William Barrett Travis, the fifth great-grandnephew of the Alamo commander, will read the letter aloud.

The letter will sit in its display case with subdued lighting toward the rear of the shrine. Security plans are in place to handle the expected crowds. Patterson said a line will bring spectators within five or six feet of the case. The schedule calls for the Alamo to offer extended hours, and as the date nears, interest is increasing.

“There’s a lot of buzz about it,” Patterson admitted. The letter probably will leave March 8.

What’s this letter worth? In 1893, the Travis family sold it to the State of Texas for $85. They were asking $250. Patterson said modern estimates range as high as several million.

“This is its first trip back to the Alamo since it left 177 years ago, and I would hope that 23 years from now, it would go back for the 200th anniversary,” Patterson said.

The Alamo is now run by the state land office, after the state Legislature took control away from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in a turf war.

Patterson, state land commissioner since 2003, appreciates what the organization has done throughout its history. He said the land office wants to start a foundation to raise enough money to take care of the whole area around the Alamo.

“We need to do probably a million dollars worth of maintenance that’s immediately pressing,” he added.

And the letter? “It’s coming back to Bexar for the first time in 177 years, which makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” Patterson said.

For more information on the Travis letter, go to

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