The Alamo: From Mission to Museum

The Alamo in San Antonio, TX (Photo credit: Daniel Schwen, CC by SA 4.0)

Mission San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo, was the first mission in the San Antonio area and was established in the early 18th century when the region was under Spanish rule. In its 300-year history, it has been a Catholic mission, a fort, a shrine, and a museum.  Its history became an inspiration and rallying cry for liberty.

In 1718, Father Antonio de Olivares established a mission that would serve to teach the local indigenous people, the Coahuiltecans, about Catholicism and the Spanish way of life, and would also serve a rest stop for anyone traveling to the Spanish settlements in East Texas. It was called the Mission San Antonio de Valero, in honor of the Spanish viceroy of the time, Marques de Valero. It moved to different locations within the same area during its first few years, but settled on its present spot in 1724. The other historic missions of San Antonio were built during this time with all of them offering religious instruction, education, building trades, farming, and shelter against French encroachment and warring indigenous tribes.

The Texas landscape was changing by the late 1700s. The population in the area had increased while the Indian population at the mission had decreased. Local residents wanted the mission farmland, and there were increased threats from the French and Americans. As a result, the mission became secularized in 1793 which resulted in local authorities dividing the land and goods among the local population of Spanish citizens and the remaining Coahuiltecans. The days of the Mission San Antonio de Valero were officially over. The location would soon have a new purpose and a new name.

The Alamo – Convento Courtyard (Photo credit: World Heritage USA)

Spain still controlled the area but was facing more threats from nearby French and American forces in Louisiana. It reached the point where Spanish troops were sent to San Antonio in 1803 to set up a fort. They used the former mission. The old convento, or residence, was converted to barracks and the second floor became a hospital. The troops, sometimes referred to as the Alamo Company, were from a town south of the Rio Grande called Alamo de Parras. Local residents began referring to the former mission, now a fort, as the Alamo.

Even though the Alamo Company occupied the fort until 1835, the declaration of Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 saw a shift in the loyalty of the company’s members from Spain to Mexico. This came after years of struggling for independence of which one of the results was a decrease in population. The Mexican government approved opening Texas to Anglo-American immigrants. By the late 1820s, the immigrant population had increased from 500 over 30,000. This fueled the call for statehood and, within a few years, the Texas Revolution.

It was during the fight for independence from Mexico that the Alamo became a lasting symbol of liberty. In 1835, colonists and locals took control of San Antonio away from Mexican troops. March 1836 saw a valiant but unsuccessful battle to defend the Alamo against Santa Anna’s much larger army. April 1836 was a surprise battle near present-day Houston where General Sam Houston led troops to defeat Mexican troops and capture Santa Anna. This secured Texas’ independence, at least in theory, amid shouts of “Remember the Alamo!” Conflicts sprang up between Texas and Mexico for 10 more years. Texas joined the United States as the 28th state on December 29, 1845.

John M. Fries, architect (1817-1880)

The Alamo’s battle scars were evident from the various conflicts. Troops had taken pieces of the now abandoned complex for souvenirs. The U.S. Army needed a place for supplies for other forts so the former mission ended up as a regional quartermaster supply depot. Engineers dealt with structural issues ranging from repairs to adding windows and a roof where one never existed before. In the process, an architect, John M. Fries, was called in to design the arched parapet, or the hump in the center of the roof, thus giving it the famous shape that visitors are familiar with.

Texas seceded from the Union during the Civil War, which put the Alamo under Confederate troops from 1861 to 1865. The U.S. Army returned following the end of the war but by the late 1870s, permanently left the Alamo for a larger fort. After several decades of various owners and businesses, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) opened a museum in 1968 in the oldest building on the grounds. That museum, the Long Barrack Museum, is still in operation. The Texas General Land Office handles the overall authority of the Alamo with the DRT handling daily operations.

The Alamo was designated as a National Historical Landmark in 1960, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, a Texas State Antiquities Landmark in 1983, and part of the San Antonio Missions UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Among the things to see on the property besides the Long Barrack Museum are the church, the courtyard, the acequia or irrigation system, the cenotaph which is a memorial to those who were killed in the 1836 battle, the gift shop, and other exhibits including live history reenactments. The Alamo is not just important in Texas history, but also chronicles the southwestern expansion of the United States.

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For more information:

The Alamo

The Alamo – World Heritage