By Bryan McAuley, San Felipe de Austin Site Manager
Readers of this blog have unquestionably strong history-interest credentials. So many of you are likely already aware that the famous Travis letter will be on display at the Alamo between February 23 and March 7 this year. Through a collaboration among the General Land Office, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and the Alamo, the letter will return to the Alamo grounds for the first time since it was authored.
What you may not know is that the letter has a profound connection to San Felipe de Austin.
William Barret Travis had been a resident of San Felipe in the years leading up to his assignment at the Alamo post. While living there, he had begun his courtship of Rebecca Cumings, whose brothers ran the sawmill near Stephen F. Austin’s capital town.
More important to the events leading up to the fall of the Alamo, San Felipe de Austin served as the site of the Consultation meeting in November 1835 (Travis and Austin had both been elected as delegates to the important meeting but were engaged in the late-1835 siege of Bexar and did not attend). During the Consultation, delegates named San Felipe as the capital for the provisional government of an independent state of Texas (independent from the Mexican state of Coahuila, but not separate from Mexico) and chose a governor—Henry B. Smith. Delegates also determined to move the seat of government to Washington-on-the-Brazos in the spring of 1836, a transition that was ongoing in the days before Santa Anna arrived at San Antonio to surround the Alamo compound.
Travis sent out his first message about the arrival of enemy forces on February 23. His brief note was sent to Gonzales with instructions in a post script as follows: “P.S. Send an express to San Felipe, with the news, night and day.”
This first letter arrived at San Felipe the evening of February 25. Ironically, San Felipe resident Alexander Somervell had just finished a letter to Austin’s brother-in-law James Perry, asserting the impossibility of Santa Anna’s forces arriving in Texas for several weeks (a sentiment shared by most Texians at the time). After the Travis message arrived, Somervell added a hasty post script of his own: “We learn this instant that the Mexicans in great force are in sight of Bexar.” The Baker and Bordens print shop worked to include this news from the Alamo in their February 27 edition of the Telegraph and Texas Register newspaper.
On February 24, Travis penned the letter that has become the most famous in Texas history. Addressed “To the People of Texas and All Americans,” the backside of the letter included the directive in Travis’ hand “Send this to San Felipe by Express night & day.”
Courier Albert Martin departed the Alamo compound soon after Travis completed the message on the 24th. At Gonzales, Martin passed the dispatch to Lancelot Smither, who departed for San Felipe the evening of the 25th (roughly the same time the first letter was arriving at San Felipe). Smither made the near 100-mile journey through cold and wet weather in less than 40 hours. The stirring letter concludes: “Though this call may be neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible, and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due his own honor and that of his country.”
Its arrival at San Felipe prompted a burst of activity, including a 12-member committee meeting through the early morning hours to issue a formal response to the news. Among the resolutions shared with citizens midday on the 27th was an order to print 200 copies of the letter. Working through the weekend to set the letter and the town’s resolutions as broadsides, the letter went through several revisions at the print shop.
An unfortunate editorial decision changed the title – “To the Citizens of Texas” from Travis’ own, more emotional, appeal. And typical of the challenges of the handset type era, a typo found its way into the printing with “thousand” misspelled in the first line (“thousond”). Ultimately, the final setting of the broadside was paired with a circular from Governor Smith (“Texas Expects Every Man to Do His Duty”) and the two were printed side-by-side on the same piece of paper, then cut apart for distribution. After the conclusion of the Revolution, Baker and Bordens submitted a handwritten receipt to the new Republic of Texas government for payment on the printing of 1,000 copies of the Travis letter ($65).
The March 5 edition of the Telegraph and Texas Register included the text of Travis’ letter. By the time many subscribers received their copies and read the letter for the first time, the Alamo had fallen. Immediately after the March 5 edition went to press (probably late evening on the 4th), the printers at the Baker and Bordens shop were hard at work on the next chapter of this rapidly moving story—setting the type plate of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
So while you’re waiting in line to see one of the most important pieces of paper in Texas history, take a minute to strike up a conversation with those around you. See if any of them know the other town connected by courier (and by history) to Travis’ letter. And if not, share a few of these tidbits with them. Better yet, encourage them to make the trip to San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site to learn about its history for themselves.
Make Your Plans to See Travis’ Letter
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has stated, “In my view, in every Texan’s lifetime there should be one opportunity to see this letter.”
Because Travis’ letter is arguably the most significant document in Texas history, numerous precautions are being taken to ensure the document’s safety while en route to and from the Alamo and while on display. These include a security escort, art barriers, a detailed traffic flow plan, armed guards, bag checks, security wanding of visitors, video surveillance, as well as a detailed disaster response plan. The exact details of the letter’s travel from Austin to San Antonio and back, and all security precautions being taken during the exhibit are not being made available to the public.
The letter will be housed in a state-of-the-art, custom-built exhibit case, constructed in Germany by Casewerks, which includes shatterproof glass, a desiccant chamber, and fiber-optic lighting. Additionally, environmental conditions within the Alamo Chapel have been monitored for six months prior to the exhibit, and alterations made to minimize exposure to harmful UV rays and extremes of temperature and humidity.
The exhibit is free and will include other Travis items from both the Alamo and General Land Office collections. Up to 15,000 visitors are expected to view the letter each day during this two-week exhibition. For more information about the exhibit, visit www.travisletter.com.
And While You’re There…
During the first weekend of the Travis letter exhibition, staff and volunteers from San Felipe de Austin will be on the Alamo grounds talking about the state historic site’s connection to the document. We will be offering printing demonstrations of the Travis letter broadside (complete with the misspelled “thousond”), talking about San Felipe during the Texas Revolution, and sharing insights about early printing history in Texas. We hope to see you on Saturday or Sunday, February 23 and 24.
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