More than Just the Alamo — Adina De Zavala and the Saving of Texas History

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe” — H. G. Wells

National Hispanic Heritage Month is a celebration of the contributions of Latinos to U.S. history, culture, and society observed annually between September 15 and October 15, a time of many historical mileposts in the Americas. The observance emphasizes the deep historical imprint of Hispanic cultures on the United States and honors the place of Latinos in the contemporary American melting pot, where they number over 55 million. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’ll focus for several weeks on the impact of Hispanic historical figures in Texas.

Adina Emilia De Zavala, 1929.[10]

“Education Versus Catastrophe” could have been the battle cry of Adina De Zavala in her early twentieth-century efforts to save the Alamo and other sites of importance to Texas history. Perhaps most well known for her role in saving the Alamo, to the point of actually barricading herself inside the Long Barracks for three days to prevent its destruction, Adina De Zavala was a Mexican-American educator who saw value in the preservation and memorialization of the people, places, dates, and structures that helped to define Texas.

Born November 28, 1861, Adina Emilia De Zavala was the oldest of the six children of Augustine and Julia (Tyrell) De Zavala. Her paternal grandfather, Lorenzo De Zavala (1788–1836), was a volunteer soldier in Capt. Duncan’s Company during the Texas Revolution and the first Vice President of the provisional government of the Republic of Texas.

Lorenzo de Zavala appears in the Muster Roll of the Republic of Texas, p. 47, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

After receiving her education at the Sam Houston Normal School (now Sam Houston State University), 1879–1881, and then continuing her studies at a music school in Missouri, De Zavala came back to Texas. She was a high school teacher, first in Terrell, from 1884–1886, then in San Antonio from 1887–1907. It was in San Antonio that De Zavala began her life-long quest to save Texas history.

In the mid-nineteenth century, women became more involved with the active preservation of the history, and especially of the historic landmarks, of the United States. Elite women had long been considered the “guardians of the society’s culture and morals,” from temperance to abolition to moral reforms, and joined social societies and other groups to pursue their ideals.[1] It was through these voluntary women’s associations that the earliest documentation and preservation of American historical spaces began. [2]

As the nineteenth century was coming to a close, De Zavala organized a women’s group she called the De Zavala Daughters with a goal to preserve Texas history and historical sites.[3] In 1893 the organization became a chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) as the De Zavala Chapter in San Antonio.[4] This joining of the De Zavala Daughters to the DRT would propel Adina De Zavala and the rest of the membership into the national spotlight as they first came together, then fell apart over the saving of a landmark considered the “Shrine of Texas Liberty,” the Mission of San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo.

[left] Adina De Zavala and schoolchildren in front of the Alamo. Photograph, Adina De Zavala (center behind group) and students at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas[11] [right] Dedication of a monument at the Mision Misión de Nuestra Senora se la Purisima Conception de los Hasinai. Adina De Zavala is on the right.[12]

The well-publicized story of the “Second Battle of the Alamo,” the long struggle at the dawn of the twentieth century between the DRT factions of De Zavala and her friend and ally-turned-adversary Clara Driscoll, made the two women famous. They ultimately succeeded in saving the Alamo, though it was at the cost of their friendship. De Zavala and her entire chapter were ousted from the DRT in the process of securing the Alamo property from destruction and transformation into a hotel.[5] She did not let this very public defeat deter her from her over-arching goal of preserving the history of Texas for future generations.

In conjunction with the founding of the De Zavala Daughters, Adina De Zavala organized the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association with the purpose of “recording the unique history and legends of San Antonio and vicinity and of preserving and marking historic places in the city.”[6] The organization, which became independent in 1912 after the Alamo/DRT fall out, took as its chief project the rehabilitation of the Catholic Missions around San Antonio. The group also was instrumental in the placing of markers at the graves of important figures of Texas history.

Adina De Zavala (left) points at the keystone at the Spanish Governor’s Palace, Comandancia, San Antonio, Texas.[13]

De Zavala was also instrumental in the conservancy of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, or Comandancia, one of San Antonio’s earliest city preservation projects. De Zavala’s push to get this historic structure restored “changed the course of preservation in Texas” and according to professor Kenneth Hafertape, “[opened] the way for the restoration of the Spanish missions and the La Villita neighborhood and the creation of the Paseo del Rio [the River Walk].”[7]

A prolific writer and ever the educator, De Zavala published several pieces on the Alamo and its history, including the books The Story of the Siege and Fall of the Alamo: A Résumé (1911), Legend of the First Christmas at the Alamo (The Margil Vine) (1916), and History and Legends of the Alamo and Other Missions in and Around San Antonio (1917). Early in her teaching career De Zavala published a short play called “The Six National Flags that Have Floated Over Texas,” (1900) to expose her students to the diverse heritage of Texas.

De Zavala was a charter member and officer of the Texas Historical Association and a member of the Texas Historical Board, a position she was appointed to by Governor Pat Morris Neff in 1923. The Texas State Historical Association made her an Honorary Fellow in 1945 in recognition of her life-long dedication to saving Texas’s history. Adina De Zavala died March 1, 1955, and her flag-draped casket was carried past the Alamo as a gesture of recognition for her tireless efforts not only to save the Alamo but to save Texas history. She is buried in her family’s plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery in San Antonio.

Historical Marker at the grave of Adina De Zavala, St. Mary’s Cemetery, San Antonio, Texas.[14]

As a tribute to De Zavala, on April 27, 1955, the Texas State Legislature passed Senate Concurrent Resolution №51 which specified her “major role in preserving the Alamo and Spanish Governor’s palace…[and in placing] permanent markers on some 40 historic sites in Texas, many of which might otherwise be forgotten.” The Legislature honored her for “urging and sponsoring” the flying of the Texas flag on March 2 to commemorate Texas Independence Day, and gave De Zavala credit for the practice of “preserving the memory of Texas heroes by giving names to our public schools.” The concurrent resolution also stipulated that “in her memory an appropriate plaque be placed in the Alamo, Shrine and Cradle of Texas Liberty, in grateful recognition of her services to the history of Texas.” [8]

Adina De Zavala was so much more than just the woman who barricaded herself in the Alamo for three days to save it from destruction.[9] She was a teacher, a historian, a folklorist, and a pioneer in saving the history of The Lone Star State.

This post is sponsored by the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), and their Handbook of Tejano History, a project produced through the Handbook of Texas. Find out more about the Handbook of Tejano History, and other ways TSHA supports Hispanic Heritage Month here.


[1] Barbara J. Howe, “Women in Historic Preservation: The Legacy of Ann Pamela Cunningham,” in The Public Historian, Vol 12. №1 (Winter 1990), p. 23.

[2] Established in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) came together to raise money to save George Washington’s home from being sold to hotel developers. The MVLA was not only one of the most successful women’s organizations in the U.S. but the first to launch a successful historic preservation effort. Soon other women’s organizations arose with the conservation of national history on their agendas. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, The Daughters of the American Revolution (1890), The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (1891), and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (1891) all came into being; Ibid, p. 34.

[3] Rolando J. Romero, “The Alamo, Slavery, and the Politics of Slavery,” in Decolonial Voices: Chicana and Chicano Cultural Studies in the 21st Century, eds. Arturo J Aldama and Naomi Helena Quiñonez, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), p 371.

[4] Howe, p. 37.

[5] Much has been written on the so-called “Second Battle of the Alamo,” for more in-depth information on the efforts of both Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll see Robert L. Ables, “The Second Battle for the Alamo,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 70, №3 (January 1967): 372–413; Holly Beachley Brear, Inherit the Alamo, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995; Elda Silva, “Split over Alamo soured friendship,” San Antonio Express-News, February 5, 2015, http://www.expressnews.com/150years/people/article/Clara-Driscoll-Adina-De-Zevala-preserved-6065191.php

[6] For more on the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association see https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/vtt03

[7] Kenneth Hafertape, “Restoration, Reconstruction, or Romance? The Case of the Spanish Governor’s Palance in Hispanic-Era San Antonio, Texas,” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 67, №3 (September 2008), p412. In this article Hafertape does argue that this restoration came at the price of the “fabrication of history.” For more on the Comandancia see https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ccs03

[8] Texas Senate Concurrent Resolution №51, April 27, 1955, New Gresham Library Special Collections; Frank W. Jennings with Rosemary Williams, “Adina De Zavala Alamo Crusader,” Texas Highways Magazine, March 1995, pp 21.

[9] Erin Cassidy, “Miss Adina De Zavala, Angel of the Alamo,” Musings from Sam Houston’s Stomping Grounds podcast series, Newton Gresham Library at Sam Houston State University, Transcript, Episode 43: July 1, 2009.

[10] Lewiston Studio, Portrait of Adina De Zavala, 1929, Zavala (Adina Emilia De) Papers, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Image courtesy of the Briscoe Center for American History. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

[11] Alamo Kodak Finish Co., Adina De Zavala and children in front of the Alamo. , Zavala (Adina Emilia De) Papers, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History Image courtesy of the Briscoe Center for American History. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

[12] [Dedication of Monument], photograph, March 30, 1937; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth29187/: accessed October 5, 2016), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Anderson County Historical Commission.

[13] Photograph of Adina De Zavala pointing out the keystone above the front entryway of the Comandancia. From Handbook of Texas Online, Tim Draves, “Spanish Governor’s Palace [Comandancia],” accessed October 05, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ccs03.

[14] Photograph, Adina De Zavala Historical Marker. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.