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[detail] Joan Kilpatrick, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson’s Great Military Map of Texas showing Significant Conflicts and Events between 1685 and 1916, Kenneth Helgren, artist, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 2006, Map #83432, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Alamo Legend — The Death of Henry Warnell

The story of the Alamo and the carnage that took place over Santa Anna’s thirteen-day siege is replete with myths and legends that have persisted for over one hundred and eighty years, sometimes with little-to-no substantiating evidence.[1] One such story involves a rumor that Alamo defender Henry Warnell somehow went over the walls and escaped the massacre on March 6, 1836. The Court of Claims file housed in the Archives of the Texas General Land Office is probably the most complete history regarding this unassuming Alamo defender, and it is also the source of conflicting stories about his death.[2]

The document that has prompted the continual notion that Henry Warnell somehow escaped the massacre, presented on behalf of his son and only known heir, John Warnell, is a notarized affidavit dated July 30, 1858. In it Henry Anderson, acting as an agent for Warnell’s estate, claims the following: “Henry Warnell was a soldier under Travis at the massacre of the Alamo in the year 1836, in the struggle for Texan Independence. That he was wounded at the said massacre but made his escape to Port Lavaca, where he died in less than three months from the effects of said wound.”[3]

It is interesting to note that in all the testimony filed on behalf of the heirs for Henry Warnell, nothing is ever mentioned that he escaped and died in Port Lavaca. In two written statements, his only son John Warnell never mentions that his father escaped and later died in Port Lavaca.

Sneed saw John Warnell as an infant in 1834 and 1835, and believed that Dennis Trammell raised and cared for John after the deaths of his parents.

In multiple pieces of testimony, various individuals came forward giving affidavits on behalf of John. One such affidavit by S. G. Sneed stated:

that he knew Henry Warnell who was killed in the Alamo, that he knew him from 1831–1834 intimately. That he knew him to be a married man by report and knew his wife who was Lydia Ragsdale. That he knew of her death by report and saw her infant, at the birth of which she was said to have died.” Later he relates “He saw the boy John Warnell in 1834 and in 1835 and has known him ever since from having seen him at his house and Dennis Trammel’s house. Dennis Trammel having raised said John Warnell after the death of Henry Warnell his father.”[4]

Dennis Trammell, identified by S.G. Sneed as the caretaker of John Warnell, described the boy’s father as “a little red head fellow,” and a “considerable talker” who loved horses, chewed tobacco, and drank whiskey.

Dennis Trammel himself stated under oath his own recollections of Henry as:

“a little red head fellow, about five feet four inches, or five inches, weighed about one hundred eighteen pounds, freckled face, and had a small knot over one of his eyes, chewed a great deal of tobacco, a considerable talker, sometimes drank whiskey, a race rider and good hunter, talked about horses a great deal.”[5]

José Arpa, The Funeral Pyre after the Fall of the Alamo, 1923, AC769, Alamo Collection, The Alamo, San Antonio, TX.

This testimony is an amazing genealogical resource that personifies and lends character to Warnell, making him more than just a name on the list of Alamo defenders; however, it does not support the notion that he escaped the Alamo.[6]

Susanna (Dickinson) Hannig, widow of Almeron Dickinson, gives clues to the whereabouts and character of Henry Warnell in her testimony. She said:

“I was in the Alamo prior to, and at its fall, on the 6th March 1836, and knew a man there by the name of Henry Warnell, and recollect distinctly having seen him in the Alamo about three days prior to the fall, and as none escaped the massacre, I verily believe he was among the unfortunate number who fell there so bravely in the defense of their country.

Susanna Hannig (misspelled here as Hunneck), widow of Alamo defender Almeron Dickinson, testified that she saw Henry Warnell at the Alamo. She further mentioned that “no one escaped the massacre;” therefore, she believed he “was among the unfortunate number who fell there so bravely in the defence of their country.”

She goes on to say:

“I recollect having heard him remark that he had much rather be out in the open prairie, than to be pent up in that manner.”[7]

These sobering words reflect feelings which were probably shared by all in the Alamo during the terrible thirteen-day siege; but again, it appears that Warnell met his fate among his fellow defenders, not months later at Port Lavaca.

Henry Warnell’s Bounty certificate states that he was killed in the Alamo on March 6, 1836. Certificate #269 to the Heirs of Henry Warnell, 25 May 1860, Bowie B-000094, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Looking at all of the documents collectively within Henry Warnell’s Court of Claims file, it is mentioned six times that Warnell died in the Alamo with the rest of the garrison. Only one lone piece of paper mentions he had escaped; however, that has been enough for the legend to endure.

To make the assertion that Henry Warnell, small in stature and frame and severely wounded, traveled nearly one hundred and fifty miles certainly strains credibility. Adding to the skepticism, Port Lavaca, where Warnell allegedly went after his escape, did not become established as a town until 1841, five years after the fall of the Alamo.[8] The Court of Claims apparently agreed with the majority opinion from the testimony that Warnell was killed in the Alamo — his certificate issued for 960 acres states that he served in the Army of the Republic of Texas until March 6, where his service came to an end “having fallen in the Alamo.”[9]

With the weight of evidence available in written testimony, affidavits, and even the eye witness account of Susanna Hannig, it is hard to prove that Henry Warnell somehow escaped and survived a few months after the fall of the Alamo. Yet this story has persisted and has been written up in numerous books, largely on the basis of one piece of paper in the GLO Archives.[10] Warnell likely died in the Alamo, but thanks to the testimonies found in his Court of Claims file at the General Land Office, his legend was not pent up behind those walls.

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[1] Did Col. Travis actually draw the line in the sand with his sword as reported by William Zuber? In the early days of the siege did David Crockett play a fiddle on the ramparts and have a musical duel with John McGregor on his bagpipes to entertain and lift the spirits of the men trapped behind the walls?

Todd Hansen, The Alamo Reader, A Study in History. Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, 2003. p. 250

Walter Lord, A Time to Stand, The Epic of the Alamo. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1978. p. 117

[2] The Court of Claims was established in 1856 to examine evidence and testimony in order to litigate land claims against the state and the late Republic of Texas. It functioned until 1862, creating a considerable collection of documents relating to the confirmation of thousands of land grants in Texas.

Court of Claims File 008490 for Henry Warnell, Records of the Court of Claims, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Texas State Historical Association & Barker, Eugene C. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 37, July 1933 — April, 1934, periodical, 1934; Austin, Texas, (accessed February 15, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.

[3] Warnell, CC-008490.

[4] Warnell, CC-008490.

[5] Warnell, CC-008490.

[6] Lord, 23.

[7] Warnell, CC-008490.

[8] Handbook of Texas Online, Lonnie Ficklen Maywald, “Port Lavaca, TX,” accessed February 14, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hep07. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[9] Certificate #269 to the Heirs of Henry Warnell, 25 May 1860, Bowie B-000094, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[10] See: Todd Hanson, ed., The Alamo Reader — A Study in History; Walter Lord, A Time to Stand; Albert A. Nofi, The Alamo and the Texas War for Independence; and Phillip Thomas Tucker, Exodus from the Alamo.

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Articles from the Texas General Land Office Save Texas History Program

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