Sam Houston and the Alamo

by Dr. Bruce Winders, Curator & Historian at The Alamo

The Alamo hosted a showing of John Wayne’s The Alamo for visitors on the grounds of the Alamo during Movie Night at the Alamo on Friday, March 2. The 1960 film opens with Sam Houston (portrayed by Richard Boone) riding into town with instructions for William B. Travis (played by Laurence Harvey). Houston tells Travis that he needs for him to buy him time so Houston can get about the task of building an army for Texas. After delivering this news, Houston rides off, leaving Travis and the Alamo’s garrison to its fate. This story comes full circle in the 1987 IMAX film, The Alamo: The Price of Freedom, where viewers are told in the closing credits that the men of the Alamo did not die in vain because they purchased the time necessary for Sam Houston to build his army. While this explanation for the stubborn defense of the Alamo and the ultimate sacrifice of its garrison provides a useful hook for film makers, it runs counter to what Sam Houston’s activities were during the Siege and Battle of the Alamo.

On November 12, 1835, the Consultation (the provisional government of Texas) appointed Sam Houston Commanding-General of the Texas Army. His authority, however, extended over the regular army, leaving him unable to legally issue orders to the volunteers already in the field.[i] Houston dispatched recruiters to raise the regular army as well as agents to acquire arms, uniforms, and other supplies. With no troops to command, Houston received a furlough on January 28 to take care of personal business.

Houston spent part of his leave meeting with the Cherokee Indians of northeast Texas. In addition to appointing him general, delegates at the Consultation had also authorized him to negotiate a treaty with his adopted tribe.[ii] The Cherokee were upset because they had not received title to the land they occupied. It was feared, a fear that later proved true, that Mexican officials were circulating among the Cherokee, promising to settle outstanding land claims in their favor if the Cherokee joined them in the war against the Texans. Houston convinced the Cherokee to remain neutral in the fight, explaining them that the new government of Texas would recognize their claims once the war was won. With a treaty successfully concluded, Houston rode to Washington-on-the-Brazos, creating a sensation when he arrived there on February 29.[iii]

Houston served as a delegate to the constitutional convention, remaining there until March 6. During his stay, the new government reconfirmed his appointment as commanding-general of the Texas Army, giving him control over all troops — regulars and volunteers. A copy of Travis’ March 3rd letter reached the convention on March 6th, prompting Houston to set off for Gonzales in the company of his staff.[iv] He arrived at Gonzales on March 11th, the same day that news of the Alamo’s fall reached the town.[v] Houston then assumed command of the 350 men he found gathered at Gonzales preparing to march to the Alamo’s relief. This group of men became the nucleus of the army Sam Houston commanded at the Battle of San Jacinto.[vi]

This is a brief explanation of where Houston was and what he was doing while the Alamo was under siege. Unlike in the movies, Houston had not tasked the men of the Alamo to buy him time to build an army. His negotiation with the Cherokee prevented the Cherokee from entering the war against the Texans, something which would have caught them between Mexican soldiers marching from the south and Cherokee warriors descending from the northeast. Inadvertently, though, Travis did raise Houston’s army for him through the men who rushed forward to answer his calls for help in defending the Alamo.

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[i] Henry W. Barton, “The Problem of Command in the Army of the Republic of Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly (January 1959), 300.

[ii] John H. Jenkins, Papers of The Texas Revolution (10 vols.; Austin: Presidial Press, 1973), 4:176, 260–261.

[iii] William Fairfax Gray, From Virginia to Texas, 1835: Diary of Col. Wm. F. Gray (Houston: Fletcher Young Publishing Co., 1965), 123.

[iv] Gray, Diary, 125.

[v] Richard Bruce Winders, Sacrificed at the Alamo: Tragedy and Triumph in the Texas Revolution. (Abilene: State House Press, 2004), 129.

[vi] For Houston’s activities from January 28, 1836, to March 11, 1836, see Llerena B. Friend, Sam Houston: The Great Designer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), 66–68.