San Antonio Mythbusters
Texas natives are well familiar with the phrase "Remember the Alamo!" The venerated mission-fort, located on the riverfront in downtown San Antonio, is the genesis of much of Texas history. One might even say it is the "Garden of Eden" of the Lone Star State. It's likely that a fair share of non-Texans have learned the history of this famous landmark from the John Wayne movie, Alamo, which depicts the gallant Texans falling under the onslaught of Santa Anna's Mexican army. What, though, is fact, and what is just plain made up? Here are a few of the urban myths surrounding this San Antonio site.
1. The current building is the original site of the renowned battle.
It's safe to say that anyone visiting this famous mission can't help but be affected by the displays it contains. From the small rooms in which brave defenders such as William B. Travis, James Bowie and Davy Crockett were reportedly slaughtered, to the gun emplacements and paintings, one can feel the ghosts of the past in every square inch. The problem is, very little of what you see during a tour reflects actual events or places.
So what's the truth behind these urban legends? San Antonio mythbusters know that Alamo Mission and Museum that stands in San Antonio's downtown is a rebuilt structure located several miles from the actual site of the mission turned fort that fell in 1836. The original Alamo, which was a much larger complex that probably didn't look much like the modern replica, was one of two strategically located outposts between the Mexican army and the Texan forces (the other was at Goliad).
300 Alamo Plaza
San Antonio, TX 78205
Monday – Saturday, 9AM–5:30PM
Admission is free
2. Defense of the Alamo represented Texans' desire for freedom.
Alamo, the movie, and many popular historical accounts paint a picture of the doomed defense of the Alamo representing the Texans' desire to be free from the yoke of dictator Santa Anna. Like many other misinterpreted details of the battle, this picture is only partially true.
Texas belonged to Mexico until 1836 when the Mexican army was defeated at Goliad and Texas declared its independence. The territory was considered a frontier territory both by Mexico and the United States and was primarily occupied by Tejanos, people of Mexican descent who had lived there for generations. The presence of the Texians, or Americans living in Texas, was increasing, however, as adventurers arrived seeking fortune in a new place. The Texians also sought to expand American slavery to the territory, which was a violation of Mexican law. Thus, the Alamo, along with much of the fight for Texas independence, was largely founded in ulterior motives. Santa Anna, though in fact something of a dictator, was seeking to assert his country's legitimate control over the territory, while the "gallant" defenders were, in many cases, adventurers and freebooters seeking wealth.
3. Santa Anna's army slaughtered all of the Alamo's occupants.
This is another of the scary urban legends San Antonio mythbusters need reexamine. (Again, we have several movie versions and some written accounts to thank for this misconception). Although we're often left with the impression that the gallant defenders fell to just one man, historical records indicate that seven men, several women and children, and even Travis's slave, Joe, survived the siege.
In addition, some urban myths persuade San Antonio mythbusters to believe that Davy Crockett, rather than being shot while killing scores of Mexicans with his beloved rifle Old Betsy, was actually captured along with the other six defenders and ordered to be executed by Santa Anna. The only proof of this is found in a journal of one of the Mexican officers. It has never been verified, however, and the journal's account has many holes. For example, it first describes Crockett as an American naturalist who had sought refuge in the mission because he feared that his nationality endangered his life, but the historical facts indicate that Crockett was the commander of a band of volunteers who had come to Texas to help usurp Mexican control. Records also indicate that Crockett and James Bowie, the inventor of the famous Bowie Knife, wanted to hold off the Mexican army for a time and then destroy the artillery and abandon the fort. They were overruled by young Colonel William B. Travis, who had assumed command of the fort when Bowie, acting commander in the absence of Colonel James C. Neill, fell ill.
4. The Alamo was a rallying point for Texans.
When we hear "Remember the Alamo!" we naturally think that all Texans at the time saw its defense as an essential part of their fight for independence. The truth is far from it. Had Travis not miscalculated his force's ability to defend the site, or had Santa Anna decided it wasn't worth the 600 men he lost in taking it, we probably would not even know the name "Alamo" today. The Alamo is but one of many missions converted into forts along the old Camino Real, which ran from the Rio Grande through San Antonio to Nacogdoches in the east, near the border with Louisiana, and it was hardly the most important fort during that time. Furthermore, Santa Anna's subsequent defeat by Texas forces at Goliad proves that the Americans had the firepower and force to prevail. And yet, despite repeated requests from Travis for reinforcements, less than 200 fighters volunteered to travel to San Antonio de Bexar to defend the Alamo. Surviving letters from Travis and others at the Alamo question whether their fellow Texians even cared. It was only after the fort fell and stories began to circulate about the cruelty of Santa Anna's army that the Alamo was used as a rallying battle cry to motivate the Texan army to fight.
San Antonio: The liveliest ghost town in the west?
From stories of the ghosts at the Alamo, to those of missionaries lost as they attempted to convert Native Americans to Christianity, to 20th century haunts, scary urban legends abound in San Antonio. In fact, the city probably has more ghost-related legends than any city its size in the United States.
5. The haunted tracks
The ghost story best known among San Antonio mythbusters is the account of an incident that allegedly occurred sometime in the 1940s. According to legend, a school bus taking children home from school got stuck in the middle of a railroad crossing and was hit by a train. All the passengers were killed, and legend has it that people who live nearby still hear children laughing at night near the tracks. If you park your car near the tracks, the ghosts of the children will supposedly push your vehicle to the other side, and if you sprinkle powder on your car, you can see the children's handprints.
Although this story excites ghost hunters the world over and has been featured on nightly ghost tours in the city, it is fairly easily debunked. Well, mostly.
First, the fingerprints: Unless your car just came from the car wash, it will have fingerprints and handprints on it. Big deal!
What about the ghosts pushing it across the tracks? Go to the site during the day and you'll see right away how flaky this is. The road in the area of the crossing is sloped. If you put your car in neutral on the uphill side, it will roll downhill and across the tracks of its own accord. To prove this, try parking it on the downhill side and it will roll away from the tracks. I wouldn't advise parking on the tracks to see if it will roll off. San Antonio's police department takes a dim view of this, and it's a sure way to get a ticket.
I've never been able to account for the children's laughter at night, but then, I've never heard it either. So, that part of the myth remains unresolved.
There you have it: one of my favorite cities in the whole world. With great food, friendly people and practically year-round good weather (with the exception of the November to March hurricane season) what's not to love? It's awash with stories of ghosts and is home to one of America's greatest legends, next to the Boston Tea Party. Whether it's the history or the scary urban legends that bring you to San Antonio, you'll have enough fodder for days and days of exploration.
The story of the haunted tracks is just one of many ghost stories in San Antonio: There's also the Donkey Bridge Lady and the Midget Mansion, to name but two. If you want to learn more about the story of the Alamo or San Antonio's ghosts, check out one of the following websites:
Charles A. Ray is a native Texan and the author of Taking Charge: Effective Leadership for The Twenty-First Century, as well as numerous articles on history, culture, and leadership. Read his blog on Red Room.
- Overview:San Antonio Travel Guide