The Alamo: Beginning of a New Era (1877–1905)

Dr. R. Bruce Winders, Former Alamo Director of History and Curator, picks up our monthly exploration of the Alamo’s 300-year history in 1877. The U.S. Army has left the Alamo, and the site begins to find itself the center of a growing modern city.

As the twentieth century approached, the Alamo had existed in various incarnations for more than 175 years. The compound first served as a mission (1724–1793) before becoming a military outpost (1803–1877). Since the U.S. Army left the Alamo 1877, the site had been revitalized into a commercial center, complete with sidewalks, paved streets, a trolley line, electric lights, and a fountain. San Antonio was finally leaving its frontier past behind and becoming a modern city.

The nation had been changing, too. The United States at the time was younger that the Alamo. Great events had transformed the U.S. from thirteen landlocked colonies along the eastern seaboard into a continental power that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The nation was on the verge of becoming a world power. Americans were proud of their history and those who made it. As they looked around, though, the noticed that historic sites were being lost in the push for progress. Moreover, many of the men and women who played important roles as frontiersmen, pioneers, and soldiers — those deemed responsible for settling the country — were being lost as well. Many veterans of the nation’s conflicts had already passed from the scene. The young men who had faced off against one another during the Civil War were now senior citizens. The question arose as what could be done, both to preserve the memory of and to honor the past.

Two movements emerged that offered a solution. One was the formation of descendant association. The sons and daughters of veterans’ groups took over the mission of promoting the memory of their ancestors. For example, this period saw the creation of the National Association of Veterans of the Mexican War (1874), Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil (1881), Daughters of the American Revolution (1890), United Daughters of the Confederacy (1894), Sons of Confederate Veterans (1896), Dames of 1846 (1901).

Texas was no exception to this desire to preserve and honor the past. Men who had served in the Texas Revolution organized the Texas Veteran Association (1873). Another Texas organization, the Daughters of the Texas Republic, was founded in 1891.

Many residents and visitors to San Antonio were becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of its most important and iconic historical site — the Alamo. Would it, too, be lost in the rush to modernize the city?

Although the State of Texas had already purchased the Alamo’s church building in 1883 as a memorial for the Texans who died in the famous 1836 battle, critics claimed that commercial encroachment on the plaza created a carnival-like atmosphere unsuited for a shrine. Billboards and handbills covered the outer walls of the Alamo’s convent, or Long Barrack. Privately owned by the families of merchants Hugo, Schmeltzer and Heuermann, the building’s future was uncertain.

The Daughters of the Republic of Texas took on the task of keeping the Long Barrack out of the hand of developers. Adina De Zavala (granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala — first vice president of the Republic of Texas) began raising money to purchase the building, a daunting undertaking for a school teacher. She merged her preservation group, the De Zavala Daughters, with the larger Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

De Zavala was introduced to fellow member Clara Driscoll, the daughter a San Jacinto veteran and wealthy rancher. De Zavala’s passion moved Driscoll to purchase the Long Barrack for the organization. In 1905, the DRT turned the deed to the property to the State of Texas. In return, the Legislature reimbursed Driscoll the cost of the purchase and named the DRT custodians of the combined Alamo property, the church and Long Barrack. The Alamo had entered a new era.