News of the Fall of the Alamo Gets Out
By Ted W. Mayborn, NCSA Member #59
When you opened your morning newspaper today, you find reports of events that happened only the night before, locally, statewide and even internationally. You are confronted with bold headlines and in most cases a striking photograph, with a newsy caption.
Not so in 1836 when newspapers were universally printed on rag paper, four pages in all; printed in typefaces smaller than present day classified ads, with no more headlines than a one-line divider. Most unusual was the appearance on the front page of small squares of advertising announcing ship, rail and stagecoach departures, houses to be sold, and lists of merchandise just arrived at the dock to be sold by the barrel, crate, ton or in bulk.
There were essentials of life to a new Republic with a restless population reading continually westward, "News," as such, usually concerning federal laws, long speeches, and many one or two paragraph briefs of fragmented news gleaned from letters or dockside interviews with passengers. Newspapers brought by the ships provided additional information.
When you open a Philadelphia Ledger dated March 25, 1836, you learn that "Santa Anna is on the march to Texas."
(The Alamo had already fallen on March 6, and the 25th was the evening before Fannin and his 400 men were surrounded by General Urea with overwhelming forces.)
News within the province of Texas, and from it as well, was carried in various ways -- all of them slow, and not all of them reliable. An individual left Texas by land northeast through Natitoches, east by New Orleans -- or by sea from Galveston, Brazoria or Copano Bay. This required a pony ride to the coast of one or two days and a delay awaiting the ship's departure. Upon reaching New Orleans, the traveler from Texas was interviewed, cited as a man of good repute and his quotes published as fact. He brought no newspapers because only the Telegraph published by Gail Borden was in existence -- until it was hurriedly moved out of San Felipe ahead of Santa Anna, and subsequently dumped into Buffalo Bayou near San Jacinto.
Comparisons of the Texas conflict with that of the United States against British tyranny also include comparisons of communication. The time required to receive news, and subsequent confirmation, depending on the speed of the traveler and the distances covered. When the Minute Men fought at Concord and Lexington the later part of April, 1775, Governor Gage's official report to parliament left Massachusetts on April 24 in the Express Packet, Sukey, which was a "low ship and deep laden." Americans were anxious to inform Benjamin Franklin, in London, of the events "post haste."
Documents and newspapers were handed to Captain Derby, a Salem master who traded with the West Indies, and he outfitted a fast schooner, Quero, for open sea under the command of his eldest son. The Quero arrived in England on May 28. The news it brought upset the financial markets and stirred friction between hard-line royalists and sympathizers with the Colonies. The Sukey arrived with the confirming information on June 9. The need for faster communication was brought home to England in severe terms.
The only difference in news handling during the Texas conflict was due to an increased number of travelers arriving, or fleeing, and to better roads and more ships plying back and forth.
A letter leaving Texas on February 19, 1836, stating Santa Anna was on the march, and expected to arrive in the summer, was published in the New York Metropolitan on March 21, two weeks after the Alamo fell. News of Texas' Declaration of Independence was published by the Commercial Journal on March 30.
Loss of the Alamo on March 6 reached Sam Houston in San Felipe on the evening of March 7. It reached New York on April 7. Travis' famous letter from the Alamo, relayed by Texans March 3, was published by the New York American on April 14.
The massacre of Fannin and his 400 men on March 27 appeared in The Albion on May 7. These stories, and more of like nature, are among the collection of early newspapers, dating from 1754 through the Texas Revolution, Annexation and Civil War, owned by the author. These papers, together with maps of the same period and documents signed by many Texas colonists and statesmen, together present an accurate picture of the times.
As Houston retreated steadily across the central plains, burning San Felipe as he went, and with Santa Anna's three separate armies pursuing him, there were hordes of displaced persons fleeing toward Louisiana. Each had a viewpoint and rumors were rampant.
Interest in Texas affairs increased as alarming stories reached the populated eastern states and editors sought out every person that would talk. The beleaguered province was now news, at last, and fast communications were more important than confirmed facts.
Readers demanded news as well, for by now they had sons and relatives among the volunteers from Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, and Ohio.
Naturally, stories varied. Conflicting news created bewilderment and even more demand for facts. Stephen Austin and his two commissioners were still soliciting loans in states along the Mississippi and were equally uninformed.
"The reports of the 5th inst., from the New Orleans Advertiser, settles the question about Santa Anna and the miraculous triumphs of the Texans, and the serious doubt that we were lead to believe. There were so many incongruities in the whole affair that the greatest and most enthusiastic well-wisher to the cause, might receive the news with distrust. The gulping letter of the 'Secretary of War' giving such a jumping account of such a battle after it was fought; just two days before, in which, after recounting the killing and capture of the whole Mexican army, called most vociferously for volunteers to come in like Dryden’s Alexander and help her slay the slain."
It should be understood that many people in the New England and some eastern states were opposed to slavery and to any addition of states which tolerated it. England, too, used this as a pretext for aiding Mexico when her principal interest was in securing Texas cotton exports. Texans were regarded by an impressive number of observers as refugees from debts, as persons of callous nature, radical and even possibly criminal. "We trust for the future that 'Texian [sic] News' will not become as a great proverb . . . we cannot be sure even now whether Fannin's men have been butchered or not, whether Crockett is actually living, or dead with his 22 men. And more than all the rest, whether Santa Anna is really the awful raw-head and bloody-bones we have been made to believe, or the Texians [sic] themselves the veritable fire eaters they say they are."
On May 25, the editor concluded, "One thing is clear -- like the boy in the fable who was forever crying 'wolf', 'wolf', -- we hope it will not come to pass that the next time Texians [sic] DO conquer the whole Mexican army, and only shoot Santa Anna and all of his officers, that the good and gaping crowd, instead of believing it, will shake their heads, and say with the ballad: 'When next John Gilpin goes to ride, May I be there to see."
ot all newspapers took that view and not all wrote just to please their partisan readership. But it was difficult then -- as it is now -- to believe that Santa Anna would order the massacre, in cold blood, of 400 men after they had surrendered their arms. Or to believe that the military ability of Houston would submit to weeks of retreat almost across the entire province.
But it is even more difficult to believe that Houston with only 700 men under his final command could, and did, attack Santa Anna's 1,200 trained soldiers and kill half of them and capture the rest, including Santa Anna.
Over one hundred and sixty years later, most of the actual reports appearing in eastern newspapers concerning the Fall of the Alamo would appear on the next day after they occurred for we now have means of speeding up communications.