The Alamo, built in the 18th century from locally quarried limestone, rests deep in the heart of Texas. (Photo: Library of Congress)
The Alamo, built in the 18th century from locally quarried limestone, rests deep in the heart of Texas. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Barricaded in a freezing cold, rat-infested room inside the Alamo, the lone defender had gone almost three days without food, water or sleep after armed men had positioned themselves around the compound. Word of the standoff ricocheted across America, prompting a deluge of supportive messages for the fatigued but tenacious holdout.

“Win or lose, we congratulate you upon your splendid patriotism and courage,” read one telegram from New York signed by John B. Adams, a descendant of President John Adams. Editors from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wired San Antonio: “Commandant of the Alamo:—Will you send…a message to the women of St. Louis, who are watching with great interest your own gallant defense of the Alamo?”

The “commandant” was no military officer but a 46-year-old Texas schoolteacher named Adina De Zavala, who had commenced her one-woman siege on February 10, 1908. De Zavala replied to the Post-Dispatch: “My immortal forefathers suffered every privation to defend the freedom of Texas. I, like them, am willing to die for what I believe to be right. . . . The officers cannot starve me into submission.”

De Zavala’s impassioned statement echoed the urgent message Lt. Col. William Barret Travis had dashed off 72 years earlier, on February 24, 1836, when his 200 Texan and Tejano rebels were fortified inside the old mission, surrounded by several thousand Mexican troops under President General Antonio López de Santa Anna.

“To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” Travis wrote, “I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man—The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken—I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls—I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism, & every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch. . . . If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country—Victory or Death.”

Travis’ plea was widely disseminated, but it was too late. Before sunrise on March 6, Santa Anna caught Travis’ men by surprise and breached the mission walls. Most of the defenders retreated into the chapel and long barracks and, in their haste, failed to spike the cannons. The Mexican soldiers swiveled them around and blasted the buildings at close range. The battle was over by sunup.

Six weeks later, on April 21, General Sam Houston and 900 soldiers hollering “Remember the Alamo!” surprised Santa Anna’s 1,400 troops encamped along the San Jacinto River. The battle resulted in one of the most lopsided triumphs in American history: Approximately 650 of Santa Anna’s men were killed, while Houston, who led the infantry charge and was wounded, lost only nine.

Houston negotiated a treaty that called for the withdrawal of Mexican forces from Texas. His interpreter, one of his most trusted advisers, was a 47-year-old Tejano named Lorenzo de Zavala (who spelled his name with a lower case “d”)—Adina De Zavala’s grandfather. Elected governor of one of the largest territories in Mexico in 1832, de Zavala was appointed by President Santa Anna to be the first Mexican plenipotentiary to France in 1833. He resigned his post in protest, however, when Santa Anna revealed himself to be a vainglorious dictator. De Zavala moved to Texas, where he fervently advocated for its right to be an autonomous nation. He signed the Texas Declaration of Independence in March 1836 and participated in drafting Texas’ constitution two weeks later. Impressed by his loyalty and political acumen, de Zavala’s fellow delegates picked him to be the republic’s first vice president.

Adina De Zavala was born in her grandfather’s house on November 18, 1861, and grew up hearing stories about the Alamo, San Jacinto and the Texas Revolution. After studying history at Sam Houston Normal Institute, she took a teaching post in San Antonio in 1887 and was dismayed to find the Alamo crumbling and vandalized. Graffiti marred the chapel’s walls, statues of saints had been smashed and the floors were slick with bat guano. A mercantile company, Hugo & Schmeltzer, had converted the barracks into a store.

In 1893 Adina founded the De Zavala Chapter—named after her grandfather—of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a group formed one year earlier to protect historic sites throughout the state. De Zavala’s primary mission was to save the Alamo, and her chance came in 1903. When a prospective buyer approached Hugo & Schmeltzer with a plan to tear down the barracks and erect an upscale hotel, Gustav Schmeltzer offered to let the DRT make a preemptive bid—of $75,000.

That was an astronomical price for the tiny, all-volunteer group, but De Zavala struck up a friendship with another staunch preservationist, Clara Driscoll, the 22-year-old heiress to the Driscoll family oil and real estate fortune. Like De Zavala, Driscoll came from noble Texas lineage (both grandfathers had fought at San Jacinto), and together they plotted to rescue the Alamo with an aggressive fundraising campaign, confident that loyal Texans would flock to its aid. But the financial cavalry never arrived. Over the next five years, Driscoll paid almost the entire amount herself, but De Zavala was able to shame the Texas legislature into reimbursing her friend’s generosity. At long last the Alamo was in safe hands.

But De Zavala’s joy was short-lived; within months, a powerful new group, the Alamo Mission Chapter of the DRT, demanded that the barracks be destroyed entirely, leaving only the small chapel to represent the battle. Ironically, Clara Driscoll was one of the founders of the new chapter. Driscoll later conceded that she’d bought the Hugo & Schmeltzer building only to raze the “eyesore” and create a spacious plaza that focused attention on the chapel. De Zavala excoriated her former ally for “pandering to the rabid desires of the money-getters, who for business reasons only, want to tear down ‘unsightly walls.’ ” Each side claimed to be the Alamo’s true protector, and the clash spilled into the courts. The second battle for the Alamo had begun.

Accordingly, De Zavala made her stand at the old mission. Sheriff’s deputies, she recalled, “did not know I was in an inner room, and when I hurried out to confront them, demanding by what right they invaded the historic building, consternation reigned. They withdrew outside the building for whispered consultation. The instant they stepped out, I closed the doors and barred them. That’s all. There was nothing else for me to do but hold the fort. So I did.”

Sheriff Dan Tobin was within his powers to remove De Zavala by force, but he decided against smashing down the Alamo doors and dragging her out kicking and screaming. She’d made it quite clear that she wouldn’t go quietly. He did, however, order his men to withhold food and drink. He also shut off the electricity. A sleepless night in a dark, frigid building crawling with rodents and spiders would, he assumed, bring De Zavala to her senses.

He guessed wrong. De Zavala only became more obstinate, and media accounts were transforming her into a national hero. (She spoke to journalists through keyholes and cracks in the walls.) Public sympathy forced Tobin to back off, and De Zavala was given a single glass of water and two oranges.

Finally, Texas governor Thomas Campbell announced that the Alamo would be put back under state control and the demolition of any buildings postponed indefinitely. That was good enough for De Zavala, and she ended her protest after three days, to national fanfare. The Denver Post declared that she had risked her life to hold the Alamo, and the Baltimore American referred to her as a “Joan of Arc in these modern commonplace times, ready to serve through patriotism and full of the spirit of her fighting sires.” She was proof, the editors wrote, that “all the romance and heroism of the world is not dead yet.”

San Antonio developers fumed. Tearing down the barracks, they argued, would have created an open vista appealing to high-end hotels. Some implied that the entire Alamo compound could be done away with. “We do not want to appear sacrilegious,” remarked one prominent businessman, “but we realize that the time has come to stop mentioning the Alamo in the same breath with San Antonio. . . . By doing it we are advertising San Antonio not as a modern and enterprising city…but are associating her with a name that carries with it the idea that San Antonio is still a Mexican village.”

In the end, it was Adina De Zavala’s efforts that boosted San Antonio’s reputation. Today, the Alamo is the most visited historic landmark in Texas and one of the top tourist destinations in America. Four million people stream through it each year—four times more visitors than the Charters of Freedom receive at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. n

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