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Updated: Friday, 08 Feb 2013, 5:57 AM CST
Published : Thursday, 07 Feb 2013, 8:31 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - The Texas Land Commissioner has a warning for anyone who might even consider messing with one of the state’s most precious historic documents during its upcoming journey to the Alamo in San Antonio:
“If some idiot goes in there and tries to push it over and crash it to the ground,” Patterson said, “which will be the last act and the last breath he ever breathes, I have to tell you, we’ll have two armed guards present 24/7.”
If that seems a bit harsh, it only goes to reflect the passion the commissioner feels when he thinks about Lt. Col. William Barret Travis .
Travis, as any Texan worth his bluebonnets already knows, was the commander of a rambunctious bunch of 150 irregular soldiers surrounded in the makeshift Alamo mission fort in February of 1836.
With thousands of Mexican troops under President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna starting to mass around the mission chapel, Travis could see the proverbial writing on the wall.
His letter , sent by a courier on horseback, urged “The People of Texas & all Americans in the world,” to come to the aid of the besieged Texican troops. Of course, even though 32 reinforcements did finally arrive from Gonzales, it was not enough and the Mexican army overran the Texican defenses and killed all the rebel fighters.
At the ensuing battle of San Jacinto , Texicans under the command of General Sam Houston , roused Santa Anna’s troops with a “Remember the Alamo” battle cry, defeated them, captured their president and paved the way for the Republic of Texas and its eventual entry in the United States.
“Texas is where it is today,” said Patterson, “which is in pretty good shape, in no small part because of folks like Travis, who set us up on the road to freedom and independence.
“It was the start of the legacy and the success and the prosperity that we enjoy. (It) started at the time that letter was written by a guy who knew in all probability that he was going to be dead in a few short days.”
Of course, the events at the Alamo are shrouded in myth and contemporary scholarship contradicts some of the wilder tales.
“And, of course, now we know that some of these fictitious depictions were not all accurate. We don't really know whether Travis put a line in the sand with a sword? There's a fair amount of evidence that says he didn't.
“But we do know, even without that line in the sand, assuming it didn't occur, that those men had an opportunity to leave on more than one occasion.
“On more than one occasion was it brought to their attention that this is probably the last gig and you're probably going to die here. And we know that they chose to stay.
“And it makes an even better story,” Patterson argued, “when you think about the flawed men that were there. I mean (Davy) Crockett was running from a bad political career that resulted in a defeat. He said, 'You all can go to hell; I'll go to Texas.'
“Travis was running from bad debts, bad business, and had actually abandoned his wife and child in Alabama.
“ (Jim) Bowie was a guy whose business practices in the land business were less than sterling, shall we say, and he had been a slave trader. But they all came to the Alamo.
“And if what they did at that time and at that place is not redemption, I don't know what is.”
Travis’s letter, widely copied and paraphrased, made its way not only throughout Texas but to the far away American power cities of New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. By that time, of course, the Alamo was vanquished, but her defenders were memorialized and their names became pillars in Texas history.
“Folks look back on the letter,” said the land commissioner, “and recognize that Travis was not just writing for that moment; he apparently was clearly writing for posterity, as well.
“So my communications staff came up with the idea, 'Why don't we take it back to the Alamo?' It's not been back. It left under cover of darkness, you know, surreptitiously under cover of darkness, out by horseback courier through the Mexican lines. It's never been back.
“It's been 177 years. So we're going to take it back under dramatically different circumstances than what it was when it left.”
That, however, will not be a walk in the park. When Patterson first proposed the San Antonio exhibit, conservators at the State Library and Archives Commission were dubious.
“We're very concerned with the temperature, with the relative humidity and with light exposure,” said conservator Sarah Norris, “because those three things together come together to really impact the life span of documents.
“Over time, those things all add up to whether a document will be with us for generations or whether it won't. And we want to be sure that things will be around for many, many generations of Texans in the future.”
Indeed, without proper care, the Travis
letter could, in time, literally begin to crumble.
“Paper is made of cellulose,” Norris pointed out, “and once cellulose strays outside of temperature and relative humidity levels, it will start to deteriorate, much faster than it would naturally.
“So that means it will start to become brittle and brown and be prone to breaking and tearing. And we don't want those things to happen.”
Neither, of course, does Patterson, but, he argued for a balance between preservation and exhibition and the conservators went to work designing protective measures.
“There's risk involved,” the land commissioner acknowledged, “but I think we've covered all the bases. We spent about twenty-some-odd thousand dollars on having a special case made in Germany, flown over here. Controls: temperature, humidity, you know, light, ultra-violet, all those various rays and various kinds of lights, it controls all that stuff. It's made in such a manner that it can't be tipped over.
“There is a plan both for a transit to the Alamo, transit from the Alamo and contingencies done by DPS. And I don't know all the contingencies because I don't have the security clearance. I don't have a need to know. So we're pretty much ready for anything.”
As one might imagine, none of this will be cheap. Patterson estimates the cost of the exhibit will run about $150,000 in direct expenses. That, however, does not include staff time from his office and the library.
“So it's probably an expensive proposition,” the commissioner said, “but it's worth it."
"Think 40 years from now, 50 years from now, some kid who goes through there who was 10 or 12 years old and is 60 some-odd years old, says, 'You know, I saw the letter.’"
“I think every Texan at some time in their life…ought to have the opportunity to see the Travis letter,” he added.
For Patterson, though, there is also something deeply personal in this project.
“Whether you're a member of the legislature or Congress or city council or land commissioner or governor,” he said. “We're all just passing through. Nobody knows who the hell you are in about 10 years, if that long.
“But this is something that while I was passing through, I did and through the efforts of my staff, that will be remembered for a very long time. That's what it means to me.”
The exhibit kicks off with a 4:00 p.m. opening ceremony at the Alamo on Feb. 22. The following day, visitors will file through to see the letter for themselves.
By March 7, it will all be over. It is no coincidence that those dates match exactly those chilly days and nights in the late winter of 1836, when the defenders of the Alamo marched into the history of Texas.
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