Famous 'Victory or Death' letter returns to Alamo

This undated image provided by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission shows a portion of the "victory or death" letter written by William Barret Travis from the Alamo on Feb. 24, 1836. (AP Photo/Texas State Library and Archives Commission)

February 22, 2013 7:11:00 PM PST
A letter that William B. Travis sent from the old Spanish mission in 1836 is being put back on display, but it's going to be there for just two weeks. DPS troopers brought it there on Friday.

In all of Texas history, there is no more hallowed ground than the Alamo, where the rebel defenders held off the Mexican army for 13 days in 1836. They died in the siege, but these words live on.

"I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man," reads the letter, which was written commander of the Texian Army Col. William Travis.

It was the last dispatch from the Alamo and it was carried by rider to the town of Gonzales for reinforcements. Thirty-two men responded, and the Alamo fell five days later.

"The garrison are to be put to the sword if the fort is taken. I have answered the demand with cannon shot and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat," Travis writes.

Travis and his army became martyrs to the fight for independence. Two months later, the army under Sam Houston won freedom from Mexico.

The letter was later sold by the Travis family to the state for the grand sum of $85 and since has been housed at the state archive building in Austin.

But now, one of the most important of all Texas documents has been taken out of its protective covering and into the filtered laboratory light. You can still see the flourish Travis added after his name, which was put there as canons were firing, hoping that help would arrive but prepared to die if it didn't.

"Every time I read it, I more and more I think he was very clear headed at the time that he wrote this, considering what he was up against," preservation officer John Anderson said.

The letter hasn't been near the Alamo since the day it was written. It is fragile and faded.

Copies are easily viewed online but there is no substitute for the real thing.

"It's very important. I think that there is an immediacy that comes from the document itself," conservator Sarah Norris said.

That's why 177 years later, the Travis letter is going back to San Antonio for a visit. Inside the Alamo, display cases are already prepared.

The Daughters of the Republic call it a homecoming.

"We are not going to take any chances and the Alamo Rangers are working very closely with the DPS and some other entities as well," Alamo historian Melinda Navarro said. "We're going to take care of this letter and we will guard it and keep it safe."

The letter will be returned to the state archives in early March, where it will be protected for future generations. It's a piece of history that still echoes today.

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