SAN ANTONIO – Brought by police escort and welcomed with honor guards, drawn swords and a drum roll, the iconic "Victory or Death" letter written by Alamo commander William Barret Travis returned Friday to San Antonio for the first time since it left by courier at the start of the famous siege at the old Spanish mission 177 years ago.
Travis' letter seeking reinforcements to bolster his badly outnumbered rebel Texans failed to prevent their deaths nearly two weeks later on March 6, 1836. But the following month, Alamo-inspired men led by Gen. Sam Houston defeated elements of the same army under the Mexican president, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, in an 18-minute battle outside present-day Houston to win independence for Texas from Mexico.
"This is a day of pride — pride in our state, pride in our history," Michael Waters, chairman of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, said, calling it a "reunion of two icons of Texas history."
The single-page faded and yellowing letter, with Travis' some 200 words written on both sides, arrived by police motorcycle escort in a truck with Massachusetts license plates that backed up on the grounds of the Alamo. It's to be displayed for 13 days inside the shrine, beginning Saturday.
With a drum roll in the background, four police officers reverently carried a blue crate containing the letter through an arch of sabers held by members of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets and into the mission.
Travis' letter, written Feb. 24, 1836, was addressed to "the People of Texas and All Americans in the World."
"I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch," the 26-year-old lawyer wrote. He also promised: "I shall never surrender or retreat."
Historians consider Travis' words a heroic reflection of individual sacrifice for a bigger and nobler cause.
Lynn Jones, a 53-year-old graphic artist from Mesquite, made a special trip to San Antonio for Friday's event.
"It's just history," said Jones, her face painted with the image of the Texas flag. "The hair on the back of my neck was standing up."
The state of Texas owns the letter, which carries Travis' postscript declaration, "The Lord is on our side." It's been displayed before, but never in San Antonio. Its exhibition has been much less frequent in recent years to alleviate damage light causes to the fragile paper and ink.
Its display case inside the Alamo is designed to block harmful ultraviolet light and control the temperature and humidity. Archivists will also monitor it.
"The idea that letter is coming home after 177 years, that's incredible, that's phenomenal," said Melinda Navarro, executive administrator at the Alamo.
The timing coincides with the anniversary of the siege and deaths of some 180 Alamo defenders. Prominent among them were Travis, David Crockett and James Bowie.
Travis and his colleagues were fighting "for principles of the American Revolution, democracy and representative government and against an enemy they considered in contrast to those principles," Baylor University history professor Michael Parrish said. "This was very messy democracy, but nevertheless everything dear to the American character, and he proclaimed he would rather die than surrender."
The Alamo's enclosure for the document is bulletproof, but guards will be stationed by the exhibit and visitors will be wanded with hand-held metal detectors. Normally, tourists are allowed to walk into the shrine without such a scan.
Denton County Sheriff Will Travis, a fifth-generation nephew of his namesake uncle, read the letter aloud during Friday's ceremonies.
"It was a humbling moment," said Travis, who grew up in Mississippi and is a descendant of John Travis, one of the Alamo Travis' nine siblings.
He was besieged afterward by people asking him to sign copies of the document.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson's office assumed ownership of the Alamo in 2011 and he proposed last year the letter be shown to the public, at least temporarily.
"One of my goals is to try to keep my voice from breaking, or getting too misty eyed," Patterson told the several hundred people at the ceremony. "I'm of the opinion every Texan in their lifetime should be able to eyeball the document."
Travis wrote the letter from a room across the plaza from the mission's main entrance. The spot is now a Ripley's Haunted Adventure, part of a block-long strip of tourist businesses.
A courier on horseback slipped through the Mexican lines outside the Alamo under cover of night so it could get published. After the war, the letter somehow was returned to Travis' family in Alabama. Travis' great-great grandson sold it to the state of Texas in 1893 for $85, or $2,179 in present-day dollars.