Mexico had a marketing problem. Soon after gaining independence from Spain, in 1821, the young republic desperately wanted to populate its northern state, Texas, to solidify its grip on a huge, lawless territory that the Spanish had never effectively colonized. But few “interior” Mexicans south of the Río Grande wanted to move to the Texas province, largely because it was inhabited by Apaches and Comanches, who were not looking for neighbors. So Mexico offered U.S. settlers cheap land—on the condition they swear allegiance to Mexico and convert to Catholicism. (A good many settlers no doubt failed to abide by those conditions.) Ultimately, says historian William C. Davis, “the Anglos would pose a greater threat than ever the Comanches had.”
Not only did the Mexican government offer land grants to any person or family who agreed to settle in Texas; it also, under the Mexican Constitution of 1824, guaranteed that newcomers would pay no taxes for at least seven years. And to sweeten the deal, Mexico—despite having abolished slavery in the republic—would allow Anglo settlers to bring along with them any slaves they already held.
Before long, immigrants were arriving from nearly every state east of the Mississippi, as well as from France, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, England and Scotland. Edwin Hoyt, author of The Alamo: An Illustrated History, writes that typical settler Dr. Amos Pollard, a New York City physician with a failing practice, awoke one morning in 1834, read an advertisement for land in Columbia, Texas, and set out almost immediately to claim some for himself. Pollard, who would die at the Alamo, where he had served as doctor, settled alongside blacksmiths and trappers from Tennessee, an Irish artist, a Frenchman who had served as a soldier in Napoleon’s army and jailbirds from Alabama. Most of the newcomers, according to Hardin, were “descended from America’s first revolutionaries, and many had fought with Andrew Jackson in 1815 at New Orleans” against the British.
Among those headed for the new frontier was Moses Austin, a Connecticut-born mining magnate, judge and slaveholder from the MissouriTerritory who had received permission from Mexican officials in San Antonio to bring 300 families with him. Although he contracted pneumonia and died in 1821 before he could lead settlers to Texas, his son Stephen succeeded in transplanting the first of some 1,500 families. Today, of course, the capital of Texas bears the Austin name.
By 1834, only 31 years after the United States had doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase, tens of thousands of Americans had come to Texas, a place portrayed in newspapers back East as a land of milk and honey with boundless forests and “smiling prairies [that] invite the plough.” (Understandably, there was no mention of scorching summers or lowlands infested with disease-carrying mosquitoes.)
Some settlers, however, had come to Texas uninvited, and before long, the fledgling republic of Mexico was viewing the newcomers warily: by 1830, Americans in Mexico outnumbered Mexicans almost five to one. Although the Mexican congress prohibited further immigration from the United States in April of that year, squatters continued to pour in. Four years later, Mexico ordered the removal of all illegal settlers and the disarming of Texians, as the Americans called themselves (the term would later be contracted to Texans). The man behind the order was a handsome egotist and power-crazed dictator who called himself the Napoleon of the West: President-General Antonio López de Santa Anna.
Tensions leading to this order had mounted in the preceding year. In 1833, Stephen Austin rode to Mexico City to urge the government there to confer separate statehood, within the Mexican confederation, on Texas. The Mexican government, not surprisingly, evinced little enthusiasm for such an arrangement. Austin then fired off an intemperate letter to friends in San Antonio, telling them to ignore the authority of Mexico City. Austin’s letter was intercepted; as a result, he was thrown into jail in Mexico City for 18 months. Austin returned home convinced that his fellow colonists had to resist Santa Anna, who had already developed a reputation as a brutal man who sanctioned rape and mass executions by his soldiers.
Within two years, the Mexican congress had authorized Santa Anna to take up arms against the insurrectionists. On November 12, 1835, Texas chose the brilliant but dissipated Sam Houston, who had served under Jackson and had been former governor of Tennessee, as its commander. Santa Anna, lusting for a fight, departed central Mexico in late December. By January 1836, Texians were hearing rumors that the president-general and some 6,000 men were headed their way to teach them a lesson.
In the year leading up to the battle of the Alamo, a number of small but significant skirmishes between settlers and Mexicans had taken place, one of the most important of which was the Texians’ virtually bloodless capture, on December 9, 1835, of the Alamo itself, then a crumbling three-acre mission under the command of Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cós. Says historian Davis, “The Texians kept Mexican arms because they needed them, and allowed Mexican prisoners to go home because they would have been a drain on Texian resources if kept as prisoners.”
By early February 1836, Travis, Bowie and Crockett, three volunteer soldiers, had come to San Antonio to join the struggle for independence. Bowie, fleeing his own checkered past, had arrived in Texas from Louisiana in the late 1820s. In league with his brother Rezin (said to have designed the knife that bears the family name), Bowie, a former slave smuggler, had masterminded a complex series of failed Louisiana land swindles; he had hoped to recoup his fortune by speculating in Texas acreage. He was, says Hardin, “a bit of a thug.” But Bowie possessed virtues as well: a born leader, he was utterly fearless and he outwitted the enemy from the moment the Texians began skirmishing with Mexican regulars. He spoke and wrote fluent Spanish and maintained close friendships within the Tejano community: in 1831, he had married the daughter of a prominent Tejano family from San Antonio; his young wife had died of cholera in 1834. At the Alamo, Bowie would take command of the volunteer company.