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Biography of William Travis

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Biography of William Travis

William Travis

William Travis, portrait by Henry McArdle

Biography of William Travis:

William Barret Travis (1809-1836) was an American teacher, lawyer and soldier. As a young man, he immigrated to Texas, where he soon became embroiled in the fight for independence from Mexico. He was in command of the Texan forces at the Battle of the Alamo, where he was killed along with all of his men. According to legend, he drew a line in the sand and challenged the defenders of the Alamo to cross it and fight to the death: whether this actually happened is not certain. He is considered a great hero in Texas.

Early Life of William Travis:

Travis was born on August 1, 1809 in South Carolina and grew up in Alabama. At the age of nineteen he was a schoolteacher in Alabama and married one of his students, sixteen year old Rosanna Cato. Travis later trained and worked as a lawyer and published a short-lived newspaper. Neither profession made him much money, and in 1831 he fled to the west, staying one step ahead of his creditors. He left Rosanna and their young son behind: by then the marriage had soured anyway and neither Travis nor his wife were sad that he went. He chose to head to Texas for a new start: his creditors could not pursue him into Mexico.

The Anahuac Disturbances:

Travis found plenty of work in the town of Anahuac defending slaveholders and those who sought the recapture of runaway slaves: this was a sticky point at the time in Texas, as slavery was illegal in Mexico but many of the Texas settlers practiced it anyway. Travis soon ran afoul of Juan Bradburn, an American-born Mexican military officer. When Travis was jailed, the local populace took up arms and demanded his release. In June of 1832, there was a tense standoff between angry Texans and the Mexican army: it eventually turned violent and several men were killed. A higher-ranking Mexican official than Bradburn arrived and defused the situation. Travis was free, and he soon found he was a hero among separation-minded Texans.

Return to Anahuac:

In 1835 Travis again was involved in trouble in Anahuac. In June, a man named Andrew Briscoe was jailed for arguing about some new taxes. Travis, infuriated, rounded up a gang of men and they rode on Anahuac, supported by a boat with a lone cannon. He ordered the Mexican soldiers out: not knowing the strength of the rebel Texans, they agreed. Briscoe was freed and Travis’ stature grew enormously with those Texans who favored independence: his fame only grew when it was revealed that Mexican authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest.

Arrival at the Alamo:

Travis missed out on the Battle of Gonzales and the Siege of San Antonio, but he was still a dedicated rebel and anxious to fight for Texas. After the Siege of San Antonio, Travis - by then a militia officer with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel - was ordered to collect up to 100 men and reinforce San Antonio, at the time being fortified by Jim Bowie and other Texans. The defense of San Antonio centered on the Alamo, a fortress-like old mission church in the center of town. Travis managed to round up about 40 men, paying them out of his own pocket, and he arrived at the Alamo on February 3, 1836.

Discord at the Alamo:

By rank, Travis was technically the second-in-command at the Alamo. The commander there was James Neill, who had fought bravely at the siege of San Antonio and who had vigorously reinforced the Alamo in the intervening months. About half the men there, however, were volunteers and therefore answered to no one: these men tended to listen only to James Bowie. Bowie generally deferred to Neill, but did not listen to Travis. When Neill left in February to attend to family matters, the differences between the two men caused a serious rift among the defenders. Eventually two things would unite Travis and Bowie (and the men they commanded) - the arrival of the diplomatic celebrity Davy Crockett and the advance of the Mexican army, commanded by General Antonio López de Santa Anna.

Sending for Reinforcements:

Santa Anna's army arrived in San Antonio in late February, 1836 and Travis busied himself sending dispatches to anyone who could help him. The most likely reinforcements were the men serving under James Fannin in Goliad, but repeated pleas to Fannin brought no results. Fannin did set out with a relief column, but turned back due to logistical difficulties (and, one suspects, the suspicion that the men in the Alamo were doomed). Travis wrote to Sam Houston, but Houston was having troubles controlling his army and was not in any position to send aid. Travis wrote the political leaders, who were planning another convention, but they moved too slowly to do Travis any good: he was on his own.

The Line in the Sand and the Death of William Travis:

According to popular lore, sometime on March fourth Travis called together the defenders for a meeting. He drew a line in the sand with his sword and challenged those who would stay and fight to cross it: only one man refused (an ailing Jim Bowie reportedly asked to be carried across). This story is uncertain as there is little historical evidence to support it. Still, Travis and everyone else knew the odds and chose to remain, whether he actually drew a line in the sand or not. On March sixth the Mexicans attacked at dawn. Travis, defending the northern quadrant, was one of the first to fall, shot by an enemy rifleman. The Alamo was overrun within two hours, all of its defenders captured or killed.

Legacy of William Travis:

Were it not for his heroic defense of the Alamo and his death, Travis would most likely be a historical footnote. He was one of the first men truly committed to Texas' separation from Mexico, and his deeds in Anahuac are worthy of inclusion on any accurate time-line of events that led to Texas' independence. Still, he was not a great military or political leader: he was just a man in the wrong place at the wrong time (or the right place at the right time, if you prefer).

Nevertheless, Travis showed himself to be a capable commander and brave soldier when it counted. He held the defenders together in the face of overwhelming odds and did what he could to defend the Alamo. In part because of his discipline and work, the Mexicans paid very dearly for their victory that March day: most historians put the casualty count at around 600 Mexican soldiers to some 200 Texan defenders. He showed true leadership qualities and might have gone far in post-independence Texas politics had he survived.

Travis' greatness lies in the fact that he obviously knew what was going to happen, yet he remained and kept his men with him. His final missives show clearly his intent to stay and fight, even though he would likely lose. He also seemed to understand that if the Alamo were crushed, that the men inside would become martyrs for the cause of Texas Independence - which is precisely what happened. Cries of "Remember the Alamo!" echoed out all over Texas and the USA, and men took up arms to avenge Travis and the other slain Alamo defenders.

Travis is considered a great hero in Texas, and many things in Texas are named for him, including Travis County and William B. Travis High School. His character appears in books and movies and anything else related to the Battle of the Alamo. Travis was portrayed by Laurence Harvey in the 1960 film version of The Alamo, which starred John Wayne as Davy Crockett, and by Patrick Wilson in the 2004 film of the same name.

Source:

Brands, H.W. Lone Star Nation: the Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

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