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My Updated, and Expanded, Walking Tour of the Alamo, Part 2: Beyond the Alamo

San Fernando Cathedral
Ron Current

In most of the movies depicting the Battle of the Alamo, the fort is shown off in the distance, far away from any town. But in reality, this is far from accurate.

We must remember that the Alamo was first a mission and a church, serving not only the Indians within its walls but also the communities that grew around it. At the time of the battle there were three communities near the Alamo: Pueblo de Valero, La Villita and Bexar. Bexar was the largest and sat just across the San Antonio River; in fact the town’s Main Plaza was only about 400 yards from the fort. La Villita, was on the same side of the river as the Alamo, just a little further to the south. La Villita was close enough that two Mexican artillery batteries were placed there. Pueblo de Velero was the closes and the smallest of the three. It was but a collection of “jacales” (thatched hut) huddled near the Alamo’s main gate. So close were these jacales to the Alamo that they were in the very shadow of the fort’s walls.

So, to experience the complete story of the Alamo we must journey beyond its walls, and explore more of the city for its other historic sites.

The Menger Hotel

The Historic Menger Hotel
Photo from Wikipedia

Before we leave Alamo Plaza there’s another stop we need to make, and that’s to the historic Menger Hotel (See map #1). The Menger Hotel isn’t hard to miss; it’s located on the east side of Alamo plaza, directly across Crockett Street from the Alamo, on the corner.

Even though the Menger Hotel isn’t part of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, it’s still a major historical site. The Menger opened on January 31, 1859, by German immigrant William Menger. Today the Menger holds the title as being the oldest continually operated hotel west of the Mississippi River. In its day the Menger was one of the most renowned hotels in the country; as it hosted a wide array of famous guests, including twelve U.S. Presidents. Another title that the Menger holds is that it’s also called “the most haunted hotel in Texas.”

There’s one section of the hotel that’s a must to visit, and that’s the Menger’s Bar (See map #2). You enter the bar on the hotel’s north side, just around the corner.

The Menger’s Bar
The north entrance to the Menger Bar
Photo by author

In 1887 the hotel’s manager, Hermann Kampmann, constructed a new bar for the hotel. The design was a replica of the taproom in the House of Lords Club in London England. Outfitted with a solid cherry wood bar, cherry paneled ceilings, French mirrors, and gold-plated spittoons, it was the perfect expression of Victorian era male design.

This ornate bar would be the site of two outstanding historical events: the forming of the most famous regiment of the Spanish-American War, and the appearance of the most infamous representative of the U.S. temperance movement.  

The Rough Riders
Teddy and his Rough Riders
Photo from Wikipedia

Future President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt had returned to San Antonio in May of 1898, after a six year absence. War had broken out in April between the United States and Spain, and he had come to Texas to recruit hard fighting and hard riding Texans for the war.

It was in the Menger’s Bar where Roosevelt had gathered to recruit men for his First United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. This regiment at first was famously knick-named “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders,” then to just “the Rough Riders.” The bar still pays tribute to this event with displays of Roosevelt’s uniform and other memorabilia.

Carrie Nation
Carrie Nation, with her hatch and Bible
Photo from Wikipedia

The other event was not so welcoming. Long before prohibition there was an anti-alcohol-drinking drive known as the temperance movement. The most active group in this movement was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. This organizations most radical member was a woman by the name of Carrie Nation.

Nation’s mission was to raid drinking establishments, tearing up the barrooms, and destroying their stocks of beer and whiskey. Often she would be accompanied by a group of women, who would sing hymns and pray, while Nation would use a hatchet in doing her work; the term she used was “Hatchetation.”

It was only inevitable that Nation would arrived at the well know Menger Bar. Evidence of her visit can still be seen today. Near the corner of the bar is a section of mismatched wood; it’s there that they say Carrie Nation had buried her hatchet.

Plaza de Velero and Pueblo de Velero

This area of Alamo Plaza was once Plaza de Velero. Looking north toward the Alamo.
Photo by author

We’ll now leave the Menger Hotel, and go back onto Alamo Plaza. The southern section of the plaza was originally called Plaza de Valero (See map #3). Plaza de Valero encompassed the open area that was in front of the Alamo’s main gate.

Surrounding the plaza were the jacales that made up the Pueblo de Velero (See map #4). During the 1836 siege, because of the closeness these huts were to the Alamo, a small group of defenders, including David Crockett, had tried to burn them down to remove cover for the Mexican soldiers.

After the ruined Low Barrack was removed in 1871, the Plaza de Velero and Alamo Plaza were joined, creating one large and open plaza.

We’re now going to walk south along Alamo Plaza Street, leaving the Alamo and Alamo Plaza behind.

The East Commerce Street Bridge

The East Commerce Street Bridge as it is today. Note the plaque in the lower left.
Photo by the author

When you get to the intersections of Losoya, Alamo and East Commerce Streets you’ll find the East Commerce Street Bridge (See map #5). In 1836, there was a small bridge at that location that joined Portreo Street, on the west side of the river, with Alameda Road on the east side. This small bridge was the only connector between the town of Bexar, and Pueblo de Velero, La Villita and the Alamo. This bridge had an important role in the early days of the Alamo’s 13 day siege. 

On the afternoon of February 23rd 1836, the first day of the siege, the defenders and their families used this bridge to flee Bexar to take refuge in the Alamo. However, this bridge was also the site of an even bigger encounter that day.

The historical plaque at the south east corner of the bridge.
Photo by author

Later that same afternoon Santa Anna ordered the blood-red banner of “no quarter” to be raised from the San Fernando church’s bell tower. Seeing this, Travis ordered a shot fired from the fort’s big 18-pound cannon.

Fearing that Travis may have been a little too hasty, James Bowie sent Green B. Jameson to meet with Mexican Colonel Juan Almonte on that bridge. The purpose was to see if Santa Anna would be willing to have a parley. Hearing what Bowie had done, Travis then sent his own representatives. Both groups were given the same answer from Colonel Almonte; surrender at Santa Anna’s discretion, or be put to the sword. Hearing this Travis answered with another cannon shot, and the battle of the Alamo had begun.

When you cross over to the south side of Commerce Street you’ll find a historical plaque (See map #6) that gives the full history of what took place there.

Site of the Alamo Defender’s Funeral Pyres

The low stone wall on the south side of East Commerce Street, east of Alamo Plaza Street. Note the 1918 marble plaque sticking out above the bushes on the left side of the photo.
Photo by author

As the sun finally rose over the smoking Alamo on March 6th, it revealed devastation and carnage that sickened those who witnessed it. Collectively, over 800 bodies of both defenders and attackers lay scattered around its walled compound; many still locked together in their final fighting embrace.

Now the question that faced the victors, what to do with all the dead? Santa Anna ordered that his soldiers be honored with a Christian burial. But he saw the defenders as pirates, deserving nothing more than to be burned like the dogs that they were. 

Author paying his respects near the site of the Alamo defenders pyres.

According to eyewitness Francisco Antonio Ruiz, Bexar’s Alcalda (Mayor), that at around 3 o’clock, the day after the Alamo fell, Santa Anna ordered his men, along with some towns’ people, to gather up the bodies of the defenders and cart them to the Alameda Road. There they stacked the bodies with layers of wood, constructing two pyres: one on the north side and the other on the south side of the road. At around 5 o’clock that afternoon the pyres were set ablaze. This became the fate of the Alamo’s martyr’s remains.

On March 6th 1918, historian, and preserver of the Alamo, Adina De Zavala placed two marble tablets at what was believed to be the sites of those pyres. Those tablets read as follows:

The 1918 Marble plaque.
Photo by author

ON THIS SPOT BODIES OF HEROES SLAIN AT THE ALAMO WERE BURNED ON A FUNERAL PYRE. FRAGMENTS OF THE BODIES WERE AFTERWARD BURIED HERE. THIS TABLET IS THE GIFT OF RELATIVES OF GREEM B JEMISON AND OF OTHER FRIENDS.

DE ZAVALA CHAPTER TEXAS LANDMARKS ASSN

Sadly, the original locations of these tablets have long been built over; In fact one of the tablets has been lost. However, the other tablet was saved, and in 1955 it was placed on a stone wall further west from what is believed to be its original location. There’s also a bronze plaque mounted next to this tablet that explains the move (See photo).

The bronze plaque by the marble one.
Photo by author

The actual location of those funeral pyres is another of the Alamo’s mysteries. In a future post I’ll dig deeper in to the facts, the myths and legends of what became of the remains of the Alamo’s fallen.

To see these markers we need to cross over South Alamo Street and walk east along the south side of East Commerce Street. When you’ve passed the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce you’ll see the low stone wall up ahead; and there at the opening that goes to the River Walk you’ll find the markers (See map #7).

To get to our next site, we need to go back the way we came, crossing to the west side of South Alamo Street and then turning left.

The Cos House

The historic Cos House in La Villita
Photo by author

Our next stop is the site of a major event that took place in the early days of the Texas Revolution.

Shortly after the “Come and Take It” Battle of Gonzales on October 2, 1835, Texas erupted into open revolution. On October 12th close to 600 Texan Revolutionaries surrounded the town of San Antonio de Bexar. There they had trapped Mexican General Martin Perfecto de Cos and his 1,200 men in the town and Alamo.

On December 5, the Texan’s launched a surprise attack on the town and Alamo. For five days the Texan rebels and Mexican soldiers fought a fierce house to house battle. Finally on December 9, General Cos called for terms of surrender, coming to an agreement on December 10th. The agreement was that Cos and his troops would be paroled back across the Rio Grande, and to never again raise arms against Texas. Cos and his men never made it back before they met Santa Anna and his army heading north. There they were turned around, and took part in the Battle of the Alamo.

The plaque outside of the Cos House.
Photo by author

In La Villita, there’s a building known as the Cos House. Local lore says that it was there that General Cos signed the terms of surrender on December 11th.

To find the Cos House from East Commerce Street, we need to walk south along South Alamo Street. When you get to La Villita Street turn right; the Cos House (See map #8) is just a short distance in. While in historic La Villita, be sure to visit its many artisan shops.

We’re now going to take a little longer walk to one of my biggest, and most rewarding, new surprises, thanks to author Dean Kirkpatrick and his book, The Alamo Story and Battleground Tour.

Finding the San Fernando Church

In his book Kirkpatrick revealed an important piece of Alamo history that I had believed lost.  If I had only looked a little harder I would have found it years ago. To see what Kirkpatrick had pointed out we need to go to the city’s Main Plaza and the San Fernando Cathedral. To get there from La Villita we’ll walk back to East Commerce Street and turn west across the bridge. The cathedral is only a short four blocks from there.

Just a few blocks from the river you’ll pass the Drury Plaza Hotel (See map #9), it’s here that we’ll make a quick stop. Although this building isn’t part of the Alamo’s history, it is part of San Antonio’s.

Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk

Originally constructed in 1929, as the Alamo National Bank Building, it was an impressive 24 stories. At that height it’s still one of the tallest buildings in the city. Trimmed in granite, marble, molded plaster, embellished terra cotta, decorative bronze, and stained glass; it was a major showplace for the city. In 2005, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Drury Hotel chain opened it as the Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk in 2007.

The Alamo Church in Stained Glass
The Alamo Church in stained glass over the main entrance to the Drury Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk
Photo by author

When you walk inside, the 50-foot ceilings of the main lobby, with its original chandeliers, will amaze you. But what I want you to do is walk to the center of the lobby, turn, and look above the main door. There you’ll see the most beautiful stain glass depiction of the Alamo Church; it will take your breath away.

Now back to our quest in finding the original San Fernando Church. Leaving the hotel we’ll continue west along East Commerce for just a couple of blocks more. Soon you’ll come to a big open area; this is the Main Plaza (See map #10).

The Main Plaza

This plaza was created by Spanish Captain Juan Antonio Pérez de Almazán, when he laid out the streets of San Fernando de Béxar (San Antonio’s original name) in July of 1731. He designed this plaza, which he named Plaza de les Yslas, as the center of the town, with its streets radiating out from it. This plaza also holds an important place in the Battle of the Alamo’s history. It was here on February 23, 1836, that Santa Anna made his grand entrance into the town on the first day of the siege.

On the west side of the plaza is the impressive twin-towered stone San Fernando Cathedral (See map #11). This is our destination.

The San Fernando Cathedral
The front of San Fernando Cathedral, designed by Francois Girand in 1868.
Photo by author

Construction on the San Fernando Church began in 1738. It was built to handle the religious needs of the ever expanding population of the town. The first mass in the church was held in 1750, years before the Mission San Antonio de Valero’s (the Alamo) church was even started.

The original church only had a single bell tower on its south side. In Alamo history, it was from that bell tower that Santa Anna’s troops were sighted approaching the town on February 23rd.  And it was also from this bell tower that Santa Anna flew his blood-red banner of “No Quarter.”

After the Battle of the Alamo, the church fell onto hard times, and by 1840 the building was in major disrepair due to its neglect. However, that same year the church’s new administration began an extensive program of repairing the building.

In 1868 the church began extensive renovation and expansion. Local architect Francois P. Giraud was contracted to redesign the structure. Giraud’s concept was a Gothic Revival: triple entrance doors, gable roof, buttresses, and twin bell towers. To accomplish this he removed most of the church’s original nave, and also its historic single bell tower. What you see today is Giraud’s renovations.

On my first visits to the San Fernando Cathedral, I had thought that all remanence of the church of 1836 had been lost forever. I had only entered the front doors of the cathedral to see the marble sarcophagus, believed to hold the ashes of Alamo defenders, in its side anteroom. Sadly, I had not gone into the cathedral itself, or even walk behind the building. By not doing this I missed a major historical aspect just sitting there.

Finding the Original San Fernando Church

Thanks to Dean Kirkpatrick’s book, I learned that Giraud hadn’t completely torn down all of the church’s original structure to build his cathedral. Giraud had retained the church’s original: chancel, apse, altar, and sacristy. Even the exterior was the same as it was when Santa Anna occupied the town during the battle.

Just walk around back to see what was saved of the old church from the 1700s.
Photo by author

To see what remains of the original church we need to simply walk around to the back. Just take the walkway on the north side of the cathedral to South Flores Street, and there it is. You can see where Giraud had married his additions to the original building (See map #12), which still stands much as it did in the 1700s, but most importantly, as it was in 1836.  Now, we’ll go back around to the front and go inside, where will discover even more.

The original back of the San Fernando Church seen today.
Photo by author
Old drawing of the back of San Fernando Church.
Art from Pinterest

Inside, while standing at the back of the nave, you’re seeing what the Alamo heroes saw when they stood there, for the altar area has been preserved. In the center of the aisle, near the front pews, you’ll find a plaque in the floor. This marks the location of the front of the old church. When you pass this marker you are now standing in what was the original church. It’s here, in front of the altar, where James Bowie had married Ursula de Veramendi in 1831.

The saved alter area of the old church.
Photo by author

The cathedral offers tours of the building you can take. However, if there isn’t a mass being held, or another function, you’re more than welcome to walk around, and take in this historical masterpiece.

We have one last stop to visit with this post, the San Fernando Parish’s first Compo Santo.

Also before you leave, don’t forget to go into the small room at the back, on the right. It’s there where you’ll find the marble sarcophagus I spoke of earlier. I’ll be exploring more about this sarcophagus in my future post on what happened to the Alamo’s defenders remains.

Marker indicating were the front of the original church was.
Photo by author

To get to the site of the old Compo Santo, we’ll continue west on East Commerce Street. But before we head up Commerce, I want to point out another lost Alamo historic site.

The marble sarcophagus said to hold the ashes of Alamo heroes.
Photo by author
General Santa Anna’s Headquarters

When you get to the north side of the Main Plaza, look across the street. It was there, on the north east corner of Commerce and North Main Avenue, where the old Yturri house (See map #13) had stood. This long gone building was the headquarters of General Santa Anna during the Alamo battle. This site is not to be confused with the other historic Yturri-Endmunds House.

San Fernando Church’s Old Compo Santo
Milam Park, part of what was once the San Fernando Compo Santo.
Photo from the City of San Antonio Website

Continuing west on East Commerce Street we’ll soon see a large city park in front of us; this is Milam Park, and our last stop.

Author standing by the Ben Milam Statue and grave in Milam Park.

In my 2014 post I told how Milam Park, named after the Battle of Bexar hero Ben Milam, was the location of San Fernando Church’s first cemetery. At the far western side of the park is a statue of Ben Milam (See map #14), who’s buried under it.

On the eastern side of the park there’s a small monument (See map #15). This monument lists the names of those who were buried there when it was a cemetery. However, this list of names is very short, considering the numbers that were originally buried there.

Memorial to those buried in the old
Compo Santo at the eastern end of Milam Park. It lists just a few of what was hundreds laid to rest there.
Photo from Find-A-Grave

The cemetery had been actively in use from 1808, until 1860. However, the fast growing city had boxed in this graveyard, leaving little room for new graves. After 1860 the parish opened its new San Fernando Cemetery No. 1. Although all church burials were now taking place at the church’s new cemetery, relatives continued to visit the graves of their families in this old one. Then something unusual happened in the 1920s.

In a single 24-hour period, the graves at the old Compo Santo were hurriedly exhumed and reburied at Cemetery No. 1.  Because it was so sudden, this exhumation and transfer had caused many of those remains to be reburied in unmarked graves. In 2016 it was discovered that not all the remains had been moved. Workers digging in the garden of Children’s Hospital had uncovered human bones; there’s no doubt they were graves that had been missed during the relocation.

The old Compo Santo also extended onto the property now occupied by the Santa Rosa Medical Center and Children’s Hospital.
Photo by author

This discovery has enlightened me to the fact that the old San Fernando Church’s Compo Santo was much larger than just Milam Park. In fact it also encompassed the grounds now occupied by the Santa Rosa Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of San Antonio (See map #16).

The old Compo Santo has a deep connection in the Battle of the Alamo’s history. It was at this Compo Santo where some of Santa Anna’s Soldiers had been buried, most likely in a mass grave. But also, it’s where the only Alamo defender not burned on the pyres was given a Christian burial.

Famous drawing of Esparza defending the Alamo.
Photo from the Esparza Elementary School website

Alamo defender Jose Gregorio Esparza had been a gunner killed in the Alamo church during the battle. His brother, Francisco Esparza, was a soldier in Santa Anna’s army. Francisco pleated with Santa Anna for his body. Santa Anna honored his request, making him the only defender not to be burned on the pyres.

Again, sadly, there are no records, yet found, that gives the original location in the old cemetery where the Mexican soldiers were buried. As for Jose Gregorio Esparza, it’s known that his family did visit his grave for years after. But what became of those remains during the move is unknown; it’s just another Alamo mystery.

The story of the old Compo Santo isn’t over yet, as proven by that discovery in the garden of Children’s Hospital. There still may be more graves to be discovered on the hospital’s grounds, or in Milam Park. 

This ends my tour of the Alamo and beyond; but there are still other sites around San Antonio to see: the Veramendi Palace, the Old Mill Ford, and the Yturri-Endmunds House historic site, just to mention a few.

If you missed the first post in this series be sure to read it: My Updated, and Expanded, Walking Tour of the Alamo, Part 1: Beyond the Alamo

Also, be sure to watch for my future post on what became of the fallen Alamo hero’s remains.

Sources used:

Huffines, Alan C. Blood of Noble Men, The Alamo, Siege & Battle. First Edition, Eakin Press, 1999.

Kirkpatrick, Dean. The Alamo Story and Battleground Tour. First Edition, NDK Publications, 2013.

Ayala, Elaine. “Experts looking for remain from old cemetery in San Antonio.” Albuquerqueljournal, Albuquerque Journal/ San Antonio Express-News , 22 May 2017, http://www.abqjournal.com/1007131/experts-looking-for-remains-from-old-in-cemetery-in-san-antonio.html

“Carrie Nation.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 26 Nov. 2019, en.m.wkipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_Nation

City of San Antonio. “Miam Park History.” City of San Antonio, Center City Development & Operations Department , http://www.sanantonio.gov/CCDO/parksplazas/milampark/milamparkhistory

Gobetz, Wally. “San Antonio-La Villita: Cos House.” Flicker, Flicker, http://www.flicker.com/photo/wallyg/42010385505

“History of Drury Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk.” Drury Hotels , Drury Hotels, druryhotels.com

“History of San Antonio.” History of San Antonio, Wikipedia, Sept. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_San_Antonio

La Villita. “La Villita History.” La Villita; Shops-Art-Dinning, City of San Antonio, lavillitasanantonio.com

“Menger Hotel.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Sept. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menger_Hotel

“Our History.” The Historic Menger Hotel, The Menger Hotel, mengerhotel.com

Reveley, Sarah. “Hallowed Ground: Site of Alamo Funeral Pyres Largely Lost to History.” Rivard Report, Rivard Report, 8 Jan. 2017, therivardreport.com/hallowed-ground-site-of-alamo-funeral-lost-to-history/

“Rough Riders.” Wikipedia , Wikipedia, 22 Nov. 2019, en.m,wikipedia.org/wiki/Rough_Riders

San Fernando Cathedral . “Our History.” San Fernando Cathedral, The Heart of San Antonio, San Fernando Catheral, sfcatheral.org

Scott, J.M. “Theodore Roosevelt arrives in San Antonio to lead the “Rough Riders” on this day in 1898.” MySA, San Antonio Express-News, 16 May 2016, http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local/history-culture/article/Theodore-Roosevelt

“Siege of Bexar .” Siege of Bexar, Wikipedia, 19 Nov. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_B%C3%A9xar

“Spanish-American War.” Spanish-American War, Wikipedia, 27 Nov. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish%E2%80%93American_war

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