This is the season for Texas history, the high holy days marking the Battle of the Alamo, the Runaway Scrape, the Battle of San Jacinto, preparing for hurricanes, the Astros’ spring training. So for all you newcomers – Texas has more than any other state – we shall briefly tell a story or a mystery. (One thing about Texas history is that it’s fun, with creeps and heroes and rarely a dull moment.) The mystery: Did Travis really draw a line in the sand? And who cares? The standard version of the believers goes like this: As hope for help dwindled, the commander of the Alamo, a 26-year-old lawyer named William Barret Travis, called all his men together and gave a short speech. As it comes down to us, it’s one of the most poignant, courageous addresses ever given.
In his speech, Lt. Col. Travis pointed out that help had been promised, but had never come, would never come. If they stayed, they would all die. But they had a chance to save themselves. They could try to escape and if they did so, he would still be proud of them for what they had done to delay Santa Anna. “My own choice is to stay in this fort, and die for my country. Fight as long as breath shall remain in my body. This I will do, even if you leave me alone.” Colonel Travis then drew his sword and with its point, traced a line upon the ground extending from the right to the left of the file. Then, resuming his position in front of the center he said, “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line. Who will be first?” It was Tapley Holland, of Grimes County. Others followed, including the ill Jim Bowie who asked his companions to lift his cot across the line. Only one man stayed. It was Moses Rose, who escaped that night.
A nice story. If it happened. You see, no one knew anything about it for 37 years. Then, in the 1873 Texas Almanac there appeared an article by one William Zuber, “An Escape from the Alamo.” (The above quotes and descriptions are from that article.) In it, Zuber recalled that when he had returned to the family farm after the San Jacinto campaign, his parents told him that an old friend, Moses Rose, had shown up at the Zuber farm a few days after escaping from the Alamo. Rose was in bad shape. As he was nursed back to health, he told about the last days of the battle, and related Travis’s final speech, complete with the line-in-the-sand part. Young Zuber asked his mother for all the details (he had kept a diary since he was 15), and questioned her again and again about Rose’s story.
Zuber’s story in 1873 was immediately attacked. Historians wanted to know why he had taken so long to tell the tale. What proof was there? Mrs. Almaron Dickinson, who had survived the battle, had never mentioned it. Zuber said Travis made his speech on March 2, the same time all his other dispatches were upbeat — victory was near. And who is this Rose fellow? Back and forth over the years the argument went. Zuber felt compelled to defend his story, but always admitted that he had basically reconstructed Travis’s speech from his mother’s recollections.
School books had a problem with this, but some questions eventually got answered. Zuber said he had not written about Travis’s speech earlier because he had not heard it directly from Rose. Rose had told Zuber’s parents, who then told him. “Prior to 1871,” he wrote, “I did not believe that the substance of Colonel Travis’s last speech could be rescued from oblivion.” That doesn’t really answer the question, but Zuber stuck to his story. Later — in 1903 – he flatly stated in another article, “Travis drew a line. Tapley Holland was the first man to cross it.” As for Rose, he remained a mystery until 1939 when an amateur researcher named R.B. Blake found aging records in the Nacogdoches County Courthouse. They confirmed that Rose was the one man who fled the Alamo. Then new evidence. It turns out that Mrs. Dickinson had, indeed, testified that Travis had made such a speech and that only one man, whom she remembered as “Ross,” had left. Mrs. Dickinson testified that Travis had addressed his troops, not on March 2 as Rose had remembered, but on March 5, when the situation was, indeed, much bleaker. That might explain the change in mood.
As the years rolled on, the debate continued. In 1930 Ruby Mixon wrote a lengthy biography of Travis and determined that his last 72 hours were impossible to sort out. J. Frank Dobie took on the question. On March 31, 1940, he wrote: “The old story, the cherished story, the heroic story of the line that Travis drew seems to me vindicated sufficiently for credence. The mere absence of documentary proof never repudiated it anyhow.” Today, one can only wonder who is right. Maybe eventually an old chest in a dusty attic will reveal more of the truth.
But notice how that phrase has been used. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush described the initiation of the Gulf War as drawing “a line in the sand.” President Barack Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad would cross a “red line for us.” A metal band, Dream Theater, released a song, “Lines in the Sand.” And this: “The Republican Party of Texas is calling on YOU to help us draw A LINE IN THE SAND this Special Session!” The phrase has become part of our heritage. You newcomers to Texas may think the line-in-the-sand tale doesn’t really matter. Well, Pilgrim, maybe not, but if it didn’t happen, it should have.
Ashby’s line is at email@example.com