Think of the Alamo, and most imagine the iconic limestone chapel with its unique bell-shaped parapet at the center of San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza, the site of the famed 13-day siege in the Texas Revolution.
But the Alamo’s 300-year history as a mission, village, fortress and shrine includes a range of buildings — including temporary huts, adobe structures and stone edifices — built in three different areas of the city, historians say.
“We will hear people in the plaza, and they will be saying, ‘Do you want to go to the Alamo?’ and to them, it’s the church,” said Bruce Winders, the director of education and curation for Alamo Trust Inc. “It’s correct, and it’s not correct, because it’s correct in that (the chapel) becomes the face of the Alamo, but the Alamo is actually the compound.”
Indeed, the Alamo’s history is complex, and what is seen today does not tell the whole story. It begins in May 1718, when Father Antonio de Olivares founded Mission San Antonio de Valero on the west side of San Pedro Creek with the goal of converting local Native American populations to the Catholic faith and into Spanish citizens, as part of an overall strategy to counter French westward expansion, historians said.
The first structures at Mission Valero were jacales, or temporary huts, made of vertical cedar logs and palm-frond thatched roofs, Winders said.
After one year, however, the mission was relocated to the east side of the San Antonio River near the intersection of today’s East Commerce and Alamo streets, mostly likely because the lay of the land was better for crop irrigation, according to George Nelson in his book “The Alamo: An Illustrated History.”
“The new mission began to literally take root with the digging of an irrigation ditch … to water the new fields of watermelon, pumpkin, chili peppers, melons, grapevines, figs, corn and beans,” Nelson wrote.
Winders said being on this side of the river probably also provided protection by the soldiers from the nearby presidio, which also was built in 1718 near San Pedro Springs.
“It could be that they were trying to get a little distance and a barrier between the fort and the mission population,” Winders said. “It’s kind of like you want them there so they can protect you, but … (the) idea is, you know, we need a little space.”
At this second site, Nelson noted a mix of structures, including “a stone two-story tower used for a chapel with priest quarters upstairs and a cluster of thatched jacal temporary buildings.”
In 1724, a strong weather event described as a “hurricane” caused the mission to be destroyed, and its inhabitants moved to the Alamo Plaza site, which is “really the birth of what becomes the Alamo,” Winders said.
There, one could see a range of structures going up at different times, including jacales, adobe buildings and limestone structures, and not necessarily in sequence.
“It’s a continuum,” Winders said. “The adobes go away, and the stone comes, and you would have seen a sort of constant changing and updating of the compound.”
Winders said at the present-day site, the oldest structure still standing is probably where the modern-day Long Barracks Museum is.
“The oldest building on the site is the convento, which today is called the Long Barrack, and construction on that area probably began around 1724 or shortly thereafter.”
However, the cornerstone for the iconic stone church was not laid until 1744, and the structure was likely destroyed that same year due to poor construction, according to Nelson’s book.
Winders said then there was a lull in construction and it was not resumed until the mid-1750s.
By 1821, Mexico gained its freedom from Spain. Then, in early 1836 during the war for Texas independence, Texian forces holed up in the mission made their ill-fated stand against a numerically superior Mexican army. In spite of their loss, they helped buy enough time for the Army of Texas to ultimately defeat Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and forge a new nation. In 1845, Texas joined the United States.
In the meantime, the church structure remained unfinished until 1850, when the U.S. Army repaired the structure, installed a roof, and gave the chapel its famous bell-shaped facade.
Afterward, the compound formerly known as Mission Valero (and after 1803, referred to as “The Alamo” when a Spanish cavalry company hailing from a town in Coahuila, Mexico, named San Jose y Santiago del Alamo took up residence there) continued to change and be used for a variety of purposes, Winders said.
“The term ‘adaptive reuse’ describes the evolution of the Alamo,” Winders said. “New uses are found for old buildings, thereby extending their lives. That is why the mission was converted into a military compound, a fortified village, U.S. quartermaster depot, mercantile establishment and, finally, shrine or memorial. The site could serve all of those purposes and did.”