AUSTIN, Texas — When Lt. Col. William Barret Travis penned his famous “Victory or Death" letter to call for support as the Alamo was surrounded, additional troops couldn’t arrive before the defenders fell to Mexican soldiers.
But 177 years later, his letter is being returned to the place of its sender, with reinforcements that Travis could never have dreamed of.
The letter is set to travel to the Alamo on Feb. 22, accompanied by state troopers as well as San Antonio police officers, once the letter enters their jurisdiction. It will be protected on its journey by unspecified “air support," according to Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who helped arrange the high-profile loan to the Alamo from the state archives.
But state archivists are worried. They opposed the Alamo exhibit plan, saying that dangers to the fragile, historically important document lurk everywhere.
The document is considered a “Texas Treasure" by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, a designation given to only a few other documents: original copies of the Texas Declaration of Independence, the state constitution and some treaties.
Lt. Col. Travis wrote the letter at the Alamo during the Texas Revolution on Feb. 24, 1836, as his final public plea for reinforcements and to declare that he wouldn’t surrender, instead accepting only “Victory or Death."
Archivists handle the document with care, keeping it in its Mylar sleeve to provide protection and stability.
The Alamo wasn’t designed to house archival material, and the historic building presents unique challenges for archivists trying to control the elements inside. Archivists left a visit to the Alamo last week with concerns about the light (too much) and air conditioning (not enough) in the exhibit hall. They plan to return for a final walk-through before the document arrives.
“There are just too many variables that no human has control over once the document leaves the safety of the archives building," said John Anderson, a preservation officer at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, where the document is housed.
The library’s governing board approved the exhibit in October, and Anderson emphasized that the land office and the library have gone to great lengths to protect the document. Anderson said he was confident that the risks have been mitigated.
Still, the logistics of the exhibit have proven difficult, as caretakers seek to balance the desire to exhibit the letter with the need to preserve it.
While Patterson has been the face of the project, it was his communications director, Mark Loeffler, who originally approached the commissioner in 2012 with the idea of exhibiting the letter. The agency took possession of the Alamo in 2011. And despite the challenges presented by what he called “unexplored territory," Loeffler stressed the office’s commitment to protecting the letter.
“(The letter) was specific to the memory and the message of the Alamo, which was courage, sacrifice and the foundations of Texas," Loeffler said. “I couldn’t think of anything that would be a better marriage, so to speak, than to bring the Travis letter back to the Alamo."
The document will be exhibited in an elaborate enclosure built to block out ultraviolet rays and reflect damaging light away from it. The letter must be kept at a certain temperature and humidity and exhibited in an immovable case. Two archivists will monitor the letter during the 13-day exhibit, checking hourly readings to ensure its safety.
That’s not all.
The Alamo Rangers, the security force at the Alamo, will provide 24-hour security for the document. Guests will face security wands and bag checks, increased security for duration of the letter’s 13-day stay.
The land office privately raised about $100,000 from donors to ensure that taxpayer money wouldn’t be used for any of the costs associated with the exhibit.
The document has taken road trips before, traveling to Dallas in 1986 for the 150th anniversary of Texas’ independence and was displayed in a museum. Anderson said analysis of the letter showed it was damaged during display in the early 20th century in a glass case in the Capitol.
“This is a document of power, and it being a document of power also makes it precious and makes people worry about it," said Patricia Galloway, an archival enterprise professor at the University of Texas. “But it also makes it something that people want to be in the presence of."