SAN ANTONIO -- Victory or Death! Lt. Colonel William Barrett Travis' famous letter returns to the Alamo this week for the first time since the 13-day siege.
The letter is a Texas treasure and regarded as a masterpiece for American patriotism.
"The words he selected. Victory or Death! Never surrender or retreat! They are so powerful," said Texas history teacher Diana Lira. "They show the passion that this man has for his mission."
The Terrell Wells Middle School teacher is encouraging her students to see the letter while they can. It's on loan from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission for just 13 days, from February 23 to March 7.
"It's amazing security you have to go through to bring out a document. So, it doesn't travel a lot," explained Larry Laine, who is with the Texas General Land Office, which oversees the Alamo and spear-headed the effort to bring the delicate artifact to San Antonio.
The letter is held in a secured area of the Texas State Library in Austin. Only two people know the exact location, and the security for the journey to San Antonio is Texas-sized.
The letter, which never leaves a mylar sleeve, will be mounted between sheets of high-quality Plexiglas. Then, it will be crated and loaded onto a fine arts shipping van escorted by state troopers. The escort includes two motorcycle units, two marked DPS units with two officers each, a four-person tactical unit and a Travis. Yes! The Alamo defender's great, great, great, great, great nephew, Denton County Sheriff William B. Travis, will accompany the state troopers and read the letter once it arrives at the Alamo.
The letter has only left Austin twice since 1936, and this trip will test whether it can ever travel again.
The Letter's Enemies
"Once ink fades, we can try and manage that responsibly as we go forward, but we can't ever go back, " said Sarah Norris, a conservator with the Texas State Library.
She says light causes irreversible damage, and the letter is already fighting 177 years of time. The black ink has faded to brown and is starting to burn through the double-sided letter.
The paper presents another challenge. It contains the organic compound cellulose, which is very sensitive to temperature and humidity.
"Over time, it will start to get brittle and brown, and it will start to tear and break," said Norris. "So that's why we are so careful about our exhibition guidelines."
Alamo management has been calibrating the light, temperature, and humidity inside the shrine for months in preparation for the display. Conservators will take measurements of the letter before it leaves Austin and look for any fading once the letter returns on March 8.
Why So Special?
For Texas transplants, or those who dozed off in 7th-grade Texas History, you might be wondering why this letter is such a big deal.
For some context, Mrs. Lira takes us back to February 24, 1836, the day Travis wrote the "Victory or Death" letter.
"We know that on that second day that Travis was facing an enormous enemy," said Lira.
She tells her class that the Texians, as they called themselves, had fewer than 200 men at the Alamo. Travis expected Mexican General Santa Anna's forces to grow by several thousand.
"There's no way that you can stand up against that many, but you've got to admire the courage that it took," Lira said.
Travis wrote several letters asking for reinforcements, but this one was the most dramatic, addressing it to "The people of Texas and all Americans in the world."
"Travis was so bold. A 27-year-old man, seeing the number of people out there, looking at him and having the nerve, the courage to say, 'I shall never surrender or retreat,'" Lira lectures to her students.
Travis wrote "Victory or Death" and underlined it twice to reinforce that he was willing to die for his beliefs. Despite the letters, he never got enough reinforcements, and all of the Alamo defenders died 11 days after he sent the famous letter. The loss united Texians, and Travis' letter was copied and distributed across the land.
"That's the reason Sam Houston is going to be so successful. He has the support, but support came at the failure of the Alamo," said Lira.
The Alamo siege bought them crucial time, and weeks later, Texas won independence at the battle of San Jacinto near Houston.
"Remember the Alamo" and "Victory or Death" were the battle cries that rallied troops to victory.
The Travis Benjamins
While the letter's worth is based off history, the dollar value is an estimated $1.2 million. That's a far cry from the purchase price.
In 1893, Travis' grandson, John Davidson, was having financial difficulty. He offered to sell the letter to the state of Texas for a little over $200.
The state archivists says that would have drained the state's funding, so Davidson settled for $85.
Today, it's the Texas State Library and Archives Commission that's experiencing financial difficulty. The commission's state funding was cut by 64% in the last legislative session and the library programs were cut by 88%.
State lawmakers are back in session and proposing even more cuts.
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Special thanks to producer Ashley Fancher and photographer Stephen Clappere for all their hard work on this story.