Messenger of the Alamo

Nothing tells the Texas story—the struggle for survival, the choices that bring personal tragedy, and the triumph of success—better than the life of Susanna Dickinson.  She was only fifteen in 1829 when she eloped in Hardeman County, Tennessee, with the dashing U.S. Army

Susanna Dickinson
Courtesy Austin Chronicle

artillerist, Almeron Dickinson, a man almost twice her age. Two years later, they joined fifty-four other settlers on a schooner out of New Orleans that was headed for Texas. They received a league of land (4,428 acres) in DeWitt’s Colony near present Lockhart. In the next three years, Almeron acquired ten more lots in and around Gonzales. Life appeared harmonious in those early years. Susanna may have taken in a boarder; Almeron plied his trade as a blacksmith and went into partnership in a hat factory; he joined a band of local settlers in hunting down marauding Indians; and their only child, Angelina Elizabeth, was born in December 1834.

A year later, as turmoil swept across Texas, Gonzales residents in the “Come and Take It” episode, refused the demands of Mexican soldiers to give up their cannon. Within days, Almeron offered his experience with cannons as volunteers marched to capture the Mexican seat of government in San Antonio de Bexar. In early December, Texans drove the Mexican forces from San Antonio, occupied the city, and set up a fortress in the Alamo, a crumbling former mission.

Susanna remained in Gonzales with year-old Angelina until a newly formed troop of Texans looted her house. She fled to San Antonio to join Almeron in late December.  When the Mexican Army under General António López de Santa Anna arrived on February 23, 1836, legend says that Almeron swept Susanna and Angelina onto the back of his horse and raced with them to the protection of the Alamo fortress.

In her account of the final battle on March 6, Susanna said that Almeron, who commanded the artillery batteries, hid her and Angelina with the other women and children in the anteroom of the chapel. As resistance failed, Almeron rushed back to his wife saying “Great God, Sue! The Mexicans are inside our walls! All is lost! If they spare you, love our child.”

When Mexican soldiers discovered Susanna and the other women and children, Col. Juan Almonte led them and the slaves to safety at the nearby home of Ramón Músquiz. The following day, Susanna and the other women and children were taken before General Santa Anna who gave each of them a blanket and two dollars in silver.  He offered to take Angelina to Mexico City to be educated. When she refused to release the child, Santa Anna gave Susanna a letter that she was to deliver to General Sam Houston demanding his immediate surrender. To ensure her safe passage, Santa Anna sent a servant of one of his officers to accompany her. Joe, William Travis’ slave who had also been released, joined them as they made their way to Gonzales.

Susanna and Joe shared the news of the fall of the Alamo and tried to answer the pleading questions of the families whose men had taken part in the battle. In anticipation of the approaching Mexican Army, General Houston ordered the families to evacuate immediately and head toward safety in Louisiana. Susanna and Angelina joined the long struggle marching eastward in the rain, mud, and extreme cold in what became known as the “Runaway Scrape.”

Susanna was illiterate and did not leave written records, but she continued throughout her life to share her experiences. She claimed to have seen the bodies of Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. From the house to which she was taken after the fall of the Alamo, she could see the pyres of the dead being burned. For a period after the battle, all she could recall was that she wept for days.

With no means of support and no family, Susanna petitioned the congress of the new republic for financial assistance. The authorities denied her claim, along with those of the other survivors. Before the end of 1837, she married John Williams. In less than a year his physical abuse prompted her to petition for and receive a divorce—the first granted in what became Harris County.

Near the time of her divorce, the Republic of Texas awarded a land bounty of 640 acres to survivors of the battle for Texas Independence, which allowed Susanna to support herself as a laundress and boarding house keeper. In later years, she and Angelina were awarded another 1,920 acres as descendants of a member of the Texas Republican Army.

In December 1838, she married Francis P. Herring, whom relatives claim died in 1843 from too much drink. Some accounts claim that Pamela Mann who ran Houston’s gaudy Mansion House, which was known as a wild and rowdy place, invited Susanna to live in her hotel, perhaps even working as a prostitute. Others insist that Susanna had proven housekeeping and cooking skills and would not have needed to resort to prostitution for her survival.

She may have even operated her own boarding house before marrying husband number four, Peter Bellows, in 1847. When Bellows divorced Susanna, he charged her with abandonment and prostitution, apparently referring to her residency in the Mansion House before their marriage. Susanna did not appear in court to challenge the claim because she had already moved to Lockhart where she opened a very successful boarding house.

Before leaving Houston, she had been baptized in Buffalo Bayou by a Baptist minister, Rufus C. Burleson, who praised her for nursing victims of a Houston cholera epidemic. Years later Rev. Burleson wrote in his memoirs, “she was nominally a member of the Episcopal Church…I found her a great bundle of untamed passions, devoted in her love and bitter in her hate…she was joyfully converted. In less than two months her change was so complete as to be observed by all her neighbors…she was a zealous co-laborer of mine in every good work…whenever she did wrong especially in giving way to passion, she would confess and weep over it.”

After moving to Lockhart, she met her fifth and final husband, Joseph W. Hannig, a German immigrant, blacksmith, and skilled furniture maker. Susanna sold her land in the old DeWitt Colony and used the proceeds to establish Hannig in various businesses in Austin. He operated a fine furniture-making business, an undertaking parlor, and a mill before expanding into a second business in San Antonio.

Susanna Dickinson Museum on January 8, 2017
Courtesy Texas A&M University

Hannig built a home in 1869 for Susanna on Pine Street (present 5th Street) that is open as a museum today. After several years, Hannig expanded his business interests into real estate and served as a city alderman. The family moved into a mansion in Hyde Park an area on the outskirts of Austin, and Susanna was able to employ several German servant girls with whom she became friends. Hannig’s businesses allowed Susanna to be accepted into Austin’s social circles where she was constantly called upon to recount her Alamo experience. Angelina died in 1869, and Susanna raised her four grandchildren, seeing that they were educated in Catholic schools and convents.

By the time of her death in 1883, Susanna Dickinson Hannig had become a wealthy and respected member of the Austin community.