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.

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Did She Survive the Alamo?

Madam Candelaria Raba Collection, San Antonio Conservation Society

Madam Candelaria
Raba Collection, San Antonio Conservation Society

She lived well past 100—some say 105, others say 113. She claimed to have entered the Alamo to nurse the ailing James Bowie whose family accounts say he was suffering the fevers of typhoid. She even wore a scar on her chin that she said came from a Mexican bayonet as she threw herself across Bowie, pleading that a sick man not be killed. Despite the lack of records to prove her account, most historians believe that Andrea Castañón Villanueva (Madam Candelaria) was actually there during the battle.

She grew up in Laredo and arrived in San Antonio about 1810 where she married Candelario Villanueva. Over the years she was known to have raised four of her own children and more than twenty orphans. She nursed the sick, which added merit to her story of nursing Bowie, and she gave to the poor.

In an account titled “Alamo Massacre” in the San Antonio Light, February 19, 1899, Madam Candelaria said that she and her husband were innkeepers in San Antonio. She said that when David Crockett reached town, residents welcomed him with a big street celebration and then came to her inn for supper, singing, story-telling, and drinking. Madam Candelaria’s descendants claim there is evidence that fandangos, known for good music and dancing, were held at the inn and that Madam Candelaria cooked for the occasions.

Over the years, Madam Candelaria shared her account with all who came to hear, saying that although the men all knew that they were doomed, they clung to hope that General Sam Houston would send reinforcement. She described sand bags piled against the great front door and the constant thunder of cannons during the thirteen-day siege. She said that on the morning of March 6 they heard the degüello (the bugle call signifying no quarter) and they knew what lay in store for them. William Travis was the first to die where he stood along the southeast side of the wall near the present location of the Menger Hotel. Crockett, who had come frequently to the bed of the ailing Bowie to keep him informed, loaded Bowie’s rifle and laid a pair of pistols by his side. Madam Candelaria heard Crockett say, “Boys, aim well,” just before the earth shook with the fierce yelling and the storm of bullets raining down. Crockett fell while trying to reload. Bowie emptied his pistols into the group of Mexicans who stormed into his room, and despite Madam Candelaria’s pleas for his life, he “was butchered” before her eyes.

When the massacre ended and she stepped on the floor of the Alamo, blood ran into her shoes.

In 1891, fifty-five years after the fall of the Alamo and eight years before Madam Candelaria died, the Texas legislature granted her a pension of twelve dollars a month for being a survivor of the Alamo and for her work with smallpox victims in San Antonio.

The Question of Santa Anna’s Leg

Display at Illinois State Military Museum, photo Sangamon County Historical Society

Display at Illinois State Military Museum, photo Sangamon County Historical Society

I usually try to tell the tale and let readers make up their own minds about the merits of the case. This time, I am admitting up front that I am siding with the state of Illinois against my own birthplace of Texas. Here’s the conundrum: The Illinois State Military Museum owns and proudly displays Santa Anna’s artificial leg and the San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum wants it.

The story goes like this: In 1836, after General Santa Anna won the Battle of the Alamo and had the survivors slaughtered and then ordered the massacre of about 300 Texans at Goliad, he marched in glory toward San Jacinto where he expected to defeat those “land thieves,” once and for all. His hubris, his view of himself as the Napoleon of the West, caused him to leave the bulk of his army behind and rush to San Jacinto. He lost the battle at San Jacinto in eighteen minutes, which gave Texas its independence from Mexico. Actually, he didn’t lose; he ran off and was not discovered until the next day cowering among some marsh, dressed as a common soldier.

When the Mexican government heard of the fiasco, the officials promptly kicked him out of office as president of Mexico and commander of the Mexican Army. Consequently, Mexico claimed that Santa Anna did not have the authority to sign the peace treaty that declared Texas independence.

Santa Anna was not done. After a time of exile in the United States, he made his way back to his hacienda in Veracruz. In December 1838, the Mexican government had refused to compensate French citizens for their financial losses in Mexico, and the French Army landed in Veracruz demanding payment. Mexican officials called on none other than the disgraced Santa Anna to defeat the French, using any means necessary. The assault failed, and as the Mexican Army was retreating, cannon fire hit Santa Anna in the leg, shattering his ankle. His leg had to be amputated, and that was the vehicle Santa Anna rode on his return to Mexican politics. Despite Mexico having to meet the French demands, Santa Anna turned defeat in victory by having his amputated leg buried with full military honors. He never again allowed his countrymen to forget his great sacrifice.

Santa Anna turned to the only man in the United States that made artificial legs. Charles Bartlett, a former cabinetmaker from New York City, crafted for $1,300, a prosthetic leg of cork covered in leather.

Santa Anna's $1,300 cork leg with leather cover.

Santa Anna’s $1,300 cork leg with leather cover.

While serving as acting president of Mexico in 1841, he helped overthrow the government. After four years under his dictatorship, during which he sent military expeditions into the Republic of Texas, his autocratic rule caused so much resistance that he was forced into exile in Cuba. Santa Anna was not done. At the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Santa Anna made a deal with President James Polk to enter Mexico through the U.S. naval blockade in exchange for negotiating a reasonable price for the sale to the U.S of the disputed land. While dealing with President Polk, Santa Anna arranged with Mexico’s president to lead an army against the northern invaders (that is the United States). Both presidents agreed to Santa Anna’s deals, and as soon as he reached Mexico he declared himself president and began leading the Mexican Army in its unsuccessful fight against the United States.

On April 18, 1847, in the midst of the Mexican-American War, Santa Anna was sitting in his carriage enjoying a chicken lunch a safe distance from the fighting, when Company G, 4th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers surprised him. The General got away, but he left behind his cork leg and $18,000 in gold. The story is that the men finished off the chicken, turned the gold over to their commander, and took the leg with them back to Illinois at the end of the war. For years they charged the curious, ten cents a viewing of the leg. In 1922, it was donated to the state.

Today, Santa Anna’s leg is the central attraction in the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield. The challenge came in April 2014 when the San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum launched a petition on the White House website seeking 100,000 signatures to get the leg moved to Texas. There were not enough takers to qualify for the White House to look into the cause, however, it is hard to imagine that a president from Illinois would step into a move to take a prize from his state and send it to Texas.

If I had been asked to vote, and I was not, I would say Santa Anna’s artificial leg belongs to Illinois. While Santa Anna was a bitter enemy of Texas and continues to be held in low esteem, he had both his good legs while he was in Texas. Those Illinois volunteers found that leg eleven years after Santa Anna foolishly led his men to defeat at San Jacinto.

Alamo Survivor?

Andrea Castanon Villanueva (Madam Candelaria)

Andrea Castanon Villanueva (Madam Candelaria)

She lived well past 100—some say 105, others say 113. She claimed to have entered the Alamo to nurse the ailing James Bowie whose family accounts say he was suffering the fevers of typhoid. She even wore a scar on her chin acquired from the thrust of a Mexican bayonet as she threw herself across Bowie, pleading that a sick man should not be killed. Despite a lack of records to prove her account, most historians believe that Andrea Castañón Villanueva (Madam Candelaria) was actually there during the battle.

She grew up in Laredo, and arrived in San Antonio about 1810 where she married Candelario Villanueva. Over the years she was known to have raised four of her own children and twenty-orphans. She nursed the sick, which added merit to her story of nursing Bowie, and she gave to the poor.

In an account titled “Alamo Massacre” in the San Antonio Light, February 19, 1899, Madam Candelaria said that she and her husband were innkeepers in San Antonio where residents came after a big street celebration welcoming David Crockett to continue with a supper, singing, story-telling and drinking. Madam Candelaria’s descendants claim there is evidence that fandangos, known for good music and dancing, were held at the inn and that Madam Candelaria cooked for the occasions.

Over the years after the fall of the Alamo, Madam Candelaria shared her account with all who came to hear, saying that although they all knew that they were doomed, they continued to hold the bare hope that General Sam Houston would send reinforcement. She described sand bags piled against the great front door and the constant thunder of the cannons during the thirteen-day siege. She said the morning of March 6 they heard the degüello (the bugle call signifying no quarter) and they knew what was in store for them. William Travis was the first to die where he stood along the southeast wall near the present location of the Menger Hotel.

Crockett had come frequently to the bed of the ailing Bowie to keep him informed, and finally he loaded Bowie’s rifle and laid a pair of pistols by his side. Madam Candelaria heard Crockett say, “Boys, aim well,” just before the earth shook with the fierce yelling and the storm of bullets raining down. Crockett fell while trying to reload. Bowie emptied his pistols into the group of Mexicans who stormed into his room, and despite Madam Candelaria’s pleas for his life, she said Bowie “was butchered” before her eyes.

When the massacre had ended and she stepped on the floor of the Alamo, blood ran into her shoes.

In 1891, fifty-five years after the fall of the Alamo and eight years before Madam Candelaria died, the Texas legislature granted her a pension of twelve dollars a month for being a survivor of the Alamo and for her work with smallpox victims in San Antonio.

Ladies Fought the Second Battle of the Alamo

The second battle of the Alamo began in the early 20th century as a disagreement between two powerful women over the proper way to preserve the Alamo, which had been allowed after the famous battle in 1836 and the slaughter of the men who fought there, to fall into an embarrassing state of neglect and disrepair.  Adina Emilia De Zavala,

Adina De Zavala

Adina De Zavala

granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas, was a schoolteacher, a prolific writer of Texas history, and an early advocate of restoration of the missions in San Antonio and other historic structures.  About 1889 she organized the “De Zavala Daughters,” dedicated to preserving Texas history, which soon became a chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT).

Although the state of Texas purchased the main entrance known as the Alamo chapel from the Catholic Church in 1883, the state did nothing to preserve the structure.  The building north of the chapel, which De Zavala and her friends believed had served as the convent when the complex was a Spanish mission and was the long barracks where most of the fighting occurred during the battle, had been sold to a wholesale grocer who added a two-story building and altered the façade.  Adina De Zavala and her group secured an agreement from the grocer to have first option to purchase the long barracks, which they dreamed of restoring to its former appearance as a museum.

Hugo and Schmeltzer Grocery

Hugo and Schmeltzer Grocery

In 1903, when the De Zavala group heard that the long barracks might be sold to a hotel syndicate, Adina De Zavala sought the help of Clara Driscoll a nineteen-year-old heiress who had returned to San Antonio after several years studying in Europe.  She was so appalled at the condition of the Alamo that she wrote an article for the Daily Express calling the Alamo complex an “old ruin…. hemmed in on one side by a hideous barracks-like looking building, and on the other by two saloons.”  Clara Driscoll joined the De Zavala chapter of the DRT and went with Adina De Zavala to see the grocer who was asking $75,000 for the structure.  Clara Driscoll personally gave the owner $500 for a thirty-day option and the ladies set about raising the purchase price.  Despite a nationwide campaign and a legislative appropriation, which was vetoed by Governor S.W.T. Lanham as “not a justifiable expenditure of the taxpayers’ money,” Clara Driscoll eventually paid $65,000 to complete the purchase.  Over the governor’s objection, the state reimbursed Clara Driscoll and gave custody of the property to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Clara Driscoll

Clara Driscoll

Then, cracks began to show in the bulwark of the organization as members divided over what should be done with the grocer’s building.  Adina De Zavala and her cohorts believed “a large part” of the original convent/long barracks played a significant role in the Battle of the Alamo and remained hidden under the grocer’s building, while Clara Driscoll and her camp believed the walls of the convent/long barracks overshadowed the Alamo chapel and should be replaced with a dignified park.

Painted in 1844 shows chapel and long barracks

Painted in 1844 shows chapel and long barracks

Members of the statewide DRT and citizens in San Antonio and Texas divided into De Zavalans and Driscollites, each faction determined to have its way.  The two groups within the DRT separated from each other and when Clara Driscoll was given custody of the vacant grocery in 1908, Adina De Zavala locked herself in the building for three days as newspaper reporters from around the country gathered to watch the spectacle.  By 1910 the Driscollites seemed to have won the war, but one more battle remained: Governor Oscar Colquitt, deciding that walls under the modern grocery building pre-dated the Battle at the Alamo, ordered restoration of the convent/barracks.  In January 1912 as the modern additions were removed, the governor personally watched the process that revealed arches and Spanish stone work, which confirmed the De Zavalans’ claim.  However, the following year, while the governor was out of state, the lieutenant governor permitted the roof and walls of the upper story to be removed.  Fifty-five years later, just in time for the 1968 opening of HemisFair, San Antonio’s world’s fair, the old building finally received a roof and opened as a museum.

Adina De Zavala continued for the rest of her life organizing groups that restored, marked and preserved historic sites.  When she died in 1955 at the age of ninety-three, her casket draped with the Texas flag was driven past the Alamo one last time.  She willed her estate to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word for a girl’s vocational school and a boys town.

Clara Driscoll spent the remainder of her life devoted to historic preservation, state and national politics, civic and philanthropic endeavors. When she died in 1945 at the age of sixty-four, her body laid in state at the Alamo chapel.  She bequeathed the bulk of her estate to the Driscoll Foundation Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi.