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.

Jean Lafitte, Gentleman Pirate

The mention of Jean Lafitte stirs romantic images of a daring, adventurous fellow who charmed his way into New Orleans society by 1804 and flirted with the young women while he and his older brother Pierre ran a smuggling operation out of their blacksmith shop in the city.

Claimed as the Lafitte brothers’ blacksmith shop at 941 Bourbon Street, New Orleans.

In the early nineteenth century, countries lacking their own navy issued letters of marque, contracts with privateers who attacked enemy ships, robbed them, and returned a portion of the valuable cargo to the sponsoring country—the balance remained with the privateer and his crew.  The Lafitte brothers mastered the privateers’ tactics and expanded their smuggling empire to a barrier island near the mouth of the Mississippi River, a vantage allowing them to skirt the high tariffs on imported goods at customhouses in New Orleans.

Local residents appreciated the charming, well-educated young man who spoke four languages (French, English, Spanish, and Italian), swaggered down the New Orleans streets, and operated a black-market business providing locals with furniture, clothing, utensils, jewelry, laces, silks, calicos, and fine spices at discount prices.

The United States did not have a navy large enough to stand up to Britain’s powerful force when it declared war on Britain in 1812, which prompted the U.S. to issue letters of marque to private owners of armed ships–privateers.  Under this arrangement, New Orleans issued six letters of marque to privateers who worked primarily for Lafitte.  The men readily shared booty they seized from British ships with New Orleans custom officials, but they kept the goods captured from ships flying other national flags.  With the loss of customs revenue from Lafitte’s privateering, coupled with insufficient U.S. ships to act against Lafitte’s island empire, the government went to court.  A series of arrests and releases followed.

With the British poised to attack New Orleans in early 1815, Lafitte tried to redeem himself with authorities by offering his services to General Andrew Jackson.  At first Jackson refused Lafitte’s overture calling him “that hellish banditti,” but as it became clear the Americans stood to lose control of the mouth of the Mississippi River, Jackson welcomed the militia, the sailors, and the artillerymen under Lafitte’s command.  Lafitte’s men fought like pirates, and after Jackson’s decisive defeat of the British, he praised Lafitte’s men for having “exhibited courage and fidelity.”

As their reputation grew, Spanish colonial officials recruited the Lafitte brothers to spy on Mexican Revolutionaries working to secure Mexican independence from Spain from their base of operation on Galveston Island.

Pierre Lafitte kept Spanish officials abreast of plans in New Orleans to overthrow the colonial government while Jean Lafitte went to Galveston in 1817 and immediately took control of the island from the Mexican revolutionaries.

Spying for Spain quickly took second fiddle to Jean Lafitte’s plans for a new smuggling base on Galveston island, which he named Campeche.  Within a year the colony grew to nearly 200 and soon reached 1,000 men and a few women who took a loyalty oath to Jean Lafitte.  They constructed a two-story headquarters on the bayside docks, surrounded it by a moat, painted it red, and named it Maison Rouge.

Lafitte ruled with an iron hand, lived on his ship, The Pride, and issued letters of marque from a non-existing country authorizing ships sailing from Campeche as privateers to attack vessels from all nations.  The booty rolled in and Lafitte’s men quickly sold it on the black-market in New Orleans.

Although the United States passed a law in 1808 prohibiting the importation of slaves into any U.S. port, a giant loophole in the law allowed for slaves captured on slave ships to be turned over to custom officials who auctioned off the slaves with half the profits given to whomever turned in the slaves.  Lafitte and his men took full advantage of the law, captured slave ships, and sold their valuable human cargo for one dollar a pound (average weight of 150 pounds). James Bowie and his brothers were among the buyers who came to the island.  They marched their newly purchased chattel to customs officials in New Orleans who sold the slaves at auction and issued the reward for half the sale.  Then, the Bowies bought the slaves a second time and resold them legally all over the South.  Between 1818 and 1820 the Bowie brothers earned $65,000 in the slave trade.

James Bowie

During Lafitte’s occupation of the island, filibusterers such as Dr. James Long continued to make stops on Campeche seeking Lafitte’s support in their efforts to win Mexico and Texas independence from Spain.  Each visitor received a gracious welcome, enjoyed the finest of foods and wines at the Maison Rouge lavishly furnished with elegant linens and silver—privateering booty.  But, Lafitte did not commit himself to anything beyond his privateering business.

By 1821 the United States reached the end of its patience with Laffite whose men continued attacking U.S. ships.  The U.S.S. Enterprise sailed to Campeche to evict the inhabitants.  Given three months to evacuate, Lafitte burned all the structures on the island and without offering resistance sailed away on the Pride on May 7, 1821, and disappeared into the mists of legend.

Some say he buried his vast wealth all along the Texas coast, which prompted treasure hunters to shovel through every square inch of the barrier islands in search of booty.  Some say his men, overhearing him pacing the floor and muttering, “I buried my treasure under the three trees,” rushed to the site of the three trees, and quickly exposed a long wooden box.  Raising the lid, they stared into the face of Lafitte’s dead wife.  The most recent tale surfaced in 1948 when John Laflin, claiming to be Lafitte’s great-grandson (historians know of only one child, a son who died of yellow fever at age twelve in New Orleans in 1832), produced a journal Laflin said had been written by Lafitte between 1845 and 1850.  Eventually, paper and ink analysis confirmed its mid-19th century origin.  It is displayed in the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center near Liberty, Texas.