William Barret Travis, Leader At The Texas Alamo
A look at Texas hero William Barret Travis, whose short life included personal scandal and professional acclaim.
William Barret Travis was a larger than life legend. Both hero and scoundrel, his career and writings testify to the spirit that made Texas great.
The circumstances of his birth were exaggerated by a wives tale that he was found as a baby in a basket swinging on the bars of the gate of the Travis cowpen, so the Travis’ took him in and named him William Bar which he later changed to William Barret upon reaching adulthood. This story is speculation, as there are many other sources that counter this tale with a record of him being born to Mark and Jemima Travis on August 1, 1809 in South Carolina, near the homes of Jim Bonham and the uncle of Jim Bowie, two figures who will play a part in the end of Travis’s story as well as the beginning. Jim Bonham was a great friend of Travis’ when they were boys.
Travis’ home life seemed happy and he received an extensive formal education, which prepared him to be admitted to the bar in Alabama before he reached the age of majority. He was also very active in the Masonic Lodge and was appointed a commissioned member of the Alabama militia.
Travis traveled in a good social circle and married Rosanna E. Cato, daughter of a wealthy farmer on October 26, 1828. Apparently this did not turn out well for Travis and he deserted her while she was pregnant with their second child. Many speculations have been made about his hasty retreat from his home in Alabama. The most popular account was that Travis was upset about the turnout in an Alabama election, became disgruntled and left. Another more whimsical account is that while on a business trip out of town someone cut off his horse's tail. Travis swore that he could no longer reside in the same state as such heathens and off he went. The last, but not least, speculation was that Travis killed another man whom he found in a compromising position with his wife. Whatever the reason, Travis’ did not leave Alabama in a blaze of glory, although he was on the way to everlasting fame and glorious destiny.
Like Travis, there were many men from many states who left for Texas, for reasons as simply pure as wanderlust and the yearning for freedom or as complicated and shady as dodging responsibilities such as legal complications and creditors. Texas had plenty of room for them all. Under Mexican law, foreigners were encouraged to come and settle tax-free for ten years and receive 4,428 acres of Texas land for the sum of $30. The only conditions attached were that the recipients must swear allegiance to Texas and Catholicism. This was a very attractive option for many of these men, and some of them converted to Catholicism and took Mexican wives, although they were not divorced of their former spouses. Travis himself was rumored to have one particular live-in girlfriend for awhile and finally consented to a divorce once Rosanna Travis tracked him down in Texas and gave him an ultimatum to be a husband to her or give her a divorce. He sent her packing back to Alabama with the necessary consent for the long overdue divorce, which was granted January 9, 1836. It was not reported that Travis ever remarried.
Travis easily adjusted to the Texas lifestyle, and as an avid writer, his lengthy diary entries noted that he worked hard but also found diversion with many women. He was successful in many endeavors and in 1931 Stephen F. Austin wrote to the U.S. Senate endorsing Travis for a counsel appointment. Travis opened a law office in Texas and did very well. Travis became well known and influential in Texas and when Stephen F. Austin was arrested and jailed, Travis' eloquent pleas were recorded to have had great legal influence on his release.
The confusion in Mexico was escalating, and a radical named Santa Anna was gaining power. At the same time Americans were no longer happy to live under Mexican rule, became distrustful of Mexico and Mexicans and demanded American freedoms on Mexican land. This led eventually to William Barret Travis drawing his famous “line in the sand” for volunteers to stand up against General Santa Anna and his army at the Alamo.
The power of Travis’ writing was most evident in his desperate yet dignified letters that were sent out from the walls of the Alamo requesting assistance and support. As the Mexican forces against them were lining up in greater number, Travis’ old school friend, Jim Bonham, rode out with Travis' letter requesting assistance, dodging Mexican soldiers, to ask for help from those at Goliad, only to have to ride back though the enemy lines with the grim news that aside from a few stragglers that rode in to help, no real reinforcements would arrive. Travis' letters then took a different tone, that of brave resignation and the hope that this stand that he and his men were taking would not be forgotten. William Barret Travis, at age 27, was one of the first to be killed on that fateful morning, and though by some accounts not a very good husband and father, his legacy as a military leader and soldier make his short life an important part of Texas history.