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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The man who witnessed
Travis' death at the Alamo

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The April 7, 1877 item in the Austin newspaper is frustratingly brief.

"There are several old soldiers of the Texas revolution in Austin and in adjacent towns and counties, and these should meet on the twenty-first instant - San Jacinto Day," the piece suggested.

No question, it was about time folks recognized the men who played a part in winning Texas' independence from Mexico. As of that spring, 41 years had passed since the April 21, 1836 defeat of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. But it had been only two years since, as the Daily Statesman's paragrapher continued, "the old colored body servant of Gen. Travis was in this city and his home was not far away."

Travis never held the rank of general, but before his death in the Alamo he had owned a slave named Joe. Joe's story, particularly how he came to be in Central Texas nearly four decades after the Alamo, is filled with more questions than facts.

This much is known: Joe was born somewhere in the South in 1814, give or take a year. By the time he was 19 or 20, he lived in Texas, listed as a resident of Harrisburg in May 1833. Travis, a young attorney, rented Joe in San Felipe, finally purchasing him on Feb. 13, 1834.

"Why not have him brought to the capital?" the Statesman writer said of Joe in 1877. That sounds paternalistic, but then slavery had only been a thing of the past in Texas for a scant 12 years. Blacks had been given their freedom during the Civil War, but they were generations away from being truly free.

The "brought to the capital?" reference could imply infirmity on Joe's part. For the times, he was an old man.

Where did Joe live when the Statesman made the suggestion? The "not far away" reference can be taken quite literally from a 19th century journalist. Even Bastrop lay a day's horseback ride from Austin. But Bastrop County had a sizable black population, so maybe that's where Joe lived. Or perhaps Manor, an active farming community. Or Clarksville, a black enclave at Austin's western edge.

Bringing Joe to Austin aside, there is strong if unintended irony in the suggestion that he be honored on the anniversary of the Texas victory over the Mexican army. On April 21, 1837, one year after the battle, Joe escaped from John Rice Jones - the man who obtained ownership of Joe from Travis' estate. Rice had placed a $50 reward for Joe's capture.

Beyond where he lived, what did he do? A former slave was not likely to have an education or much of a job. Likely he made his living as a laborer until age slowed him down. There is certainly one thing he could have done, unless his advancing years had robbed him of his memory: He could have talked and answered questions.

Did Travis really draw a line in the dirt and exhort those who wanted to stay in the Alamo and die fighting to step across it? Or was that a later-day invention, as most historians believe. Did some of the defenders, realizing all was lost, try to escape only to fall before the lances of Mexican horse soldiers? Again, most historians think so.

Did Davy Crockett die swinging Old Betsy, his rifle, or did he survive the fighting only to be executed on Santa Anna's order?

Joe may have answered that question. The New Orleans Commercial Bulletin published on April 11, 1836 a letter with an account of the battle attributed to Joe. "I learnt these facts from...the servant of Colonel Travis," claimed the correspondent. The letter writer went on to say that the "Honorable Davy Crockett died like a hero, surrounded by heaps of the enemy slain."

George C. Childress, a Tennessean credited with writing Texas' Declaration of Independence, also talked with Joe that spring of 1836.

Writing for the Memphis Enquirer, Childress passed along Joe's version of Travis' death and how he came to survive. The slave had hidden in the barracks until he heard someone asking in English if any blacks were inside. Joe answered, "Yes" and emerged. When he did, a soldier shot at him and missed and another lunged at him with a bayonet, cutting him slightly.

An English-speaking officer interceded and took Joe to Santa Anna, who sent him to accompany Susanna Dickinson to report the Alamo's fate.

What Joe did for the four decades after his disappearance remains a mystery. Did he dwell on his experiences with Travis, or go on with life as best he could, seldom giving his connection to history a thought?

Finally, assuming he fled Texas after escaping his owner in 1837, when and why did he come back?

No one even knows for sure when Joe died or where he is buried. According to research published in 1981, the man who witnessed Travis' death at the Alamo lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in the vicinity of Brewton, Ala., virtually forgotten.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 21, 2004 Column

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