Meet the ‘Angel of the Alamo’: Adina De Zavala’s grand stand in 1908 saved a landmark of Texas history

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Collage of Adina De Zavala and the Alamo.
Collage of Adina De Zavala and the Alamo.

The first night in the dark, cold barrack of the Alamo was the hardest.

Adina De Zavala had no bed or even a chair to sleep on. Rats skittered nearby. The electricity and telephone lines had been cut.

But years of effort, of obsession, had led her to this desperate stand. It was February 1908, and the oldest building in the Alamo complex in San Antonio was in danger of being razed. She’d locked herself inside as a sheriff waited at the door with a court order.

The barrack was a two-story building of a Catholic mission that, centuries earlier, had been home to priests and nuns during the time of Spanish rule over Texas. By the time De Zavala occupied the former convento, there was little trace of its past. The historic building had been owned by a grocery company and had housed crates of milk, sugar and other goods. Now, the place was barren and musty. Without food or drink available, she was left to find the coziest spot on the floor.

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Word spread quickly in San Antonio and beyond. The morning after De Zavala’s one-woman standoff began, journalists and supporters jockeyed to speak to her through the door.

She didn’t emerge for three days.

The Alamo is one of the most iconic images in Texas; the site had an average of 1.7 million visitors per year before the coronavirus pandemic. More than 70 years after Mexican soldiers overran Texas rebels at the Alamo in 1836, the site became the subject of another battle: how to commemorate its history. It was waged in large part by De Zavala – the granddaughter of a Mexican man who was the first vice president of the Republic of Texas, a schoolteacher and author, one of the first preservationists in the country and, by many accounts, a sharp-tongued firebrand.

More recently, De Zavala has earned the moniker, the "Angel of the Alamo.” It took almost a century for that recognition to catch on in part because of her Mexican last name. Yet De Zavala’s complicated identity as a Tejana, or Texan of Mexican descent, was her driver in saving the Alamo and its storied history.

“If it were not for her, we probably wouldn’t even have an Alamo today,” said Sharon Skrobarcek, treasurer general of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and of the organization’s Alamo Mission Chapter in San Antonio.

Strong will, strong heritage

De Zavala was born in Harris County, Texas, in 1861. She was the oldest of six children of Augustine and Julia De Zavala. Her father was a Confederate soldier and later worked as a ship caulker.

Adina De Zavala, pale-skinned and blue-eyed, was one-quarter Mexican. In a time of deep anti-Mexican racism, the family’s surname became an “ethnic label,” according to Suzanne Groves, who wrote a 2013 master’s thesis on De Zavala at the University of Texas at Arlington. The family tried to Anglicize their name by capitalizing the D. They earned no special status from their association with her grandfather, Lorenzo de Zavala, a prominent figure of the Texas Republic.

Adina De Zavala was described by contemporaries as a firebrand whose legacy in Texas history was obscured because of her Mexican last name.
Adina De Zavala was described by contemporaries as a firebrand whose legacy in Texas history was obscured because of her Mexican last name.

Native Americans had lived in what is now Texas for thousands of years when Spanish conquistadors settled there in the 1500s. Despite that early occupation, the Spanish largely ignored the area until the French claimed Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast near the end of the 17th century. That colony lasted only two years, stricken by disease and attacks by Native Americans.

The Spanish took over the region by founding villages and Catholic missions, the latter of which were meant to “civilize” the natives. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain – and Spanish Texas became part of the new country.

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To grow the population, Mexico granted land to empresarios, or land agents, who would recruit Americans to settle there. With the new settlers, the population with Mexican heritage shrank; Anglo influence swelled. The face of Texas was changing, and with that evolution came unrest. The first attempt to secede from Mexico came in 1826, with the Fredonian Rebellion that created a short-lived Anglo state near Nacogdoches in east Texas.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo de Zavala, who was born in Yucatan, Mexico, had climbed the ranks of Mexican politics; he helped write the new country’s constitution and became an ally of politician and general Antonio López de Santa Anna. When Santa Anna took dictatorial power in Mexico in 1834, de Zavala resigned in protest and defected to Texas to join Stephen F. Austin, one of the principal empresarios, to help start Texas’ revolution.

The most famous battle in Texas’ war for independence came on March 6, 1836, at the Mission San Antonio de Valero. Now it’s better known as the Alamo.

It was the final assault on the Texas fortress; Mexican forces had begun a siege on the site in February. Santa Anna had about 1,800 soldiers, outnumbering the rebels by about 10 to 1. Virtually all of the Texas defenders were killed that day.

Texas was vindicated, however, at the Battle of San Jacinto a month later. The Texan army battered the Mexican forces in a surprise attack that lasted 18 minutes, and won.

The Texas Revolution, and specifically the Alamo battle, became shrouded in an Anglo-centric myth of heroic white settlers defending their independence against barbaric Mexicans. Only recently has the true history of the revolution become mainstream – that Texas defenders fought in part to preserve slavery and that Mexican Americans fought and died alongside the rebels.

Lorenzo de Zavala helped draft the constitution of the Republic of Texas, and his fellow delegates elected him as interim vice president of the new country. Due to illness, he resigned in October 1836 and died that year. Texas joined the United States in 1845.

Adina De Zavala grew up in Galveston and later San Antonio. She was a teacher in the rural north Texas city of Terrell for two years in her 20s. She then moved to San Antonio and took another teaching position to support her family – her father was in poor health, and her mother didn’t work. Her father died in 1892.

De Zavala was strong-willed; she did things her way. In 1900, eight years before her Alamo protest, she read aloud a letter to the San Antonio school board protesting her low job classification and salary. It’s not clear if she won a higher salary, but her delivery was so zealous that the trustees voted to bar teachers from giving verbal complaints to the board, allowing them only to submit them in writing.

In the years after the Civil War, historical activism was on the rise around the country in response to an immigration boom and industrial growth, said Groves. Communities cherry-picked historical figures and sites to build a patriotic narrative during a period of deep racial divide. Women, mostly upper class and white, were particularly active in this movement, eager to wield political agency.

De Zavala began learning about her grandfather in this period. For several years, she and other relatives tried fruitlessly to recover land and stock that had belonged to him. They were in search of some respite from their financial woes, or at least some social standing.

In 1889, De Zavala organized a group of women around a goal of preserving Texas’ history. A similar group of wives, daughters and female descendants of men who’d served the Republic of Texas formed the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. De Zavala’s group joined the DRT and became the De Zavala Chapter, named for her grandfather.

Her grandfather’s history “gave her some celebrity, and it also gave her passion and purpose,” Skrobarcek said.

Though De Zavala’s grandfather was a source of pride, her relationship to her Mexican heritage was tenuous.

Her last name, along with her lack of status, prevented her from fitting in with Anglo high society, particularly amid the deep racial divide emerging in San Antonio at the time. Across Texas, people of Mexican descent had lost property, faced segregation in schools, were relegated to labor jobs and encountered other forms of discrimination. Hundreds of Mexican Americans in Texas were lynched, sometimes by law enforcement, over the course of almost a century.

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Racism touched the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, as well, according to Groves.

In 1911, an anonymous writer sent De Zavala a letter with damning information about two members: One woman was a descendant of an Alamo fighter’s illegitimate child with a Mexican woman, and another claimed French heritage but was actually of Mexican descent.

In De Zavala's writings, she did not refer to herself as part Mexican or Tejana; when she wrote about her grandfather, she described him only as Spanish. He and his parents were criollos — people of pure Spanish descent who were born in Spain’s colonies, as opposed to mestizos, who were of Spanish and indigenous Mexican descent.

And in one of her books about the Battle of the Alamo, she listed white soldiers who had died, as well as white women who’d been there. She did not include Tejano soldiers who died fighting.

Yet many Texans connect with her last name and her fervor, even if she was not explicit about her heritage.

The late Texas historian L. Robert Ables recounted that when De Zavala was reprimanded in 1904 for not reporting to her teaching job for a month, she informed the superintendent that she “had been studying Mexican history in Mexico.”

“I think she had a lot of pride in being of Mexican descent, as did her grandfather, Lorenzo de Zavala,” said Katie Dillard, learning programs manager at the Alamo. "When he decided to support Stephen F. Austin, the Texas Revolution, he’s not forsaking his identity, but he’s actually (advocating for) his personal beliefs about his country, his place. And I think Adina really captures that in her life, as well.

“It really doesn’t come down to what you’re called. It’s what you embody. And I think that Adina embodied her culture and wanted to propel that into the future.”

Modern news media and historical sources have referred to De Zavala as Mexican American or Tejana; in 2016, the Texas General Land Office published an article about her in observance of Hispanic Heritage Month.

“I think it’s not a bad thing that she was drafted to be this Tejana heroine,” Groves said, “because the work that she did, regardless of her ethnicity or her appearance, was important.”

Saving the Alamo

De Zavala was a devoted Catholic, and she soon set her sights on saving San Antonio’s five Spanish missions, which dated to the 1700s: San Jose, Concepcion, San Juan Capistrano, Espada and San Antonio de Valero, or the Alamo. Amid Texas’ rocketing commercial and industrial growth near the start of the 20th century, the historical sites were falling into neglect. San Jose’s dome and stone roof had collapsed; the walls were decaying; the cedar-paneled doors were damaged; and, without fences to protect them, graves had been trod upon, according to a history journal of the National Park Service. De Zavala helped solicit money and materials from business owners to restore San Jose.

The Alamo was unrecognizable. In the 1880s, the state of Texas bought the Alamo chapel from the Roman Catholic Church; a man named Honore Grenet owned the rest of the property. After his death, a wholesale grocery called Hugo & Schmeltzer Co. bought Grenet’s property and converted the two-story monastery – also known as the convento or the long barrack – into a store and warehouse. A wooden facade obscured the historical building.

A view of the Alamo in historic San Antonio, Texas includes the long barrack where priests and nuns lived and where historians confirm most of the fighting in the 1836 battle took place.
A view of the Alamo in historic San Antonio, Texas includes the long barrack where priests and nuns lived and where historians confirm most of the fighting in the 1836 battle took place.

It had undergone so many alterations that many did not know the long barrack existed. But, based on her research, De Zavala was convinced it still stood within the wooden framework of the warehouse.

Because of her Catholic faith, it incensed De Zavala to think of any harm being done to the Alamo’s convento. Then there was the building’s role in the Texas Revolution: She maintained that the long barrack was where most of the Alamo defenders had died in battle, making it the most historically significant part of the complex.

She approached Gustav Schmeltzer, one of the grocery company owners, in 1892 to promise that her chapter would have the first opportunity to buy the property.

But about a decade later, a hotel syndicate acquired a lot behind the warehouse and intended to build a hotel there and tear down the warehouse to make way for a park.

When it came to historical preservation, De Zavala was tenacious – researching, planning, writing manuscripts and articles on history, lobbying lawmakers and other bigwigs. She had the “vision and passion,” said University of Texas at San Antonio professor Félix Almaraz, but she didn’t have the money.

Enter Clara Driscoll, an heiress from Corpus Christi who had just returned to Texas after taking the Grand Tour of Europe, a hallmark of young elites. De Zavala and Driscoll met through a mutual friend and joined forces to save the building.

Clara Driscoll, an heiress from Corpus Christi, Texas, has long received full credit for saving the Alamo despite wanting to tear down a critical piece of the structure.
Clara Driscoll, an heiress from Corpus Christi, Texas, has long received full credit for saving the Alamo despite wanting to tear down a critical piece of the structure.
Adina De Zavala and socialite Clara Driscoll's friendship became strained over De Zavala's desire to save the Alamo's long barrack, where she insisted the final battle took place.
Adina De Zavala and socialite Clara Driscoll's friendship became strained over De Zavala's desire to save the Alamo's long barrack, where she insisted the final battle took place.

Driscoll was 20 years younger than De Zavala; she was about 22 when she became involved with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Her father was a multimillionaire thanks to his ranches, banks and commercial developments. Driscoll later married a state politician and served as the Democratic Party’s national committeewoman from Texas for 16 years.

She and De Zavala developed a “symbiotic relationship” to reach the same goal, Groves said. Driscoll needed De Zavala’s historical knowledge; De Zavala needed Driscoll’s deep pockets.

Driscoll put up the money to purchase the building on behalf of the De Zavala Chapter, which struggled to fundraise over the course of a year. Driscoll lobbied the Texas Legislature to reimburse her, and she then transferred possession of the property to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

De Zavala believed the facade of the grocery warehouse needed to be removed to restore the barrack to its original condition. She hoped to turn the first floor into a museum and library and house a hall of fame honoring Texas heroes on the second floor.

That was where the schism between her and Driscoll emerged.

Driscoll, inspired by the great monuments of Europe, believed the long barrack hiding the Alamo chapel needed to be torn away altogether to make a park. She went public with her disdain for keeping it intact.

“There does not stand in the world today a building or monument which can recall such a deed of heroism and bravery, such sacrifice and courage, as that of the brave men who fought and fell inside those historic walls,” she wrote in a letter to the San Antonio Daily Express. “Today, the Alamo should stand out, free and clear. All the unsightly obstructions should be torn away.”

De Zavala, however, “had the historical reference of, ‘We got to preserve the right thing. No, this is not going to be a place where people come and eat a picnic. This is hallowed ground where hundreds of human beings died,’” Groves said.

Legal battles and infighting ensued.

When the Daughters of the Republic of Texas gained possession of the Alamo in 1905, De Zavala initially refused to turn over the keys. The group filed a civil suit against her, and she surrendered the keys to Driscoll, who had been appointed the custodian of the property.

The following year, Driscoll’s supporters broke off to form a new chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, according to Ables. De Zavala sought custody of the Alamo complex for her chapter but the effort failed.

Tensions between the factions built over the next year, with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas calling for De Zavala and her supporters to be pushed out of the group’s executive committee. The “Driscollites,” as Ables described them, later sought an injunction from a Harris County court to bar De Zavala’s group from interfering with the Alamo property.

The grocer’s lease at the warehouse expired on Feb. 10, 1908. Driscoll’s faction planned to lease the building to “reliable business men of San Antonio,” the group’s president wrote in a letter.

When Feb. 10 arrived and the grocer vacated the barrack, De Zavala seized her chance.

She entered the building, had its locks changed and barricaded herself inside.

A Harris County sheriff held an injunction, but she refused to be served a copy – she even covered her ears when the sheriff tried to read it aloud, the San Antonio Light reported. The sheriff stationed a deputy at the building and told him not to let anyone enter or bring De Zavala food. He also made sure the electricity and telephone lines were cut.

But De Zavala was savvy. Journalists rushed to the spot, and she spoke to them through a 5-inch porthole. Her stunt made national headlines.

“Here I will remain until justice is done our cause,” she said, according to the San Antonio Light. “I’ll stay here forever if needs be.”

A Dallas Morning News journalist reported that De Zavala appeared weak and that her lips were cracked from thirst. Friends and allies brought her sandwiches and chocolates, blankets and clothing, which she pulled up with a cord. One friend brought her coffee by pouring it through a tube into the porthole.

“For her to barricade herself with the keys inside that area of the Alamo was almost her ultimate sacrifice,” Groves said. “‘Whatever is going to happen to me, I know that I have fought to the end’ – almost like she was channeling the men who had fought before her.

“What she did by doing that was having a lot of other eyes look at what the DRT wanted to do with the Alamo. It gave her cause a lot more agency than it had.

As her story won public attention and support, the sheriff allowed the electricity to be restored to the building before nightfall – which kept the rats at bay.

De Zavala surrendered the building when a state official said Texas Gov. Thomas M. Campbell would take over the property while litigation played out.

By 1909, De Zavala’s group was defeated in court and appeals failed. The courts ruled that because Driscoll’s group had written the De Zavala Chapter out of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, any action by the chapter afterward was moot. But in 1910, Gov. Oscar Colquitt sided with De Zavala and ordered the long barrack to be restored.

In this Jan. 9, 2014 photo, Soheil Hamideh, left, and Bob Warden, right, professor of architecture and director of the Center for Heritage Conservation at Texas A&M, use a camera to record images of the Alamo's long barrack, which was originally constructed in 1724.
In this Jan. 9, 2014 photo, Soheil Hamideh, left, and Bob Warden, right, professor of architecture and director of the Center for Heritage Conservation at Texas A&M, use a camera to record images of the Alamo's long barrack, which was originally constructed in 1724.

And De Zavala was right: Beneath the warehouse walls was the original masonry of the long barrack. Historians have since confirmed her assertion that the barrack is the oldest building in the complex and the site of the rebels' last stand.

The state Supreme Court returned the property to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in 1912. In 1913, while Colquitt was out of the country, Lt. Gov. William Harding Mayes ordered the walls of the second story to be destroyed.

The first floor survived. But De Zavala’s work didn’t end there.

In 1912, she founded the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association, which placed 38 markers at historical sites around the state. For about a decade, she was arguably the most vocal advocate of preserving the Spanish Governor’s Palace in San Antonio; the city eventually bought it in 1928.

“Her legacy goes well beyond the Alamo,” Dillard said.

An angel finally honored

De Zavala never married or had children. She died alone in 1955. Nine people attended her funeral service and signed her guestbook. Though Driscoll’s body was laid in state at the Alamo after her death in 1945, De Zavala’s funeral procession only drove by the site.

Decades passed with little recognition of De Zavala’s work.

Driscoll was long celebrated as the “Savior of the Alamo” because she had the money to take back the property. De Zavala, on the other hand, burned bridges with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and with others in San Antonio.

“She did not play well in the sandbox with others, and particularly other women,” Groves said. “That was very divisive, particularly within the DRT but among women in polite society who just didn’t behave that way – my God, particularly women that have a Mexican last name.”

In 1961, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas published a pamphlet called “Clara Driscoll Rescued the Alamo,” which wrongly claimed Driscoll was “one of the few people” who knew the convent, not the chapel, was the site of the 1836 battle.

The year of De Zavala’s death, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution saluting her work and calling for a plaque in her honor to be placed in the Alamo. The DRT did not fulfill that request until about 40 years later; the plaque at the front of the Alamo complex, near the sidewalk, is dated 1994.

A Texas Historical Commission plaque inscribed with Adina De Zavala's biography sits in front of the Alamo.
A Texas Historical Commission plaque inscribed with Adina De Zavala's biography sits in front of the Alamo.
Adina de Zavala's grave at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, is less than a mile from The Alamo.
Adina de Zavala's grave at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, is less than a mile from The Alamo.

A local archivist challenged the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in 1996, writing in a letter to the editor of the San Antonio Express-News that the group was “racist” and “un-American.” The following year, the organization agreed to place a marker near the long barrack.

Another plaque lauding both De Zavala’s and Driscoll’s work was added to the Alamo in 2008. In 2012, the Alamo Mission Chapter of the DRT commissioned a portrait of De Zavala, which was unveiled in a ceremony at the Alamo Hall — a move by the organization to “try to give Adina her rightful due,” Skrobarcek said.

The Daughters of the Republic of Texas organization was the caretaker of the Alamo until 2015, when the Texas General Land Office took over. The Alamo Mission Chapter retained the portrait, and it sits in a storage facility while the chapter is without an office. The portrait will be hung in the chapter’s new home, Skrobarcek said.

Groves said recognition of De Zavala’s work, and her labeling as a Hispanic hero, began to grow in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when mainstream media began to shine “more light on the continued racial divide in this country.”

In her own research, Groves said, “I found in her a woman that was so deeply misunderstood but used everything available to her to have a life that made a difference.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How a one-woman standoff in 1908 helped save Alamo landmark in Texas

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