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LA VILLITA EARTHWORKS

LA VILLITA EARTHWORKS. This archeological site is in downtown San Antonio at the corner of South Alamo and East Nueva streets, where the Fairmount Hotel stands. It is thought to be the basal part of an earthwork the Mexican army dug during the battle of the Alamo in 1836. The site lies about 550 meters south of the Alamo compound wall. In February 1985 archeologists from the University of Texas at San Antonio excavated a trench that bulldozers had uncovered in digging a basement for the hotel. The L-shaped hand-dug trench (about 9.25 meters long east to west, with an eastern leg 1.3 to 2.75 meters wide) was cut into the alluvial terrace of the San Antonio River. Some sixty-five cubic meters of fill had been removed to form the ditch. As bulldozing had removed some fill before the trench was noticed, the size and location of a parapet (if any) are unknown. The trench was about 1.9 meters deep. In comparison, the trenches dug by Martín Perfecto de Cos in 1835 along the lunette and palisade wall on the south side of the Alamo were one to 1.5 meters deep and about 2.75 meters and 2.45 meters wide, respectively.

Archeologists examined three zones of fill in the trench. A thin layer of white and gray marl from the walls of the ditch covered part of the floor. Over this was a thicker layer of mottled marl and caliche from the ditch, later shoveled in or allowed to fall back into the trench. These two layers, which were excavated together intact, revealed imported English ceramic shards, a Mexican lead-glazed earthenware shard, a glass bottle and mirror fragments, strap iron, nails, chert artifacts, and animal bones. Also found were a bayonet for the Brown Bess musket, and another (similar to French model 1777, or Baker rifle bayonet) made into a pike head. A Brown Bess trigger plate also was found. On the north side of the ditch was a small hearth with a wood ash-charcoal deposit. Three limestone rocks lay in a triangle over the ash. A badly rusted iron pot was submerged in the ashes. Nearby was an iron knife blade, a nail, bone fragments, and a large, smooth limestone flagstone. A thick deposit of dark gray Houston Black clay soil (termed "Villita Fill") overlay the mottled marl. The deposit contained animal bones, domestic refuse, and pockets of wood ash and charcoal.

Most of the military hardware at the site was found there. The domestic refuse included English ceramics and pressed glass, Spanish colonial or Mexican tin and lead-glazed ceramics, a copper kettle, and chocolatera fragments, religious paraphernalia (a glass crucifix), pharmaceutical mortar fragments, fasteners, horse gear (bits, stirrup, shoes), knife blades, firearm accoutrements (gunflint pad blanks, gunflints, and balls), and prehistoric artifacts. The military debris included musket balls, a Baker rifle barrel, a Brown Bess bayonet with a bent tip, a bayonet tip with cloth impressions preserved by rust, a trigger plate, frizzen, frizzen spring, and gunlock part, a Brown Bess (India pattern) musket buttplate, a sword hilt similar to that of a British model 1821 light cavalry and artillery sword, grapeshot, canister shot, a solid iron shot for a nine-pounder field piece, and a bronze howitzer shell fragment. Also found were an unexploded seven-inch bronze howitzer shell and a probable six-pound solid shot. Both the Baker rifle and Brown Bess musket were British weapons sold to the Mexican army. The Baker, with a 30.5-inch barrel and a .615 to .625 caliber bore was issued to the cazadores (light infantry) and granaderos (grenadiers). In 1836 the San Luis Potosí, Matamoros, and Jiménez battalions had rifle companies and grenadiers, while the Aldama and Toluca battalions had only grenadiers. The cavalry carried Baker carbines with twenty-inch barrels. Excavators also picked up a lock plate and a hammer fragment for a pistol or small rifle, a pistol butt cap, trigger-guard fragments from the Brown Bess musket and Baker rifle, and two Brown Bess ramrod pipes.

Most of the weaponry was fragmentary or damaged. The projectiles may include rounds fired by the Alamo defenders, mixed with expended and unexpended Mexican ammunition. The howitzer shells are Mexican and match the fragments found at the Alamo. Both sides used solid shot, grapeshot, and canister shot. The solid shot recovered could have come from either side. On March 3, 1836, Alamo commander William B. Travis requested six, nine, twelve, and eighteen pound shot. After the siege of Bexar (1835) the Texan forces seized arms and munitions that included a culverin (nine-inch caliber), a five-inch howitzer with no shells, 4 "large cannons," 3 guns (3, 4, and 6 pounders), swivel guns and other small ordnance, plus 26 stands and 19 bags of grapeshot, 216 bayonets, and 71 lances. The three pieces of grapeshot recovered at La Villita were slightly heavier than the "four-ounce copper balls" reportedly used at San Jacinto. Excavations at the Alamo revealed two-ounce and five-to-six-ounce bronze canister shot and grapeshot. For comparison, José Antonio Mexía brought canister shot from New Orleans for his Tampico expedition (1835) that consisted of two, four, eight, and sixteen ounce brass balls. Two of the four canister shot recovered at La Villita are impact-flattened; six of the thirty-four musket balls show evidence of firing, as well as two of the three pistol (or rifle) balls.

Ceramic tableware sherds abound at La Villita, especially English refined earthenware (painted, transfer-printed, plain, and mocha ware and a variety of cups, bowls, plates, saucers, and pitchers). The sherds were found together. Estimates include ten mocha-ware vessels and 139 transfer-printed ware. Little wear from use is evident. A great variety of manufacturers, importers, and patterns are represented. Many shards have backstamps that cite Davenport Pottery of Longport, Staffordshire, England; others with an anchor symbol suggest a manufacture date of 1836. Printed backstamps include Henderson & Gaines/ Importers/ New Orleans, Henderson Walton & Co./ Importers/ New Orleans. Other manufacturers are Thomas Mayer, John Heath, Enoch Wood & Sons, and "Jackso...Warranted." Glass artifacts include fragments of bottles for wine or liquor, medicines, and toiletries, as well as decanter stoppers, pressed-glass serving-dish fragments, a candlestick base, and an appliqué seal from a Bordeaux olive-oil bottle.

The early history of the Villita site in San Antonio is unclear. At or before his death in 1822, Gregorio Arciniega, apparently the first owner of record, passed the property to his children, Dolores and José Miguel de Arciniega. Miguel was variously a merchant, an alcalde, a municipal judge, and a land commissioner, as well as a commissioner for Stephen F. Austin's colonies. He owned twenty town lots in July 1840 and mortgaged them on January 2, 1841, to John Riddle, who was acting in trust for his brother Wilson I. Riddle. In 1870 Elizabeth Canterbury (Wilson Riddle's widow) testified that she had lived at the corner of Alamo and Nueva streets since 1845. Wilson Irvine Riddle (1812–1847) moved to Texas in 1839, owned three San Antonio lots in July 1840, and became a merchant that year, when he ordered a wide variety of goods from New Orleans. His invoice of November 10, 1840, listed goods comparable to the inventory of items recovered from the Villita ditch. Riddle married Elizabeth Menefee in April 1841 in Tennessee. In the spring of 1842, while living in San Antonio, the Riddles fled the invasion of Rafael Vásquez, abandoning their retail and household goods. Wilson and his brother were captured by Adrián Woll's invading Mexicans on September 11, 1842, imprisoned at Perote Prison in Mexico, and released on March 21, 1843. Wilson subsequently settled on a ranch eighteen miles from San Antonio. In the summer of 1846 a slaughter pen was in operation at the Riddle site, perhaps in connection with the United States Army build-up for an invasion of Mexico. On March 5, 1847, Guadalupe Smith (widow of Erastus "Deaf" Smithqv) complained to the city council about the butchering of cattle in La Villita during the previous summer and fall. If the charred bones excavated at the site derived from 1846 slaughtering, the trench may still have been open ten years after it was dug.

Military activities at the site are unclear. Because it had no outlet the trench could not have been part of one of the acequias. It was not lined with masonry and so was never a cellar. The entrenchments related to the siege of Bexar were mostly around Main Plaza and directly west of the Alamo, along Houston Street. La Villita Earthworks must therefore date from 1836 or later. However, the trench does not form a closed or semiclosed figure, and does not correspond to contemporary plans for infantry or artillery placements. It is not clear that the Villita Earthworks was the site of a Mexican battery during the Alamo siege. In February-March 1836 soldiers placed artillery at various distances from the Alamo compound. On February 23 they located two short-range batteries south of Commerce Street, about 250 meters from the south wall. Another battery was placed northeast of the Alamo at about the same range. On February 24 the Mexicans set up another battery on the San Antonio River on Commerce Street (Potrero area) near Navarro Street. The next day soldiers dug an earthwork in Presa Street, near the McMullen house. The first battery (medium-range?) included a howitzer at about 330 meters from the southwest corner of the Alamo. The battery may have been what Travis estimated at "four hundred yards west" and Martínez Caro placed at "600 paces." The second earthwork was about the same distance from the corner.

The Mexicans also constructed a battery on February 23 near the Veramendi House, on Soledad Street, about 590 meters due west of the west wall of the Alamo. This was clearly a long-range battery, and it may be significant that the Villita Earthworks is situated nearly the same distance from the south wall. Artillery fire from all of these batteries could easily reach the Alamo. A six-pounder could fire (at five degrees elevation) 1,523 yards, while a howitzer with a 6.4-inch bore was effective up to 1,504 yards. From the short-range batteries the Mexicans used short-range artillery to breach the Alamo walls, which were within small-arms range, and the medium and long-range batteries to supply harassing fire. The Mexicans used six field guns and two howitzers in the initial layout and probably shifted the guns as the siege progressed. Accordingly, the Villita Earthworks was beyond effective small-arms fire on the Alamo. The trench commanded both the Concepción and Goliad roads, but whether there was a clear field of fire is unknown. The construction of HemisFair '68 destroyed all evidence in that quarter. General Santa Anna was concerned about possible reinforcements from Goliad, and posted a force in La Villita when his vanguard arrived at San Antonio. One source says that on March 3 a detachment was stationed for a time on the Goliad road about a half mile from the Alamo.

Historical sources do not identify the earthworks. Travis mentions Mexican entrenchments at "Lavillita, three hundred yards south," but these presumably refer to the Commerce Street batteries. La Villita Earthworks is 600 yards to the south. José Enrique de la Peña noted that on February 25 construction was begun to protect Col. Juan Morales's line at La Villita. Morales commanded the San Luis [Potosí] Active Infantry Battalion. Juan N. Almonte stated that on February 26 the Texans burned the small houses near the parapet of the San Luis battalion, across the river. The location probably was to the south, or Almonte could have meant the Commerce Street batteries.

The role of the earthworks in the Alamo siege is a puzzle. The trench compares in width and depth to the ditches along the lunette and palisade on the south Alamo wall, but the fill is different. Juan José Andrade presumably ordered the ditches at the Alamo backfilled immediately after the battle, while the earthworks possibly lay open for a decade. Cross-mending of shards, some bearing 1836 backstamps, suggests that the Villita feature was later backfilled, perhaps in 1847. The artifact inventories of the Alamo and La Villita entrenchments are similar. However, the Villita collection is larger and more varied and has a high proportion of English ceramics. Part of the collection may have been damaged goods discarded by Wilson Riddle, since the variety is consistent with the merchandise that Riddle imported in 1840. The military function of the Villita Earthworks and its role in the Alamo battle, if any, is as yet unclear.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Howard L. Blackmore, British Military Firearms, 1650–1850 (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1961). Frederick Charles Chabot, With the Makers of San Antonio (Yanaguana Society Publications 4, San Antonio, 1937). Jack D. Eaton, Excavations at the Alamo Shrine (Mission San Antonio de Valero) (Center for Archaeological Research, University of Texas at San Antonio, 1980). Anne A. Fox et al., Archaeological Investigations in Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas, 1988 and 1989 (Center for Archaeological Research, University of Texas at San Antonio, 1992). John H. Jenkins, ed., The Papers of the Texas Revolution, 1835–1836 (10 vols., Austin: Presidial Press, 1973). La Villita Earthworks (41 BX 677): San Antonio, Texas (Center for Archaeological Research, University of Texas at San Antonio, 1986). Chester Newell, History of the Revolution in Texas (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1838; rpt., New York: Arno Press, 1973).

Kenneth M. Brown

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Kenneth M. Brown, "LA VILLITA EARTHWORKS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/bbl17), accessed October 01, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.