William Barret Travis, Texas commander at the battle of the Alamo, was the eldest of eleven children of Mark and Jemima (Stallworth) Travis. At the time of his birth the family lived on Mine Creek near the Red Bank community, which centered around the Red Bank Baptist Church in Edgefield District, near Saluda, Saluda County, South Carolina. There is some confusion regarding the date and circumstances of his birth. Many sources give the date as August 9, others as August 1, 1809. The family Bible, however, records the former date. Others have confused the date of his birth with that of his elder, and illegitimate, half-brother, Toliferro Travis. The first Travers, or Travis, to settle in North America landed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1627. Edward Travers became a member of the house of burgesses and amassed significant holdings of land. Subsequent generations of the family drifted southward to the Carolinas, where Barrick or Barrot Travers established a farm in the Edgefield District. Somewhere in the journey Travers became Travis, and Barrot came to be spelled Barret. Barrot Travis's sons, Alexander and Mark, became farmers, and Alexander also became a prominent clergyman.
Travis's boyhood centered around the work of the family farm, attendance at the Red Bank church, home schooling, and playing with area children. James Butler Bonham, who also served in the defense of the Alamo, was one of these, but it is difficult to establish a strong relationship between Bonham and Travis in these early years. Alexander Travis, the family patriarch, traveled to Alabama in 1817 and decided to move the entire family to Conecuh County the next year. There they helped found the communities of Sparta and Evergreen. Travis attended an academy in Sparta until he learned all that was taught there; then Alexander Travis enrolled his nephew in a school in nearby Claiborne, Alabama. Travis eventually assisted in the instruction of the younger students. James Dellet (Dellett, Delett), the leading attorney in Claiborne, accepted Travis as an apprentice. Under his instruction Travis became an attorney and partner, and for a brief time operated a joint office across the river at Gosport, Alabama. On October 26, 1828, Travis married Rosanna Cato, one of the students he had helped to teach, when he was twenty years old. Their first child, Charles Edward Travis, was born on August 8, 1829. For a year Travis gave every evidence that he intended to remain in Claiborne. He began the publication of a newspaper, the Claiborne Herald, joined the Masonic order at Alabama Lodge No. 3, and accepted a position as adjutant of the Twenty-sixth Regiment, Eighth Brigade, Fourth Division, of the Alabama Militia. A year later he abandoned his wife, son, and unborn daughter (Susan Isabella) and departed for Texas. The story has been told that Travis suspected his wife of infidelity, doubted his parenthood of her unborn child, and killed a man because of it. The story is probably correct, given its persistence, but hard evidence of it is lacking.
Travis arrived in Texas early in 1831, after the Law of April 6, 1830, made his immigration illegal. He arrived at San Felipe de Austin, and on May 21 obtained land from Stephen F. Austin. He listed his marital status as single, although he was still married. He established a legal practice in Anahuac, a significant port of entry located on the eastern end of Galveston Bay. The purpose of the move there was to establish himself in an area where there were few attorneys while he learned the official language, Spanish. He traveled the country doing legal work and became associated with a group of militants who opposed the Law of April 6, 1830. Eventually this group became known as the war party as tension increased between the Mexican government and American settlers in Texas. Travis had many occasions to oppose the commander of the Mexican garrison at Anahuac, Col. John Davis Bradburn, a Kentuckian in the service of Mexico. Bradburn enforced the anti-immigration law, refused to allow state officials to alienate land to American settlers arriving after the passage of the law, and allegedly used materials and slaves belonging to the settlers to build his camp.
The principal dispute at Anahuac occurred in 1832 when William M. Logan of Louisiana engaged Travis to secure the return of runaway slaves being harbored by Bradburn. Logan returned to Louisiana for proof of ownership and threatened Bradburn that he also would return with help. Travis alarmed Bradburn with a note passed to a sentry that Logan had returned with a large force. Bradburn turned out his entire garrison to search for Logan, who, of course, was nowhere near the area. Suspecting Travis as the perpetrator of the prank, Bradburn sent soldiers to his law office to arrest Travis and his partner, Patrick C. Jack. They were held in a guardhouse and later in two brick kilns. Word of their arrest spread, and men assembled to demand their release. The group drafted the Turtle Bayou Resolutions, which pledged their loyalty to the states' rights Constitution of 1824, but not to the current Centralist regime, and demanded the release of the prisoners. John Austin traveled to Velasco to obtain a cannon to force Bradburn to comply. Col. José de las Piedras, commander at Nacogdoches, hurried to Anahuac. Although in sympathy with Bradburn, he realized that the Mexican forces were outnumbered. He ordered Travis and Jack released to civil authorities, who soon released them altogether. This incident began the Anahuac Disturbances of 1832, which resulted in armed clashes at Velasco and Nacogdoches later that summer and produced the conventions of 1832 and 1833 with their petitions for repeal of the Law of April 6, 1830, and separate statehood.
Travis moved his legal practice to San Felipe in the aftermath of the clash at Anahuac. In 1834 he was elected secretary to the ayuntamiento there and was accepted, despite his youth, into the councils of government. He also met Rebecca (Rebeca) Cummings, who lived at Mill Creek, and began a courtship that resulted in a decision to marry once Travis was divorced. Rosanna Travis began divorce proceedings against her husband in 1834, charging him with desertion. They were divorced in the fall of 1835, and she remarried early the next year. She had permitted Charles Edward Travis to move to Texas, where he lived with the family of David Ayers, so that he could be near his father. Travis may not have known when the divorce became final, for he became embroiled in the rapidly moving events of the Texas Revolution in July 1835 and was constantly occupied until his death. In any event, he made no attempt to marry Rebecca Cummings.
After Stephen F. Austin carried the petition of the Convention of 1833 to the government in Mexico City and was incarcerated, fears for his safety cooled politics in Texas until the summer of 1835. By then Antonio López de Santa Anna had asserted full Centralist authority and reestablished a customhouse and military garrison at Anahuac under the command of Capt. Antonio Tenorio. A war group led by James B. Miller met and authorized Travis to return to Anahuac to expel Tenorio. In late June Travis led some twenty-five men by way of Harrisburg and Galveston Bay on an amphibious assault on Tenorio's position and captured the Mexican soldiers easily. The action alarmed the peace party, and for several months Travis was regarded by many Texans as a troublemaker. Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos, Mexican military commander in the north, moved his command to San Antonio. He branded Travis and the other partisans at Anahuac outlaws and demanded that the Texans surrender them for military trial.
When Cos demanded the surrender of the Gonzales "come and take it" cannon in October 1835, Travis joined the hundreds of Texans who hastened there, but arrived too late to take part in the action. He remained with the militia and accompanied it to besiege Bexar. He served as a scout in a cavalry unit commanded by Randal Jones and later commanded a unit himself. He did not remain at San Antonio through the final assault in early December, but returned to San Felipe. He advised the Consultation on the organization of cavalry for the army but turned down a commission as a major of artillery. He later accepted a commission as a lieutenant colonel of cavalry and became the chief recruiting officer for the army. Governor Henry Smith ordered Travis to recruit 100 men and reinforce Col. James C. Neill at San Antonio in January 1836. Travis was able to recruit only twenty-nine men, and because he was embarrassed he requested to be relieved. When Smith insisted, Travis reported to Neill and within a few days found himself in command of about fifty men when Neill took leave. When James Bowie arrived with 100 volunteers, he and Travis quarreled over command. They were able to effect an uneasy truce of joint command until Bowie's illness and injury from a fall forced him to bed.
Travis directed the preparation of San Antonio de Valero Mission, known as the Alamo, for the anticipated arrival of Santa Anna and the main command of the Mexican army. With engineer Green B. Jameson he strengthened the walls, constructed palisades to fill gaps, mounted cannons, and stored provisions inside the fortress. He also wrote letters to officials requesting reinforcements, but only the thirty-five men came from Gonzales to his relief, thus raising the number of the Alamo's defenders to approximately 183. Travis's letter addressed "To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World," written on February 24, two days after Santa Anna's advance arrived in San Antonio, brought more than enough help to Texas from the United States, but it did not arrive in time. When Santa Anna had his forces ready, he ordered an assault on the Alamo. This occurred just before dawn on March 6, 1836. The Mexicans overpowered the Texans within a few hours. Travis died early in the battle from a single bullet in the head. His body and those of the other defenders were burned. The nature of Travis's death elevated him from a mere commander of an obscure garrison to a genuine hero of Texas and American history.
Archie P. McDonald, Travis (Austin: Jenkins, 1976). William Barret Travis, Diary, ed. Robert E. Davis (Waco: Texian Press, 1966). Amelia W. Williams, A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo and of the Personnel of Its Defenders (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1931; rpt., Southwestern Historical Quarterly 36 [April 1933], 37 [July, October 1933, January, April 1934]).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Archie P. McDonald,
“Travis, William Barret,”
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