María Andrea Castañon Villanueva, renowned battle of the Alamo survivor, was born on December 1, 1803, at the Presidio del Río Grande in the province of Coahuila in the viceroyalty of New Spain. She was the daughter of José Antonio Castañon and María Francisca Martínez. Some sources have claimed that she was born in 1785 and lived to be 113 years of age, but baptismal records support 1803 to be the year of her birth. When she was about three years old, the family moved to Laredo and then later to Nacogdoches in Texas. In an interview with the San Antonio Daily Express on March 6, 1892, Andrea Castañón reported that she moved to San Antonio in 1820 as a young girl. After arriving in San Antonio, Señora Candelaria worked in the “La Brigaviella” household of Gertrudis Pérez Cordero, wife of a former Spanish governor Texas and Coahuila.
In one of her interviews, Señora Candelaria reported, “I have been twice married; my first husband was Silberio Flores y Abrigo; my second was Candelario Villanueva, but I am called familiarly Señora Candelaria.” In spite of her request to be called “Señora Candelaria,” she was often referred to by English-speaking citizens as “Madam Candelaria,” a term also used to address a woman in a polite or respectful way.
The name of Señora Candelaria in San Antonio became a household name in following years. Marriage records show that María Andrea Castañon married Silberio Flores Abrego on May 5, 1827. By her first marriage to Silberio Flores y Abrego, they had one child, Francisca Flores, who married Wencesalo Pacheco. Following the death of Silbero Flores, Señora Candelaria married Candelario Villanueva at San Fernando Cathedral. The marriage was witnessed by Blas Herrera and María Antonia Ruiz. From this marriage, according to the 1850 census, they had had three children—Amado Villanueva, Candelario Villanueva, and Santiago Villanueva. It is interesting to note that Señora Candelaria’s name came from the feminization of the masculine name of “Candelario” to “Candelaria.”
In a sworn statement on August 26, 1837, by Candelario Villanueva to Bexar County Clerk Sam S. Smith, he stated that he was a member of Capt. Juan N. Seguin’s company in 1835 and 1836 and participated in the siege of Bexar in December 1835. He further stated that he was caught between the Alamo and Santa Anna’s soldiers and unable to get to the Alamo in time. After San Jacinto, he rejoined Seguin’s troops and became a soldier under Capt. José Antonio Menchaca’s company.
Some historians have cast doubt on Candelaria’s claim that she was in the Alamo during its siege and battle and have pointed out inconsistencies in some of the details of her recollections. Despite contradictory statements, however, there is also significant evidence that Candelaria was inside the Alamo and that she offered medical assistance to James Bowie. Several prominent nineteenth-century citizens such as Mary Maverick and John Salmon (Rip) Ford supported Señora Candelaria as being an Alamo survivor who nursed James Bowie when she applied for a pension.
Author Crystal Sasse Ragsdale stated in her book Women & Children of the Alamo (1984) that there is no clear evidence to dispute that Villanueva was in the Alamo and prove her story wrong. In Juana Alsbury’s eyewitness interview as well as Enrique Esparza’s account in the May 12, 1907, edition of the San Antonio Daily Express, both declined to refute the claim that Señora Candelaria was there. William Corner interviewed Señora Candelaria on March 17, 1888, and when he asked her if she was “inside the fortifications of the Alamo during the fight,” she unhesitatingly answered with an affirmative “Yes!” When asked if she was in the Alamo church building during the last stand, she replied without reflection that in those moments, “she was nursing Colonel James Bowie who was in bed very ill of typhoid fever.” In the San Antonio Daily Express dated July 26, 1888, listing the death of Juana Navarro Alsbury, the paper stated, “There are only two women survivors of that terrible fight now living. They are Madam Candelaria and Mrs. Losoya, who lives in the southern portion of the city.”
Some scholars have pointed out Candelaria’s inconsistency in her various accounts regarding Bowie’s illness and death. In one account she said that she raised his head to give him water when the Mexican soldiers came in, bayoneted him, and gave her a wound in the face. In an account published in the San Antonio Daily Express on March 6, 1892, she recalled that Bowie had died in her arms minutes before Santa Anna’s soldiers entered and bayoneted him. Also, the nature of Bowie’s illness has been described as pneumonia, typhoid fever, and consumption.
One of Señora Candelaria’s biggest supporters was John S. Ford, who wrote reminiscences and historical articles promoting Texas history in his later years. In his memoirs, Ford relayed information regarding the Alamo battle “derived first hand from informants,” and he wrote, “Eight or ten Mexican ladies were in the Alamo when it fell. Mrs. Alsbury, an adopted daughter of Governor Veramendi and her little sister, Señoras Candelaria, Losoya and others were present at the end of the siege.” John S. Ford, when he was Deputy Collector of Internal Revenue, wrote a letter to Texas Governor Sul Ross on March 25, 1889, requesting assistance for Señora Candelaria. The letter was given over to the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. The contents of the letter recognized her for past services and acts of kindness extended to Texans during the dark hours of the Texas Revolution. Ford wrote that “Creed Taylor, and other old Texas soldiers, bear testimony to her having secreted and fed persons” from Santa Anna and that “She was the attendant of Col. James Bowie when he was sick in the Alamo, and when that noble patriot was bayoneted by Mexican soldiery, she received a wound in the face….” Attached to the letter were more than twenty-five names of well-known San Antonians, including John Tobin, Sam Maverick, Mary Maverick, and other noted persons, who supported the request for a pension. On February 12, 1891, the Alamo Monument Association of San Antonio, in an official document, wrote, “We are satisfied and have so placed on our Records the identity of Madam Candelaria as having been present within the walls of the Alamo during the Siege, and at the final scene, is accepted as true by us . . ..”
On April 13, 1891, the legislature of the state of Texas approved by a vote in the House 72 yeas and 5 nays, and in the Senate the vote was 21 yeas to 9 nays, approving a yearly pension in the amount of $150.00. The legislature acknowledged that Candelaria nursed the sick during the siege of the Alamo and provided assistance to many Americans troops during Texas independence.
Señora Candelaria throughout her remaining lifetime recounted her narrative of what happened during the siege of the Alamo and was interviewed numerous times by historians, newspaper reporters, tourists, and many who took photographs of her. Author Vinton Lee James in Frontier and Pioneer: Recollections of Early Days in San Antonio and West Texas (1938) pronounced Señora Candelaria “the most outstanding female character of San Antonio history.”
María Andrea Castañón Villanueva was well-known in San Antonio by all. She ran an inn and a party house on Market Street frequented by well-known individuals. Señora Candelaria, recognized as one of the best cooks of Mexican dishes, served some Alamo defenders such as James Bowie and David Crockett. She later told William Corner that she knew John Twohig “Como mis manos” (“Like my hands”). She cooked for General David S. Stanley, John Twohig, H. H. Adams, and others, and, being charitable, she distributed money among the poor. As Robert E. Lee was leaving San Antonio to lead the Confederate Army, he wrote: “Give the good mother of the orphans a sheep horse”—referring to Señora Candelaria.
Maria Andrea Castañón Villanueva’s accomplishments were numerous during her lifetime. She nursed the sick during smallpox epidemics by going to the patients and remaining with them day and night. Throughout her lifetime, Señora Candelaria raised and cared for twenty-two orphan children. Often summoned by the Bexar County Commissioners Court to care for children, the court paid her a small amount of money for her services. On one occasion, she declined payment and requested adoption papers for a child. Noted for her charity, she also sent money to Cuba, where her father was forced to live after leaving Spain. As the Forty-niners passed through San Antonio to the California gold mines, Candelaria gave those who were stranded money to continue their ventures.
Doña Candelaria, as she was also called, was described in 1910 by Charles Merritt Barnes, in his book Combats and Conquests of Immortal Heroes, as “the presiding genius” of the fandangos in San Antonio. He wrote that the fandangos were held in an old adobe building (the Spanish Governor’s Palace) where they had music, dancing, and food. A musician played the violin, and the women were dressed in their finest attire, which attracted many of the elite in the city, including French artist Théodore Gentilz and his brother-in-law August Frételliére. While awaiting the arrival of empresario Henri Castro, they attended one of Señora Candelaria’s fandangos. Gentilz was so impressed with the fandango that he painted a picture simply entitled Fandango, which has been lauded as one of his best works and still hangs in the galleries of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
Another point of interest is that on December 30, 1830, Andrea Castañón filed at the Bexar County Courthouse for a cattle brand that had the two capital letters—AC—the initials of her name. Another story involves the “Madam Candelaria Bowie Knife,” which, as of 2019 was on display at the San Jacinto Museum. In the April 8, 1893, edition of the San Antonio Daily Express, a story related how James Bowie handed Madam Candelaria a knife in return for a smaller one a few days before Christmas 1835. According to the story, following the battle of the Alamo, for fear of being in possession of the weapon, she turned the knife over to a Catholic priest, Padre Garza, who eventually returned it to her. Then, she gave the knife to Augustín Barrera, a grandfather to a Mr. Campbell. Mr. Campbell kept the knife at his store until the knife made its way to the San Jacinto Museum.
Photographs and artists’ renditions of Señora Candelaria continued into her advanced age. One of the noted San Antonio photographers who took her picture was Ernst Wilhelm Raba. Even though she was blind and feeble, she continued to tell the stories of the Alamo through a translator as photographers continued to try to capture the mysteries and stories of the Alamo. Portraits of Candelaria were painted by Anna H. Stanley in 1886 and an oil color portrait by William H. Huddle. Perhaps the most famous depiction of María Andrea Castañón Villanueva was painted by renowned artist Verner Moore White, who portrayed her image in front of the Alamo in his 1901 painting of the Alamo, which was presented to President William McKinley after his visit to San Antonio and hung in the White House until his death.
María Andrea Castañón Villanueva died in San Antonio on February 10, 1899. The article, “The Last Voice Hushed: Death of Madam Candelaria Yesterday,” headlined in the February 11, 1899, issue of the San Antonio Daily Express, mentioned that she would be buried on that very same day. Her remains were held in the home of her daughter, Mrs. Francisco Flores Pacheo, at 419 South Concho Street (where she died) for viewing and were taken to San Fernando Cathedral for a high Mass and were later interred at San Fernando Cemetery No. 1. Honorary pallbearers for the burial were Gen. W. H. Young, Capt. Sam C. Bennett, Capt. William McMaster, Capt. J. A. McCormick, Capt. Juan Garza, and James Callimore.
María Andrea Castañón Villanueva, popularly known as Señora Candelaria and Madam Candelaria, has continued to be a heroine of Texas history and a heroine of San Antonio during a very turbulent and difficult time of San Antonio history.