On March 6, 1918, a woman named Adina De Zavala unveiled two marble tablets marking the location of the funeral pyres for the men who died at the Alamo. The ceremony has been long forgotten and the land covered over by buildings, severing our historical connection with these sacred sites.
A story in the San Antonio Light on March 6, 1918, described the plaque ceremony, attended by several hundred people, with speeches by generals from Fort Sam Houston and the unveiling by De Zavala, granddaughter of the first vice president of the Republic of Texas. Three volleys and the blowing of taps ended the ceremony.
The pyres were on opposite sides of what is now East Commerce Street, one where the now-demolished Halff building sat, and the other on the site of the old Ludlow house, according to the newspaper’s account. The story of the pyres and the efforts to commemorate them illustrates how the passage of time and the growth of a city can erase crucial parts of history.
“Time passed on,” wrote S.J. Wright in her article “Where Lie the Bodies of the Alamo Heroes,” published in the San Antonio Express on July 10, 1932. “San Antonio remained a Mexican town. That portion in the vicinity of the Alamo, across the river and ‘on the other side of town,’ was a decidedly unsafe place because of skulking Indians.
Although a funeral occurred there occasionally, there was always a strict watch kept for Indian assailants. Time had not yet given perspective to the event of the fall of the Alamo nor had it placed highlights upon the sublime death of its defenders.”
The earliest mention I found of the pyres was by eyewitness Francisco Antonio Ruiz, the alcalde (mayor) of San Antonio when the Alamo fell. In 1860, Ruiz recounted what he had seen for the Texas Almanac.
“Santa Anna, after the Mexicans were taken out, ordered wood to be brought to burn the bodies of the Texans” Ruiz wrote. “He sent a company of dragoons with me to bring wood and dry branches from the neighboring forests. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon of the next day they commenced laying wood and dry branches upon which a file of dead bodies were placed, more wood was piled on them and another file brought, and in this manner all were arranged in layers. Kindling wood was distributed through the pile and about 5 o’clock in the evening it was lighted.”
Dr. J.H. Bernard, a surgeon of Fannin’s command who visited the Alamo ruins a few weeks after the battle, wrote in his diary of May 25, 1836, “… after looking at the spot where it is said that Travis fell and Crockett closed his immortal career, we went to visit the ashes of those brave defenders of our country, a hundred rods from the fort or church where they were burned. The bodies had been reduced to cinders; occasionally a bone of a leg or arm was seen almost entire.”
In 1877, an article titled “Extract from a Lecture on Western Texas” in the Daily Express indicated the pyres were no longer there. The Hon. R.S. Spofford wrote, “For myself, on the last anniversary of the event, standing by the site of the funeral pyre of the Texans … the victims of the Alamo, for their ashes blown to the four winds, have extended their fame throughout the world, wherever the martyred brave are honored, wherever there is a recompense in human gratitude for heroic deeds.”
In 1910, Charles Barnes, journalist-historian and writer for the Express-News, published Combats and Conquests of Immortal Heroes and stated:
“When the slaughter was done, Santa Anna was confronted with the problem of disposing the dead. He directed the Alcalde, Ruiz, to have built two immense wooden pyres. These were located on what was then known as the Alameda, or Cottonwood grove roadway. It is now a wide portion of East Commerce Street. The northeast end of one of the pyres extended into the eastern portion of the front yard of what is now the Ludlow House. The other pyre was in what is now the yard of Dr. Ferdinand Herff Sr.’s old Post, or Springfield House. I have had both pyres’ positions positively located by those who saw the corpses of the slain placed there.”
Two days later, only a few skulls and limbs were left, and after being exposed for several more days, a small pit was dug in what is now the Ludlow front yard where the remains were buried. The wind had dispersed the remaining ashes.
In 1911, Barnes wrote an article for the Express-News that was more specific.
“The pyre occupied a space about ten feet in width by sixty in length, and extended from northwest to southeast from the property owned by Mrs. Ed Steves, on which the Ludlow House is built, to and through the property that the Moody structure is to occupy, and a short distance out into the street. The other pyre, which was of equal width, was about eighty feet long and was laid out in the same direction, but was on the opposite side and on property now owned by Dr. Ferdinand Herff Sr., about 250 yards southeast of the first pyre, this property being known as the site of the old Post House or the Springfield House (334 E. Commerce St.).
In 1912, Barnes wrote a lengthy article about the Springfield House and its pending demolition. “It is some sixty odd years, ago that the Springfield house was built, and sixty years is time enough for many changes to occur. The old house stands, ramshackle and deserted, on East Commerce Street, just a little beyond St. Joseph’s church. In a short time it will be torn down, a modern business building will take its place; it will have passed away and be forgotten.”
When the building was demolished in 1968 for the extension of the paseo del rio, Bill Sinkin and his wife, the building owners then, removed one of the plaques and stored it for safekeeping. In 1995, it was placed on a rock wall further west on Commerce Street, with a bronze plaque explaining the move.
The plaque for the second pyre has disappeared. At one point the Ludlow House was the home of the Salvation Army chapel, and an old photo shows the plaque on the building then. The 1900 Census lists Samuel Ludlow, his wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and nine boarders at 309 Commerce St.
Since the Sanborn map of 1895 shows both the Ludlow House and the Springfield House, it was an excellent map to use as the base map for the location of the pyres. Lining up St. Joseph’s Church on that map with an aerial from Google Earth indicates the River Center parking garage at 849 E. Commerce St. and the Marriott Rivercenter hotel parking garage are on the sites.
Wouldn’t it be grand if the Reimagine the Alamo team could conduct some more exact measurements, include the pyre sites in their redevelopment plan, and once again erect proper memorials to our heroes?