Alamo visitors walk by the mission on the fourth of July.
Two Native American groups have requested a historic cemetery designation for the Alamo grounds and the surrounding area. The General Land Office is requesting that a designation be limited to the chapel only. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Texas Historical Commission tentatively plans to hear this month the Texas General Land Office’s request to designate the church on the Alamo grounds a historic cemetery .

The commission confirmed to the Rivard Report on Tuesday that its 15 members, appointed by the governor, will use their quarterly meeting April 15-16 in Austin to review the land office’s application.

However, the General Land Office’s request is expected to face opposition primarily from two Native American groups that filed paperwork last year to have the State designate a larger part of the Alamo grounds a historic cemetery.

The commission in January tabled the designation requested by the two groups, the San Antonio Missions Cemetery Association and the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation. Commissioners told the groups to return with a proposal that would involve smaller and better-defined boundaries for an Alamo cemetery.

The Native American groups found an ally in the City of San Antonio, which had City archaeologist Kay Hindes help them with research to solidify their claims to the existence of a mass burial ground around the former Spanish colonial mission. But with the General Land Office filing its own designation request, the two groups are left wondering what will become of their proposal.

American Indians in Texas (AIT), a nonprofit organization, is working with the two groups that filed the original cemetery designation request. Executive Director Ramon Vasquez says official records, such as Alamo Book of Burials, point to the presence of more than 1,300 people buried around the Alamo grounds.

The book of burials covers a period between 1703 and 1855, noting the identities of indigenous peoples who lived in the area before and during the establishment of the Spanish colonial missions in what would become San Antonio.

“This is common knowledge,” Vasquez said of the burial records. “The problem is nobody has designated the Alamo as a cemetery. The State has strict cemetery codes.”

Vasquez served on the Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee, which oversaw formation of an Alamo Plaza master plan. He said his organizations and other groups have spent years trying to persuade the State to designate the Alamo a historic cemetery to provide the property with formal protections.

Such protections are needed, Vasquez said, before any work related to planned Alamo Plaza development begins.

“But our requests have fallen on deaf ears,” he added.

AIT executive director Ramon Vasquez.
Ramon Vasquez is executive director of American Indians in Texas, which is working with the two Native American groups. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Documentation prepared by GTI Environmental, a local environmental consultancy firm, points to previous communications with Texas Historical Commission (THC) staff that endorses the concept of a large burial ground on the Alamo property.

“In THC consultation letters with (AIT), dated Oct. 18, 2018, the THC archaeology staff acknowledges the historic cemetery boundary includes the chapel, entire plaza, and outside the plaza perimeter,” the document stated.

Vasquez said it was confusing that commission members seem to have rejected their own staff’s findings and opted to table the two groups’ application.

The General Land Office (GLO), in its application, asks the State to designate only the Alamo chapel as a historic cemetery and takes issue with the Native American groups about when official burial records are taken into account.

“Burial records of Mission San Antonio de Valero (Alamo) as translated by John Ogden Leal indicate that there were no records of burials occurring within the current church until November of 1749,” the GLO document states.

“Records in the document dating between 1703 and 1724 occurred before the mission was established at its currently location, and likely did not occur within the footprint of the final location of the mission.” It was 1724 when missionaries determined the final and current location of the Alamo.

Two Native American groups have filed a request to have a large portion of the Alamo grounds designated a historic cemetery. The red line shows what the groups believe as adequate enough to protect the reported burial ground. Credit: Courtesy / American Indians in Texas

Alamo Trust, which is overseen by GLO, manages operations at the Alamo. Alamo Trust officials wrote the historical commission in January, opposing the two groups’ request.

Alamo Trust opined that “a ‘historic cemetery,’ as defined by Texas law, does not exist on Alamo property.”

Vasquez claimed GLO and Alamo Trust are working “to derail our application.”

“We’re doing what the commissioners instructed us to do,” he said, adding there’s enough evidence supporting the presence of a larger cemetery worth protecting.

“We’ve always known there are remains in the chapel. What we’ve been looking are the unknowns. There are records showing high probability of the cemetery extending past the courtyard and even (the nearby) post office,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez said neither AIT nor the two groups requesting a larger cemetery area have heard anything directly from the land office or Alamo Trust. He urged GLO and Alamo Trust to work with the applicants “who are already at the table.”

In the meantime, representatives from AIT and the two applicant groups plan to speak during the “citizens to be heard” part of the THC meeting this month.

The land office has not responded to a request for further comment.

Vasquez expressed concern that GLO and Alamo Trust are denying an opportunity to officially recognize and protect the reported final resting place of hundreds of Native Americans.

“It’s a classic example of how we’re being erased from history,” he added. “It’s continuation of dehumanization. Would we be treated differently from any other ethnic group?”

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.