Tourists in Alamo Plaza.
Multiple events surrounding anniversary of the historic battle of the Alamo are taking place this weekend. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Alamo will remain only a symbolic cemetery following a vote by the Texas Historical Commission.

At its quarterly meeting in Paris, Texas, commissioners voted unanimously to deny a request by the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association to designate approximately 10 acres around the Alamo as an official “unverified cemetery” under state law. The motion means there will not be more stringent legal requirements for the treatment of any human remains found during the redesign of Alamo Plaza.

In their motion Friday, commissioners said the association’s application provides “some evidence of human internment but does not provide sufficient evidence of the existence of a cemetery. Until archaeological investigations confirm the presence of interred burials, the cemetery remains unverified.”

The vote was a setback for groups that supported having increased regulations for human remains discovered at the historic mission and battleground. In May, the commission had approved the Alamo’s designation as a “historic Texas cemetery,” though that declaration does not hold requirements under state law governing human remains.

The Texas General Land Office, which owns the Alamo, had opposed the more official cemetery designation, arguing in part that it would stop the Alamo’s $450 million redesign.

“There’s more than enough information and proof that we do have Alamo remains there,” said Lee Spencer White, president of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association. “What I took away from the meeting was we need more archaeological evidence, but the state of Texas did not order more archaeological evidence, so there we stand.”

The decision came as work began this week on two archaeological investigations that mark the first phases of the redesign work.

Archaeologists from UTSA’s Center for Archaeological Research have been using shovels to excavate areas around the perimeter of Alamo Plaza where steel bollards will be installed to block vehicle traffic. Raba Kistner archaeologists also have been digging in test areas of the Alamo church and long barrack to study how best to preserve the two structures.

So far, digs have uncovered a post hole that may be from improvements to the long barracks as much as around 150 years ago, with a fragment of a ceramic utility pipe from the late 1800s or early 1900s. Archaeologists also have found nails, glass bottles, and glass fragments.

Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, a group that traces its lineage to Native Americans living in San Antonio’s missions, also had thrown its support behind the cemetery designation out of concern for human remains that might be found during the site’s redevelopment. After the vote, Ramon Vasquez, director of its nonprofit American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, said the group’s next move likely would be legal action.

Alamo staff assembled an archaeology committee that includes members from several federally recognized tribes from Texas and Oklahoma and have descendants who might have been buried in and around the Alamo Plaza site, to develop a plan for how to treat human remains. Tap Pilam is a tribe without federal recognition, and thus was not among the Native American groups on the committee.

In an emailed statement Friday, GLO officials said they will “continue to be respectful and careful in our archeological study and in the event human remains are encountered.

“In order to ensure vigilance, certified tribal monitors are working with the Alamo archaeologist to oversee the ongoing work.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.