One of the most famous documents in American history, “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” was written by Lt. Col. William B. Travis as a plea for reinforcements to defend the Alamo against Mexican forces during the Texas Revolution in 1836. Intimately connected with the letter is Albert Martin, born in 1808 in Providence.
Martin’s two grandfathers fought in the American Revolution and his fervent support of liberty was not surprising. After attending Norwich University in Vermont, he followed his father and brothers to Tennessee and later to New Orleans, eventually settling his family in Gonzales, Texas, in 1835. He opened a general store affiliated with the family business, Martin, Coffin & Company. The Texas Revolution broke out in 1835. Albert was involved in the defense of Gonzales (about 70 miles from the Alamo) and in Bexar (the original name of San Antonio) where he was wounded.
On February 23, 1836, a Mexican army numbering some 1500 laid siege to Texians holding the Alamo. Martin, a Captain in the Texas Rangers, returned from Gonzales and was immediately sent by Col. Travis to meet an aide of Mexican General Santa Anna’s who refused to see him. The following day, Col. Travis entrusted Martin to deliver an open letter to San Felipe de Austin containing a plea for reinforcements. Texans today revere this stirring language as their version of the Declaration of Independence:
TO THE PEOPLE OF TEXAS & ALL AMERICANS IN THE WORLD:
Fellow citizens and compatriots – I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna – I have sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded surrender at discretion, otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken – I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch – The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country – Victory or Death.
William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt
P.S.The Lord is on our side – When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn – We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.
Martin rode through the night back to Gonzales and handed the letter to colleague Lancelot Smithers. On the way, Martin added two personal postscripts. He wrote of his fear that the Mexican army had already launched their attack on the fort and added, “Hurry on all the men you can in haste.” The second is hard to read since the letter has frayed along a fold. But, it appears to convey that the Texians were “determined to do or die.”
Smithers penned his own postscript to the letter and carried it on to Austin. The letter was widely published, but it took some time for a large force to be assembled. Back in Gonzales, a small relief force of 32 men set out for the Alamo. Against his father’s wishes, Martin went with them and on March 1 made it back into the fortress. Five days later Albert was among the 188 men killed in the Battle of the Alamo. In April of 1836, an American army under General Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Martin’s body was never recovered. It was likely among those burned by the Mexicans who then scattered the ashes of the Alamo defenders. The original Travis letter survived and is now in the Texas State Library in Austin, where a copy is on public display.
In July of 1836, Martin’s obituary was published in the New Orleans True American newspaper. It reads, in part: “Among those who fell in the storming of the Alamo was Albert Martin, a native of Providence, Rhode Island and recently a citizen of this city … He had left the fortress and returned to his residence. In reply to the passionate entreaties of his father, who besought him not to rush into certain destruction, he said ‘this is no time for such considerations. I have passed my word to Colonel Travers, that I would return, nor can I forfeit a pledge thus given.’ Thus died Albert Martin, a not unapt illustration of New England heroism. He has left a family, and perhaps a Nation to lament his loss and he had bequeathed to that family an example of heroic and high-minded chivalry which can never be forgotten.”
There is a cenotaph at the Martin family plot in Providence’s North Burial Ground memorializing Albert. Although a pamphlet distributed at the Alamo states Martin was a Rhode Island native, a plaque at the memorial says he is from Tennessee. Officials at the shrine have long been aware of the error, but decline to correct it since in their view, “there are errors all over the place here and we cannot change them all.” But, in Rhode Island, we know the true story.
A Postscript: The Varnum Museum collection includes a US Model 1816, .69 caliber musket manufactured at the Springfield Armory in 1833 and several others made at the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. This type would have been used by Texians at the Alamo and by the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. More 1816 models (675,000) were made than any other flintlock in U.S. history. Many were converted to percussion caps in the period leading up to the Civil War.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin