by Ron J. Jackson Jr. and Lee Spencer White
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. Pp. xxiv, 326.
Illus., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0806147032
New Light on a African-American Hero of the Alamo
In this very well researched work, journalist and historian Jackson and preservationist and Alamo-descendent White, make perhaps the most important contribution to the history of the Texas War for Independence in decades, by elucidating the life of Joe, the slave of William Barret Travis, and the only adult male survivor of the Alamo garrison. The pair doggedly winkled out from all sorts of places literally hundreds of letters, diary entries, news articles, and more, which permitted them to piece together a comprehensive account of Joe’s life.
After a short account of the storming of the Alamo on March 5, 1836, the authors take up Joe’s story. They open with the details that can be gleaned from these materials about Joe’s early life. Perhaps the most interesting is that they make the surprising conclusion that Joe was the brother of famed fugitive slave William W. Brown, who escaped slavery in 1834 and became a noted abolitionist and and the first published African American novelist and playwright. The authors then follow Joe’s life as he was sold and resold until he came to be “property” of the Travis family.
The authors then follow Travis – a highly unsavory character – on the travels that ultimately took him to the Alamo. The include many details about the siege and storming of the Alamo as recorded by various people to whom Joe told the tale. Unfortunately, in an amazing loss to history, the young man’s long testimony before the Texas cabinet, which we are told was recounted with considerable dignity, was not taken down and included in the minutes!
There follows an account of Joe’s later life, his own escape from slavery, and his final disappearance into obscurity. In the process of telling this tale, much light is cast on the institution of slavery in America (Joe’s standing as part of the Travis estate, for example), the legal complexities of slavery, indenture, peonage in Mexico, and American life in the early 1800s. An outstanding work.