The Disposition of the Alamo Defenders' Ashes

Ever since remains were discovered in 1936 by workmen who were making repairs to the alter at the San Fernando Cathedral, there have been skeptics as to their origin.

Any "box" that might have existed has long since returned to the earth. The "remains" at the San Fernando Cathedral were placed in a new marble coffin and enshrined there at the church.

Archbishop, Arthur J. Drossaerts, the cleric (and not an historian or trained archaeologist) who first asserted that the remains were those of the Alamo defenders, stated:

"The rough wooden coffin has moldered into dust, only a few rusty nails survive; a few shreds of military uniforms can still be recognized; a few crushed skulls and charred bones together with the very charcoal of their funeral pyre in front of the Alamo and the ashes of their bodies have been gathered by devoted patriotic hands and placed in a temporary receptacle."

Archbishop Drossaerts had his opponents. Chief among these was L.W. Kemp, who in a series of lengthy letters to the Archbishop made a compelling argument against the cleric's claims. I will attempt to summarize Mr. Kemp's arguments beginning with the most damning evidence, the personal account of Lieutenant Colonel Juan N. Seguin.
Marble coffin in the San Fernando Cathedral. The Church alleges this box holds the remains of the Alamo defenders.

On March 28, 1837 the Telegraph and Texas Register, Columbia, printed over the name of Lt. Col. John [Juan] N. Seguin, the following detailed account of the military funeral accorded the remains of the martyrs of the Alamo:

"In conformity with an order from the general commanding the army at headquarters, Col. Seguin, with his command stationed at Bexar, paid his honors of war to the remains of the heroes of the Alamo; the ashes were found in three places, the two smallest heaps were carefully collected, placed in a coffin neatly covered with black, and having the names of Travis, Bowie and Crockett, engraved on the inside lid, and carried to Bexar and placed in the parish church, where the Texian flag, a rifle and a sword were laid upon it for the purpose of being accompanied by the procession, which was formed at 3 o'clock on the 25th day of February; the honors to be paid were announced in orders of the evening previous, and by the tolling knell from daybreak to the hour of interment; at 4 o'clock the procession moved from the church in Bexar, in the following order: "Field officers; staff officers; civil authorities; clergy military not attached to corps, and others. Mourners and relatives; music; battalion; citizens.

"The procession then passed through the principal street of the city, crossed the river, passed through the principal avenue on the other side, and halted at the place where the first ashes had been gathered; the coffin was then placed upon the spot, and three volleys of musketry were discharged by one of the companies; the procession then moved on to the second spot, whence part of the ashes in the coffin had been taken, where the same honors were paid; the procession then proceeded to principal spot, and place of interment, where the grave had been prepared, the coffin had been placed on the principal heap of ashes..."

Clearly we can see from this that the remains were taken to the church and then by procession taken to the the spot where they were originally found and buried.  At this time Seguin delivered his now famous eulogy where he predicts that  a "towering fabric of architecture, shall be roared by their grateful countrymen above their ashes..." Not only was a monument ever erected, but not so much as a field stone was laid to mark the spot, thus losing the location forever.

Part of the Drossaerts' confusion came from the translation of a letter written by Seguin some 52 years after this initial report. On March 28, 1889, the 83-year-old and sickly Seguin wrote: 

"The remains of those who died at the Alamo were ordered burned by Gen. Santana[sic], and the few fractions I ordered deposited in an urn [lit. the Spanish urna: coffin or casket] ; I ordered a sepulcher opened in the cathedral of San Antonio immediately at the Presbytery; that is, in front of the railing, but very near the steps..."
Drossaerts argued that the 1889 letter precisely identified the location and the condition of the remains and thus was the correct account.

However, accounts carried in the San Antonio Express on July 29 and 30 while the excavations were being made stated:

"Practically all the bones of the three men, confidently believed to have been those of William B. Travis,  James Bowie and David Crockett...reposed in the vault of San Fernando Cathedral Wednesday in two graves about 15 feet behind the present alter.  The bones of the two men were found slightly north of the center of the church and the other bones came from an excavation a few feet south...."

Another newspaper report stated:

"Tufts of light colored or red hair were found with the remains"

Concerning Kemp's claim that the funeral took place in February of 1837, Archbishop Drossaerts said:

"How, could anyone collect any ashes of the Heroes of the Alamo eleven months after their holocaust? A physical impossibility! The storms and winds and rains surely would have washed away during those many intervening months all remaining ashes..."

The Archbishop insisted that the funeral had to have taken place in late April or early May of 1836 and that the the 1889 letter did not contradict the 1837 account. According to him, the ashes were interred in the Cathedral in the spring of 1836 then removed in February of 1837 for the military honors described in the earlier account and then returned to the church....something of a stretch.

San Antonio was still in the hands of the Mexicans until May of 1836 and Juan Seguin was not ordered to take charge of San Antonio until September 17, 1836. Prior to that he was stationed in Velasco.

Kemp reminded the Archbishop in a letter that:

"At least three authorities say that before the bodies were burned by the Mexicans they were stripped of clothing...But assuming that the bodies had not been stripped, Seguin said 'The few fractions I ordered deposited in an urn.' How could any fabric, epaulette or human hair survive such heat that had reduced the bones of 180 men to a few fractions?"

One interesting footnote to all this was the presence of Dr. J. H. Barnard and Dr. Jack Shackleford who were with Fannin at Goliad. Because they were physicians, their lives were spared so that they could minister to the wounded Mexicans.  Dr. Bernard kept a diary that has proven invaluable.

On April 16, 1836 he recorded:

"By request of Colonel Ugartachea, the commandant of Goliad, Dr. Shackelford and myself promised to go to San Antonio to take in our charge the wounded officers there."

The two doctors arrived in San Antonio on the 19th of April and reported to General Juan Jose Andrade. On May 24th at noon he wrote:

"The Mexican troops are now leaving town and the last column is this moment crossing the river."

On the following day he wrote:

"After visiting the spots were Travis fell and Crockett closed his mortal career, we went to visit the ashes of those brave defenders of our country. About 100 rods from the fort we came to where they were burned. The bones had been reduced to cinders. Occasionally a bone of the leg or arm was seen almost entire. Peace to their ashes, their name and fame are immortal."

It was not uncommon for priest and other prominent Catholics to be buried beneath the floor of the church. Coincidentally, the place were the "alleged" Alamo remains were found coincides with the place where the remains of a large number of prominent officers and members of the Catholic faith, who were killed in the Battle of El Rossillo, March 28, 1813, were buried.  While there are several references to burials in the church found in the records of the San Fernando Cathedral, none have been found recording the burial of the Protestant and Catholic heroes who fell at the Alamo.


See Also:

Group Targets Remains of Alamo Heroes
Defender's relatives want church sarcophagus opened to study disputed bones.

"Group wants to determine if bones belong to Alamo martyrs"
Current theory sheds doubt that Alamo martyrs were buried at San Fernando Cathedral.

April 4, 1837. Colonel Juan Nepomuceno Seguin's Alamo Defenders' Burial Oration.