A L A M O   D E   P A R R A S

Adina De Zavala
Alamo Crusader

By Frank W Jennings with Rosemary Williams

©1995, Texas Highways

From the late 1800s until her death in 1955, a fragile-looking wisp of a black-haired, blue-eyed woman made it her mission to protect Texas historical treasures. She forged innovative volunteer groups. She identified and marked important historic sites. And she even defied law officers in her zeal to preserve the Alamo.

Among Texas' historical preservation pioneers, few can equal the record of San Antonio teacher and historian Adina Emilia De Zavala. Energetic and dedicated, Adina spearheaded preserving such important state historical sites as the Alamo complex, four other former Franciscan missions, and the Spanish Governor's Palace, all in San Antonio.

In addition, Adina De Zavala encouraged the statewide recognition of Texas Independence Day on March 2. She established organizations to further the preservation of historical sites and the education of Texans about their heritage. She suggested that Texas public schools be named for state heroes (San Antonio schools were designated by numbers until 1902), and she facilitated the marking of almost 40 major sites as places of historical significance.

Adina's formidable accomplishments took root in a childhood steeped in Texas history.

The granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, the first vice president of the provisional government of Texas, Adina was born on November 28, 1861, in Harris County within sight of the battlefield of San Jacinto, east of today's Houston. She was the eldest of six children born to rancher Augustine De Zavala (originally de Zavala), who became a captain in the Confederate Navy, and Julia Tyrrell De Zavala, a patrician, Dublin-born woman educated in Galveston. Adina grew up absorbing Texas history and developing her love for reading and learning.

"I cannot remember when I could not read," Adina told writer Pearl Howard in a 1935 interview for Holland's magazine. "My favorite storybooks were about history, myths came next. My sister and I produced 'plays'--always scenes from history," she said. Tutored at home until 1871, Adina attended Ursuline Academy in Galveston from 1871 to 1873.

About 1873, Augustine moved his family from De Zavala Point on Buffalo Bayou to ranch land near Locke Hill, a community on Fredericksburg Road, 12 miles north of downtown San Antonio. Later, from 1879 to 1881, Adina continued her education by attending Sam Houston Normal Institute (now Sam Houston State University) in Huntsville, and a music school in Chillicothe, Missouri. Despite her Spanish surname, she never learned the language. Her mother was Irish, and her father was the son of a Mexican politician and his second wife, Emily West, an Anglo from New York.

After teaching high school in Terrell, Texas, from 1884 to 1886, Adina joined other family members in San Antonio, where she taught in elementary schools until 1907. When Adina's father, Augustine, died in 1893, her mother, Julia, remained with daughters Adina and Mary, while managing the family's property holdings.

Shortly after Adina came to San Antonio in 1887 to teach at Ward School No. 5 (which would become David G. Burnet School), she began her lifelong efforts to preserve Texas' historic places and patriotic traditions. Within two years, other preservation minded women joined her to help carry out her work. She explained her unswerving dedication by quoting David Crockett's motto: "Be sure you're right, then go ahead."

Her group met periodically at first. They gathered "to keep green the memory of heroes, founders, and pioneers of Texas," said Adina. In 1893, the women became affiliated with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas as the De Zavala Chapter, named for Adina's grandfather. In its earliest days, the chapter turned its attention to the four missions south of San Antonio and to the Alamo, established as Mission San Antonio de Valero in 1718 and discontinued as a church in 1793. The women's quest was well aimed and well timed, for these historic stone structures were falling into ruin in the late 1800s.

San Antonio historian William Corner wrote in his 1890 book, San Antonio de Bexar, "A protest must be recorded here against the wanton mutilation of the sculpture of the Missions by thoughtless relic hunters. The shameful chipping of the beautiful carving has been going on for years. At San Jose, whole figures have been stolen and others made headless; the fine old carved cedar paneled doors of this mission are entirely wrecked and carried away piecemeal...."

Adina's group could only begin to cope with the overwhelming task of protecting and restoring the crumbling missions. Pompeo Coppini, the Italian-born sculptor who created the cenotaph that fronts the Alamo, wrote that his wife, Lizzie, and Adina "went out every day with our horse and buggy, calling on all the merchants of the town for some contributions of bricks, lumber, cedar posts, or wire to repair fences. These articles, in lieu of money, were to be used in repairing all the missions, the chapel of the Alamo included."

For several years, Adina concentrated on trying to obtain for the State of Texas control of the privately owned two-story former quarters and offices of the Alamo missionaries, the building known as the convento. so called the "long barracks," the site saw much of the bloodiest fighting during the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. The more publicized adjacent mission church was owned by the State of Texas, which had purchased the building from the Catholic Church in 1883 and had given custody to the City of San Antonio.

The convento had suffered a checkered existence for many years. In 1878, wholesale grocer Honore Grenet framed the stone structure with wood to simulate a fortress. After Grenet's death, his estate sold the building to the grocery firm Hugo & Schmeltzer in 1884. About eight years later, Adina De Zavala persuaded Gustav Schmeltzer to grant her historical society first option to buy the long barracks if his company ever decided to sell the structure.

In 1903, Adina's strategy paid off when the owners of Hugo & Schmeltzer told her they were considering selling the property to a hotel syndicate. Immediately, Adina attempted to notify the proprietors of the Menger Hotel of their potential competitor on the plaza. Although the owners of the Menger were out of the country, Adina was introduced to hotel guest Clara Driscoll, whose interest in restoring the Alamo church was well known.

Miss Driscoll, daughter of wealthy cattle rancher, oilman, banker, and commercial developer Robert Driscoll Sr. from near Corpus Christi, joined the De Zavala Chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

On March 17,1903, Clara Driscoll, accompanied by Adina De Zavala, presented a check for $500 to the firm of Hugo & Schmeltzer to secure an option to purchase the property. Payments would total $75,000 over four years.

From then on, as the De Zavala chapter's chairman of the Committee on Alamo and Mission Improvements, Clara not only led an expansive effort to raise funds to buy the Alamo property, but she also spent some $65,000 of her own money.to meet stipulated deadlines. Clara's financial help became necessary when private contributions totaled less than $10,000 and the state had not yet appropriated the remainder of the needed money.

On January 26, 1905, Governor S.W.T Lanham signed legislation for state funding to preserve the Alamo property. The state reimbursed Clara Driscoll and, on October 4,1905, the governor formally conveyed the Alamo property, including the convento and the mission church, to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

After their lengthy, successful campaign to acquire and protect the Alamo, Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll clashed irreconcilably over how the site should be interpreted. Clara preferred a park like setting, including the removal of the remaining convento walls, which would allow visitors to focus on the church area. Adina, however, contended that the convento walls should remain intact because it was there that so many heroes had fought and died in March 1836.

The disagreement triggered an event that catapulted Adina De Zavala and her cause into national celebrity. In 1908, on February 10, Adina barricaded herself in the long barracks building to protest its being rented. Adina feared that a Daughters of the Republic of Texas faction influenced by Clara Driscoll planned to rent part of the site to a group of investors from St. Louis, Missouri, who were affiliated with several local businessmen. She refused to leave for three days, ignoring a visit from the sheriff and suffering a boycott (not strictly enforced) that forbade anyone to bring her food and water.

In 1935, during her interview with Pearl Howard for Holland's magazine, Adina described her exploit.

"I had been told, on good authority, that a syndicate which had an option on the property back of the Alamo intended to seize the Alamo and tear it down, so as to use the space as part of the plaza, a sort of front yard to the hotel or amusement palace which they expected to erect on the property back of the Alamo--on which also they had an option.

"My lawyers on whom I depended were out of the city; but I had heard that 'possession is nine points in the law.' Something had to be done, and quickly. So I took possession, and engaged three men to guard the old mission-fortress night and day.

"At dusk, just as I was giving them some last instructions, the raid was made. The agents of the syndicate threw my men out bodily, expecting to take possession. They did not know I was in an inner room, and when I hurried out to confront them, demanding by what right they invaded the historic building, consternation reigned. They withdrew outside the building for whispered consultation. The instant they stepped out, I closed the doors and barred them. That's all. There was nothing else for me to do but hold the fort. So I did."



Adina De Zavala piqued national interest in 1908 when newspapers coast to coast reported that she had locked herself in the Alamo barracks for three days to protest a commercial takeover. A music company in Missouri soon published a song called "Remember the Alamo" with Adina's portrait on the sheet music.

But apparently, in holding the fort, Adina crossed swords with the law. The February 11,1908, edition of the San Antonio Light reported that the sheriff, armed with an injunction, went to the Alamo grounds. "An attempt was made to serve the injunction upon Miss De Zavala. . . but the decrees of the court brought no fear.... she refused to accept a copy. . . and when an attempt was made to read it. . . she stopped her ears with her fingers."

Adina De Zavala remained barricaded within the Alamo complex for three days, until she was certain that the site she treasured as the Texas shrine of liberty was safe from profane use. Newspapers across the nation carried the story, and a music publisher released a song titled "Remember the Alamo," with Adina's photograph adorning the sheet music.

Although Adina staved off complete destruction of the walls, the structure did not endure unscathed. In 1913, the upper story of the convento was demolished by order of Lieutenant Governor Will Mayes, who issued the decree when Governor Oscar Colquitt was out of state. But the remaining structure today forms an integral part of the Alamo complex, thanks in no small measure to the 1908 intervention of Adina De Zavala.

Years later, during the Republic of Texas centennial year of 1936, Adina renewed her efforts to spotlight the convento as the site of the hardest fought combat in the Alamo. She wrote a letter to the state's newspaper editors decrying the focus on the church as the main structure of the Alamo. "You can not learn the history of the Alamo by visiting the church of the Alamo today," she wrote. "The bloodiest spot about the Fort was the long barrack and the ground in front of it, where the enemy fell in heaps.... the Church of San Antonio de Padua is NOT THE ALAMO, but just a small part of it--and not where the heroes died...." Within the letter, Adina pointed out that, according to accounts, the church building at the time of the battle was roofless and filled with debris, making it unfit for use.

Although Adina's dramatic and much-heralded defense of the Alamo consistently garnered acclaim for the feisty preservationist, it was by no means her only achievement. As a teacher, she concentrated on innovative and creative ways to teach children about their Texas heritage. Her 1900 playlet, The Six National Flags That Have Floated Over Texas, helped acquaint her students with the diverse nationalities that formed the state.



The daughter of an Irish woman educated in Galveston and a Mexican politician's son who would become a captain in the Confederate Navy, Adina De Zavala grew up absorbing Texas history. A prolific writer as an adult, Adina donated her large collection of documents to the University of Texas in Austin and Incarnate Word College in San Antonio.

Later, her "Texas Under Six Flags" concept stimulated major goals of the San Antonio Conservation Society, the renowned volunteer organization that today is the second oldest community-oriented preservation group in the United States. Adina interested her schoolteacher friend Anna Ellis, one of the founders of the society in 1924 and its president in 1927 and 1928, in restoring homes representative of the six governments that had flown flags over Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States, and the Confederate States of America.

Together with Elizabeth O. Graham and others in the society, Adina De Zavala and Anna Ellis helped save the Spanish Governor's Palace and several other structures, including the cluster of houses once lived in by Texas patriot Jose Antonio Navarro, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence.

In 1912, Adina and members of the historical preservation group she had founded in 1893 formed the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association. The association admitted male members and women ineligible to join the DRT (from which Adina's chapter had been legally severed in 1910) and established chapters in Crockett, Refugio, New Braunfels, San Patricio, and Goliad. Adina and members of the association researched and marked 28 historic sites in San Antonio and 10 elsewhere in the state between 1922 and 1935, many years before the first Texas Historical Survey Committee marker was cast and placed in 1962. The Texas Historical and Landmarks Association disbanded in 1955, the year Adina De Zavala died.

Adina was a charter member of the Texas State Historical Association, a member of its executive council for 35 years, and in 1945, she became the only member voted an honorary life fellow of the council.

At age 65, Adina called herself "a student and jealous lover of Texas history." On March 2,1951, when she was 90, the San Antonio Conservation Society presented an award to her at the Spanish Governor's Palace for "marking historic homes and sites."

Adina was a prolific writer. Her work included numerous newspaper articles on historical Texas subjects and a 1917 book titled History and Legends of the Alamo and Other Missions In and Around San Antonio. In 1951, she donated most of her large collection of documents, described by experts as "of inestimable value to Texas historians," to the University of Texas in Austin, where it is used today by scholars at The Center for American History. She willed the remainder of her papers to Incarnate Word College in San Antonio.

When Adina died at age 93 on March 1,1955, the eve of her revered Texas Independence Day, she was the last surviving member of her family. Two months after her death, the Texas Legislature paid tribute to her for playing "a major role in preserving the Alamo and the Spanish Governor's Palace" and for placing "permanent markers on some 40 historic sites in Texas, many of which might otherwise be forgotten."

The Legislature also honored her for "urging and sponsoring" the flying of the Texas flag on March 2 to commemorate Texas Independence Day, and it credited her with suggesting the practice of "preserving the memory of Texas heroes by giving names to our public schools."

The concurrent resolution also stipulated that "in her memory an appropriate plaque be placed in the Alamo, Shrine and Cradle of Texas Liberty, in grateful recognition of her services to the history of Texas." But it wasn't until 1994 that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas showed signs of genuine reconciliation with Adina De Zavala. On September 27, top officers of the DRT took part in a ceremony at Adina's grave at Saint Mary's Cemetery in San Antonio, dedicating a special Daughters of the Republic Commemorative Marker. The Children of the Republic of Texas arranged for the marker and ceremony, under the sponsorship of DRT third vice president general Lee Spencer of Freer.

This was followed in November by an even more gracious tribute to Adina, when the DRT Board of Management agreed that the Alamo Committee should create a bronze marker to be placed in the Alamo to commemorate both Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll.

Further recognition came to Adina in 1994 when the Bexar County Historical Commission was granted approval to place a State Historical Marker on city property in Alamo Plaza to honor this extraordinary Texan.

Some 40 years after her death, Adina De Zavala's work continues to bring Texas history to life. Surely, she deserves to be called, with respect and gratitude, the "First Lady of Texas Historic Preservation."

San Antonio historian FRANK W. JENNINGS is writing a book about Adina De Zavala.
Former Texas Highways managing editor ROSEMARY WILLIAMS is an Austin-based freelancer.

Source: March 1995, Texas Highways Magazine. pp. 14-21