The Story of the Alamo is simple. Right? Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Barret Travis and a bunch of their friends went to Texas to start new lives. Then suddenly they realize they are being oppressed by the villain Mexican dictator Santa Anna. They rush off to do battle with him in an old Spanish mission in San Antonio. The morally superior Texans are outnumbered but fight valiantly and die and in doing so give Sam Houston enough time for him to prepare his army so they are able to beat Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto. And that was how independence was won for Texas.
I grew up in Texas and this was absolutely what I was taught in school.
And then I read the book “Forget the Alamo”. I will tempt you to buy the book by just telling you that there are several modern British rock stars that are entangled with the Alamo and the characters in the story of the Alamo and I will leave it there. Some of those are actually quite hilarious. OK, I will drop one name, Ozzie Osborn, and boy is it anything routine (well it is Ozzie, so what should you expect?)
The authors of the book bring up some statements some have made about this Texas narrative:
- “This is very serious business in Texas. No other state prizes it’s history quite like Texas”.
- “The idea, deeply held among generations of Texans that the state is special, somehow a cut above.”
- “Its history is kind of a civic religion.”
I don’t think I am anywhere near the far end of the overly braggadocios Texan, but I do have to say I have some Texas pride and the story of the Alamo I grew up on is part of this pride. In the several times I visited the site, I felt I was on revered land.
But then in reading “Forget the Alamo” I realize the truth may have been quite different and certainly less pure and heroic. I read what the main motivation is for people to come to Texas and the character of many of those that came. Mexico welcomed settlers to provide a buffer from the Comanche Indians so the expense of maintaining control of the land was easier. At least that was the plan. The book goes on to put forward (and give supporting evidence) that the entire Texas revolt was mainly about protecting slavery from Mexico’s abolitionist government so that the newcomers could make (lots of) money growing and selling cotton. Very little was about Santa Anna’s tyranny. In fact, he seems reasonable and actually provoked by the “rebels” after trying very hard to appease them.
Mexico wasn’t relying on slavery as part of its economy and had few slaves. So it was easier for them to make the call to abolish slavery. When the Mexican government put forward that any slave that set foot in Mexico they would be freed at that moment, all American immigration to Texas essentially stopped. At one point the main settlement in Texas was one quarter African slaves.
A few years later the Mexican government closed border for Texas and disallowed Americans to enter – not that the Mexican government was able to enforce that edict. Cotton prices were skyrocketing and Americans flowing in doubled the state’s population in just a 4 years. The irony of Mexico closing the border to Americans just makes me laugh today. As the authors of the book mention, the only thing missing is the Mexican president saying he is going to build a wall and have the Americans pay for it.
The book goes on to put forward that many individuals, both today and at that time, thought there was no need to “defend” the Alamo. It was a needless loss of life for something that didn’t have much strategic value. And on the “fact” that all the Alamo’s defenders fought to the death with price, there is some evidence those in the Alamo tried at one point to surrender.
The book goes on to talk about the individuals that came to Texas. Stephen F Austin repeatedly said the only reason Americans would come to Texas was to farm cotton. He was opposed to slavery, but not on moral grounds, but due to a fear of slave uprisings. There are plenty of very racists statements from many of the Texas leaders. It supposedly was common knowledge that “Any man coming to Texas was running from something – an arrest warrant or debts.” William Travis left his wife and came to Texas and never returned, but his diary claims to have been with more than 4 dozen women. Sam Houston and Davey Crockett were fleeing failed political careers. Sam Houston was even well known as a drunk by the local native Americans. Many of those that came to Texas were not only slave owners but were also slave traders and used shady tactics to gain more money in these trades. Most anyone today would of course be more horrified about them trading slaves than the fact that they had blemished business reputations, but the point being is most Americans at the time probably thought of many of these individuals with some distain. Most of these individuals were not the unblemished heroes like I was taught in school. And speaking of Texas schools, many schools in Texas are named after these famous early Texans. And on the opposing side, Santa Anna gave the Texans everything they wanted EXCEPT guaranteeing they could keep their slaves and bring in more slaves. The Texans were breaking the laws, not paying taxes, and killing those that came to try and collect the taxes. There is a strong case that he was probably too soft until he was forced to get Texas under control.
It seems at almost every turn that the history I was taught is contradicted by what seems to be the real history coming to light now. And even today there are laws on the books (and threats of more) that teachers in Texas must teach a “patriotic” version of the Alamo and early Texas history. To even mention much of what is in the book, “Forget the Alamo” can get a teacher in serious trouble.
So my point of this post is not to just give a condensed history lesson. As I was reading this book, it brought up many parallels between the history of the Alamo and Texas and the history of the LDS church. I am not happy that my teachers in school were made (probably unknowingly) a myth of the history of early Texas. I dislike the fact that many of items of my conversion as a teenager came from stories told by Elder Paul H. Dunn – which later turned out to be fiction. And of course, I see parallels of placing individuals up on pedestals by covering up part of who they were, creating narratives that were objectively incorrect, and individuals – especially current leaders – that all but refuse to admit there is much of any issues of any cover up. After almost a decade past the start of my faith crisis I have read just under 100 books on church history (and insane amounts of podcasts). Sure the history of the church has some problems and some isn’t so positive. In fact I find it rather fascinating. But I am still quite upset at the coverup of the history – not so much the history itself. The same applies for the story of the Alamo. I don’t think the men were TOTAL scoundrels. I have sympathy for them as they lived through Texas summers without air-conditioning! That alone is a bit amazing. But I really can’t handle that I was told a false history and this was and still is enforced by lawmakers that don’t even want to admit there is possibly another narrative.
- Do you see parallels or differences in the Texas narrative and the LDS narrative?
- Am I just an angry Texan because someone didn’t follow the rule of “Don’t mess with Texas” [history]?
On the Church’s Newsroom page you can find a link to piece about how the Doctrine and Covenants has changed over the years. Instead of boring you with details, I’ll simply point out that this is a terrific example of the Church whitewashing its history. And my point: the whitewashing continues to this very day. It is NOT a thing of the past. It’s still happening.
Everything is white washed history if it coming from any organization
Just this week NPR mentioned that Davy Crockett participated in a massacre of American Indians – something that I had never heard, being raised on a healthy diet of Disney interpreted history. I looked it up, and yes, it’s true he participated in the brutal battle of Tallushatchee, under the leadership of General Andrew Jackson. Apparently some of later President Jackson’s policies were opposed by Crockett – so yes, history is complicated – but it shows that the elementary school version we learned about an American hero isn’t quite complete.
It’s an apt comparison with LDS history most of us learn. I never learned about seer stones, multiple first vision accounts, 14 year old wives of JS, etc etc until I was in college. I didn’t learn about polyandry until I was 40. I initially blamed my parents and Church teachers for my youth until I realized that they likely only had the official church history also. It seems like promoting a white washed history for decades was both everyone’s fault and nobody’s fault. Certainly all high level church leaders today are aware of our complicated history but are only slowly coming to grips with it.
For a church that places such a huge emphasis on Capital T “Truth” we’re pretty weak in that area.
I must be a glutton for punishment. I just started reading today, “Robert E Lee and Me”. A WestPoint historian talks about how he grew up revering Robert E Lee and how after he learned the history, he was applaud what he had been taught when young AND how he couldn’t convince even generals in the military that Lee resigned his post and instead of being true to his pledge to uphold the US constitution instead he led the confederate army that killed more American military personnel than all subsequent wars. This does tell me that the cover up and desire to paint a historic picture significantly prettier than reality is not at all limited to just the church.
Happy Hubby: you are absolutely correct that the desire to pain a pretty historic picture is not limited to the Church. But what IS limited to the Church is the claim that God is in partnership every step of the way. Like I’ve said on here before: I give Thomas Jefferson the benefit of the doubt that I don’t give Brigham Young (both were far from perfect) because TJ never claimed to be acting on the Lord’s behalf.
Shouldn’t the Church be held to a higher standard?
“what IS limited to the Church is the claim that God is in partnership every step of the way.”
I think I missed the “every step of the way” part and heard and saw other things. At least Joseph Smith and Dallin Oaks have been explicit about it not being every step of the way if that means guidance by revelation.
Then there are other religions — at least early Islam — and the old divine right of kings doctrine that would seem to say that claim is NOT limited to the Church.
Maybe I missed something. Maybe josh h missed something. But I would agree that the confidence with which BY expressed his opinions as God’s does suggest a greater condemnation of his hubris than Jefferson seems to deserve.
The actual history of the Battle of the Alamo and the reasons for it are part of the historical record. Just as one need only read newspapers and the constitutions of the Confederacy to know that the “right” encompassed in “States rights” was a the right to own slaves. I knew it when I was a youngster. Of course, I didn’t grow up in TX. The reason for TX secession from Mexico AND the United States was slavery. Texas has been a bastion of bigotry since its inception. I remember reading posted signs in restaurants there in the not too distant past: No “N” or Mexicans allowed. The stain of slavery seeps into every corner of US history, despite efforts by the Trumpist revanchists to penalize even the mention of it.
A similar problem clouds LDS history: when the facts don’t support a proposition, a myth will do just fine.
One obvious parallel to the LDS church is former members naively reading one anti track, believing it hook, line, and sinker (with religious fervor and plenty of faith), and abadoning their former beliefs. They then embrace their newfound “knowledge” which helps them feel superior to the “others” who still carry their former beliefs. Of course they also feel morally superior to the historical figures, who, based on such little and controversial evidence, they write off as having all sorts of serious personal failings.
No one says you have to believe Disney-style history, but it’s just as bad or worse to believe biased slander that’s meant to demean the ideals of freedom and morality. You basically read Marxist propaganda and threw away your beliefs based on it.
It is also worthwhile to know the true story of Alex Haley and Roots.
A fine post, HH. Sacred historical cows come in many different flavors, it seems. American history. Texas history. LDS history.
@Danyal Jamil – I agree. I have termed this “going from black and white thinking to white and black thinking”. People/societies/groups/organization are complex and most have good and bad and then on top of that there is what happens in reaction to what people do no matter their motives.
The hardest information for me was what I read on lds.org. If I had read the Gospel Topics Essays almost anywhere else, I would have believed they were anti-Mormon literature. I am glad they published them, no matter what their motives were.
Danyal Jamil, offended much? Do you derive a sense of euphoria from portraying yourself as some sort of victim? Marxist propaganda? Please show me one book/article/blog post that is critical of LDS traditional historical claims that is clearly influenced by Marxism. I would love to see it.
One more comment. I disagree with the notion that doubters tend to be black-and-white thinkers when it comes to Mormon history. The main reason is because the most common analogy that I hear in ex-Mormon community using to describe their change in perspectives is that of a shelf collapsing. What they’re saying is that there kept arising for them more and more troubling matters about church history that they kept tucking away on a metaphorical shelf. These issues grew to be so much that the shelf could no longer bear the weight and collapsed. They no longer had mental space to accommodate bracket issues. The CES letter was effective and convincing because it listed a large number of issues that Runnells had with the church. It wasn’t just a single issue. Runnells and others like him show that they were willing to try to allow exceptions, try to maintain belief but in a different light, but in the end found it too mentally taxing considering how many issues there were. This doesn’t seem like black and white thinking to me.
Another reason why many doubters get unfairly accused of black-and-white thinking is because they often pose and answer either-or questions. Posing such questions does not inherently mean that someone is closed-minded or incapable of nuanced thinking. For there are many either-or questions that we have to face and try to answer. For instance, is someone dead? A very important question to ask. We don’t want to bury someone who appears dead but is still alive. And we don’t want a body rotting beside us simply because we are holding out hope that it is still living. We want coroners to ask and answer this very important either-or question. There are many important either-or questions to be asked about the Book of Mormon. Does it contain the words of ancient Americans about Jesus Christ? That’s an either-or question. But an important one. For if it does, where is the evidence for such, how can we ascertain that in a way that would be convincing to non-Mormon experts in a variety of fields? If we can’t find that evidence, can we just call it a day? Why must we hold out endless hope, or suspend our minds in a never-ending cognitive dissonance like so many apologists do?
@JohnW – I am not disagreed with much of what you said, but some of the black and white thinking (or as I call it “white and black thinking”) to me is once someone starts saying, “All Mormons …” and “the church never …”. For an example, I think I read that the church donated a couple of million to help vaccines get out to poorer countries. Some people can’t acknowledge that this is good. I would agree that the morally the church should be giving MUCH more to such causes with as much wealth as they have. In my mind both are true. Tribalism biases our minds to paint our tribe’s actions as good or not that bad and the other tribe’s actions as bad and terrible. You have to actively fight that urge to be balanced. IMHO
Happy Hubby, I absolutely agree. Many ex-Mormons are excessively critical, make exaggerations, and don’t give credit where credit is due.
I’m reacting to the false equivalence that I often hear apologists make that many ex-Mormon arguments about history are akin to orthodox believers’ attitudes about the the Great Flood, it had to cover the whole earth and happen more or less as described in the OT. To believe less than this is faithlessness. When it comes to questions about historicity, I fail to see this parallel.
Happy Hubby, I agree that the Church should be given credit for its good deeds. The problem, as you point out, is the magnitude of its largesse. It’s minuscule.
2 % of Africans have been inoculated. And the Church is sitting on $120+B, plus innumerable other assets. How can that be justified?
The Church is so rich, the leadership doesn’t need members anymore.
This past year while doing US History with my 4th grader we learned about the slavery connection between Texas and Mexico, and that many of the defenders of the Alamo were slave owners or traders (Jim Bowie). I had never heard this before and almost fell off my chair. I live in Arizona and I’m afraid that these sorts of things are going to be scrubbed from the curriculum going forward.
That Joseph F Smith collaborated with a Seventh-day Adventist preacher to cement his disbelief in the emerging scientific research on evolution.
It wasn’t revealed by God. It was just too big of a shift for him.
Even though DNA findings corroborate Charles Darwin’s observations, it continues to be too big of a shift for many.