Alamo historians now question the story of “John”, a slave who is said to have died in the famous battle


The Alamo official site lists “John”, a slave, among 189 known defenders who died in the 1836 battle at the fort.

Texas State Historical Association Texas Manual Online said John was owned by Francis L. Desauque and was a clerk in the Matagorda County store of Desauque, near the coast. Both were at the Alamo before Desauque was dispatched for supplies just before the start of a 13-day siege.

John is said to have died at the Alamo on March 6, 1836. Desauque was killed in executions at Goliad three weeks later.

But a history researcher who meticulously tried to name everyone within the walls of the Alamo that year believes John was the product of an 1836 printing error and people’s imaginations. .

“I don’t think this guy really existed,” said Bill Groneman, unofficial historian of Alamo, a retired New York City arson investigator who lives in Kerrville.

He said the Alamo website and online manual should remove any reference to “John”.

But Carey Latimore, a history professor at Trinity University specializing in African American studies, said the entries on John should be rewritten, not deleted. He thinks John could have been an Anglo or a enslaved Black, but he was almost certainly not a freed Black and was not necessarily at the Alamo when the battle took place.

“There are certain desires to make him black, to make him a defender of the Alamo, to make him a free nigger, which would mean he might choose to be there. We have to let the evidence guide us, not our own desires, ”said Latimore, who is a history advisor on the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee,

Most people familiar with the Alamo have heard of Joe, William Barret’s slave servant Travis who survived the battle, gave eyewitness testimony and escaped bondage a year later. Joe said other black individuals were present during the 13-day siege and battle, which resulted in the deaths of up to 257 soldiers and volunteers in the fort. About 20 women, children and slaves survived, although a enslaved black woman was reportedly killed in the crossfire.

Alamo worshipers who heard of John have long thought he was one of the dead as well. But Groneman publicly questioned that narrative for nearly a decade. In a 2012 article in The Alamo Journal, a publication of The Alamo Society, an international group of siege and battle aficionados, he wrote that “collectively we have built a real person from nothing.”

Groneman still believes that a partial and hastily compiled list of 114 Alamo defenders, printed with an article 18 days after the battle in the Telegraph and Texas Register, has long misled writers and historians. The list, based on recollections of two surviving Alamo couriers who were in the fort, included a man named John with no last name and a misspelled parenthesis note that he was a “clerk in Desanque’s store. “.

The next indented line listed “Thurstor”. Groneman believes the composer intended to identify Alamo defender John Thurston, whose name has sometimes been spelled as “Thruston”.

“It was just a mistake the way the names were listed,” Groneman said.

But the list has become a primary source document. William Fairfax Gray, a lawyer and author in Texas, wrote “John” in his 1837 diary. Other writers have given him the rank of soldier. He was first identified as a black servant of Desauque in a 1907 novel, “Margaret Ballentine or the Fall of the Alamo”, by Frank Templeton, and called “slave” by historian Amelia Williams in an article from the 1930s in Southwestern Historical Quarterly, according to Groneman.

In their 1985 book, “Roll Call at the Alamo”, Groneman and his co-author Phil Rosenthal also identified John as Desauque’s slave.

Then, in a 1990 book, “Alamo Defenders – A Genealogy: The People And Their Words”, Groneman indicated that John’s residence was “probably Matagorda, Texas” and his occupation as “store clerk, possibly a slave”. He admitted that John may have been a freedman working for Desauque, a slave owned by another defender of Alamo, or “a defender who only appeared by first name on a list with many errors.”

Groneman said that many followers of Alamo “like to believe that a freed black man died for freedom at the Alamo.” But there is simply no proof of this.

In his 2012 article, Groneman retracted “almost everything” he wrote about John in 1990 and “everything I wrote or agreed to write” in 1985.

Explaining his theory on the list, Groneman said Thurston came to Texas from Kentucky and was not a clerk in Desauque’s store. But Groneman said someone might have thought Thurston, who delivered gunpowder to San Antonio, worked for Desauque. He concluded in the article that John “is only a creation of our collective imagination”.

Groneman believes there were likely other people of African descent among the defenders, including Carlos Espalier, a 17-year-old Bowie protégé who was mixed race and described in historical texts as “mulatto.” Alamo historians believe that as many as 70 Alamo fighters have never been identified by name.

“Some of those names missing, they could have been slaves to the defenders of Alamo who died there… they entered the body count without any identification,” Groneman said.

Latimore praised Groneman for trying to set the record straight, noting that “as historians we make mistakes.” But he said he had doubts that “John’s” list referred to Thurston, and he wonders if Desauque would have left the Alamo alone without his clerk.

“I think John is a person. We need to revise what we say about John, ”Latimore said. “I wouldn’t delete it. It’s an interesting part of the story.

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