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Jeffrey Richardson says defenders fought for American ideals

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FARMINGTON — The history and mythology of the American West are filled with heroic, larger-than-life figures and celebrated events that have endured the test of time.

But even in that crowded field, the story of the Battle of the Alamo in the late winter of 1836 stands alone in its ability to captivate an audience nearly 200 years after it was fought.

Farmington Museum curator Jeffrey Richardson will revisit that well-chronicled conflict this weekend in a presentation at the museum that seeks to place the battle in a larger historical context.

"The importance of the Alamo to Texas' independence is enormous, but it was also important to Western expansion," Richardson said. "It was a watershed moment. If the Alamo had not happened the way it did, Western expansion would have been much different."

That's why Richardson considers the Battle of the Alamo as much an American story as a Texas story, though many Texans — consumed by their state's history to the point of fetishizing it — might dispute that point. Richardson peppers his remarks on the Alamo's Anglo defenders with references to them as Americans, not Texans, explaining that many of their fathers had fought alongside George Washington and other Revolutionary War heroes just 60 years earlier.

Those men, recent emigrés to Texas, brought with them the same ideals of freedom and opportunity that caused their fathers to rebel against British rule, Richardson said. They were paired with Tejanos — people of Mexican descent born in Texas who rejected the tyranny of Mexican leader Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna — in their defense of the seemingly insignificant, crumbling Franciscan mission located on the outskirts of the settlement known as San Antonio de Béxar.

"The majority were Americans, and they carried with them the values that were behind the American Revolution," Richardson said.

What separates the Battle of the Alamo from other major events in Western expansion might be the strong personalities who played a starring role in it. From the Angle perspective, of course, Santa Anna remains the undisputed villain, while William Travis, Jim Bowie and, of course, David Crockett epitomized the courage and grit of the 200 or so men who defended the Alamo for 13 days against an enemy vastly superior in numbers, armaments and supplies.

As well known as that aspect of the Battle of the Alamo is, Richardson said there is plenty of misunderstanding regarding its specifics. Most people don't realize that the Texas provisional government had yet to declare its independence from Mexico when the battle began, he said, and even the structure itself and its surrounding compound was considerably different than how it has been portrayed and how it looks today.

Those historical quibbles aside, Richardson said he will spend a good deal of time this weekend addressing the Alamo's biggest mystery — the fate of Crockett, the Tennessee native who already had become famous for his frontier exploits and service in the U.S. Congress by the time he arrived in Texas.

Depictions of the battle in popular culture long have reinforced the idea that Crockett died a heroic death during the fighting, as expressed most famously in the 1960 film "The Alamo," directed by and starring John Wayne. But a contradictory account by a Mexican officer holds that Crockett and several other Alamo defenders were captured alive before being summarily executed, as chronicled in the 2004 film of the same name starring Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Dennis Quaid.

Richardson said differing accounts like that are hardly unusual when it comes to the specifics of historically significant events.

"Popular culture has certainly shaded our understanding of many events of the American West, and the Alamo is one of those," he said, explaining that there were only two known survivors among the defenders — the wife of an officer and a slave owned by Bowie — and so information from that side of the conflict is limited.

Richardson has been delivering lectures on Western history for many years, addressing subjects ranging from the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Route 66 to Pancho Villa and Buffalo Bill in that time.

The Curator's Choice Lecture Series he started in September 2016 has become a popular addition to the local social scene, drawing a healthy crowd to the museum several times a year as Richardson works to separate fact from fiction for many of the West's more historically significant personalities and events.

Richardson ends each presentation with a question-and-answer session, during which he typically fields a handful of questions from audience members seeking clarification on this point or that. But when he delivers a lecture on any subject related to Texas, Richardson has learned to mix up that routine.

As a pre-emptive measure, he asks at the beginning of the presentation if there are any natives of the Lone Star state in the audience, a query that invariably is followed by at least a few hands shooting up.

Richardson then advises those expat Texans they'll have the chance to offer their own perspective on his lecture or even directly rebut it. He has found that is an opportunity that few Texans — many of whom flatly reject any ambiguity about the specifics of their history — can resist.

"There is certainly something in the Texas character (that promotes that kind of conviction), and maybe it was born at the Alamo – I don't know," Richardson said, laughing. As they say, 'Don't mess with Texas.'"

"Remember the Alamo" will be presented at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St. in Farmington. Admission is free. Call 505-599-1174.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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