Battle over Travis letter shines spotlight on Texas state archives

Fort Worth Star-TelegramNovember 19, 2012 

AUSTIN -- There's a new line drawn in the sand in the fight over exhibiting Lt. Col. William Barret Travis' iconic "victory or death" letter at the Alamo.

State archive officials who have opposed exhibiting the fragile document believe that their concerns were justified last week when San Antonio police said a rare copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence might have been stolen from the Alamo.

"When we heard about it, we caught our breath. I was like, 'Oh, my goodness,'" said Peggy Rudd, director of the Texas State Library and Archives.

"That's the reason we put so much emphasis on security and safety. In this world, anything can happen," she said.

Protected by a phalanx of state troopers backed by air support, the Travis letter is scheduled to travel from Austin to the Alamo next year for a two-week exhibit centered on the 177th anniversary of the battle and siege there.

Despite the dispute, the quiet state library, which is part museum, part library and part repository for the public record, would rather put the spotlight on the host of Texas treasures that it diligently guards.

Cumulatively, the vast array of historical documents and one-of-a-kind artifacts tells the rich story of Texas, Rudd said.

Other iconic pieces include the original manuscript of the state Declaration of Independence, battle-scarred flags, an 1874 letter from Mexican Gen. Santa Anna explaining why the Alamo defenders had to be killed, Civil War muster rolls and maps that chart everything from slave distribution to shipwrecks, as well as artifacts such as a violin crafted by a prisoner in the "Black Bean Episode."

"The archives are the alpha and omega of Texas history. Any research on state history can start and end there," said Light Cummins, a former Texas state historian and professor at Austin College.

The archive "takes the long view" when it comes to preserving the past, she said, which is why her staff opposed lending the Travis letter to the Alamo.

The archive feared the risks of theft, vandalism and damage caused by excess light on the document, in which Travis implored "the people of Texas and all Americans in the world" to come to the Alamo's aid.

After months of discussion, on Oct. 24, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission voted 6-1 to permit the letter to return to the Alamo for the first time since 1836.

"The sense is, we could mitigate risks but we could not eliminate it. We were just very concerned that something could go wrong," said Rudd, who announced her retirement two days after the vote.

She said the vote had no bearing on her decision. After 13 years, she said, she did not want to go through another bruising fight for funding. Two years ago, the Legislature hacked funding for the agency by 88 percent, causing the loss of 37 jobs.

"At a time when we are at the nadir for staffing is a time when we need more hands on deck than ever," Rudd said, noting that the archive is trying to push outreach by expanding its online presence and hosting more speaker series.

The archive, in the imposing Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library Building just east of the Capitol, regularly lends items to museums. It exhibited the Travis letter last year.

But state archivist Jelain Chubb said she'll still have trouble sleeping while the letter is at the Alamo, from Feb. 23 to March 7.

"My concern is that it's not just about today, it's about tomorrow, and 10,000 tomorrows or more," she said.

At the same time, yesterday's records are pouring into the facility faster than its five archivists can catalog them.

Consider that, for a decade, two staffers spent most of their time just processing and indexing the records of former Gov. George W. Bush.

Movement of those records also brought on a fight.

The archive had to ask the Texas attorney general's office to intervene to keep the records from going straight to the Bush presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Rudd said.

Only 3 to 5 percent of all Texas records end up stored for posterity, Chubb said during a recent tour of the archive's inner chambers in a building that just underwent a $20 million renovation.

"It's not a dark, dusty vault like everyone thinks," she said of the seven "stack areas," which are restricted to a handful of employees. The aisles are lit with yellow-tinted UV-filtered lights to minimize light damage.

The historic papers are stored in acid-proof boxes or in some instances, like the 130 original ink-on-linen architectural drawings for the Capitol building, in special cases.

Among the archive's most impressive artifacts are 40 flags, including three Mexican banners captured at the Battle of San Jacinto, preservation officer John Anderson said.

There's also the original 1838 design for the Lone Star flag by artist Peter Flagg, who was paid $10 for his work.

Some of the more than 20 Civil War flags flew during the bloodiest days in American history.

The 1st Texas Infantry Regiment's flag waved through the very worst of it. At Antietam in Maryland, the regiment lost 186 of its 226 men, a casualty rate of 82.3 percent, the highest endured by any Civil War unit.

Nine flag bearers were killed that day before the banner was seized by a Union solder, said Anderson, who has been handling history at the archive for 34 years.

Archivist Donley Brice, who Cummins says knows the collection better than anyone, has been helping researchers parse the records since 1977. At the same time, he's watching them like a hawk.

Theft, particularly of papers with famous signatures, has long been a problem for archives, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s when thievery was rampant.

For a decade, the archive has been aggressively seeking the return of purloined papers, Rudd said, noting that there's a legislative request to fund a staffer dedicated to their recovery.

Last year, the archive got back some of the more than 1,000 state Supreme Court cases stolen by a custodial worker in the 1970s, Chubb said.

The papers showed up on an Internet auction site, and the archive proved they were on its missing list.

The archive holdings include documents from the 18th century, but the record is about more than heroes and politicians.

"One of the thing that impresses me is that they have always taken a very large view of Texas history. They have defined history to include what the common people did, as well as Texas culture and Texas arts," Light said.

The nearly 80,000 cubic feet of records held by the archive include poignant documents from Civil War pension rolls that record crippled veterans applying for $8 a month pensions.

Others document the unfortunates who spent time in long-renamed institutions such as the state's Feeble Minded Colony.

And there are little people like 12-year-old L.S. Beauregard, who received a few lines among the voluminous prison records.

In a 1881 list of convicts under age 17, Beauregard was a "Bad boy -- several times punished. He is recorded 12 years old. I do not think him much more than 10," the beautifully penned record reads. The troublesome inmate was 4-foot-10 and weighed 90 pounds.

"We all have black sheep in the family. We always tell genealogists there's no telling what they may find," Chubb said as she walked through an aisle containing millions of documents. "You could spend days in one aisle. I just go through and I'm fascinated by the labels."

The 1847 "Petition for the Emancipation of Liley" tells the story of a slave who saved enough to buy her freedom. More than 80 people, including her owner, signed the document. One said she was one of the "best cooks in the Republick of Texas''

And still more diamonds are awaiting discovery. Much of the vast catalog has never been fully mined, Chubb said.

"We have boxes where we haven't had the time to do the triage to index them," Chubb said of a 22,000-cubic-foot backlog for processing.

An inventory is under way of three-dimensional artifacts, which run the gamut from an 1880s wedding dress to artwork hanging in the Capitol.

The objects include a violin made by Henry Journeay, a prisoner from the 1843 Mier Expedition, a raiding foray into Mexico.

Journeay, who survived the Black Bean Episode, in which prisoners drew beans to determine who would be executed, used only glass and a razor as tools. The violin is said to have been crafted from scraps left over from a chair made for Santa Anna.

The archives are a testament to a state that prizes its history, Light said.

"It's an incomparable collection. People could spend lifetimes at the archives."

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