Millions of Texans have read the “Victory or Death” letter written at the Alamo more than 170 years ago. But only a small number of them have ever laid eyes on the original — a brief plea for reinforcements written by Lt. Col. William Barret Travis on Feb. 24, 1836, as he and his outnumbered men faced the Mexican Army.
Whether it ever returns to the Alamo is now a hotly debated issue.
The letter has become one of the most revered documents in Texas history, and one of its phrases — “Victory or Death,” which Colonel Travis underlined three times — has endured as an unofficial Texas slogan, turning up on flags and, occasionally, in the speeches of politicians, including one that Gov. Rick Perry gave last year as he campaigned for president.
The document is kept in a secured storage area at the state archives building in Austin, off limits to the public. It has been publicly displayed only seven times since the early 1900s. Bill O’Neal, 70, the official state historian, has never seen the original.
But a plan to display the letter for two weeks next year at the Alamo in San Antonio has posed a dilemma for its custodians, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. The state’s land commissioner, Jerry Patterson, has asked the archives commission for permission to transport the document from Austin to San Antonio and display it to the public beginning in late February as part of the 177th anniversary of the battle at the Alamo. The letter has never returned to the Alamo, and it was exhibited outside Austin just three times between 1936 and 2006.