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Originally appeared in Issue No. 4



The Cottonwoods, by Gary Snyder

by Gary Snyder

The Alamo is across the lane from the Menger Hotel. The Menger Bar is the oldest bar in Texas-they once settled big cattle-drive deals here. This is the center of downtown now, with tall buildings all around, but the Alamo is a kind of park in the midst of it, with its old live oaks, grass, sand, cactus, and a few low stone and adobe buildings. I'm in the Menger Bar, nursing a shot of rye, a Sunday evening in February, reviewing what I think I learned this weekend.

There is some fine underground water in this part of Texas. Pure gushing springs that break through the limestone substrate. The San Antonio River runs clean and fast, just up from underground. The wild pecan trees once flourished here. So the Payaya Indians had a lot of settlements around, and there is a deep archeology to it all. Alvar Nunez walked through the area in the 1530s. Spain, without even knowing what was there, claimed this unknown northern space in 1519. Then the Spanish sent a scouting party up here in 1691. The report was so good they started a mission twenty-seven years later-Mission de San Antonio de Valero, and the larger area got called Tejus. The local village was named Bexar after a Spanish nobleman. In 1731, the Spanish government underwrote the voyage of fifty people, fifteen families, from the Canary Islands to Bexar to help colonize it. They were granted the title of Hidalgo. The huge millstone they brought with them is there in the Alamo museum.

Mission-style outdoor theater along the San Antonio River

Altogether five missions were started along the San Antonio River. Stone and adobework, weaving, agriculture. . . but in time they faltered. The Comanche and Apache, who had mastered the horse by now, came down out of the west and north and began to harass both the local Indians and the settlers. Illness swept through. Church policies changed. In 1793 the missions were withdrawn and the farming land divided up among the Indian converts and the Tejano settlers of Spanish descent who stayed.

Anglos began drifting in, looking for land. In 1803 the Spanish government sent up a cavalry detachment to protect the settlers. It had, from its original place of assignment, the nickname "Alamos"-Cottonwoods. The soldiers set up in the ruins of the old mission. It became a fort known as Alamo after the cavalry unit that was based there. During the subsequent decade, the Mexican revolution was under way, and Mexico won independence from Spain. Meanwhile, Americanos kept coming in and settling; Stephen F. Austin led three hundred families into Mexico in 1822.

Mexico promised statehood to this growing new territory. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had fought against Spain, made himself dictator of Mexico and imposed taxes on Tejus. Feeling unrepresented and exploited, both Mexicano and Anglo settlers together issued a "declaration of causes," putting forth their complaints. Santa Anna sent General Cos north to punish them, and they had a little battle. Cos was killed and his small army defeated. Santa Anna was furious and headed north with an army that eventually numbered over two thousand troops. One hundred eighty-nine American newcomers, Tejus Anglo settlers, and Tejanos made a stand in the fort. It took Santa Anna six days to defeat them, and they all died in the struggle. Famous names included Jim Bowie and David Crockett. More than fifteen hundred of his own army died. This was in 1836.

Ten days later, Sam Houston's army caught up with Santa Anna and whomped him at the Battle of San Jacinto. The Treaties of Velasco guaranteed independent statehood to Tejus, with Sam Houston the first president. France, Great Britain, the U.S., and other countries soon recognized the Lone Star nation, but Mexico wouldn't.

Ten years later Texas joined the Union. At the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, Mexico agreed to the loss of both Texas and California. Many former Mexicans were strong supporters of first an independent Tejus and then of joining the States. Americans were all over the place by now.

The town is now called San Antonio, after the mission, but the county is called Bexar after the original name of the village. The San Antonio River, where it runs through town, has been directed and manicured and is now called "Riverwalk" and is lined with shops and restaurants. At night it is gaudy with Japanese lanterns and Mexican music. It creates a world of cheerful saunterers along small bridges and crosswalks, and outdoor cafe couples with their glasses chiming. The river is one level below the streets and sometimes rolls on through arch-roofed tunnels under buildings to come out again in gardens. Quiet launches serve as busses carrying people up and down the canals, altogether two and a half miles long. Cars and trucks pass overhead across bridges. A huge three-story mall abuts the old Menger Hotel, with high skylights and gleaming tile floors. It is called "Rivercenter."

Arching stone footbridge above the San Antonio River

A sharp young fellow from New York who had come out to Texas in his twenties became Sam Houston's boldest and most effective scout. He had very bad hearing, so his nickname was "Deaf" (pronounced "deef"). In about 1820 in San Antonio, Deaf Smith had married "a beautiful widow" who was a descendant of those Canary Islanders.

The Menger Bar is all the original wood. Dark and gleaming now. Deaf Smith. I remember that wheat we used to get back in the sixties, Deaf Smith County whole wheat berries, and grind by hand ourselves.  


Poet, essayist, teacher, and mountaineer Gary Snyder is based in the upper Yuba River country of California.
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