Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Letters and a hand-drawn map by Stephen F. Austin from 1827. Samuel Maverick's original copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence. A soldier's Civil War diary. A world atlas created in 1579. Letters depicting hope and tension before the historic Battle of the Alamo. Currency and memorabilia from the time of the Texas Republic.
Researchers, scholars, and students can now find all this and thousands more historic manuscripts, maps, photographs, paintings, and other artifacts at the Bexar County Archives Building located in the heart of downtown. The site is the new home of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) Library Collection, a research collection that resided at the Alamo for more than a century.
"The daughters that have seen it are ecstatic," said Susan Riedesel, the DRT library collection committee chairman. "We're so excited because we can display our stuff and show everyone what we have. At first, no one wanted to move from the Alamo, but this has been a blessing for us. Some of the daughters wanted to go to Austin because we're building a new complex, but we wanted to keep the collection in San Antonio."
In July 2015, the DRT lost custodianship of the Alamo after Land Commissioner George P. Bush took over the site, alleging mismanagement by the DRT. Currently, the Texas General Land Office, the City of San Antonio, and the private Alamo Endowment are working on a $450 million Alamo Master Plan meant to restore "honor and dignity" to the site.
"When it became clear that we weren't going to be able to stay at the Alamo, Texas A&M was right there," said Leslie Stapleton, the archives and special collections manager at Texas A&M University-San Antonio who has worked with the DRT collection for 16 years. "We doubled our space – we only had a couple of cases at the Alamo – and here we have more space and we can find stuff in the vaults."
The DRT collection, which resides in TAMU-SA's Presidio Gallery, is on loan to the university for five years, Stapleton said. Bexar County bought the former Federal Reserve Bank building in 2014 and designated the 10,000-square-foot gallery and vault for the university’s use.
In addition to the DRT collection, the building also houses pieces from TAMU-SA's own collection, which includes items from the Robert Thonhoff Collection, the Harry Mazal Holocaust Book Collection, and the La Prensa Archives.
“We’re absolutely delighted with this partnership between the DRT and Bexar County and what it means for the university’s capacity,” TAMU-SA President Cynthia Teniente-Matson told the Rivard Report. “It’s an opportunity to have a direct source of information available to scholars, students, and the community at large. Our long-term goal is to digitize the collection so that there is an opportunity for individuals anywhere to be able to access the collection for research purposes.”
On Friday, the DRT, TAMU-SA staff, and County officials will celebrate the Presidio Gallery's opening to the public. The gallery will be available for research projects, school field trips, and small-group tours Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To schedule a tour or a research appointment, click here.
Before the DRT found its new home, there was talk of moving the collection to Market Square's Centro de Artes exhibit space, but the City ultimately decided that was not appropriate, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told the Rivard Report.
"Anyone interested in history will be able to come through here, and for those scholars who want to do research, we've got reading rooms for them to work," Wolff said. "We think the timing is really good with the Tricentennial around the corner. It's not just about parties, but having symposiums and showing the history of our city for people to understand what happened here the last 300 years."
Riedesel, whose great-great-grandfather Johnnie Kellogg fought at the Alamo and has his name inscribed on the Alamo Plaza's cenotaph monument, explained that what makes the DRT collection so special is that its items all were donated by members and non-members. In order to join the DRT, which works to teach and promote Texas history, individuals must prove to have family roots in Texas before 1846, unless they have a land grant, Riedesel said. Started in 1891, the DRT has more than 7,000 members across the state and in out-of-state chapters.
The DRT continues to acquire artifacts from early Texas history. Just recently, a family donated a letter from 1838, Riedesel said.
"I got to hold it," she said. "That family – they were one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence."
Many people use the collection to trace their genealogy, Stapleton said, while others want to explore newspaper clippings that date back to the 1950s, read old diaries that include first-hand accounts of history, or learn more about Texas artists. The collection includes artwork by Julian Onderdonk, a Texas Impressionist famous for his bluebonnet paintings, and paintings of the Spanish-Colonial Missions by early San Antonio artist Théodore Gentilz.
The DRT collection has approximately 40,000 historic photographic images, more than a thousand works of art, at least a thousand maps, countless historical texts, a large architectural drawings collection, and more than 450 manuscript collections. Within those collections, Stapleton said, there are hundreds of individual documents.
"Just about any topic you can think of that has to do with San Antonio or Texas history, we probably have a file," she said. "We pull things out for researchers from the climate-controlled vault as they ask for them."
Stapleton's favorite item in the collection is an 1835 letter written by Daniel Cloud, one of the Alamo defenders, who wrote to his brother as he travelled across the country to Texas:
"... If we succeed, the country is ours, it is immense in extent and fertile in its soil and will amply reward all our toils," Cloud wrote about Texan settlers' desire for independence. "If we fail death in the cause of liberty and humanity is not cause for shuddering. Our rifles are by our sides and choice guns they are; we know what awaits us and are prepared to meet it."
For generations, the letter was cherished by Cloud's family, who donated it to the DRT in the 1970s, Stapleton said.
Besides anticipating the opening of the collection to the public, Riedesel said she's looking forward to the DRT's involvement in the city's Tricentennial celebrations in 2018.
"We're excited to participate in the Tricentennial, and we'll have an official Tricentennial exhibit," she said. "I'm excited to have the collection available for the students, since they're working on a lot of Tricentennial projects. They're learning about this collection and how valuable it is."