Remember the Cottonwood?
Two theories about how the Alamo got its name.
By Valerie Menard
Like the Lone Star and longhorn cattle, the Alamo endures as a Texas icon. The 18th-century mission is a symbol of the fight for Texas independence from Mexico and the end of Mexico’s claim on the land.
Like its history, the mission’s name, or rather, nickname, elicits more than one explanation. Originally referred to as San Antonio de Padua and officially named San Antonio de Valero in 1716, after Saint Anthony de Padua and the Duke of Valero, by the viceroy of Mexico, Fray Antonio de Olivares, the Alamo remains its more familiar moniker.
How did that happen? Ask a botanist and you’ll get one answer, ask a historian and you’ll get another.
The tree-based theory claims that when the Spanish missionaries came to the spot in central Texas where they would locate the mission, they were struck by the lushness of the land and a grove of cottonwood trees growing nearby along the San Antonio River. The Spanish word for “poplar tree” is alamo and the cottonwood is also known as a poplar, hence the name.
Another theory, however, claims that the name was derived from a Spanish battalion of soldiers stationed at the mission after it was abandoned by the missionaries. They were named the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras, and the soldiers were originally from a small town called San Jose y Santiago del Alamo in Coahuila, Mexico. Over time, their long name was abbreviated to La Compañía del Alamo, or simply El Alamo.
There are elements of truth in both theories, but neither has been completely proved. The former has been commonly accepted for years by botanists and many Texans. However, historians consider the latter much more probable, and the former, merely romantic.
The cottonwood (Populus deltoides var. deltoides) is known by a variety of names — eastern cottonwood, southern cottonwood, Carolina poplar, eastern poplar and necklace poplar — besides its Spanish translation. A member of the willow family, the cottonwood normally grows near water. According to Howard Garrett, author of Howard Garrett’s Texas Trees, “Cottonwood has been considered an aquatic plant because it likes moist soil so much but it can adapt to fairly dry situations.”
Paul Cox, assistant director of the San Antonio Botanical Garden and co-author of Texas Trees: A Friendly Guide, adds, “In pioneer days, they were a joy to behold because they signaled that water was nearby.”
The tree can grow to a height of 80 to 100 feet with a trunk of 4 or more feet in diameter. The coarsely toothed leaf blade is a broad triangle, usually 2 to 4 inches long and 2 to 4 inches wide. Its long petioled (stemmed) leaves flutter in the slightest breeze reflecting sunlight and creating a delicate sound. A deciduous tree, the leaves turn yellow in the fall. The female tree sends out cotton (seeds in a cotton-like wrapping) in the spring.
The cottonwood’s penchant for water makes it probable that a cottonwood grove existed when the Spanish missionaries settled the mission in 1716. An 11-story Hyatt Regency hotel building blocks the view from Alamo Plaza today, but in 1716, cottonwoods growing along the San Antonio River, which lies only 600 feet from the Alamo, would have been clearly visible.
“When the Spanish soldiers arrived, they actually planted more cottonwoods as part of a beautification project,” adds Alamo curator Bruce Winders. In fact, “Commerce Street was once known as Alameda because of the cottonwood trees that lined it.”
Officially, the story goes that in June of 1691 a Spanish military expedition stopped under a spreading cottonwood tree near a stream then called Yanaguana by the local Payaya people. The military commander, Domingo Teran de los Rios, called the spot, “The most beautiful part of New Spain.” The priest accompanying him, Father Damien Massanet, agreed, conducted a mass on the site and named the nearby stream San Antonio, since it was June 13, St. Anthony’s feast day.
Back in Mexico, plans to build a mission and a presidio in San Antonio began. The first mission stood on the east bank of the river, but after it flooded a year later, the missionaries moved it to the west bank. That mission was crushed by a hurricane, so they rebuilt it upstream and to the east of the river, where it now stands. The presidio, around which the city of San Antonio would develop, was located directly across the river on the west bank.
Cottonwoods can still be found along the San Antonio River but not along the Riverwalk. In 1978, the four oldest and largest cottonwood trees were removed from the Riverwalk as a safety precaution when a large limb from one of them fell into the river. “They were really gigantic but I’ve seen even bigger ones,” admits Cox. “The cottonwood is one of the three largest hardwood trees east of the Rockies.”
That any existing cottonwood dates back as far at the 18th century is unlikely. Garrett writes that the cottonwood does not have a long lifespan, but their descendants may still exist. Not a fan of the tree, Garrett lists it in his book as one of the worst trees in Texas. He writes: “Cottonwood trees are stately and beautiful when healthy but are a bad investment. They are short-lived, have brittle wood, and are subject to wind damage and insects (especially borers). Also, the female plants produce messy cotton that clogs air conditioners.”
Cox admits that the tree is susceptible to a variety of diseases but insists that the tree does serve a purpose. “Some of the best book and magazine paper is made from cottonwood pulp. The foliage, bark, seeds and leaves are all important to wildlife,” he writes.
Alamo horticulturist Mark Nauschutz believes that some of the last cottonwoods downtown, including one that was removed from the Alamo grounds approximately 12 years ago, may have been 100 years old at the most. Several years ago, his predecessor, Bill Miller, replanted cottonwoods at the mission but chose cottonless cottonwoods, i.e. male trees. “I think it’s important that cottonwoods remain at the Alamo, especially considering their history and connection to the mission’s name,” he says.
La Segunda Compañía Volante de San Carlos de Parras
The Alamo began as a mission, but as such, it was unsuccessful. Established in 1716, construction on the mission did not begin until 1744, and in 1756, the structure collapsed. It was rebuilt, but after construction ceased in 1762, parts of the building again began to collapse. In 1793, the missionaries closed the mission, turning the church over to the town and moving the religious artifacts to San Fernando church. In a final act of defiance, the roof again fell in and the building continued to decay. When Mexico began its fight for independence in 1810, Spanish troops moved into the abandoned mission.
One hundred Spanish Colonial mounted lancers made up the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras, or the Alamo Company. They arrived in Texas in early 1803 to support the existing battalion in San Antonio and would remain there for the next 32 years, becoming involved in the Mexican War of Independence and the Texas Revolution. Arriving with family members and relegated to the least desirable quarters at the presidio, the soldiers soon occupied the San Antonio de Valero Mission located on the opposite side of the river.
The flying company system evolved from the Spanish military tradition. Part of a second system of military companies, the compañía volante (lancers) and tropa ligera (light troops) began in 1713 to bolster presidial soldiers. According to the Sons of Dewitt Colony, Texas, Web site, “Soldiers were recruited from the Coahuilan pueblo of San José y Santiago del Alamo de Parras. Tlascalan Indians founded the village in 1731. The region in which it was founded was known for its grapevines (parras) and the town site for its natural springs which encouraged the growth of cottonwoods (los alamos).” The pueblo took its name from both.
The beginning of the 19th century brought more expansionist efforts by the United States, prompting Spain to reinforce its northern territories. The Alamo de Parras Company marched from Chihuahua, Mexico, to San Antonio de Béjar (Bexar). The soldiers arrived in January 1803.
“Although there were very probably cottonwoods at the site, the theory that the Alamo derived its nickname from the trees is a more romanticized view,” says Winders. “Today, most historians contend that the origin probably came from the Spanish soldiers.”
As to how the two theories evolved, Winders offers: “Initially, people cared about the Alamo as a Texas battlefield. As time went on, people began to consider the Spanish influence at the site. The military theory is not only more likely, it’s more inclusive.”
In The Alamo Mission, Fortress, and Shrine first published in 1936, author Frederick C. Chabot addresses the question of where the mission got its nickname. “Common report in San Antonio tells us that once the grounds around the mission were covered with a thick growth of cottonwoods — alamos — and that the name arose from this circumstance. But as we have seen, San Antonio de Valero mission took its name, Alamo, from the military company which occupied it.” According to Chabot, the nickname “the Alamo” first appears in documents from the first baptism in the military chapel of the old mission church recorded in 1803.
In this battle of the Alamo, it looks like the soldiers from down south win again. But next time you hear, “Remember the Alamo,” remember the majestic cottonwood tree, too.