(Editor’s note: Jerry Patterson is Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, which oversees state-controlled lands and public landmarks, including the Alamo.)
A person not native to Texas – who doesn’t even live on the same continent – has given us a great illustration of why Texas is such a special place.
British musician Phil Collins reminds us that the story of Texas and its message of independence, sacrifice and courage, is a powerful one. It’s a story with such timeless and powerful themes that it could reach across the ocean to the outskirts of London and capture the imagination of a 5-year-old boy who later grew into an international superstar as drummer and lead singer for the rock group Genesis.
The artifacts collected by Phil Collins over the last 25 years and donated June 26 to the historic Alamo in San Antonio are indeed valuable. Collins, 63, is a truly humble Englishman and is reluctant to discuss the amount he spent on his obsession, which began in the 1950s when he saw a Disney TV production about the life of Alamo hero Davy Crockett. But he concedes it runs to seven figures.
As extremely generous as his donation is, it is not about money. This donation is about inspiration. The value of these artifacts commemorating Texans’ fight for freedom at the Alamo comes not merely from their worth on the free market, but from their priceless ability to inspire.
As we saw last year with the brief return of the Travis Letter to the Alamo, Texans (and those who wish they were Texans) are inspired by the genuine article. A reproduction of the iconic “Victory or Death” letter written by Alamo commander William Travis in February 1836 might have garnered passing interest but the original letter caused visitors from around the world to wait in line up to five hours for just a glimpse.
Because people yearn to be inspired. Inspiration comes from seeing items touched by patriots. Many at the Travis Letter exhibit left the Alamo in tears, moved by the courage and determination seen in the pen strokes of Colonel Travis, who wrote the letter encircled by the enemy, facing almost certain death, but choosing to stand his ground.
At the end of the letter, he added a footnote about the providential acquisition of 30 head of cattle and 90 bushels of corn and moving those supplies to the Alamo compound before the siege by the Mexican army. The IOU for those very cattle, hastily written by Travis, is owned by Phil Collins and is included in his donation to the Alamo.
This scrap of paper is not iconic, but it represents the reality of Travis’ life as he wrote the words that would become so famous. This is the kind of artifact that shows Travis as a real human being as he faced death 178 years ago.
And the Collins donation has hundreds of similar artifacts. One of his favorites is another receipt, this one for the saddle of Alamo courier John Smith – one of the few, brave men who carried Travis’ letters to the outside world and spread word of the dire situation at the Alamo.
These are items that bypass myth and popular culture and transport viewers directly to 1836, a time when men and families were confronting life or death decisions every day and the world was changing before their eyes.
With such a glimpse into perilous times, folks like you and me can perhaps get a sense of the kind of person who survived those times. And we might learn something about ourselves in the process. Inspiration follows.
That is the true value of Mr. Collins’ donation. It is a gift that will be enjoyed for generations.
Rather than sitting in a basement in Switzerland or in a private museum these “bits of metal” as Phil calls them – all ties to the past – have been entrusted to the place most prepared to care for them.
The Texas General Land Office knows about preserving the legacy of Texas for future generations. With an archive of 35 million documents, some dating back to 1720, the Land Office will ensure these artifacts are preserved and also exhibited responsibly, so they can continue to tell the story of the Alamo and of Texas.