I vividly remember experiencing an unexpected thrill when during my early dissertation research I first held in my hand a letter signed by my childhood hero Sam Houston. Thus I can empathize with the thrills that rock musician and Alamo enthusiast Phil Collins has felt when actually possessing not only some of Houston's letters and proclamations, but also the great man's snuffbox.
The very handsome volume that presents Collins's extensive collection to its readers is, as historian Stephen L. Hardin observes in an introductory essay, very much a "portable museum exhibit" (xxvii). And quite an exhibit it is, boasting not only said snuffbox, but also the swords of James Bonham and José Enrique de la Peña, the powder flasks of David Crockett, and the shaving kit of General Manuel Castrillón (who allegedly tried to save Crockett's life at the Alamo before dying himself at San Jacinto).
Collins has not provided the definitive documentation sufficient to establish the provenance of such remarkable items, but Hardin is probably correct when he asserts that "the provenance pedants often fail to see the forest for the trees" (xxvii). Both Hardin and his fellow-publisher Donald S. Frazier of State House Press maintain that the point of such items, unproven provenance notwithstanding, is to excite the imagination so as to bring the past to life.
As for the documents in the collection, which include such remarkable finds as the receipt given by Alamo commander William Barret Travis for the thirty beeves taken into the compound at the beginning of the siege, the author has provided transcripts of most printed and manuscript sources. But the documents are where most of the problems with this volume begin. State House Press has served the author and his readers well in terms of "production values." The artifacts and papers of all kinds are shown, both in full and in detail, to great advantage, and the extraordinarily well-researched drawings by Gary Zaboly add much to the value of the book.
Yet the author has been ill-served by his editors' failure to catch many glaring errors that detract substantially from the book's value as a work of real scholarship. One of the most egregious comes in the description of the very first Alamorelated document collected by Collins, a receipt for a saddle and bridle signed by Alamo courier John W. Smith on April 10, 1836, and counter-signed by "Juez de Paz" José Antonio Navarro when submitted for compensation the following year. The problem is that the description claims that the document was signed in Lynchburg, Tennessee, though Smith was near San Antonio as late as March 10 and at San [End Page 405] Jacinto on April 21. There is no evidence that the "Lynchburg" on the document's dateline is anything other than the Texas site also known as Lynch's Ferry, on the famous San Jacinto River crossing.
A similar error comes from the dating of a Sam Houston letter to the year 1837, when even a cursory examination of the text shows that it could not have been written before the death of Thomas J. Rusk, who committed suicide in July 1857. Finally, the translations from the Spanish provided by the author and not attributed to any named translator are often clumsy and occasionally incorrect. It is a shame that such an ambitious project should be so compromised by these and other completely avoidable errors.