By Jim Forsyth
AUSTIN, Tex. (Reuters) - An 1836 letter penned by the commander of the small force of Texans defending the Alamo, a pivotal battle in the Texas Revolution that led to its break from Mexico, will be displayed for the first time at the San Antonio mission.
With its dramatic ending - "Victory or Death!" - the letter by William Travis, written on both sides of a single sheet of paper, is considered one of the defining documents of 19th century American history.
"I call on you in the name of liberty, patriotism, and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch," Travis wrote in the open letter, in which he pleaded for reinforcements, addressing the letter to "the People of Texas and All Americans in the World."
The letter will be on display from February 23 to March 7 at the Alamo, which typically gets 2.5 million visitors a year.
"It is amazing to think of Travis and 150 men surrounded in that little compound, and he is putting this ink on this paper," John Anderson, the preservation officer at the Texas State Archives, told Reuters this week as a colleague removed the document from the iron casing where it is carefully preserved.
Travis and his men had been ordered into the Alamo, which at the time was a disused Spanish colonial mission, as Mexican forces arrived in San Antonio to crush what to them was a provincial rebellion. Texas at the time was a part of the Republic of Mexico.
Twelve days after Travis wrote the letter, the Mexican Army stormed the Alamo and Travis and his entire command were killed.
Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, two frontiersmen, had gone to the Alamo before Travis sent the call to arms, and their deaths ensured their places as American heroes.
Six weeks later, the Texan Army under newly appointed General Sam Houston routed the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, and Texas was declared a republic. Nine years later, in 1845, Texas was admitted to the Union as the 28th state.
Mindful of that history, State Conservator Sarah Norris, who is responsible for making sure the 13-by-16-inch letter is not damaged, is taking precise precautions.
"We have to establish very strict guidelines for temperature and relative humidity," she said. "Paper will very quickly yellow, turn brittle and break down."
She says the ink used by Travis, called iron gall ink, has already begun to damage the paper. The document has to be kept away from light to avoid further damage.
The letter's journey from Austin back to the Alamo won't be as dangerous as the journey it took out.
Travis' courier, Albert Martin, had slipped through the Mexican Army's siege lines under cover of darkness. This time it will receive a state police escort from the Texas Archives to San Antonio on February 22, and then be exhibited in a specially built display cabinet, said Mark Loeffler, a spokesman for the Texas General Land Office.
The letter is now valued at $1.2 million.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Edith Honan and Philip Barbara)