Everything is big in Texas. And, in Texas history, nothing may be bigger than the Alamo (or should it be “The” Alamo?) so, the story of Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson offers some interesting insight into the legend and legacy of that famed siege.
Susanna had quite a life, including five husbands, Indian skirmishes, living in a “boarding house” and running a regular boarding house, as well as being a celebrity as the only “Anglo” adult to survive the battle.
Known as the “Messenger of the Alamo,” she carried a warning to Sam Houston from General Santa Anna himself, who interviewed her when the siege was over and who allegedly wanted to take the young widow and her baby to Mexico. Susanna is one of the most widely quoted eyewitnesses to the historic battle, including her account of seeing the body of the legendary Davy Crockett (According to the Alamo’s website, there’s actually some mystery surrounding Crockett’s death).
The Dickinson Hannig Museum in Austin was Susanna’s home with her fifth husband Joseph Hannig, a German immigrant 20 years her junior who gained fame and fortune as a furniture and coffin maker who apparently had a good business/marketing strategy in that he would come pick up the body for you! The house/museum, like its next door neighbor the O. Henry house/museum, was moved to its current location from a few blocks away and like the O. Henry museum, it’s free.
My friend Rebecca and I had just finished our visit with O. Henry, when we stopped in at the Dickinson Hannig museum, which includes some amazing pieces such as a bed Joseph made and an 1800s Bible.
An enthusiastic guide regaled us with the history of German immigrants in Texas and eagerly shared his passion for Texas history, lore and legend. He also wanted to know if we were from Texas. We explained that Rebecca had lived in Austin for several years and that I was visiting from the East Coast.
From that point on, he was done with me. Done.
Seriously, after that, he talked nearly exclusively to Rebecca. It was weird.
Maybe a non-Texan could not fully appreciate the importance of all the things he had to tell us. Hey, I may not live in Texas, but I have visited the Alamo. And, for the record, my friend Rebecca is not originally from Texas either.
However, you don’t need to be from Texas to appreciate the story of Susanna Dickinson, who “embodied the Texas womanhood of her era,” according to a museum display.
Here are some highlights and there are many more rich details to discover:
1814ish Susanna Wilkerson born in Tennessee
Age 14 or 15, elopes with Almeron Dickinson, a Pennsylvania artillery officer
1831 The couple moves to Gonzales, Texas – a colony in Mexico
1834 Daughter Angelina born (Angelina would later be known as the “Babe of the Alamo”)
1835 Almeron signs up for the Texas army, leaving Susanna to defend their home (Susanna and Angelina join him in San Antonio when their home is looted)
Feb 1836 Family moves into to the Alamo for safety
March 6, 1836 – The Battle of the Alamo ends (13-day siege)
After the War of Texas Independence, the new government denied Susanna’s petition for aid, including back pay for her husband and compensations for his land. A widow at age 22, Susanna could not read or write, so her options were limited.
In late 1837, she married again, but divorced her abusive husband just a few months later. Her third husband passed away after nearly six years of marriage, and in 1857 she divorced another after accusations she had an affair. She married Joseph a year later.
According to our guide, Susanna ran a boarding house at one point in her life and was accused of taking up residence in a brothel. You have to live somewhere!
Susanna spoke frequently about the Alamo, and, according to our tour, her testimony helped others to receive benefits, which she also received at some point.
Although I had visited the Alamo, I did not appreciate Susanna’s story until we visited this small museum in Austin. When you “Remember the Alamo,” remember the woman who survived the battle and then battled to make her way on the harsh frontier. To borrow a Texas saying, “It is sometimes said that life in the early days of Texas was an adventure for men and dogs, but hell on women and horses.”
Next post: The Official O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off! And don’t forget our “On the Map” page for additional information about the Dickinson Hannig Museum