Years ago, had someone told me that some fellow from Sampson County by the name of Micajah Autry was one of the 258 men killed in at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, I would have been a little surprised. Furthermore, had I been told that Autry’s grandson was one of the founders of Texaco Oil, I probably would have fallen out of my chair. But, it happened, it’s all true, and here is how this strange story unfolded.
Micajah Autry was born in Sampson County in 1793, the second son of Theophilus Autry (1770-1834) and Elizabeth Crumpler. Theophilus was the son of Cornelius Autry, Jr. and the grandson of Cornelius Autry, Sr., who is generally considered to be the original progenitor of the North Carolina Autrys. It appears that Micajah’s family may have lived near the intersection of today’s Welcome School Road and Maxwell Road in the Clement community. When he was just a young boy, his family moved to a nearby farm in Cumberland County.
At the age of eighteen, Micajah volunteered for service in the US Army. During the War of 1812, he participated in a march to Wilmington when the British threatened that city. Afterwards he joined the army at Charleston and remained in service there until 1815.
He returned to his father’s farm in poor health and suffered from chills and fever. Micajah was not then physically strong enough to do farm labor, so he turned his attention to education and became a teacher. He had an inquisitive nature and became interested in the lands to the west. What lay beyond the hills and mountains would be, in his opinion, the rugged life of a pioneer that would make weak men strong and strong men stronger.
The 1820’s saw extensive migrations of young adults leaving North Carolina, heading west to seek new opportunities. Some states were offering free land as a means to attract settlers and growth. Though it may not seem like it today, places like Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky sat at the edge of what was then considered to be the western frontier.
Seeking to broaden his world, Micajah Autry moved to Hayesboro, TN in 1823 where he taught school and later took up the study of law. In 1824 he married a widow, Martha Wyche Putny Wilkinson. They raised two children of their own and Martha’s daughter by her first marriage. In 1828 or 1829 Autry was admitted to the bar at Nashville. He then moved to Jackson, Tennessee, where he practiced law from 1831 to 1835 in partnership with Andrew L. Martin. Autry and Martin later started a mercantile business in Nashville but like many of Micajah’s ventures, they were unsuccessful.
While in Nashville Micajah developed many close friends, including then President Andrew Jackson, and he often visited with Jackson at his Nashville home, The Hermitage. Another good friend was Davy Crockett, the legendary 19th century American folk hero, frontiersman, soldier and politician.
Even as an attorney Micajah was having a hard time making ends meet and supporting his family. He looked to the south for new opportunities. Texas, which was then a Mexican province, was seeking to separate itself from Mexico. On October 2, 1835, the Texas War of Independence began and it was well known that Texas was seeking men to join its fledgling army. Any man who enlisted would receive $24 in cash, the rights to 800 acres of land, and instant Texas citizenship.
Micajah’s friend Davy Crockett was an ardent supporter of Texas independence and he himself had already decided to join the cause and fight. He convinced approximately 30 men to join him, and one of those was Micajah Autry. From then on, Crockett’s men were known as the “TennesseeVolunteers.”
On November 1, 1835, Micajah officially volunteered for the cause in Texas. He left his family and slaves in the care of his stepdaughter’s husband, and set out for Texas. Crockett’s men took different paths to Texas. Micajah traveled by steamboat from Nashville to Memphis. From there he wrote to his wife on December 7, 1835: “On the steamboat Pacific, I have met a number of acquaintances bound for Texas…I am determined to provide a home for you.….or perish.”
The earlier Mexican War for Independence (1810–1821) had severed the control that Spain had exercised on its North American territories and the new country of Mexico was formed. Since 1821 the colony of Texas had belonged to Mexico, but many people in Texas wanted to leave Mexican rule and become a new country. In early 1835, violence erupted in that region called Mexican Texas and by the end of the year, Texan forces had expelled all Mexican soldiers from the area.
On December 12, 1835, the Texan Army was officially established. Meanwhile, in Mexico City, President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna began gathering an army to retake Texas.
From Natchitoches, LA on December 13 Micajah wrote: “About 20 men from Tennessee formed our squad…. The war in Texas is still going on favorably to the Texans, but it is thought that General Santa Anna of the Mexican Army will make a descent with his whole force in the spring, but there will be soldiers enough of the real grit in Texas by that time to overrun all of Mexico…. We have between 400 and 500 miles to foot it to the seat of government, for we cannot get horses, but have sworn allegiance to each other.”
Autry’s trip to Texas was long, cold, and wet. He arrived tired but in good health. On January 13, 1836, he was in Nacogdoches, TX where he met up with his old friend, Davy Crockett and the others from Tennessee. Together, they enlisted in the Volunteer Auxiliary Corps of Texas.
Micajah believed in the cause for Texas, and wrote to his wife: “I go whole hog in the cause of Texas. I expect to help them gain their independence and also to form their civil government, for it is worth risking many lives for. From what I have seen and learned from others there is not so fair a portion of the earth’s surface warmed by the sun.”
Later he set out for a place called Washington-on-the-Brazos with Crockett with others under the command of Captain William B. Harrison. They arrived in San Antonio de Bexar (modern-day San Antonio) on February 9 and joined the Alamo garrison under the command of Colonel William Barrett Travis. It was a cold winter and snow was still on the ground there. Having shown his leadership skills and popularity with the other men, Autry was soon promoted to the rank of Major.
The Battle of the Alamo was a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution. On February 23, 1836, an estimated 4,000 Mexican troops under the leadership of President and General Antonio Santa Anna launched an assault on the Alamo as the first step in a campaign to re-take Texas.
The Alamo, a small Francescan mission that was serving as a fort, was initially defended by approximately 165 Texan troops. Aware that his garrison could not withstand an attack by such a large force, Colonel Travis wrote multiple letters pleading for more men and supplies, but fewer than 100 reinforcements arrived. On February 26, Travis ordered the artillery to stop firing to conserve powder and shot. Crockett and his men were encouraged to keep shooting, as they rarely missed and thus didn’t waste shot. For the next 12 days the two armies engaged in several skirmishes with minimal casualties.
Major Autry, who was an expert marksman, was chosen by his company to shoot and kill General Santa Anna should the opportunity arise, as Santa Anna often walked across the grounds near the front battle lines.
With the Mexicans now only 200 yards from the mission, the Alamo’s walls were starting to chip away and the men could see Mexican soldiers building scaling ladders.
On the morning of March 5, during a lull in the nearly constant bombardment, Colonel William Travis used his sword to draw a line in the sand in front of his battered men. In a voice trembling with emotion, Travis described the hopelessness of their plight and said, “those prepared to give their lives in freedom’s cause, come over to me.” Without hesitation, every man, except one, crossed the line. Colonel James Bowie, bedridden with pneumonia, asked that his cot be carried over.
At 10PM that night, a sudden silence fell over the battlefield that rattled the men inside the mission. After 12 days of constant cannon fire, the quietness forced the defenders to fight fatigue and the need for sleep. It was all part of Santa Anna’s plan as he had issued the order to his commanders to prepare their men for a final assault on the fortress. He wanted the Texans “to sleep the sleep of exhaustion – and wake and ﬁnd Mexicans scaling the walls.”
In the early morning hours of March 6, 1836, a cry of “Viva Santa Anna!” went up and thousands of Mexican soldiers advanced on the Alamo. The Texans gathered themselves and waited for the Mexicans to come into range. During the final seige, an opportunity arose to shoot General Santa Anna when he ventured almost into range. Micajah Autry raised his long rifle, took careful aim as his breathless companions watched, and fired. In that moment, the history of Texas might have been changed, but in the nervous tension and great hope of killing Santa Anna, Autry’s bullet went wild and Santa Anna scampered for cover.
After repulsing two attacks, the Texans were unable to fend off a third attack. As Mexican soldiers scaled the walls, most of the Texan soldiers withdrew into interior buildings. Defenders unable to reach the buildings were slain by the Mexican cavalry as they attempted to escape. The Alamo’s huge courtyard was ﬁlled with desperate hand-to-hand ﬁghting: Mexicans with bayonets and lances and the Alamo defenders with riﬂe butts, pistols, knives, knees and ﬁsts. With the inevitable looming upon them, the Texans fought like they never had before and delivered unbelievable carnage to the Mexican soldiers, but the army ultimately tore through the mission killing all. By 6:30AM the battle was over and the Alamo had fallen. Between five and seven Texans may have surrendered but were quickly executed. The bodies of Colonels Bowie, Crockett, and Travis, as well as every Texan dead or wounded, were then bayoneted. No Texans were left alive, though several women and children were spared. Most historians agree that approximately 258 Texans died and between 400–600 Mexicans were killed or wounded.
Micajah Autry lived through the 13 days of the Alamo siege, the prowess of his marksmanship adding to the numbers of Santa Anna’s dead. He fell on that final day with his comrades at the stockade, overwhelmed by the Mexican troops, determined and courageous to the end.
Once all of the defenders had been killed, Santa Anna ordered his men to take their bodies to a nearby stand of trees where they were stacked together and wood piled on top. That evening, a fire was lit and the bodies of the defenders were burned to ashes. Santa Anna, minimizing his losses, said, “It was but a small affair.” But one Mexican officer, noting the great number of casualties, declared, “Another such victory and we are ruined.”
Santa Anna’s perceived cruelty during the battle inspired many Texans—both Texas settlers and adventurers from the United States—to join the Texan Army. Rallied by a desire for revenge, the Texans, using the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!”, defeated the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836, thus ending the revolution. The conclusion of the war in 1836 resulted in the creation of the Republic of Texas. An independent nation for nearly 10 years, Texas was officially annexed to the United States on December 29, 1845.
Several children were born Micajah and Martha Autry but only two survived. After Micajah’s death, his widow, Martha, moved with their young children to Holly Springs, MS. Their daughter, Mary Autry (b.1827) later married James Greer. Their other child was a son, James Lockhart Autry (b.1830) who married Jeanne Valliant.
An 1851 letter written by James L. Autry from Corsicana, TX shows that he visited Texas and settled his father’s estate. It included a patent for 1,920 acres of bounty land issued to Micajah Autry’s heirs for his services at the Alamo.
James L. Autry later served as a Confederate Colonel during the War Between the States. In early 1862, Autry was in command at Vicksburg when a federal fleet under the command of Admiral Farragut steamed up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Farragut demanded the surrender of Vicksburg. Colonel Autry’s reply to this demand: “Mississippians do not know how to surrender, nor do they care to learn.” On December 31, 1862, James L. Autry was killed in battle at Murfreesboro, TN. His body was returned to Holly Springs, MS where he was buried.
Had Micajah Autry lived a long life, he would have been able to see the fruits of his efforts and financial security for his family.
His grandson, James L. Autry, Jr. was born in Holly Springs, MS. Educated in Mississippi schools for most of his life, he attended the University of the South on a scholarship before moving to Texas in 1876. Autry moved to Navarro County to undertake management of a ranch given to his grandfather’s heirs for his service at the Alamo. The property still remains in the family today and played no small part as capital for Micajah descendant’s ability to contribute to the welfare of Texans.
Once established in Texas, James L. Autry, Jr. began the study of law. He became an attorney and later a judge for Navarro County. He was instrumental in establishing the Texas Bar Association in 1882. As a resident of Corsicana, TX, Judge Autry quickly became involved in local business affairs.
In 1894 oil was discovered in Corsicana by accident when Autry’s water-well company encountered oil while attempting to drill a new water well for the city. Autry saw the future and resigned as judge to pursue private business interests. The Corsicana Oil Field eventually proved to be the first large field west of the Mississippi River.
In 1901 he partnered with Joseph S. Cullinan and William C. Hogg to establish the Texas Fuel Company, which later became the Texaco Oil Company, bringing Autry and his family considerable wealth. In 1908, the company’s corporate headquarters were moved to Houston.
In 1914 Autry, Cullinan, and Hogg then combined their capital and talents to establish the Fidelity Bank and Trust Company, Farmers Petroleum Company, American Republics Company. Autry served as president of Farmers Petroleum Company, president of Fidelity Trust Company, and vice-president and general counsel of the American Republics Company.
James L. Autry, Jr. and wife Allie Bell Kinsloe Autry were great benefactors to charitable activities in Houston and the entire state, including early causes against mental retardation and tuberculosis. The Autry family has always had a longstanding benefactor relationship with Rice University.
Also in 1914 Micajah’s daughter, Mary Autry Greer, was living on land her father’s estate received from the State of Texas. According to The Alamo magazine, at that time she was the only living child of any of the heroes of the Alamo.
Micajah Autry’s name is among the first of the list of names engraved upon the marble memorial erected by the state of Texas near the entrance to the capitol at Austin. The monument stands in memory of the men who gave up their lives at the Alamo so that Texas might be free. His Alamo story is well recorded in the history of Texas, movies, and author Walter Lord’s book, “A Time To Stand”. Lord writes, “Micajah Autry loved music, played the violin beautifully, wrote poetry, and sketched pictures.. but could never make any money”.
Today during the annual Summer Frontier Festival in San Antonio, a special Micajah Autry day is observed. A full-length oil painting by John Francis Lewis depicting Autry after firing at General Santa Anna, hangs in the Alamo Museum.
The Alamo shrine is still considered one of the most sacred battle sites in American history and remains one of the nation’s top tourist attractions.
Micajah Autry is best known for giving his life for freedom at the Alamo, but his legacy and that of his descendents is still visible today.
Sources: The Sampson County Heritage Book, 1984; “A Man Called Micajah”, by Fred Burgess, 1985; “The Alamo: Destroy it, Save it, or Retake it”, by Donald A. Jelinek, 1999; Micajah Autry, Wikipedia.org; Texas Escapes Online Magazine, Alamo Marksman, by Bob Bowman; www.tennesseehistory.com: Tennesseans at the Alamo; The Alamo City Guide; Texas State Historical Association