Thomas Rife came to Texas from Mississippi when Texas was a Republic. Beginning in 1842, he was actively engaged in the fight against Texas’ enemies, whether they were Santa Ana’s Mexicans, Native Americans, Union soldiers, or citizens who broke the law. As the first “Alamo Keeper,” he was charged with protecting the Alamo from vandalism.
He had been a soldier in the War with Mexico, a Texas Ranger, a Confederate Army scout, a San Antonio policeman. He was deemed to be brave and fearless in the face of danger and was for many years a conductor of mail coaches through the unsettled western region, one of the most dangerous jobs in Texas during the 1850s.
Every job he held between 1846 and 1894 required him to carry a gun. He chose the life of a gunman over the secure and safe life of a farmer. At a young age, he fled the agricultural culture of the Mississippi delta, and in later years, passed up several opportunities to be either a farmer or a rancher. Although his closest associates in the San Antonio police force were politicians, Rife was not. As a result, he never accumulated wealth nor power and, although he earned an above-average income, he never owned his own home.
Unlike his friend and coworker William “Big Foot” Wallace, who had two contemporary biographers, Tom Rife had none. However, his work as a stagecoach conductor, San Antonio City Policeman, and Custodian of the Alamo was frequently chronicled in the San Antonio newspapers making Rife a minor celebrity. He and his friends “Big Foot” Wallace, Morgan “Wolf” Merrick and John “RIP” Ford all had city streets named after them.
Rife was wounded twice during the Civil War and suffered from constant pain, yet he was physically fit and accepted demanding work despite his injuries. He was a patriot and performed exemplary service to his adopted state. He was valued by his employers and trusted by his peers. During his tenure as a city policeman, he was “one of the most efficient members of our police force.”
He was frequently placed in leadership roles and was known as Captain Rife, “yet he was modest and reticent in speaking of his own career.” Journalists described him as serious-minded and not given to sentiment, jocularity, or self-promotion. He was appointed to be the Alamo tour guide because he was “courteous to visitors and knows the history of the state by heart.” He had a good memory for dates and names and was a compelling storyteller. He had a reputation as an honest man who did not hesitate to correct those who exaggerated or lied. He was an amateur historian and considered to be an expert on the history of the Alamo.
Even though Tejanos suffered discrimination and oppression at the hands of Anglo residents and politicians, Rife’s bilingual family lived in the Mexican part of town, attended Mass at the Mexican church and associated with Mexican politicians.
Rife married twice. After only a few weeks of married life, he abandoned his first wife. She owned a ranch and may have expected him to take up the life of a rancher. When he was fifty years old, he settled in San Antonio with his second wife and raised a dozen children. He and his Chihuahuan-born wife appeared to be happily married, but Rife may not have been a good parent; his older sons were repeatedly in trouble with the law.
Rife received several grants of land from the State of Texas, but he quickly sold the land claims for small sums. When he died at the age of 71, he left his widow impoverished.
Thomas Rife was a heroic figure who lived during the heroic period of Texas history, but he did not attract the attention of historians. Only a handful of the hundreds of studies of the early history of Texas even mention his name, and none detail his remarkable life or his influence on the Alamo myth. The authors, his great-great-grandsons, hope that this short volume will remedy that.