Keeper of the Alamo, 1885–1894

When the state became the owner of the historic Alamo fort, Captain Rife was appointed custodian of the building by the city, and he held this position continuously until his death. “Death of Capt. Rife”,

— San Antonio Daily Light, December 27, 1894.

Thomas Rife was Appointed Keeper of the Alamo. On May 16, 1883, the Bishop of San Antonio sold the ruins of the Alamo Mission Chapel to the Satate of Texas. The State formally turned the Alamo over to the City of San Antonio. The city council authorized the mayor to ‘appoint some suitable person as custodian of the Alamo.’ Mayor Bryan Callaghan, on July 27, 1885, appointed Thomas C. Rife, a recently retired poloicemena, as ‘Keeper of the Alamo’ to ‘preserve it as a monument and prevent its desecration by vandals. Rife had the power and authority of a regular policeman and was paid $50 per month. Courtesy of San Antonio City Council Minutes, Book E, p. 462, July 27, 1885.

Rife was appointed as the keeper of the Alamo.

Rife was unemployed for only a few weeks when on July 27, 1885, the Mayor appointed him custodian of the Alamo 1 at a salary of $50 per month.2 This salary was $20 per month less than he had been receiving as a policeman. However, he no longer had to work at night, and as the keeper of the Alamo building, he also received tips from visitors.3 As the number of tourists to the famous old building increased, tips may have become a significant source of his income.

The Rife’s 9th Child Was Born.

On November 30, 1886, Peter Gay Rife was born. He was the Rife’s ninth child and fifth boy. Father Darche baptized him as Pedro on June 09, 1887. The child was named after his Godparents Peter and Mary Gaye.4 Peter Gaye was from France. He lived at the corner of Chavez and North East streets, where he and his wife ran a retail grocery store.5 His large tombstone in Fernando Cemetery Number 1 indicates that he died a wealthy man.

In 1888 Rife was 65 years old and had eight children; the oldest was a teenager and the youngest an infant. Rife’s financial situation improved when he began receiving a Mexican War Pension of $8.00 per month.6 On February 6, 1888, Rife purchased a building lot, measuring approximately four acres, on the east side of Pleasanton Road for a recorded price of $1 from Morgan W. and Sarah J. Newcomb Merrick.7 The Merrick’s were old friends.8

At this time, the Rife’s oldest son was fifteen years old. It appears that he had left home. The boy, Will, was arrested for vagrancy. It appears that this was his first arrest. The Recorder’s Court fined him $5 on April 9, 1888.9 The newspaper reported on August 16, 1888, that Rife and his wife had recovered from an illness and that Rife was back at work at the Alamo.10

Rife’s tenth child, Jack, was born on April 21, 1889.

The newest child was baptized as Jacinto, a name that he used on the 1910 census report when he was living in Von Ormy, Texas.11

Electric streetcars replaced the mule-driven trolley cars previously used in San Antonio before 1890.12 Rife rode the streetcar to and from his job at the Alamo. In October 1889, Rife had the misfortune to be severely shocked while getting off one of the new electric streetcars. He was carried home and remained there until he recovered.13 Rife, who was 66, was working at the Alamo seven days a week, from 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Saturday, and 8 am to 9 am and 4 pm to 5 pm on Sunday.14

Some of the Rife children visited their father at the Alamo. Occasionally, they signed the big book near the door set up for visitors to sign after being escorted through the ruins by Captain Rife. A reporter noted that Mary Jane Rife, age 15, and Anne Rife, age 12, visited their father at work at the Alamo on Sunday, August 24, 1890, and signed the visitor’s book.15 Again, three weeks later, Mary Rife was listed in the newspaper as a visitor to the Alamo on Friday, September 19.16 The children’s mother may have sent them to the Alamo with a message or lunch for their father, or maybe they just wanted a chance to see and talk to him.

At that time, the Rife family was living at 430 North Laredo Street,17 having been at that address for six years.18 This house was a few blocks west of Military Plaza near Milam Plaza and about a mile from the Alamo. On occasion, Rife opened the building at night to accommodate special requests, and sometimes he brought his oldest son with him.19 The children could read and write and were among the narrow majority of school-age children who regularly attended school.20 The next spring Rife was again reappointed custodian of the Alamo by the San Antonio City Council.21

Thomas Rife and Francisca renewed their wedding vows.

A priest at San Fernando Cathedral married Tom and Francisca Rife on March 17, 1891, “because the Church does not recognize civil marriages.” 22 The couple had married in a civil ceremony in 1871. It appears, however, that the record of their marriage was lost. Francisca looked for it again in 1895, but the original records of the civil marriage, which should have been in the archives of El Paso County, could not be found.23 Probably, for this reason, the couple celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary by getting married, this time in the Catholic Church.24 David Morrill Poor, an old friend of Tom’s, certified that Rife’s marriage to Francisca was his second marriage.25

The Rife’s 11th child, Ruth, was born on May 18, 1891.

Francisca was pregnant when the couple married for the second time. Ruth was almost six years old, and ready for First Communion before she was baptized at San Fernando church on January 17, 1897.26 Her Godmother was Miss Josephine M. Flores.27

Rife’s oldest sons were now teenagers, and Rife was losing control of them. On July 20, 1891, Rife’s 12-year-old son, Lawrence, was arrested for breaking into two grocery stores.28 By August 4, Lawrence was out of jail on a $200 bond. His accomplice, 9-1/2-year-old Jesús Lopez, and his mother were sent back to Mexico from whence they had recently come.29 On July 23, three days after Lawrence’s arrest, his older brother, Willie Rife, was arrested for refusing to pay for drinks he had ordered at a saloon. To make matters worse, Willie “also threw rocks” at the house of the Italian who owned the saloon.30 In November 1891, William, age 18 and his sister, Mary, age 16, were arrested for throwing stones at some neighbors. They were charged with disorderly conduct, but the charges were later dismissed.31

Sometime in 1892, the Rife’s 12th and last child, Lucy, was born. 32

The family had moved again, this time to 307 Delgado Street,33 perhaps as a result of the rock-throwing incident. Delgado Street was a few blocks west of Colorado Street in the heart of the Mexican Westside. Rife’s commute to the Alamo was much longer now. The family had previously lived less than a mile from the Alamo, and his children could visit him at his work. Now he had to travel over two miles to and from the Alamo. Rife was approaching 70-years-old, and his health was failing. On March 3, 1893, Thomas Rife was reappointed by the City Council as Keeper of the Alamo. His pay continued despite reports that he was paralyzed.34 Nevertheless, by March 22, he was back at work at the Alamo.35

On May 12, 1893, Will Rife was sent to jail for assaulting a man named José Navarro. He “was committed to jail in default of $1,000 bond.”36 Eight months later, Will was fined $25 and released.

Rife was sick on October 3, 1893, but received his regular pay on a motion offered by Alderman Elmendorf.37 On February 20, 1894, by a motion of Alderman Smith, the San Antonio City Council adopted a motion to allow Tom Rife to assume his position as custodian of the Alamo “as he has recovered.”38 He had been reported as paralyzed.39 The eleven San Antonio aldermen each donated $5 to pay Rife back wages of $50 for one month’s work as the custodian.40 Now the Rife family was living on Warren Street, between San Pedro Creek and San Pedro Avenue, a short walk from the streetcar line.41 On March 4, 1894, Rife was re-elected to his position by the City Council by a vote of 11 to 1.42 Most City employees held their job under a system of patronage and were reappointed after municipal elections.

In addition to his salary of $50 per month from his job at the Alamo, Rife received tips from grateful visitors and a pension of $8 per month for his service during the Mexican War.43 For this time and place, Rife had an above-average income.44 However, he seemed to struggle with his financial condition; he had ten or eleven children at home, the family frequently moved from one rented house to another, and his delinquent sons were a financial burden.45

In 1893 or 1894, Rife’s family moved again to a house at 1224 Cameron Street, a block west of Flores and only a few blocks east of where they had lived the year before. The San Antonio Daily Light reported that on December 3, 1894, Thomas was “very ill” and that William McMaster, a San Jacinto veteran, was acting as Alamo custodian in his absence.46

Rife did not recover and died47 at his home on Cameron Street on December 27, 1894.48 He had been ill for two months and died of “general debility.”49 The funeral was held on the following day at 10 am, as was customary.50 The funeral Mass was held at the San Fernando Cathedral, and Rife was buried in San Antonio,51 almost certainly at the cemetery now called San Fernando, Number 1.52 “Father had such a poor funeral we had no money,” wrote daughter Annie to her sister Mary three days later53, which must explain why there is no headstone today. Iron headstones were popular in the late 19th century, but many were sold during the period when scrap iron was being collected for the war effort during World War II.

  1. Pryor, “Tom Rife-an Early Alamo Custodian,” STIRPES 42, No. 2, (June 2002), 28; The Daily Light (San Antonio), February 22, 1908; San Antonio Light, February 23, 1887; City Council Minutes, 1870-1879, Book E, p. 323 ↩︎

  2. City Council Minutes, 1870-1879, Book E, p. 323 ↩︎

  3. Daily Light (San Antonio), December 27, 1894 ↩︎

  4. Baptismal Records, San Fernando, Vol. 9: p. 415, entry 3847 ↩︎

  5. Morrison & Fourmy’s General Directory of the City of San Antonio for 1885, 148 ↩︎

  6. Survivor’s Brief, Records of the Bureau of Pensions, Mexican War Pension Application files, 1887-1926 ↩︎

  7. Bill of Sale, Historical Deed Records, County Clerks Office, Bexar County, Book 73, p. 311, San Antonio, TX. ↩︎

  8. San Antonio Daily Light, July 19, 1889; Jerry Thompson, From Desert to Bayou: The Civil War Journal and Sketches of Morgan Wolfe Merrick, (El Paso: The University of Texas at El Paso, 1991), 19 ↩︎

  9. San Antonio Light, April 10, 1888 ↩︎

  10. San Antonio Daily Light, August 16, 1888 ↩︎

  11. United States Thirteenth Census (1910), T624, Von Ormy, Bexar, 1533 ↩︎

  12. Vinton Lee James, Frontier and Pioneer Recollections, (San Antonio: Artes Graficas, 1938), 103; Frank S. Faulkner, Jr., Historic Photos of San Antonio, (Nashville, and Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 2007), 15 ↩︎

  13. San Antonio Daily Light, October 21, 1889 ↩︎

  14. City Council Minutes, 1870-1879, Book E and Book F, City Clerks Office ↩︎

  15. San Antonio Daily Light, August 25, 1890. ↩︎

  16. San Antonio Daily Light, September 20, 1890 ↩︎

  17. Johnson & Chapman’s General Directory of the City of San Antonio, 1891, 326 ↩︎

  18. Morrison & Fourmy’s General Directory of the City of San Antonio for 1887, 279, 313 ↩︎

  19. Daily Light (San Antonio), October 6, 1895 ↩︎

  20. San Antonio Free Press, May 17, 1882 ↩︎

  21. Johnson & Chapman’s General Directory of the City of San Antonio, 1891, 326; San Antonio Daily Light, March 31, 1891 ↩︎

  22. Pryor, “Tom Rife, An 1890’s Custodian of the Alamo,” 47 ↩︎

  23. Pryor, “Tom Rife, An 1890’s Custodian of the Alamo,” 47; Statement concerning marriage record of Thomas and Francisca Rife, Clerk of the El Paso County Court, NARA. ↩︎

  24. San Fernando Cathedral Record, Case Files of Mexican War Pension Applications, RG 15, NARA ↩︎

  25. Pryor, “Tom Rife, An 1890’s Custodian of the Alamo,” 47 ↩︎

  26. Baptismal Records, San Fernando, Vol: 10, p. 377, entry 3025 ↩︎

  27. Adoption Deed, Historical Deed Records, County Clerk Office, Bexar County, Book 187, pp. 459-60, San Antonio, TX ↩︎

  28. San Antonio Daily Light, July 20, 1891 ↩︎

  29. San Antonio Daily Light, August 4, 1891 ↩︎

  30. San Antonio Daily Light, July 23, 1891 ↩︎

  31. San Antonio Daily Light, December 1, 1891 ↩︎

  32. United States Twelfth Census (1900), San Antonio, Bexar, Texas, Roll 1611 ↩︎

  33. Jules A. Appler’s General Directory of the City of San Antonio 1892, 534 ↩︎

  34. San Antonio Light, March 4, 1893 ↩︎

  35. San Antonio Daily Light, March 22, 1893 ↩︎

  36. San Antonio Daily Light, May 12, 1893 ↩︎

  37. San Antonio Daily Light, October 3, 1893 ↩︎

  38. San Antonio Daily Light, February 20, 1894 ↩︎

  39. San Antonio Daily Light, March 4, 1893 ↩︎

  40. San Antonio Light, February 13, 1894 ↩︎

  41. San Antonio Light,* September 11, 1893 ↩︎

  42. San Antonio Daily Light, March 4, 1893 ↩︎

  43. Survivor’s Brief, Records of the Bureau of Pensions, Mexican War Pension Application files, 1887-1926 ↩︎

  44. August Santleben, A Texas Pioneer, (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1910), 228; David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas 1836-1986, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987) 41 ↩︎

  45. San Antonio Daily Light, October 3, 1894 ↩︎

  46. San Antonio Daily Light, December 4, 1894 ↩︎

  47. Mexican War pension records, Thomas Rife File, Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo, San Antonio, TX ↩︎

  48. Galveston Daily News, December 28, 1894; San Antonio Daily Light, December 27, 1894. ↩︎

  49. Pryor, “Tom Rife, An 1890’s Custodian of the Alamo”, 46; Mexican War pension records, Thomas Rife File; City of San Antonio, Mortuary Certificate, San Antonio City Clerk, Case Files of Mexican War Pensions, RG 15, NARA. ↩︎

  50. David McDonald, Jose Antonio Navarro, In Search of the American Dream in Nineteenth Century Texas, (Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association, 2010), 270; Letter from Annie Rife to OAV Burr, January 1, 1895, original owned by Susan Majewski ↩︎

  51. Daily Light (San Antonio), December 28, 1894 ↩︎

  52. Death Record, 1875-1879, Municipal Archives and Records, San Antonio ↩︎

  53. Letter from Anna Rife to OAV Burr, January 1, 1895 ↩︎