He was born in Saluda County, South Carolina, to Mark and Jemima Travis in 1809; records differ as to whether his date of birth was the first or ninth of August, but the Travis family Bible indicates that he was born on the ninth.
At the age of nine, he moved with his family to the town of Sparta in Conecuh County, Alabama, where he received much of his education. He later enrolled in a school in nearby Claiborne, where he eventually worked as an assistant teacher.
Travis then became an attorney and, at age 19, married one of his former students, 16-year-old Rosanna Cato (1812-1848) who he would later leave behind along with their children on October 26, 1828. The couple stayed in Claiborne and had a son, Charles Edward, in 1829. Travis began publication of a newspaper that same year, the Claiborne Herald. He became a Mason, joining the Alabama Lodge No.3 - Free and Accepted Masons, and later joined the Alabama militia as adjutant of the Twenty-sixth Regiment, Eighth Brigade, Fourth Division.
For unknown reasons, Travis fled Alabama in early 1831 to start over in Texas, leaving behind his wife, son, and unborn daughter. Travis and Rosanna were officially divorced by the Marion County courts on January 9, 1836 by Act no. 115. Their son was placed with Travis's friend, David Ayres, so that he would be closer to his father.
In May 1831, upon his arrival in Mexican Texas, a part of Northern Mexico at the time, Travis purchased land from Stephen F. Austin and started a law practice in Anahuac. He played a role in the growing friction between American settlers and the Mexican government and was one of the leaders of the "War Party," a group of militants opposed to Mexican rule. He became a pivotal figure in the Anahuac Disturbances, which helped to precipitate the war.
The Texas Revolution started in October 1835 at the Battle of Gonzales. Travis took a small part in the Siege of Bexar in November. On 19 December, Travis was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel of the Legion of Cavalry and became the chief recruiting officer for the Texan army. This force was to consist of 384 men and officers, divided into six companies. Despite his rank, Travis now had to actively recruit the men who were to serve under his command, and he had a hard time finding willing colonists to enlist. "Volunteers can no longer be had or relied upon ...," he wrote to acting governor Henry Smith.
On January 21, 1836, he was ordered by the provisional government to go to the Alamo with volunteers to reinforce the 120-130 men already there. Initially Travis did not want to go to San Antonio: "I must beg your excellency will recall the order for me to go on to Bexar in command of so few men," he wrote to Smith.
On February 3 Travis arrived in San Antonio with eighteen men as reinforcements. On 12 February, as the next highest ranking officer, Travis became the official commander of the Alamo garrison. He took command of the regular soldiers from Col. James C. Neill, of the Texian army. Neill had to leave to care for his ill family, but he promised to be back in twenty days. James Bowie (1795-1836) would command the volunteers as Travis commanded the regulars.
In a letter to the Texas Convention on March 3: "...yet I am determined to perish in the defence of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect."
In Travis' last letter out of the Alamo, March 3 to David Ayres:
There is a legend that, one to three days before the final Mexican assault, Travis gathered all of the Alamo's defenders in the main plaza of the fort. Announcing that reinforcements would not be forthcoming, Travis unsheathed his sword and drew a line in the dirt. He then told those men who were willing to stay and die with him to cross the line; those who wanted to leave could do so without shame. Most of the Alamo's defenders subsequently crossed the line, leaving only two men behind. One soldier, Bowie, was confined to a cot with typhoid, but asked to be carried across the line. The other was a French veteran of the Napoleonic Wars named Moses Rose. Rose, who later declared, "By God, I wasn't ready to die," scaled a wall that night and escaped, thus preserving the story of Travis's line in the dirt. This account was told by Rose to numerous people later in his life.
On March 6, 1836, following a thirteen-day siege, Travis, Bowie, David Crockett, and James Bonham were killed in a predawn attack along with about 188-250 other defenders during the Battle of the Alamo. The Mexicans overran the fort, surrounded it, used ladders to climb over the walls and broke down the fort's defenses. There are reports that Travis died early in the assault, of a single gunshot wound to the forehead while defending the north wall. Joe, a freed former slave to Travis, who was present during the final assault as a noncombatant, stated afterward that he saw Travis stand on the wall and fire into the attackers. He then saw Travis shot, then saw Travis kill a Mexican soldier climbing over the wall from a ladder, with Travis falling immediately afterward. This is the only dependable account of Travis' death.
When Santa Anna came into the fort he asked the alcalde of San Antonio, Francisco A. Ruiz, to identify the bodies of the rebel leaders to him. Ruiz later said that the body of Travis was found on a gun carriage on the north wall. Within a few hours of the final gunshots being fired, Santa Anna ordered a company of dragoons to gather wood and burn all the Texian's bodies. By five o'clock that evening, the bodies of Travis, Crockett, Bowie and Bonham were burned along with the other defenders.
On February 24, 1836, during Santa Anna's siege of the Alamo, Travis wrote a letter addressed "To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World":
What is not disputed about the Battle of the Alamo, is that by March 3, 1836, Col. Travis understood the situation his garrison faced, and it was less than bleak, but in fact hopeless. It is alleged that he called the troops of his garrison together either that day or on March 4, 1836, and told them "We must die. Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death." With that, it is alleged he made a sweep with his sword, and drew a line in the sand, asking all who would stay to cross it, and those not willing should not cross. Only Moses Rose, a French born former soldier in Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armée, did not cross. Rose has since been known as the Coward of the Alamo.
It is a fact that Moses Rose, by his own later accounts, was the only soldier that chose to depart, which he did by sneaking through Mexican lines in the late night hours of March 5, 1836. Allegedly, it was Rose who first said that Travis drew the line. Susannah Dickinson, widow of Alamo defender Capt. Almaron Dickinson, and who was present during the siege and battle, confirmed that this did happen. But, no reliable written accounts support this. Whether or not Travis actually did draw the line in the sand is still disputed. However, what is known, by Rose's own accounts, is that Travis did give the members of the garrison a choice as to who would stay and who would go, and, by Rose's own accounts, only Rose chose the latter.
He appealed the decision (to no avail), and then turned his attention to studying law, earning a law degree from Baylor University in 1859. He died of consumption (tuberculosis) within a year, and is buried next to his sister.
Susan Isabella Travis was born in 1831 after Travis had departed for Texas. Although her paternity has been questioned by some, Travis did name her as his daughter in his will. In 1850 she married a planter from Chapel Hill, and they had one daughter.