Colonial Past Unearthed; Bones linked to Texas’ first European settlers

by John Tedesco
Metro / South Texas

All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

KEERAN RANCH – A pile of jumbled bones discovered in a shallow grave by archaeologists could unlock the secrets of a tiny fort that shaped Texas history.

The skeletal remains, slowly being unearthed here, are believed to be those of the first European settlers in Texas.

Discovered at the site of Fort St. Louis, a French settlement established in 1685 near Lavaca Bay, the remains of at least two settlers represent an important find to scientists. The failed settlement marks a focal point of the struggle between France and Spain, which spurred Spanish expeditions to Texas to protect the country’s claim to silver mines in Northern Mexico.

“This site is why Spain decided to populate Texas and build missions throughout the state,” said Jim Bruseth, director of the archaeology division at the Texas Historical Commission, which is conducting the $1.7 million study of the settlement.

The discovery of the skeletal remains is significant, archaeologists say, because the bones can help show scientists how the French settlers lived and died.

A more unusual prospect is using DNA technology to link the remains of a settler to 20th-century descendants – a step that rarely is attempted in the archaeological field.

Using archival material, researchers traced two women in the French expedition to family members living in France and Louisiana. If one of the female settlers is buried in the grave site, scientists could try to identify the remains using a DNA sample from a living relative.

“This is one of the most significant finds so far,” said Jeff Durst, an assistant project manager who has spent days carefully scraping away mud at the grave site. “This is one of those things that helps us tie archaeology to the historical record.”

Established by the French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier Sieur De La Salle, the fort was defended by 180 settlers and soldiers, most of whom succumbed to disease and Indian attacks over the course of three years.

Today, the fort is located on a private ranch, where state archaeologists are allowed for a limited time to conduct their studies. So far, they have unearthed 60,000 artifacts.

Taking on a role akin to sleuths uncovering a murder mystery, Durst and fellow researcher Robyn Pry spent Tuesday using bamboo tools – which go easy on the brown, aged bones – to cautiously expose the skeletons in a mud pit.

After discovering the skeletons Nov. 10, then having to wait for heavy rains to subside to resume the excavation, scientists can hazard only a few guesses about the remains until they are removed and analyzed by H. Gill King, a medical anthropologist at the University of North Texas.

But clues exist amid the black, gumbo clay.

Durst said ridges in the femur bone of one settler show strong muscle development, indicating the person was male. The settler’s teeth, laid out in the mud like a necklace, have underdeveloped molars, which could mean the individual was between 18 and 22 years old.

So far, archaeologists have found only two skeletons in a small pit, leading them to believe the grave is the smallest of three French burial sites described in old records.

Spanish soldiers who discovered several decomposed bodies at the fort several months after an Indian attack wrote that they buried up to three bodies – one of them belonging to a woman.

The French expedition included only a few women. Texas researchers know where the descendants of two of them live, and a family in Louisiana has agreed to DNA testing to prove a possible link.

“Personally, I would be fascinated in discovering this information,” said Paul C. Newfield III, a descendant of French settler Isabelle Talon, who gave birth to one of the few surviving children at Fort St. Louis.

Newfield, a genealogy buff who has given old family documents to the Texas archaeologists, said he knows of no direct female descendants from Talon, which would be required for mitrochondrial DNA tests.

But if other DNA tests are available, he’s willing to give a sample.

“I’m ready any time anybody wants,” said Newfield, who lives in Metairie, La.

Located on the 9,200-acre Keeran Ranch, the archaeological dig represents an unusual situation for the Keeran Trust, which took over the land after ranch owner Betty Keeran died.

For years, the location of Fort St. Louis had been a controversial mystery to the outside world, but the Keerans had known for decades it was located on the property, trustee Terry Cullen said.

Family maps from the 1930s identified the fort’s location, and the Keerans owned numerous relics from the site, Cullen said.

Betty Keeran’s husband, John, allowed an archaeological dig in the 1950s by the Texas Memorial Museum, but the fort’s location wasn’t published, in part because the Keerans didn’t want scavengers trespassing on their land.

The first claim that Fort St. Louis existed on the remote ranch came in the 1970s, when archaeologist Kathleen Gilmore reviewed the museum’s artifacts and found French pottery. But she couldn’t dig for objects on the Keeran property itself.

But in 1996, a ranch foreman discovered an old buried cannon from La Salle’s ship and told a game warden. The secret was out of the bag.

“I had been waiting for this for a long time,” said Gilmore, who is assisting the current archaeological project. “I was very disappointed all those years, trying to promote excavations here, because we didn’t know very much about (the fort).”

Cullen said the discovery of the cannon forced the trust to walk a tightrope, balancing the interests of the ranch versus the interests of history.

The trust decided the property could best be protected by limiting access to the historical commission, which has two years to conduct its dig, although money for the project probably will run out before then.

“The trust is able to deal with people of this caliber,” said Cullen, who described the working relationship with the archaeologists as warm. “They’ve been extremely professional.”

Located South of Garcitas Creek, where alligators bask on a sliver of shoreline, the conditions have changed slightly since the days when the French settled there. Back then, the land was mostly prairie, without the elm and hackberry trees that dot the area today.

The settlers buried at this spot most likely were killed by Indians, their bodies left behind and exposed for months to the elements and animals. Then the remains were found by their enemy, the Spanish, who piled the bodies into a shallow grave.

“It’s sad if you think about it,” Pry said, reflecting on the skeletons she had spent days unearthing.

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