Sunday, April 17, 2005


Found cannons began as a secret


The Victoria Advocate
April 15, 2005

I will always remember the expression on Jim Bruseth's face.

We were on a boat loaded with media types and a dignitary or two splashing our way across Matagorda Bay to the cofferdam where the remains of the French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's little flagship La Belle was being excavated.

Bruseth, director of the archaeology division of the Texas Historical Commission, was giving us a bit of background on the project.

That was on Oct. 29, 1996, it being hard to believe it was that long ago with Bruseth having more recently completed a book about the project, "From a Watery Grave, the Discovery and Excavation of La Salle's Shipwreck La Belle."

He had explained the project in some detail and what we could expect to see and then asked if there were any questions.

I had one.

Twelve days before I had received a fax from a reader, Dale Porter, who had overheard something in a coffee shop about a number of cannons being found on land. This had nothing to do with finding of the three-century old La Belle, its location being confirmed in the summer of 1995 when a THC marine archaeology team brought up an ornate bronze cannon from the bottom of the bay. Two additional cannons that were aboard the ship were later found, with there being one that is yet to be found. There was an impression in the mud where it had been, and it could have been snagged in a fisherman's net or otherwise carried away.

From Porter's tip, it appeared evident any cannons found on land might be those from La Salle's Fort St. Louis that the Spanish had buried in 1689.

Porter noted that the "informant would not disclose the location or the property owner."

The Spanish had buried the eight cannons from the ill-fated fort, which had been overrun by Karankawa Indians.
So, I asked Bruseth if they had been found.

There was an expression of surprise on his face that I will always remember, and he has told me since then that the question came as a real shock to him. That was because everybody involved in the discovery of the Fort St. Louis cannons had been sworn to secrecy. My question had made it something less than a good day for him, and I could tell that I was not going to get an answer other than he did note that the Spanish were known to have buried eight iron cannons at Fort St. Louis.

That I already knew, and it was common knowledge that if the cannons were ever found it would verify the location of the fort, generally considered to be where the Spanish had later established Presidio La Bahia in 1721 on Garcitas Creek in southeastern Victoria County. That would be on the historic present-day Keeran Ranch, right where the cannons were found.

Later when I questioned some local archaeologists about the cannons being found, they were just as evasive even though I could tell that they knew something.

To this day, I have yet to understand the purpose behind all the secrecy.

I have always liked stories about lost cannons, and those that have been found, and it seemed pretty certain to me that it was indeed the La Salle cannons that Porter had heard about. Then I heard a rumor that a film was being shown privately around Goliad of some cannons being found on the Keeran Ranch.

It would be in early February 1997 when one who had been involved with the recovery of the cannons and sworn to secrecy would finally admit that they had been found. Not feeling at liberty to publicly divulge the source, I informed the Advocate's news department of the historic discovery - the greatest ever in Victoria County -- and, on Thursday, Feb. 6, reporter David Tewes broke the story after getting Bill Donoghue of the Keeran Trust to confirm the reports.

Four days later the Texas Historical Commission announced the discovery that confirmed the site of La Salle's Fort St. Louis and resulted in the two-years-plus Fort St. Louis Archaeological Project.

The location of the cannons had actually been discovered by a ranch foreman, Glenn Adams, prior to the THC removing them from the site in September of 1996 and taking them to Texas A&M University for restoration. Seven are now in the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria and one at the Texas State History Museum in Austin.

Bruseth says there are also plans for a book on the Fort St. Louis Archaeological Project along with two more technical works on both the Fort St. Louis and La Belle projects, they being amongst the most significant archaeological projects ever in Texas.

The finding of La Belle and Fort St. Louis also resulted in a cooperative effort of seven museums in six counties to tell the story of the first European colony in Texas. Known as the La Salle Odyssey, participating museums are the Museum of the Coastal Bend, Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport, Texana Museum in Edna, Calhoun County Museum in Port Lavaca, Matagorda County Museum in Bay City, and the Palacios Area Historical Museum.

This all began with the finding of some lost cannons -- three at sea and eight on land.

Without which there would be a lot of secrets yet to uncover.


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