Saturday, December 31, 2005


2005 was a good year for historical archaeology


The Victoria Advocate
By Henry Wolff Jr.
December 30, 2005

This has been a rather interesting year for historical archaeology in the area.

While we may never again see the excitement that was generated in the late 1900s and early 2000s with the La Belle and Fort St. Louis projects, some important things were happening during 2005. They just did not get the national and worldwide attention that we saw during the recovery of the French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's little flagship from the bottom of Matagorda Bay and the subsequent excavations at the French fort from 1999 until early 2002.

We have previously mentioned the efforts begun this year at old San Patricio to locate two cannons believed to have been dumped into the Nueces River following a raid on Fort Lipantitlan in 1835 during the early stages of the Texas Revolution. Also, there was the survey in Matagorda Bay that may have located the wreck of the steamship Perseverance that caught fire and was sunk at Indianola in 1856.

Another project of considerable importance this year that got little attention outside of the area was an initial archaeological survey that was conducted in July at the site of the oldest port in Texas, that of El Copano in Refugio County.

What made the earlier La Salle projects of such widespread interest was Fort St. Louis having been the first European settlement in Texas, setting the stage for all the historical events that have happened in Texas ever since and for our very being here today.

Such places as Indianola, old San Patricio and El Copano were important to the subsequent settlement of early Texas.

While the cannons at San Patricio and the steamship at Indianola are interesting as historical relics of our state's colorful history, El Copano had a long history that embraces the Spanish Colonial period in the mid-18th Century through the Texas Revolution and well into the 19th Century. "For El Copano the end finally came in the 1880s, as families moved away, leaving the once solid shellcrete homes to silently melt away as the years passed," the late Keith Guthrie notes in his book, "Texas Forgotten Ports."

"Ranchers ran barbed wire across the old roads that had been packed by thousands of feet, and Copano was no more."

Ever since, this place where so much history had taken place on the back side of Copano Bay has been a ghost town.

As early as the 1750s, the Spanish were landing supplies for their missions and presidios. By 1785 Spanish Viceroy Don Jose Galvez had decreed there be a port, and by the 1820s and 1830s the port had become an entry point for the Irish colonists settling San Patricio and Refugio on land granted by Mexico.

El Copano became a major port supplying the central Coastal Plains, and during the Texas Revolution was occupied at times by both the Mexican Army and the Texians. The port was where Mexican Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos landed his troops during the beginnings of the Texas Revolution, where Col. James W. Fannin arrived on his way to Goliad, and where Major Isaac Burton's "Rangers" captured three Mexican ships to gain the name "Horse Marines."

While mostly a coastal landing place before the Revolution, afterwards El Copano would grow into an important early port and town.

But, in more recent times, the scant remains of El Copano have been eroding into the bay.

"Most of the historic buildings have collapsed, and architectural remains are falling down the cliff or lying on the beach," notes Dr. Robert Drolet, archaeologist with the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, in a report on the July activities that was published in the November issue of "Current Archaeology in Texas," a publication of the Texas Historical Commission.

The commission has been involved in all the aforementioned projects.

Work at El Copano involved clearing the area of vegetation, and an intensive survey that included identifying and mapping architectural and surface features.

"Fifteen features were found associated with the 1830s El Copano settlement," Drolet notes.

"These included ruins of 10 residential structures; two shell mounds that were used as building construction materials; a trash feature containing fragmentary glass, brick, pottery, and metal remains; a cemetery; and the gravesite of Joseph Plummer, a prominent resident of the settlement."

Among those who helped to get the project started were Scott Enter, a former education director at the Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport, and Jeff Durst of the Texas Historical Commission, an archaeologist well-known locally for his work with the Fort St. Louis Project.

A number of area foundations assisted with funding for the field school in July and there are plans to continue excavations next year.

"Additional features and existing structural remains will be identified so an accurate map can be made of the settlement," Drolet notes.

There is much yet to be learned from what remains of old El Copano.


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