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America's History in the Making

Colonial Designs

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Jim Bruseth.


Jim Bruseth is the Director of archaeology with the Texas Historical Commission. He conduced the ground-breaking excavation of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's Fort St. Louis, and the subsequent Spanish Presidio La Bahia.

Q: Please introduce yourself.

Bruseth: My name is Jim Bruseth, and I'm an archaeologist with the Texas Historical Commission.

Q: What do you do here at the Texas Historical Commission?

Bruseth: My job as an archaeologist is to help investigate archeological sites across the state of Texas.

Q: What led you to become an archaeologist?

Bruseth: I got into archaeology as a young high school kid by joining a local archeological society. I would go out and pick up arrowheads and was fascinated with these objects that I was finding—some of which were thousands of years old. I wanted to learn more about the people that made those objects.

Q: Why do you think it's important for people to have an appreciation for history?

Bruseth: I think everyone should have an appreciation for history because it's our opportunity to learn how people have lived in the past, to learn about the things they've accomplished and the things that have perhaps been failures. From that, we can help understand how we might want to proceed in the future as individuals.

Q: What is the relationship between archaeology and history?

Bruseth: The relationship between archaeology and history is one of a hand and glove; particularly for the period of time that we call historical archaeology. That's means doing archaeology on the last 300 or 400 years, where we have historical documents as well, and the two really work together. Often for a particular archeological site, we'll have some documents about the people that lived there, and then we can dig up the artifacts from those people.

Q: How do you approach a site that you're going to excavate?

Bruseth: The process that we go through to investigate a site starts with a lot of planning. In the case of a site where we might have historical documents, we may begin by searching history books, or examining letters and other primary documents to learn as much as we can about the archeological site.

We try to really analyze those sources and understand their significance. And we do that by trying to put ourselves into the position of the person who wrote the source that we're looking at. For example, at an historic fort, the author might be a soldier. We want to learn a little bit more about that soldier. Was he there making objective observations, or was he somebody that was having some kind of difficulty in his observations, and therefore could be biased? Understanding that sort of perspective is critical to being able to pull out the pieces of what that person's saying and to judge if they're accurate.

Q: Do you find that written records and archeological evidence you discover agree with each other?

Bruseth: For me, one of the exciting aspects of historical archaeology is having both the written record and the archeological record, and comparing them to see if they corroborate each other or if one is telling a different story. The wonderful thing about the archeological record is that it's unbiased. What you find reflects the artifacts that people dropped in the ground. Our historical records reflect what people wanted to write down and often are biased by the perspectives that those people bring. So working with both written and archeological records together allows us to get a more complete picture of what took place at an archeological site.

Q: How did you become involved in the excavation of La Salle's Fort St. Louis Colony, and the Presidio La Bahia?

Bruseth: My involvement in excavating Fort St. Louis started with the discovery of a shipwreck about 30 miles away in Matagorda Bay. We had been looking for La Salle's lost ship, La Belle. Finally, in 1995, we found it after many years of searching, and the notoriety of finding that caused the owners of the land where the colony site is located to contact us and say "Hey, we think we found something out there that you might be interested in." They invited us to come and talk.

What they found was one of the more remarkable things that has been found in Texas' archaeology. In this case and they said "we think we found a cannon out on our property, and we think it relates to La Salle." So we met with the owner of the property, and showed us the location and indicated that they had dug down and found what they think was the ball end, or cascabel end of a canon. We did a little bit of testing, and said "My goodness, there's a cannon there, that's absolutely something very significant."

Q: How did you proceed at that point?

Bruseth: Once we verified that there was a canon buried there, and after we calmed down from the tremendous excitement of seeing that, we decided we needed to come in and excavate those canons out; todig a large square in the ground and see how many are there. We did that over the course of several days in September of 1996, and there wasn't just one canon but there were eight canons, and these eight canons perfectly matched the historical documents from La Salle's time—about eight iron canons he brought from France with him to guard his fort. It all fit together beautifully, and we were so excited.

Q: And at that point, did you begin the larger excavation?

Bruseth: So after we had excavated those canons and we realized we had a major archeological discovery, we then opened a dialog with the owners of the property about letting us do more extensive excavation to get as much as we could out there. The owners of the property were very, very excited about our work out there. They thought this was a great opportunity to see what they might have buried on their land. And so they really opened the door and gave us a three-year window of time to do as much excavating as we possibly could. It was an archaeologist's dream to have that kind of cooperation from a private land owner.

Once the door was open for us to investigate the entire site, we began to realize that here we had an opportunity to learn more about La Salle's colony. We had a map drawn by the Spanish when they found the French fort. So we knew what it looked like. We had an opportunity to verify that was accurate. But we also had an opportunity to investigate the Spanish presidio that was supposed to have been built on top of the French fort. So over the course of a three-year period, we had the opportunity to address two of Texas' great historical mysteries: La Salle's Fort and the Spanish Presidio

Q: What was the mystery?

Bruseth: La Salle established his Fort St. Louis Colony in 1685, with somewhere between 120 to 180 colonists out there. He had a hostile relationship with the native people. He was losing people to alligators, snake bites, and some colonists deserted, and eventually the number of people whittled down to about 30 or so. La Salle decided to go over land up to Canada to get help, and he took a small group with him. Some French colonists remained, and were eventually attacked and massacred by the Karankowa Indians.

Spain heard about this French settlement in their part of the New World when they captured a pirate ship, and on board there was a Frenchman who had been with La Salle and had defected. In the process of interrogating him, they realized that France had built this major colony in their part of the New World. And so Spain decided they had to find it, and they had to stop it. And that's what propelled the Spanish to come up and find La Salle's colony and burn it to the ground.

Q: What did the Spanish do next?

Bruseth: La Salle's French colony failed. Spain came in and built a presidio on top of it. Historical documents suggested it was a very elaborate 16-point-star-shaped presidio. Scholars for many, many years have doubted whether or not that elaborate presidio was built because it would make it the most elaborate presidio on the northern frontier of New Spain at the time from Florida to California.

Q: What perspective did you bring to the project?

Bruseth: My perspective that I brought to the project was one of objectivity. Some colleagues said, "No, the presidio was not built this elaborately." I had historical documents indicating that it was, and my goal was to use archaeology as the methodology to get to the truth.

Q: What evidence in the historical record led you to believe that the presidio had been built?

Bruseth: The primary documents we had about this elaborate presidio were some fairly direct pieces of information. We had a map. The Marques de Aguayo was in charge of building this presidio, and he actually brought with him a map of what the presidio was to look like. We have copies of the map today that show this very elaborate presidio. We also have his narrative of his building the presidio. And on the basis of those two pieces of archival information, we think is fairly solid, and that this was likely built.

Other scholars had looked at these and other documents, and from their experiences in their careers, had decided that the Marques de Aguayo never built that presidio. He said he was going to build it, he talked about building it, but in fact, he never did build it. It was just too elaborate to be here in a remote part of the New World, what is today's Texas.

They're saying it wasn't as elaborate as what he outlined he was going to build there, but the importance of that is immense. Because a small little presidio could be build anywhere. The very elaborate presidio that the Marques de Aguayo said he going to build here and, we found, actually built, places great importance on this part of the New World and underscores Spain's concern that France might try to come back, and they wanted to be ready with one of the biggest presidios they had ever built.

Q: What kinds of evidence did you expect to find that would help you to come to a decision about whether or not the presidio had been constructed?

Bruseth: The primary things we had hoped to find to verify if this elaborate presidio was built were remnants of the 16-star-shaped stockade. That would be where posts were set in the ground to form the walls of this star shape. To do that, the Spaniards would have dug a trenc in the ground that would go down two or three feet, and the posts would have been set in there and the dirt filled back in.

Archeologically, if they built the presidio, it should still exist today, and while the posts would have long since rotted away, we should find evidence and the sitting trench. And by digging at the site, that's exactly what we found.

Q: What was the conclusive piece of evidence that you found to tell you that the presidio had indeed been built?

Bruseth: As we were digging, we found a large circle of trash near where the soldiers' housing had been, and the interior had a relatively clean plaza. We knew that if the Marques de Aguayo map with the 16-point star shape stockade was accurate, we would have to go outside of that and look for the setting trench. And so we began to dig outwards, and in fact we found that setting trench. We followed it out and saw that the very elaborate presidio was built and we had finally made that wonderful discovery.

Q: What was the process you used to excavate the site?

Bruseth: Once we had the permission secured from the landowners to begin our investigation, we decided we would use a remote sensing technique to help us understand the site. That technique involves using a magnetometer, which is like a super-sensitive metal detector that can pick up one one-millionth of the magnetic force it takes to move a compass needle. And the reason for using the magnetometer t is that when people live on the surface of the ground, they modify the magnetism that's inherent in the soil. A magnetometer can detect that. It can give us some very important clues about where we would want to dig.

Q: What kinds of clues did you get from the magnetometer?

Bruseth: The magnetometer showed the distribution of iron metal across the site. And one of the things we found right after completing the survey was this big circle of metal, probably about 120 feet in diameter with an area in the center that was devoid of metal artifacts. And when we looked at that we said, boy that's very reminiscent of that map showing the plan for the presidio made by the Marques de Aguayo. In fact we superimposed the two and they fit almost perfectly, so right at that point we knew the magnetometer was suggesting that perhaps this big elaborate presidio was, in fact, built.

Q: Once you do this survey, then do you begin digging?

Bruseth: The magnetometer tells us where things are, where iron is, but we don't know if it's part of a metal cooking pot, or if it's part of a metal sword or whatever it might be. So we have to dig in the ground to really see what it is the magnetometer is finding and usually you don't just simply find iron there, but you find pieces of pottery, pieces of brick, or other things that people left there. By digging where the magnetometer's telling us we have anomalies, we begin getting artifact deposits that help us interpret the overall site when people lived on that landform.

Q: What was your approach to digging at the site?

Bruseth: As we would excavate across a site, we find more and more information, and we would dig not just where the magnetometer would find things, but would also investigate the voids. And over time we did enough of this across the overall site to collect all these artifacts, analyze to determine what type they are, and put that into the computer. The computer then can generate these wonderful maps that show us the distribution of Spanish pottery, or French pottery, and that is really a level at which we can begin understanding how these people used the site, where La Salle's buildings were, and the layout of the Spanish presidio.

Q: How does that tell you where the different groups lived?

Bruseth: When we look at the artifacts in what we call a spatial approach, in our computer, we find that two different types of people, the French and we have the Spanish, were living on the same landform, but they didn't live exactly in the same places, and by looking at our spatial maps on the computer we can then tease out where the French artifacts are and where the Spanish artifacts are and begin to understand where La Salle's people lived, where the Spanish soldiers lived, in some cases where the two deposits are on top of each other where they both were living in the same location. We use that information to then start understanding how each group lived and occupied that landform.

Q: What is the historical significance of this presidio?

The historical significance of our elaborate presidio being built, I think, underscores the motivations of the Spanish crown and the Spanish soldiers in Mexico to occupy this part of the New World. We've always known that Spain considered this to be an important part of the New World, but the fact that this very elaborate presidio was built directly on top of the remains of La Salle's fort, along with historical documents, shows us that Spain felt that if France occupied this area, they could lose control of the entire Spanish colonies in the New World. In occupying the area, the Spanish created the heritage that today we're so proud of in Texas.

Q: What sort of things have you been able to learn about the Native Americans of the area?

Bruseth: From the historical documents, primarily the French talking about their life there and the Spanish soldiers, their life at the presidio, we get little glimpses of the native Karankowa people. Also, the archaeological information we have from the site shows a couple things related to the Karankowa and the French and Spanish colonists. At one level we can see the conflict. Around the principle buildings we can see the small projectile points that almost certainly were fired on the tips of arrows at the French and Spanish colonists. But on the other hand, we find that a lot of the Indian pottery is being used by the French and by the Spanish. La Salle's pottery broke over time, they needed pottery to cook and eat with, and they obviously were obtaining that from the Karankowa Indians. So there were two relationships there, warfare from time to time and mutual cooperation from time to time.

Q: Do you find your work gives you a connection to the past?

Bruseth: The study of these artifacts, and having spent a significant portion of my life with the La Belle shipwreck and Fort St. Louis and our Spanish presidio, I feel like I have a tremendous connection with these people. Not only are these the objects that they used, but I find myself understanding the tragedy that they faced, the difficulties, the uncertainty, and it makes me appreciate my life today.


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