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Fort Saint Louis

by Laurie Moseley

Because October is Texas Archeological Awareness Month, this month's historical highlights are focusing upon Rene' Robert Cavelier Sieur de LaSalle, commonly called LaSalle, and his activities in Texas.  The Texas Historical Commission (THC) under the direction of Dr. Jim Bruseth and Dr. Mike Davis has been working on the site of Fort Saint Louis for several months.  Because access to the site is restricted, the THC has set up a temporary museum and laboratory in downtown Victoria, Texas.  If you are going to be in the Victoria area, I urge you to visit the laboratory.  It will be open until at least May 2001.  The museum/lab contains artifacts from the excavation of LaSalle's supply ship La Belle as well as artifacts from the Fort St. Louis archeological dig.  Among the most interesting artifacts are the personal things such as plates, shoes, and scissors.  Kids like to see the big cannon and the swords.

Each work day THC archeologists travel up Garcitas Creek to the location of Fort Saint Louis.  The site is located on a working ranch in an unspoiled area that features thick brush along the creek banks, low swampy areas and a high bluff on which the fort had been constructed.  Traces of the original L-shaped fort building where supplies were kept and where LaSalle slept when was in the fort have been identified by THC investigators.  Part of the building was used as a chapel where the French priests conducted services for the settlers.

Two other buildings in the fort complex were constructed to house the men and women settlers.  Since LaSalle was out exploring most of the time, the commander of the fort was Henri Joutel.  Joutel kept a detailed journal of events in the expedition.  The journal has been translated and edited by William C. Foster under the title of The LaSalle Expedition to Texas: The Journal of Heni Joutel, 1684-1687.  The book is available from the Texas State Historical Association, (2/306 Richardson Hall, Austin, Texas 78712-9820).  Foster has done an excellent job of reconciling Joutel's account with other memoirs, official documents, and modern day archeological findings.  Foster provides maps and notes enlarging on Joutel's journal.

Archeological excavations at the site are very difficult because of the dense balk clay.  The archeologists have to dig out the clay with picks; then the lumps of clay are soaked overnight to make them softer.  Next the softened clay is washed through window screen-type mesh under high water pressure to reveal the artifacts.  Finally the artifacts and the remaining lumps of clay are taken to the laboratory for further cleaning and restoration.  Detailed records are kept so that the artifact can be put into context just as the pages of a book or the letters on the Wheel of Fortune TV show are put into order to complete the words.  In the case of Fort Saint Louis the excavated artifacts help to complete the picture of life at the fort in the late 1600's.

When the locations of nails are entered into the computer, outlines of buildings show up.  Remains of cooking vessels showed where people lived; pieces of religious statues showed where the chapel was located.  Since the Spanish built a presidio next to Fort Saint Louis after they burned it down, there are many Spanish artifacts at the site.  However, careful plotting and analysis have revealed where there are almost exclusively French artifacts, where there is mixture of Spanish and French materials, and where there are almost exclusively Spanish remains.

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