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Researchers think old grave belongs to Ranger

By Michael Graczyk
Rosebud, Texas (AP) February 2011

The restoration of a cemetery for plantation slaves may have led to the discovery of the grave of a pioneering Texas Ranger who died 174 years ago after an attack by Native Americans.

Anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution joined researchers from the Texas Historical Commission last week to excavate the grave and retrieve remains that will be tested to see if they belong to James Coryell, one of the earliest members of the iconic law enforcement group.

“The question is whether they are well-preserved enough to get DNA,” said Jim Bruseth, archaeology division director for the Texas Historical Commission. “We’re also wondering if he was scalped and if maybe there is some evidence of that on his cranium.”

Coryell and three others were raiding a beehive for honey on May 27, 1837, when they were ambushed by Caddo Indians. His friends escaped, but Coryell was shot and wounded and may have been scalped. He apparently survived the immediate attack and received some sort of care but died within days.

Researchers hope DNA tests will confirm the remains belong to Coryell, and their work will provide answers about he died. One thing that’s not known is whether Coryell was shot with a gun or an arrow.

“If we’re lucky, we’ll find an arrowhead or a musket ball,” Bruseth said. “That would be really neat.”

Coryell did not appear to have had children, but there are people alive who are distantly related to him. Historical commission genealogists tracked down a 92-year-old woman in Lebanon, Mo., who agreed to provide DNA for the tests, he said.

The precise location of Coryell’s grave got lost over generations but a 1936 book about the history of the county named for him noted a former slave had said slaves who died at a Falls County plantation were buried near his grave. The former slave also said slaves put rocks on the Ranger’s grave after it collapsed to keep his spirit at rest.

Last spring, a restoration project for what’s known as the cemetery on Bull Hill uncovered a pile of rocks overgrown with brush. The cemetery about 35 miles south of Waco was used into the 1960s.

Last week researchers climbed into a 6-foot-deep hole they’ve been digging for several days and used hand tools to painstakingly fill plastic buckets with dirt. A wood-roofed and plastic-walled enclosure protected the site from the elements.

The researchers were digging within inches of where they expected to find bones, and it was clear someone had been buried there in a wooden coffin. The wood long had deteriorated, but researchers collected numerous iron coffin nails in large framed screens used to sift the dirt.

“We’re in the right spot,” Texas state archaeologist Pat Mercado-Allinger said.

She said it was possible they might recover buttons or a belt buckle. Bruseth said it was unlikely Coryell was buried with his pistol because it would have been too valuable.

“We have seen Texans buried with their boots on,” said Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist and leader of the Smithsonian team. “But since he was being cared for, he was probably not.”

DNA test results will be available in about a month, Owsley said.

Coryell had had an eventful life by the time he died about the age of 40. Born near West Union, Ohio, Coryell left home at 18 for New Orleans and then moved on to San Antonio – where he met the famous Bowie brothers. Rezin Bowie took credit for designing the huge knife carried by his brother James, who was among the Texans killed at the Alamo.

Coryell and the Bowies were hunting for a precious metals mine when they ran into Indians and achieved notoriety for surviving a battle where they were far outnumbered.

The Ranger also is credited for organizing a retreat of about 200 Central Texas residents from the advancing Mexican army in 1936. After the Mexicans were routed by Sam Houston’s army in the famous Battle of San Jacinto, Coryell signed on with a volunteer force. The term “Texas Ranger” wouldn’t appear until later in the 19th century, according to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco.

Coryell explored what is now his namesake county and supposedly was to head west to scout for land when he was killed.