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Home News-Telegram Sports Pro Sports Historians find probable grave of famed TX ranger

Historians find probable grave of famed TX ranger

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WACO, Texas (AP) — Famous Texas Ranger James Coryell is a man of mystery. What he looked like, how he died and where he was buried top the list of questions.

Some answers may lie under layers of Falls County soil, not far from the Brazos River and the area he once called home.

The Texas Historic Commission is investigating a gravesite that may belong to Coryell, born in Ohio in 1796 or 1803, depending on accounts, and killed in an Indian attack in 1837. Coryell County is named after him.

Most of Coryell s story is a Texas history classic.

It's about a frontiersman, bent on riches and adventure, who made a name for himself protecting settlers and fighting Mexicans and Indians in the land he lived to see declared the state of Texas.

This possible new chapter in the Ranger s story is pure 21st century, complete with computer searches, DNA analysis and even the help of the Smithsonian Institution.

Bringing in the Smithsonian on the investigation underscores how significant this find would be to Texas history, said Jim Bruseth, director of the Texas Historic Commission s Archeology Division.

"We re embarking on a journey," Bruseth said. "We re not sure when we ll get there or what we ll end up with."

The journey began when workers came across large stones while clearing the perimeter of a slave cemetery on private property southwest of Marlin in Falls County.

"They were exactly where you would expect them to be," Bruseth said about the stones.

He came across a slave's account of James Coryell's grave a few years ago, while researching Bull Hill Cemetery, which is being prepared for the unveiling and dedication of a historical marker July 10.

According to Frank E. Simmons, author of "History of Coryell County," former slave Tom Broadus told of a gravesite near the slave cemetery that he was told belonged to "Mr. Jim Coryell."

After several years, the grave caved in, and some of the slaves fetched rocks from nearby Jones Spring to place on the grave and keep the person s spirit at rest, Simmons wrote.

Bruseth said they dug a trench where the rocks were, to determine if there was a grave shaft. Sure enough, there was — 8 1/2-by-3 feet and oriented east to west.

Permission to excavate the remains has to come from a Coryell descendant.

Coryell had no children, but Bruseth said he hopes to find a female descendant of Coryell s sisters, someone who may not even know she is a Coryell, so scientists can test the mitochondrial DNA.

"(The DNA is) passed on almost unchanged from generation to generation through the female line," Bruseth said.

He also said if the remains aren t well-preserved, there s a better chance of finding mitochondrial DNA than anything else. Based on Bruseth s experience with remains and the specific soil conditions of the Falls County area, he said he s expecting the remains to be fairly well-preserved.

The commission is in the process of contracting with someone to take on the search for descendants. Bruseth said he hopes to be able to excavate by January.

"That ll be the clincher that we have, in fact, found the long-lost grave of James Coryell," Bruseth said.

The commission plans to send the remains to Doug Owsley at the Smithsonian Institution for DNA analysis, as well as a skeletal analysis.

Owsley will look for cut marks on the cranium, which could indicate whether the person had been scalped, as Coryell is rumored to have been. The remains also will be examined for any marks suggesting the person was shot with a musket or an arrow. Bruseth said Owsley should also be able to tell what kind of diet the person had.

By most accounts, Coryell was on Texas soil, or land that would shortly become Texas, by 1830. Simmons wrote that Coryell took up with James Bowie, went on expeditions and fell into famous skirmishes with Huaco, Tehuacana and Caddo Indians.

In 1835, he headed to the town of Viesca, later known as Fort Milam, in today s Falls County. This was where he operated with his various Ranger companies and lived with his friend, Andrew Cavitt, and Cavitt s family.

In 1836, Coryell helped cover the retreat of colonists as they fled from the Mexican army in what is known as the "Runaway Scrape."

They returned to central Texas, and by May 1837, Coryell was preparing to go west with his Ranger company and scout for land.

The story goes that one day that May, Coryell and a couple of other Rangers were enjoying the honey from a bee hive about a mile outside the settlement when they were attacked by Indians. His companions got away, but Coryell was wounded and died shortly after. After many years, the location of his gravesite became unknown.

"It s one of those intriguing, historic mysteries," said Byron Johnson, director of Waco s Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum.

You won t find pictures or paintings of Coryell at the museum, and it contains no uniform or standard-issue gun.

"At that time period, Rangers were about the same as Minutemen were in colonial America. They supplied their own clothing, horses," Johnson said.

John Crain, executive director of the Summerlee Foundation, which owns the land where the gravesite is, was at the site when the stones were discovered.

Crain, who also is Texas Historic Commission commissioner, said the finding is a high point for him and a unique opportunity for Summerlee, a nonprofit organization that supports endeavors to protect animals and preserve Texas history.

"It seems like we stumble across a lot of wonderful proposals," Crain said.

But in the case of the Falls County property, the Summerlee Foundation seems to keep stumbling over history itself.

Crain said when the organization purchased the Falls County land, it was as a long-term investment. Finding the slave cemetery, and possibly Coryell s grave, has Summerlee officials rethinking what the land means to them.

"We have no interest in parting with the property at the moment," Crain said.

 

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