LA PORTE, Texas – A mystery is unfolding at the site of the epic battle that gave birth to what would become the State of Texas.
The conflict took place nearly two centuries ago, but it left behind artifacts that now have researchers reassessing how and where the Battle of San Jacinto actually took place.
"The actual fighting for the battle took 18 minutes," said Rusty Bloxom, a guide and historian at the battleground, now owned and managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The pastureland where the Texans attacked and defeated the Mexican Army is now flanked by petrochemical plants.
Some of their giant storage tanks are painted with murals depicting that day in April of 1836. The actual battleground lies in the shadow of the towering San Jacinto Monument.
Earlier this spring, researchers brought in excavation equipment and highly sensitive metal detectors and began digging, sifting and searching the soil from a small triangle of land near where the battle was thought to have been fought.
"It was a major surprise when the metal detector (crews) first pulled up the buckles and the buttons and showed them to us," said Janet Wagner, a researcher with vast experience in doing such "digs" in the Houston area.
"Lo and behold, they still had red fabric on them," said Wagner.
She was amazed by metal items they started to find, presumably from the clothing of soldiers—probably from the Mexican army, because one buckle still had a few threads of red fabric, the color of their uniforms.
There were also musket balls, a cannonball and a metal plate that protected the butt of a musket—the same plate seen in the depictions of muskets in those murals.
But researchers found all of those items, not on what was thought to be the battlefield, but instead in a tiny triangle of land on the very edge of what is now state park property.
"The triangle, we don’t have documentation of what role it might played in the battle," said park historian Bloxom.
Getting that documentation and coordinating the analysis of the artifacts is what researcher Wagner is now doing, kind of like a CSI detective working in a time warp.
"Yes, at this point, that’s exactly what we’re doing," said Wagner.
She’s spending hours poring over old documents, trying to determine why so many artifacts are in the triangle.
"Who dropped them there and what happened," she said.
Was there a skirmish here that was not part of the big battle? Could it be where Mexican General Santa Anna fled and shed his uniform? Or, were the artifacts simply moved here from nearer the battlefield during construction of the monument and roads in the 1930s?
Wagner is having the soil analyzed.
The funding for all this is coming from a non-profit economic development group in La Porte, the Economic Alliance Houston Port Region.
"It really brings it to life and makes you proud to be a Texan," said Chad Burke with the Alliance. But in an unexpected development, something else came to life as researchers worked to preserve the triangle of land, about the size of a basketball court.
Now fenced and otherwise untouched, it seems to be returning to how it once was in 1836.
"It’s pretty close," said Wagner.
Turns out, the current drought has been killing off the non-native plants. What’s left are what the historians say was growing here when the great battle was fought—plants with roots that run deep into the soil so sacred to Texas history.