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Speaking of Texas: Digging Texas

By: Gene Fowler 

The rich history of our great state has been preserved for the education and enjoyment of generations thanks to historical stewards like Dr. Kathleen Gilmore,” proclaimed Governor Rick Perry this past June, upon presenting the 93-year-old archeologist with the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.

“Among other distinctions, Dr. Gilmore served as the first female president of the International Society for Historical Arche-ology, helping to blaze a trail for women in a field that had long been dominated by men.

“My childhood interest in archeology was inspired by romantic stories of the Mayans and other lost civilizations,” says Dr. Gilmore, a longtime resident of Dallas. But after learning that the focus at the time was on the classical Greek and Roman civilizations, which involved extensive language study, she detoured into geology and eventually went to work for an oil company. “Then, after my children were grown, I noticed that local archeology had become more popular, and I enrolled in SMU in the early 1960s.”

The Spanish Colonial era became a specialty for Dr. Gilmore. In 1967, she published a report on her work at Menard County’s Presidio San Luis de las Amarillas and Mission Santa Cruz de San Saba. Two years later, her monograph The San Xavier missions; a study in historical site identification delved into the history of three missions and a presidio near Rockdale and introduced her model for identifying archeological sites. In the early 1970s, Dr. Gilmore documented the ruins of Mission Rosario near Goliad.“In the ruins of the chapel, we found a piece of a mural that had been painted by Indians and priests,” she notes. “The sizable fragment, showing an ocher and bluish-green urn, is on display at Mission Espíritu Santo in Goliad State Park.”

Also in the early 1970s, she established the probable site of La Salle’s Fort St. Louis, circa 1680s, and the presidio and mission Spaniards later built at the site, in Victoria County. “I sent shards of green glazed ceramics retrieved from the site in a 1950 excavation to French Colonial experts in Canada, who confirmed they were produced in the Saintonge region of France in the 17th Century,” she explains.

Dr. Gilmore has also divined the past by digging in the dirt at the LBJ birthplace site near Stonewall, Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, the Wallisville Lake Project east of Houston, and Lake Bob Sandlin State Park near Pittsburg. In 1996, she lent her expertise to the dramatic excavation of LaSalle’s ship the Belle in Matagorda Bay, and she later assisted with the dig at Fort St. Louis, just north of the bay, on Garcitas Creek.

Still active in her 90s, Dr. Gilmore traveled to Spain last December to examine an archive of newly discovered documents on Spanish Texas. Reflecting on a long career begun at age 49, she says, “You learn so much abouta culture’s way of life through archeology.”

 Searching for Treasure 

You can see evidence of Kathleen Gilmore’s accomplishments at sites throughout Texas. But perhaps no recent archeological work has received as much fanfare as the 1995 discovery and subsequent excavation of the Belle,the ship belonging to French explorer La Salle, which was shipwrecked in Matagorda Bay in 1686. A seven-museum cooperative called the La Salle Odyssey explores the lost ship’s history—the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History (361/826-4650), the Texana Museum in Edna (361/782-7146), the Matagorda County Museum in Bay City (979/245-7502), the Palacios Area Historical Museum (361/972-3960), the Calhoun County Museum in Port Lavaca(361/553-4689), the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria (361/582-2511), and the TexasMaritime Museum in Rockport (361/729-1271).

The Texas Historical Commission sponsors Texas Archeology Month each October with events ranging from lectures and tours of archeologysites to hands-on mock digs. To learn more about Texas Archeology Month and the La Salle project, visit



From the November 2008 issue.

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