On the heavily wooded grounds of a Texas power plant, archaeologists have found the spot where Mexican troops under the command of Col. Juan Almonte surrendered to Sam Houston's force of Texas irregulars along the San Jacinto River, ending Texas' war of secession.
The 1836 surrender "resulted in the loss of all Mexican territory west to California," said archaeologist Roger Moore of Moore Archaeological Consulting in Houston, who led the team that found the site.
"The whole continental expansion of the U.S. to the West Coast hinged on this battle," he said. The discovery was announced Thursday.
In the early 1800s, Texas was a Mexican territory, but many Americans had moved into it and they grew tired of the oppressive Mexican rule, eventually fomenting rebellion.
The Battle of San Jacinto occurred six weeks after the battle of the Alamo, in which Mexican forces led by Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna besieged the fortress and eventually killed all 350 secessionists inside, including Davy Crockett and James Bowie. Santa Anna then went after Houston's troops with an overwhelming force, but, confident in his chances, he made the fatal mistake of splitting his troops.
The force led by Almonte that encountered Houston was only 1,100 to 1,200 men strong, about the same size as Houston's group. But the Texans had been enraged by the slaughter at the Alamo. Houston, moreover, was able to take advantage of deep swales in the landscape to march his soldiers close to Almonte's force and, in effect, ambush them.
In a battle that lasted only 18 minutes, Houston's forces routed the Mexicans, who threw down their guns and ran. Almonte was able to slow them down in another gully and organize them into a cohesive mass that surrendered without further casualties. "It probably saved their lives," Moore said, because the enraged Texans would probably have slaughtered the Mexicans if they had been running away individually.
Santa Anna was later captured nearby and was persuaded to order all his troops out of Texas.
Most of the locations of the battle are well known, but not the site of the surrender, which had been mismarked by veterans of the battle in 1890.
Some historians suspected that the actual location was in the middle of a 50-acre triangular plot of land on the grounds of a natural gas plant owned by NRG Energy Inc.
The problem was that the site was so overgrown with imported Chinese tallow trees and local shrubs that it was virtually impassable -- a fact that probably protected the artifacts from treasure hunters, Moore said.
With permission from NRG and $50,000 in grants, Moore was hired to check out the area. The conventional way to look for battlefield artifacts is with metal detectors, but the brush prevented this. So the team went in with a device called a Woodgator, which has a huge drum on the front that spins and grinds up trees and shrubs, reducing them to mulch.
After making several passes across the site, the team found two deposits of musket balls and other items. The team eventually uncovered an area about 130 yards by 20 yards that was littered with piles of 10 to 20 unfired musket balls, uniform buttons and other metal artifacts -- a total of several hundred in the small space.
Many of the musket balls were in piles indicating that they were still inside soldiers' pouches when thrown down, a sign of surrender.
"The balls are the equivalent of lithic flakes and potsherds, and are the ubiquitous material in a battle site of this period, linking together rarer artifacts," Moore said. "They show where people were standing, kneeling -- or lying dead."
All of the artifacts have been taken to Texas A&M; University for cleaning and preservation and will be given to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for display.
Moore and others will present the new findings Saturday at the annual Battle of San Jacinto Symposium at the University of Houston.