James Coryell, for whom Coryell County was named, was born near West Union, Ohio, in 1803, the son of Lewis and Sarah (Voshall) Coryell. He left home at the age of eighteen and made his way to Texas. He was in San Antonio by 1831, when he joined James and Rezin P. Bowie on an exploring expedition to the San Saba region in search of silver mines. After his return to San Antonio, Coryell went with Andrew Cavitt to Sarahville de Viesca, a settlement near Marlin founded by Sterling C. Robertson, who was empresario of the colony in 1834. Coryell made his home with the Cavitt family. Sarahville was also the site of Fort Milam, which was built to protect the inhabitants in the region.
In 1835 Coryell explored the Leon River country with Cavitt and applied for a land grant in what is now Coryell County. In 1836 Robertson became captain of a company of Texas Rangers who were stationed at Fort Milam. During the spring and summer of 1836 Coryell was a private in Robertson's Ranger company, and in the fall he joined Capt. Thomas H. Barron's Ranger militia to protect the 200 settlers living in Sarahville.
On May 27, 1837, Coryell and two other Rangers, Ezra Webb and Michael Castleman, were raiding a bee tree a short distance from the fort when they were attacked by Caddo Indians. His companions escaped, but Coryell, who was in poor health and unable to run, was shot and scalped. A party of men from the fort returned to the site of the attack and found Coryell wounded and bloodied, but still alive. He died two days later and was buried nearby. The exact location of the grave was not recorded and was eventually lost.
In the late summer of 1837, the Fort Milam Ranger company disbanded and Sarahville was abandoned. In 1853 a landowner named Churchill Jones established a plantation near the site. Jones owned a large number of enslaved workers and provided them with a cemetery, called Bull Hill, about a mile northwest of the old Sarahville settlement. The Jones plantation declined after emancipation, but most of the formerly enslaved families stayed in the area. Jones plantation descendants continued to use Bull Hill to bury their dead until the 1960s, when the cemetery was closed. Many of the grave markers and locations were subsequently lost.
In 2006 Churchill Jones III sold the property to the Summerlee Foundation of Dallas. Jones informed foundation president John Crain about Bull Hill, but was unsure of the exact location of the cemetery. Crain asked the Texas Historical Commission (THC) to conduct archaeological investigations and determine the location and boundaries of the burial ground. The THC team contacted former Jones plantation families in Marlin and discovered the oral history of Ned Broadus, a former enslaved worker. Broadus recalled there was a grave off the south line of Bull Hill that was reputed to be that of “Mr. Jim Coryell.” He recalled that after the grave caved in, enslaved workers covered the area with stones, so Coryell’s spirit would be at ease and not disturb the dead of Bull Hill.
In 2010, Crain was monitoring the clearing operations when a concentration of thirty-five large rocks was uncovered. THC archaeologists discovered a grave shaft beneath the stones and exhumation was conducted in February 2011 with the assistance of forensic anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution. The body was an adult male, 35 to 40 years of age, and 5’5” tall. The skeleton was in very poor condition and the top of the skull was covered with a dark substance. A piece of iron located in the rib cage appeared to be part of an arrow point. Much of the anecdotal information about Coryell’s death was confirmed. However, although a mitochondrial DNA sample had been obtained from a female Coryell family descendant, the remains were too degraded to definitively confirm the identity of the body through DNA.
In 2019 the Smithsonian scientists re-examined the exhumed remains and discovered that the dark substance on the skull appeared to be a poultice composed of plant material. A specialist in identifying plant remains from archaeological sites determined that the poultice was probably tobacco and that the skull had been covered with a cotton bandage. The skull also revealed cut marks from scalping. This new scientific evidence confirmed that the body was James Coryell. Using the Coryell grave as a marker, THC archaeologists uncovered two more grave shafts in August 2019, indicating that the area was the site of the lost Sarahville cemetery.