Historical Archeology

By: Kathleen Kirk Gilmore

Type: Overview Entry

Published: January 1, 1995

Updated: October 30, 2019

In Texas, historical archeology-the study by archeological techniques of sites influenced by literate populations-seems to have begun with archeological work financed by the Work Projects Administration. In the late 1930s and early 1940s the National Park Service and the WPA excavated about fifty sites in Texas, including those of Fort Griffin, San Luis de las Amarillas de San Sabá Presidio near Menard, and Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga and Nuestra Señora del Rosario missions near Goliad. The only analytical work published at that time was an analysis of the burials at Espíritu Santo by Erik Reed. The main goal of excavation of historical sites during those years was the retrieval of architectural information, principally with the aim of reconstruction. Cultural information was secondary. During the 1940s two phases for historic Caddo Indians were delineated: the Allen Phase in Central and East Texas, associated with the Hasinai Caddos; and the Glendora Phase on the Red River in northeastern Texas, associated with the historic Caddo Indians of that area.

After World War II historical archeology was conducted in the Falcon Dam area in the lower Rio Grande valley by Joe Carson, Jack Hughes, and Alex Krieger, and at the reputed site of La Salle's Fort St. Louis by Glen Evans of the Texas Memorial Museum. By the late 1950s historical archeology was oriented toward the excavation of sites important in history or sites that could provide information on aboriginal people that could be used for models in prehistoric research. Erik Reed, writing in American Antiquity in 1951 about historic site excavation, was not sure that this activity could be called archeology because, he stated, archeology in the New World could be defined as the study of aboriginal people. But E. B. Jelks, writing in 1957 in Texas Archeology, deplored the lack of information on Spanish Colonial and Indian-European contact sites. The first systematic archeological work on a mission site came a few years later in 1962, when Curtis D. Tunnell excavated San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz Mission in Nueces County.

With the establishment of the Texas State Historical Survey Committee (now the Texas Historical Commission) in 1953, interest in historical sites was stimulated. But not until the appointment of a state archeologist in 1965 did archeological work begin to be routinely done on historical sites. Work was also initiated to analyze and report on historical sites previously dug but unreported. The office of the state archeologist also conducted archeological investigations for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Water Development Board (now the Texas Department of Water Resources), and the Texas State Highway Department, until each agency employed archeologists for its own investigations about 1972. The Parks and Wildlife Department has done significant historical archeological work on state park sites, since many of the parks are associated with events and persons important to the history of Texas. The other agencies also do historical archeology where their activities are relevant to such sites.

In the 1950s and 1960s historical archeology was oriented principally toward studying aboriginal life in the early historic period in Texas, toward Spanish missions, and toward military forts. Such works as A Lipan Apache Mission: San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz by C. D. Tunnell and W. W. Newcomb, Jr. (1969), A Pilot Study of Wichita Indian Archeology and Ethnohistory by R. Bell, E. B. Jelks, and W. W. Newcomb (1967), Archeological Excavations at Presidio San Agustín de Ahumada by Curtis Tunnell and R. Ambler (1967), Archeological Exploration at Fort Lancaster in 1966: A Preliminary Report by T. R. Hays and E. B. Jelks (1966), The History and Archeology of Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio, Texas, by M. Schuetz (1968–69), Archeological Investigation at Fort Griffin Military Post by D. L. Olds (1969), and The San Xavier Missions: A Study in Historical Site Identification by Kathleen Gilmore (1969) reflect these emphases.

By the mid-1960s historical archeology was becoming a recognized discipline. An organizational meeting of the Society for Historical Archeology was held in Dallas in 1967. The society publishes a journal, Historical Archaeology, and in 1983 had seventy-eight members in Texas. The passage of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (amended 1980) protected sites, made mandatory the evaluation of all federal properties for cultural resources, and started a committee to control excavation on state lands. The law thus established a need for historical archeology to contribute to the evaluation of historical sites. With the increase in historical archeological information came the realization, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that archeology could contribute a great deal to the understanding of people of varying ethnic backgrounds and economic status, since historic records about most ordinary people are scant.

Although few courses in historical archeology are taught in universities of the state, most courses in introductory archeology include an introduction to historical archeology. Moreover, historical archeology is being pursued in most areas of the state. Universities as well as archeological consulting companies are conducting historical archeological investigations where contracts with both the public and private sectors call for cultural-resource evaluations. In the Panhandle-Plains area, work is being conducted on the itinerant camps of the Indian traders (Comancheros) and buffalo hunters. In the El Paso area the University of Texas at El Paso continues work on the Spanish missions and settlements and has begun historical archeology within the city. The University of Texas at San Antonio continues work on Spanish missions and settlements, as well as German settlements of the nineteenth century. Stephen F. Austin State University has excavated eighteenth and nineteenth century sites in the area. Southern Methodist University has investigated farming communities of the 1930s, and the University of North Texas has investigated late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century farmsteads in the Lakeview area and Czech-American homesites in the Granger area. See also PREHISTORY.

Thomas N. Campbell, A Bibliographic Guide to the Archaeology of Texas (University of Texas Department of Anthropology Archaeology Series 1, Austin, 1952). Kurt D. House, ed., Texas Archeology: Essays Honoring R. King Harris (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1978).

  • Archeology

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Kathleen Kirk Gilmore, “Historical Archeology,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/historical-archeology.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995
October 30, 2019