Archaeological investigations at the last Spanish colonial mission established on the Texas frontier: Nuestra Señora del Refugio (41RF1), Refugio County, Texas Volume I




Tennis, Cynthia L.

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Center for Archaeological Research, The University of Texas at San Antonio


Between 1998 and 1999, the Center for Archaeological Research, The University of Texas at San Antonio, conducted archaeological investigations at the Spanish Colonial-period Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio, located in Refugio County, in southern Texas. This project was conducted under Texas Antiquities Permit No. 2025. The initial phase of the excavations concentrated along US 77, in the TxDOT right-of-way, and the subsequent work conducted led to the exhumation of 165 burials, the discovery of the location of the 1796 church and the associated mission compound features. The excavations and subsequent analyses were guided by several research questions focused on shedding light, through skeletal and biological analyses, on the characteristics of the Karankawa Indians, identifying the influence of the Spanish material culture upon Native American technology (ceramic and lithic), and studying the effect of proselytization and mission life upon the diet, subsistence, health, and physiology of mission neophytes. This report presents the results of a variety of specialized studies including a concise history of the 35-year occupation of the mission based on the archival study of more than 600 documents. It summarizes the excavation and contents of two Colonial trash pit features, and a possible third trash feature, a small midden accumulation, various architectural features, and reports on the results of the excavation of 37 burial features containing the remains of at least 165 individuals. The analysis of the Spanish Colonial ceramics and artifacts indicates that Mexican-made wares and artifacts continued to be provisioned to the mission well into the nineteenth-century, and probably up to the date of its closing, but in decreasing numbers. At the same time, a variety of Native American ceramic wares continued to be made and used at this mission. However, the Native American ceramics from Refugio tend to have distinctive characteristics that may result from cultural contact with other nearby Native American populations, and the desire and/or need to produce wares for the Spanish colonists and missionaries in their midst. The results of the lithic analysis support the view that Native American technology was in transition during the occupation of the mission and at least in part the factors that may be responsible are changes in the subsistence practices of the Native populations and the impact of non-traditional raw materials, tools and weapons on native tool kits. The faunal analysis of the extensive collection suggests that there was very little change in the dominant component of the subsistence strategy, large bovids, during the use of the mission. However, the use of domesticated species declines slightly over time while the consumption of freshwater fish, as a percentage of all fish consumed, increases during the late part of the occupation. The exceptionally comprehensive analysis of the skeletal population indicates that about three quarters of the burial population from the mission were Native American and the remainder was of European and/or a mix of European and Native American ancestry.



archaeological investigation, archaeology, Texas archaeology, Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio, Refugio County, Catholic church, Spanish missions, archaeological surveying, Karankawa Indians, excavations, faunal analysis, burials, Indians of North America, archival research, ceramics, skeletal analysis