Over 300 years after their deaths, one can see the faces of two French colonists, the Sieur de Marle (right) and the Marquis de Sablonniere (left), at the Museum of the Coastal Bend. This is due to the wonders of modern science and forensic sculpting.
The Sieur de Marle died in Texas in 1687, while on an overland trek initiated by famed explorer Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle. After founding Fort Saint Louis on Garcitas Creek in southern Victoria County in 1684, the French battled the environment, native inhabitants, disease, poor diet and bad treatment for several years, while being driven tirelessly by La Salle on land expeditions in attempts to find the mouth of the Mississippi River. Of the 180 original colonists, only about 40 remained in 1687; 16 men accompanied La Salle on a last trek out of Texas, leaving behind 23 adults and children at the fort.
During this final journey, La Salle was killed when several of his men mutinied near what is now Huntsville, Texas. Shortly after, La Salle’s nephew reported that he saw de Marle drown while bathing in a river; his probable remains were excavated in 1932 during the archaeological investigation of a Caddo village in Bowie County, Texas. Interestingly, he was discovered with evidence of bullet wounds to his torso. It remains unknown whether Marle was murdered, or if those were old wounds.
Marle’s skull disappeared sometime after 1940. This facial reconstruction was created through a groundbreaking technique using photos of the skull to print a 3D model of de Marle’s skull from precise measurements. Amanda Danning, the forensic sculptor, then overlaid the plastic resin skull with clay musculature, connective tissue, and finally skin to create de Marle’s likeness.
The body of Marquis de Sablonnière was found with two others by the Spanish expedition of 1689 that was sent to find the French colony in Texas. More than 300 years later, the Texas Historical Commission rediscovered the remains where the Spanish buried them.
During the excavation of the Fort St. Louis site in the early 2000s, archaeologists found a small communal grave. Bones were mingled together in it, but forensic analysis showed that there were three people buried there –the Marquis, a woman, and a child. The woman had a blow to her head, and was consistent in age with Isabelle Talon. Only a few bones from the child were present, but we know he was male and between 7-10 years old. The Marquis was in his late 30s to early 40s and very muscular when he died. He had the early signs of syphilis. He contracted syphilis when the expedition landed in Haiti, which affected his leg, making walking painful. He was killed with a blow to the front of the head with a heavy object, possibly a club. The blow may not have killed him instantly but probably rendered him unconscious and he died a few hours later.
We know from his bones that he wasn’t born with syphilis, but acquired it later. How can we tell? If someone’s born with syphilis, they tend to have notches in their incisors, and “barreling” of their molars.
To recreate his likeness, pieces of Sablonnière’s skull were first X-rayed and CAT-scanned at Citizens Medical Center in Victoria. Colorado-based 3D Systems – Medical Modeling used the scans to create 3D images which were then printed on a 3D printer. The result was a complete skull, made of plastic resin, which comprised the foundation upon which forensic sculptor Amanda Danning overlaid clay musculature, connective tissue, and finally skin.
What else can bones tell us?
Surprisingly, we can learn what the colonists were eating. Variances in the ratios of different configurations of atoms can tell us how the colonists’ diet shifted over time. We learned that the colonists were shifting toward a more corn-based diet, and were also eating a significant amount of fish or shellfish. Lifestyles and diet are written into our bones, and the French colonists were no exception.