Robert Vail of Bridge City thought the weather last week was right for catching big catfish near the mouth of the Trinity River.
He and his friend found the tide low and the north wind blowing the water down even further. And there Vail spied what looked like the ball of a bone sticking out of the mud. It was about 10 feet in from where the river line usually is.
Vail, who turned 65 on Sunday, has spent his life on the waterways of Southeast Texas. He’s been a professional shrimper and was a fishing guide captain until he developed health problems.
Besides knowing his fish and marine life, he also knows the history of the Native Americans in the area. Through the years, he and his wife, Betty, have looked for arrowheads and pottery, and combed the beaches for fossils of ancient animals.
He said he had found Native American pottery shards in the area on the Trinity River where the tide was down; so he walked through the mud to check out the ball sticking out. The rest of the bone was under several inches of mud and he dug it out.
He thought the bone might be human. After reposting a photo of it on Facebook, he had numerous replies that it looked like a human femur, or upper leg bone.
The next day, he called Bridge City police. An officer came by his house and put the bone in an evidence bag to take to the Jefferson County morgue. Examiners there confirmed it is human.
Vail is “99 percent sure” the bone is Indian. He speculated that person was from the Karankawa tribe that was around the Galveston Bay area. The Atapaka Indians were around the Sabine and Neches river areas.
Vail said he has read the tribes are the only ones in the United States that practiced cannibalism. They lived in the warm weather around the Sabine Lake, which is a bay, along with the Gulf of Mexico and other bays. They would move northward in the winter and build huts.
Vail said the Native Americans in this region ate seafood including lots of clams. Clam mounds, or middens, are around the shores. The middens were where the clam shells were discarded along with other items. Some of the middens were even used for burial.
“There’s a bunch of them on the Sabine and north all the way up past Interstate 10,” he said.
His love of archaeology and fossils goes back to his boyhood in Bridge City. When he was growing up, a nearby materials yard brought in piles of gravel. He would spend time going through the gravel searching for small fossils.
In addition, he was in a small archaeology club at Bridge City High School and the group even took a trip to West Texas on a successful fossil hunt.
Once the morgue confirmed the bone is from a human, Vail had to contact the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office. Deputies took him out in an airboat to show them the site, but it was back under water that was about three feet deep.
Vail said one deputy had found a human skull in the area a few years ago and the carbon testing for age showed it was about 500 years old.
These days, in addition to his fishing and his amateur archaeology, Vail spends his time carving wooden fish of different species along with other animals, including turtles, crabs, and even whimsical mosquitoes. He sells his carvings at the Winnie Trade Days and the Bridge City Farmers Market.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-