VICTORIA, Texas — Archaeologists have unearthed bones that may be those of settlers in Fort St. Louis, the short-lived French colony founded three centuries ago by famed explorer La Salle.

The find could help advance knowledge of Fort St. Louis, the first European colony in Texas and a focal point of the struggle between France and Spain to dominate the New World, archaeologists said this week.

"It's almost like a dream come true," said Kathleen Gilmore, a retired University of North Texas professor who has examined the site for three decades. Finding human remains "is to fill in the tragic story."

The location of Fort St. Louis was confirmed in 1996 when eight cannons were found on the swath of coastal prairie four miles upstream from Lavaca Bay on the Gulf Coast. The search has yielded French and Spanish ceramics, a French coin, buttons, jewelry, musket balls and arrow points.

Texas Historical Commission archaeologists believe the bones belonged to two of the settlers and will try to locate possible descendants and use DNA testing to confirm the identities.

Most of the yellowish-brown bones — a skull, arm, leg and pelvis — were discovered Nov. 10 by archaeologists who have been excavating the site since October 1999. A second skull was found this week in the same grave.

Project directors say they've narrowed the possible identity of the second set of remains based on records kept by the French and Spanish: She was either Isabelle Talon or a Madame Barbier, whose first name or her husband's first name is unknown.

"I'm excited about the discovery," said Paul C. Newfield III, a descendant of Talon from Metairie, La. "I hope they are able to ascertain who these people were."

Most of the bones belonged to a man in his late teens or early 20s who might have been among 22 men left behind to protect women and children when La Salle set off for Canada, project director Mike Davis said.

The two people were likely among 180 French colonists who arrived at Matagorda Bay in February 1685 with explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, sieur de la Salle.

The settlers quickly died from disease, starvation or fighting with Karankawa Indians. La Salle left for Canada, and only three settlers remained by Christmas Eve 1688.

Spanish explorers, competing with the French to colonize Texas, found Fort St. Louis four months later.

According to diaries kept by the Spaniards, they found the bodies of two, possibly three, French colonists and gave them a Christian burial, the historians said.

"This is a case of archaeology confirming the historical record," Davis said.

The remains will be studied to learn the cause of the colonists' deaths and their living habits. The Keeran Ranch Trust, which owns the land, will allow the commission to continue digging through next year.

The find should help locate a cemetery where the bodies of at least 53 French settlers were buried, said Jim Bruseth, the historical commission's archaeology division director.

"We now have a target, which we need to search more intensely to find the remaining French colonists," he said.

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