A Thunder of Cannon
Archeology of the Mexican-American War Battlefield of Palo Alto
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Human Skeletal Remains from the Battle of Resaca de la Palma
Eric A. Ratliff
Department of Anthroplogy
University of Texas
Austin, Texas

To examine a human skeleton is to look into the past history of that individual, from both cultural and biological standpoints. This sample of human remains from the Mexican-American War is unique because of its historical significance, as these people all died during the battle of Resaca de la Palma on May 9, 1846. In addition to what we can learn about the battle from this grave site, we also can discover more information about the Mexican soldier, and the people of Mexico from this period in general. Little is known about the individual in the Mexican military from this period. Few personal accounts of the war from the Mexican perspective were written due to illiteracy, and, perhaps, the reluctance of people to write about defeat. What follows is a description of the battle, an analysis of the remains of soldiers killed in combat, and a look at the information we obtained from this archeological site.

Battle Summary

After the battle on the plains of Palo Alto, approximately seven miles north of the Rio Grande (then called the Rio Bravo), General Mariano Arista directed the Mexican army south into the thick chaparral before daybreak on May 9, 1846. With reinforcements from Mexico, his troops numbered between 5,000 and 6,000 at Resaca de la Palma. The U.S. army, of approximately 2,200 soldiers, followed to prevent them from regrouping and mounting a counterattack. Initially, Gen. Zachary Taylor sent small parties into the brush to find the enemy while he waited for the long wagon train to catch up with the infantry. After all the U.S. troops had assembled by four p.m., the artillery continued southward along the road with infantry on either side, heading toward the Mexican army positioned in the dry river bed. The U.S. attack focused on the western flank, with the Mexican artillery set up on both sides of the road (Figure 64). Fighting was fierce; the chaparral precluding an organized attack or defense. Assaults by U.S. dragoons silenced the Mexican artillery batteries, and the Mexican troops pulled back in disarray. Arista's camp was quickly captured, and the town of Matamoros was soon filled with wounded Mexican soldiers.

Figure 64. Battle map of Resaca de la Palma (also called Resaca de la Guerrero by Mexico). From Compaña Contra de los Norte Americanos (1846).

Many eyewitness accounts tell of the human destruction at Resaca de la Palma; official reports describe 262 Mexican dead on the battlefield, while noting many more died while trying to cross the Rio Grande (U. S. Congress and Senate 1846). This number probably is the number of dead the U.S. soldiers buried the day following the battle. See Barbour (1936) and Frost (1849) for descriptions on the disposal of the dead.

There were other reports following the war that describe the graves of the fallen soldiers. On March 18, 1848, Helen Chapman passed through the Resaca de la Palma area, noting:

One of the long beautiful green vistas... [was] pointed out by Major Scott as the scene of the deadliest fighting. As we rode down to the spot, all along in relief against the green grass, were the blackened bones of horses and men, fragments of shoes, of woolen cloth, of harness, of capes, fertile proofs of a deadly encounter. They were mostly Mexicans who fell in that line and there they remained unburied, some were buried by our soldiers and some remained where they fell (Coker 1992:29).

Many view the battle of Resaca de la Palma. along with the fighting at Palo Alto, as one of the most decisive in military history, propelling the United States into a dominant position in the world. However, there is much more to history than simply the events presented in textbooks, as the actions of many people bring about these changes. Often, the stories of the principle actors remain untold. There are many accounts from the view of the U.S. soldier (cf. Barbour 1936; Brooks 1849; Frost 1849; Henry 1950; Henry 1847; Wilcox 1892), but the story of those who gave their lives for the Mexican cause was buried in south Texas. For 121 years, the battlefield was silent.

Discovery and Archeology

On April 1, 1967, during construction of a housing project in north Brownsville, Texas, machinery uncovered human remains. Three graduate students from the University of Texas at Austin (Michael B. Collins, T. Z. Elizey and Thomas Hester) excavated the site over the next six days. This was only one of the mass graves in the area, but the contractor decided to ignore them after seeing how long it took the archeologists to excavate one grave; he covered over the others. Looting at the site also was a problem, with a number of items taken by interested locals. The archeologists removed a total of 30 separate burials, along with many commingled remains. The skeletal material and artifacts were then transported to the University of Texas and examined by other archeologists and physical anthropologists, including Al B. Wesolowsky. However, no report developed from these preliminary studies.

While examining the collections at the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory (TARL) in Austin, this researcher came across the remains from Resaca de la Palma, noting that they had not been studied in over twenty years. What follows is a description of my examination methods, and what has been learned from the soldiers of Resaca de la Palma.

Analysis of Human Remains and Artifacts

To begin this investigation, each of the individual burials were examined according to standard forensic procedure (Bass 1987). Additionally, a new set of guidelines was used that standardizes the study of human remains (Paleopathology Association 1991). After preparing an inventory of skeletal elements, the age, sex and stature of the individual were estimated according to established criteria outlined below, along with details on the skeletal pathology observed in the remains.

Since most of the burials are incomplete, information on individuals is lacking in some cases. In addition to the primary burials excavated as distinct features, there were hundreds of bones unidentifiable with any of the primary burials. Trying to associate commingled remains with a particular individual was a frustrating exercise since there are few excavation notes, and only one weathered drawing that shows the position of the remains as they were excavated. With this drawing, and a large laboratory space (the grave measured approximately 14 ft x 10 ft), it was possible to lay out the burials in the position in which they had been found (Figure 65). An attempt was made to match some of the unassociated remains with the primary burials but with limited success. The remains are well preserved, and although only arms or legs remain for some individuals, it is still possible to describe certain aspects of their lives.

Figure 65. Skeletal remains, from Mexican mass burial at Resaca de la Palma.

Trying to evaluate the age at death from a skeleton now involves a battery of observations to obtain the best estimate. Traditionally, the closing of the growth plates in the long bones (Stevenson 1924), and the physical form of the pubic symphysis (point where the pelvic bones join in front) have been the most widely used techniques for assessing age (Gilbert and McKern 1973; Katz and Suchy 1986; Meindl et al. 1985), but preservation of the pubic region is often poor, and various other structural changes, with no correlation to age, may affect this observation (Stewart 1957). As a result, researchers developed other methods that use other portions of the pelvis (Lovejoy et al. 1985), the ribs (Iscan et al. 1984; 1985), and the fusion of bones forming the maxilla, or upper jaw (Mann et al. 1991). When possible, data from several procedures are averaged to provide the age for a complete skeleton. However, with fragmentary remains, usually only one, if any, technique is available for reaching an absolute number. Also, it is important to look at other skeletal features for a relative assessment, such as the tooth wear that takes place in a person's life, or the "normal" development of arthritis with age, particularly in the spine.

The sex of an individual is somewhat easier to determine if the pelvic bones are recovered, but other methods also are used for incomplete skeletons, such as overall bone size and the size and structure of muscle attachments (Bass 1987; Steele and Bramblett 1988; Stewart 1954; Workshop of European Anthropologists 1980). As with estimating the age of a person's remains, many observations are needed to evaluate the sex of a skeleton.

Stature estimation requires the presence of complete long bones, preferably those of the leg. Measurements are taken according to established guidelines (Bass 1987; Moore-Jansen and Jantz 1989), and used in a formula developed for the population in question. In this case, the ratios of bone lengths and formulae developed by Genoves (1967) for Mesoamerican peoples was used.

In addition to demographic analysis, noting the anomalies of each skeleton possibly resulting from events specific to each individual's life also is important. These include: genetic variation; intentional modification, such as dental work; and injuries, disease and normal processes associated with aging. All of these are usually grouped together under the description of pathology. The focus of this analysis was on four basic categories of pathology: dental; traumatic; degenerative; and inflammatory.

Dental pathology includes caries (also known as cavities), abscesses and various types of malformations. These can provide information on diet and skeletal development, and wear patterns are indicative of cultural practices regarding food preparation and other means of tooth use. Congenital defects and variation also are used to denote population affinities.

Traumatic pathology is simply physical injury to the skeleton. This is most apparent in bone fractures, but also can be seen in the various attachment sites, where stress can pull ligaments and tendons away from the bone. This may be indicative of repeated activity, but the more serious injuries usually are those resulting from a single event.

Degenerative pathology normally occurs within the skeleton as a result of aging. Arthritis is the main affliction observable in bones, usually in the form of lipping, or the development of a bony rim along the margin of the joint surface. In the most severe cases, the bones may fuse together. Arthritis also is an excellent indicator of habitual body movements since more stress causes greater wear on the joint surfaces.

Inflammation of bone tissue may be caused either by infection or injury. Periostitis is a general term used to describe the inflammation of the bone surface, and is fairly common in most skeletal samples, particularly in the lower leg bones (tibia and fibula). Usually, the presence of periostitis signifies a chronic process, as do most skeletal pathologies, but the rapid spread of infection can result in extreme changes to bone structure over a short period. Swelling of the bone, with a porous appearance from increased blood vessel development in the area, characterizes both types. Evidence of healing is apparent in the smooth external texture of the bone in some cases, while a lesion active at the time of death presents a more brittle appearance.

In addition to the skeletal remains, many artifacts also were uncovered during the archeological investigation. Unfortunately, the most distinctive item was not part of the actual excavation: a belt breastplate from the Mexican Tenth Infantry was found by one of the construction workers, and photographed before removal from the area. However, many more items were certainly lost to looting. Another important find was a hunting horn emblem from the headgear of a soldier. Other items from the equipment of the regular army include scabbard tips, and several types of metal buttons. However, most of the recovered artifacts are from the clothing of irregular troops, generally Indians from the surrounding area or other parts of Mexico. Approximately 80 percent of all artifacts are buttons made from animal bone, with several different styles reflecting individual artistry (Figure 66). Some fragments of cloth also were preserved, and in the neck area of many individuals small metal hooks and clasps were found. These material objects provide additional information on those who died on this battlefield, and provide a cultural framework for evaluating the physical remains of these people.

Figure 66. Bone buttons, from mass burial at Resaca de la Palma.

The Primary Burials

Presented here are summaries of the 31 primary burials identified during excavation and subsequent analysis. Most of the primary burials are incomplete and some contain only a small portion of the whole individual, such as a pair of legs or a skull. Yet each burial represents a person who lived many years ago, and thus provides an account of their existence in that time and place.


Only the fragmented remains of the right arm, portions of the pelvis and both legs remain of this individual. These appear to be from a male, and no age assessment was possible. The only pathology evident was swelling on the left tibia (lower leg bone), covered by healed periostitis. The inner surface of the right tibia has a similar lesion.


These remains are from an elderly (over 50 years old at death) woman. This fairly complete skeleton is missing only the ribs and vertebrae. Scars on the pelvic bones indicate she gave birth to at least one child during her life. Her postcranial skeleton is generally robust, with well-defined muscle attachments. As typified by advanced age and a coarse diet, the teeth show wear, almost to the dental roots; several were lost during her life.

Many of the abnormalities observed in this skeleton relate to her advanced age. Arthritis, exhibited by the formation of bone along the margins of the joint surfaces (lipping), affected her knees, elbows and fingers. Other pathologies observed are not as common in older people, but are indicative of an active individual. There is a healed fracture on one of the foot bones, and periostitis on the bones in the lower leg and forearm that probably were caused by an infection.


Very few of the bones found on the eastern edge of the excavated site are attributable to this individual. Those present include cranial fragments, along with portions of the several long bones and the right pelvis. The pelvis is from a male, approximately 25-30 years of age. As with many of the remains from the lower limbs of other individuals, there is a layer of periostitis on the right femur (upper leg bone). Notable also is a green stain on the shaft of the left tibia, resulting from decay of a cupreous object. These remains were found in a very jumbled state and probably were part of another incomplete primary burial.


These fragmentary remains of an individual uncovered by construction machinery at the site could be from another female. The remains are very brittle, having been closest to the surface, and there is evidence of rodent gnawing on the leg bones. The estimated age is 35-40 years, based on the auricular surface of the pelvis, and moderate dental wear. Other dental defects include a carious lesion (cavity) on the right first molar of the mandible (lower jaw), and an abscess at the roots of the second incisor and canine in the same quadrant.

Slight arthritic lipping on the margins of the femoral condyles (knee) and left femoral head (hip) also indicate an older individual. There also is evidence of a torn ligament on the left tibia at the knee. This is the region where the anterior cruciate ligament and the lateral meniscus (cartilage) attach to the bone, a strain of which would result in knee joint weakness, and probably caused a great deal of pain.


The remains of this male, 30-35 years old, are among the most complete recovered from the site, with only the feet and patellae (kneecaps) missing. Dental wear on the front teeth is moderate (slight on all others), and three of the third molars are congenitally absent, with the fourth having a large area of decay on the front half. His estimated height is approximately 159cm (63 in), using the formula developed by Genoves (1967).

A healed compression fracture of the left mandibular condyle (where the jaw meets the skull) caused shortening and flaring of the jaw outward, resulting in temporo-mandibular arthritis. The injury was caused by a blow to the right side of the face, driving the left side of the jaw upward into the skull. There also is healed periostitis on the lower leg bones. Depressions from Schmorl's nodes are on the upper surfaces of two vertebrate bodies from the middle back. This results from swelling in the intervertebral disc which pushes outward into the vertebrae, and, in severe cases, the disc may rupture. Repeated loading on the spine may result in a chronic inflammation of the disc over time, or a single traumatic incident also could result in a similar pathology. Without any apparent changes related to trauma, it probably is the result of a long-term back problem.


Another relatively complete individual, this person was most likely female due to the small dimensions of the upper arm, or humerus (see Bass 1987:153-155 for sexing criteria using the humerus), and the small size of the postcranial remains. The estimated age is 20-30 years based on rib changes in the chest region. Her estimated height is approximately 160cm (63 in).

Dentition reveals a small cavity on the outer surface of the left mandibular second molar, and an abscess at the root of the right mandibular first molar. Antemortem loss of the two middle mandibular incisors and the right outer incisor probably is the result of trauma (the left maxillary middle incisor also is missing after death). Pathology on postcranial remains includes an anterior compression fracture on the body of the first lumbar vertebra, and another compression fracture of the distal left ulna (forearm bone).

This individual also has a particular lesion on the foot bones related to repeated stress. The articulation between the third metatarsal and the lateral (third) cuneiforms has an erosive lesion on the plantar (toward the sole of the foot) margin of both surfaces; this appears to be a tear of the plantar tarso-metatarsal ligament.


Approximately half of the skeleton was found in this primary burial. Pelvic shape and muscle attachments indicate a male, approximately 20-29 years old. Stature of this person was approximately 158.5 cm (62 in). The lowest vertebra (5th lumbar) is fused to the pelvis, and there is evidence of arthritis in the feet. Green staining on ribs again indicates contact with a cupreous object.


This burial included a left leg and arm, pelvis, chest area, and part of the skull. The remains are of a male who was 30-35 at death. In addition to a cavity on the left maxillary second molar, this person also had an active periostitis lesion on his left tibia. Unlike the previously mentioned cases of healed periostitis, the bone growth on the surface appears brittle, signifying an active infection or recent trauma to the area.

RES 10

The few remains from this individual consist of the cranium and right arm, and probably a female, based on humerus size and muscle attachments. She was 20-25 years old with almost no dental wear, and the maxillary sutures unfused. No pathology was apparent on the few elements present. However, one third molar is small and "peg" shaped, unlike the usual large square molar form. This aberration is genetic, undoubtably related to the congenital absence of the other three third molars in this individual.

RES 11

This is a male, 25-30 years old, the remains consisting of elements from above the waist: cranium, arms, ribs and vertebrae, plus the right foot. According to the size ratios of the arm bones (Genoves 1967), this individual was between 153-161.5 cm (60-64 in) in height. Dentition shows two small cavities on the lower right first molar, and another larger area of decay on the back of the lower left third molar. Several areas of trauma are present:

1) healed fracture of right nasal bone;
2) depression on the skull, directly behind the left ear;
3) healed fracture of the left clavicle (collarbone); and
4) two sets of fused phalanges (toes) from the right foot.

Additionally, there is evidence of arthritis in several of the vertebrae from the thoracic (middle) region of the spine, and a separation of the neural arch surrounding the spinal cord from the main body of the lowest vertebra (5th lumbar).

RES 12

This is a relatively complete skeleton, of a male, approximately 20-25 years old. His height was about 160 cm (63 in). Green stains are present on the front of the lower vertebrae, and the back side of the right femur. Pathology in this individual relates to mechanical stress of several hand joints, as evidenced by slight arthritis (lipping). Also, there is an area on the back portion of the right femur directly above the knee that has a rough, eroded appearance. This is an attachment point for the large calf muscle on the lower leg, the attachment partially pulled from the bone.

RES 13

This primary burial only consists of a reconstructed skull and dentition. It is probably from a male, approximately 30-35 years of age, as indicated by large muscle attachments, dental wear and suture closure. Two cavities are present on the upper left first molar, and a healed fracture of the left nasal bone.

RES 14

Only the lower limbs, pelvis and vertebrae make up this primary burial, and includes several bones labeled RES 1 after analysis in 1967. The remains are those of a male, aged 30-35 years, with an approximate height of 165 cm (65 in). There are cupreous stains on the back of several thoracic vertebrae (5th-8th). Arthritis is evident in the clavicle, and the lower vertebrae (3rd-5th lumbar). Both tibiae show healed periostitis along the bone shafts.

RES 15

A left arm and leg, the lower portion of right leg, the pelvis, vertebrae and the ribs represent this older male aged 30-35 years. He was roughly 165 cm (65 in) tall. There are cupreous stains on several of the rib fragments. Vertebrae show signs of arthritis, not unusual in a person of this age, and several depressions (Schmorl's nodes) on several thoracic vertebrae (7th-10th). The right fibula (small lower leg bone) appears swollen, with healed periostitis on its surface. This individual also has a wound related to the battle of Resaca de la Palma: a large lead projectile embedded in the right tibia just below the knee (Figure 67). The projectile is slightly deformed, its caliber not identifiable.

Figure 67. Tibia of RES 15 from mass burial, showing imbedded lead ball.

RES 16

Both arms, the right leg, ribs and vertebrae make up this primary burial. This male, 25-30 years old, has an estimated height of 166 cm (65 in). There is a large cupreous stain on the front side of the lower right femur. Extensive trauma during his life is apparent in the left shoulder region. The first and second ribs were broken some time during his life, and then healed together, with a fragment of the second rib joined to the first. The corresponding clavicle also shows an attachment where the muscle pulled away from the bone.

RES 17

Skeletal remains are fragmentary, consisting of portions from the skull, pelvis and several vertebrae. This individual was a male, 25-30 years old. The only evidence of pathology are Schmorl's nodes on two of the vertebrae (9th thoracic and 4th lumbar).

RES 18

Fragments of the skull and lower jaw with teeth are all that make up this burial. This probably is a male over 30 years of age.

RES 19

This primary burial occurred on the eastern edge of the excavation unit, and only the lower limbs and fragments of the arms and pelvis were recovered. The eastern limit of the site is a pond formed by one of the resacas, so the upper body probably was displaced at an earlier date. The remains are those of a male, 25-30 years old, standing about 163 cm (64 in) tall.

RES 20

Only the bones from the legs and hands remain of this adult individual; therefore, no sex or age estimate is possible. Extensive trauma to the left hand is apparent, with a fracture to the shaft of the second metacarpal, with fusion of the phalanges of the third digit, and slight arthritis (lipping) on the phalanges from the second digit and several carpals (wrist bones). There also are several healed areas of periostitis on both femora, the right tibia and fibula.

RES 21

Only the right arm, vertebral and rib fragments, and a portion of the mandible are present from this burial. From the size and muscle attachments of the humerus, probably from a male. There are two cavities on the right mandibular third molar. Pathology related to arthritis is apparent on several thoracic vertebrae (8th-11th), with corresponding Schmorl's nodes on the same bones.

RES 23

Both legs and the left hand, probably those of a male, approximately 155 cm (61 in) tall, compose this burial.

RES 24

Included in this burial is a humerus that initially was labeled "RES 22". Only the legs and left arm are present, with some foot bones and fragments from the pelvis. No sex or age estimate is, therefore, possible. Of note is the trauma to the right ankle area. There is a healed fracture of the lower tibia, with corresponding arthritis in the foot bones from this old injury. The foot bones also show trauma exactly like RES 5, that is, ligament tear between the third metacarpal and third cuneiform in both feet.

RES 25

Only the legs and several foot bones comprise this burial. The right femur has an area on the back surface where the large hamstring muscles seem to have pulled the bone away from the shaft at the attachment site. This probably is the result of a fracture, as there also is an outward displacement of the upper portion of the bone. Infection subsequent to the trauma also is visible as periostitis on the femur and corresponding tibia.

RES 26

Only lower leg bone (tibiae and fibulae) fragments were assigned to this primary burial.

RES 27

A skull, both legs, right foot and the lower left arm comprise this burial. The skull, initially labeled "RES 3" but not from the same burial as RES 3, was included in this primary interment. The remains probably are those of a male, age 25-30. There is slight arthritis (lipping) in the ankle area.

RES 28

These remains, probably male, consist only of both legs and feet, along with the right arm. His estimated height is approximately 169.5 cm (67 in). There is a healed fracture of one of the toe bones, and the joint surfaces on the femur that make up the knee have a flattened shape, "locking" the knee in an extended position more readily than normal. Also present is a cut mark 24 mm (.90 in) long on the right humerus just above the elbow (Figure 68). It is unlike other bone breaks caused by excavation or some other disturbance after burial, and appears to be the result of a blow from a sharp instrument such as a sword or bayonet. Its position on the back side of the elbow is consistent with the defensive position taken by a victim—his arm raised above his head in an effort to block the attack.

Figure 68. Humerus of RES 28, showing sword or bayonet cut.

RES 29

Fragments of the right humerus, pelvis and leg bones are all that remain of this male.

RES 30

Only the legs, with assorted hand and foot bones, were recovered for this person. A green stain is present on the left femur. Severe swelling and healed periostitis is present on all leg bones, indicating an infection that spread throughout the skeleton.

RES 31

Remains of this male consist of the left arm, both legs and the pelvis; and all are in fragmentary condition. Both femora show healed periostitis, with a swollen and more severely affected right fibula.

RES 32

Only fragments of the left leg and pelvis are present for this burial.

RES 33

Analysis of this individual only occurred after combined extra leg bones initially assigned to RES 9 and RES 19 were reassigned. From their large size, they appear to be those of a male approximately 162.5 cm (64 in) in stature. The right femur shows a well-healed fracture, with subsequent infection.

An Osteobiography of the combatants

From this study, a physical record of a person's life that may be indicative of particular historical or cultural effects on the individual, has emerged. A skeleton reveals past injuries, diseases and activities, and the researcher interprets these according to similar observations of other skeletons, along with information about life for the people of that particular time and place. The purpose of this narrative reconstruction is to show the information obtained from the study of skeletal remains, and how this knowledge uncovers aspects of personal lives not reflected in the annals of history.

As with almost every other battle site, the remains from Resaca de la Palma are primarily those of male combatants (21 of 25, or 84 percent, of those burials whose sex was determined), with ages ranging between 20-40 years. One unusual feature of this skeletal sample is the number of female remains present. There are four primary burials identified as female (RES 1, RES 3, RES 5 and RES 10). Modern biases toward women in combat make this discovery difficult for many to accept, but as noted by Salas (1990), women were an integral part of the Mexican Army. In addition to the traditional roles associated with camp maintenance, Salas also reports Mexican women took part in battle.

Another interesting feature is the lack of combat trauma. The projectile embedded in the knee of RES 15 and the cut mark near the elbow of RES 28 are the only injuries directly attributable to the battle. A projectile also was found in the torso area of RES 27, but no skeletal remains were recovered from this region of the body that would indicate trauma. Descriptions from the battle note firearms were not particularly effective because of the dense chaparral undergrowth, but it is difficult to imagine such violent deaths occurred without leaving some evidence in the skeletal remains. No other cut marks or fractures were found that could have resulted from warfare trauma. Edmund Kirby Smith describes the battle of Resaca de la Palma as one of "moral courage" where:

Our men expected no quarter, and fought with perfect desperation — it was hand to hand conflict — a trial of personal strength in many instances, where the bayonet failed, the fist was even used (Smith and Judah 1968:71).

Analyses of skeletal remains from the War of 1812 (Owsley et al. 1991), and the Battle at Little Bighorn (Snow and Fitzpatrick 1989) reveal extensive injuries resulting from battle, and many reports from Resaca de la Palma indicate intense fighting, but the remains from this mass grave provide little evidence of such fighting.

Noteworthy in this particular sample of skeletons is what they reveal about the lives of the people who took part in this battle. Bones provide excellent records of the more important physical events in a person's life: the habitual activities reflected in the development of muscle attachments and arthritis; the chronic diseases and fractures affecting him or her; and the diet of an individual, as indicated by the dentition and chemical analyses of bone. Examination and interpretation of these changes in the skeleton according to the present medical literature describes skeletal biology and pathology, along with ethnographic information on these people. Unfortunately, for this particular population, very little information about their life and behavior exists (see Olivera and Crete 1991). Thus, the skeletons are left to provide the missing details through the interpretation of variation in the remains.

Dental pathology is evident in 6 of the 30 primary burials (20 percent), mainly as small cavities on the molars. The two observed abscesses were found in the remains of females (RES 3 and RES 5), but it is unlikely females would be predisposed to dental pathology any more than the men of a group.

Degenerative lesions are found on 11 (37 percent) of the individuals. While arthritis is associated with the aging process in people, it also reflects physical stress in a person's life. Many of the changes observed in the spine (RES 4, RES 14 and RES 15), as well as the other joints (RES 1 and RES 3), are the result of repeated pressures over a long period of time. However, there are several examples of younger individuals with arthritis: RES 8 (feet); RES 11 (vertebrae); RES 12 (hands); and RES 27 (ankle). All were under 30 years of age, indicating stress from specific activities was placed on these joints. Two of the individuals (RES 3 and RES 11) also have arthritis, probably related to traumatic events that initially weakened the tissues.

The inflammation of bone tissue is apparent in 11 (37 percent) sets of remains. Most of the individuals with periostitis show localized afflictions in the leg bones. This is common in skeletal remains, and probably relates to leg injuries, such as bumping the shin against an object. There is little muscle covering the shin, and a "bruise" to the bone results in skeletal remodeling to repair the damage. There also are several examples of bone tissue inflammation probably related to infections. The older female (RES 1) has lesions on the arm bones as well, which could indicate an infection that spread through the body through the blood vessels, or it could simply be the result of weak connective tissue that covers the bones in an older person. RES 30 also probably had an infection, as the bones of both legs are very swollen, indicating strain from within the bone. As infectious organisms spread and multiply, they produce waste products that create pressure, causing the skeletal tissue to remodel around the infection. Two other individuals (RES 25 and RES 33) exhibit infections in the legs related to fractures. A break in the bone enables microorganisms to get into the inner tissues, where the body's immune system is not as effective.

Trauma provides the most information on the physical nature of peoples lives. Fifteen (50 percent) of the primary burials show some kind of trauma, mainly fractures. As mentioned above, only two injuries are attributable to the battle, so evidently these people led rough lives outside the military. Of the 23 trauma incidents found in the remains, 10 are in the lower limbs. The injuries observed in the feet are of particular interest. Since foot bones are not always recovered, thus less reported, there is little information about prehistoric pathology in the feet. Several fractures (RES 1, RES 24 and RES 28), and the tearing of ligaments in RES 5 and RES 24 show the feet were subject to a very stressful environment, similar to other farming populations where the lack of footwear resulted in increased stress when walking over uneven surfaces, along with draft animals stepping on bare feet (Robert Malina, personal communication 1993). Moving up the skeleton, there also are a couple of knee injuries involving muscle and ligament pulls away from the bone (RES 3 and RES 12), and two healed femur fractures (RES 25 and RES 33), the latter a very difficult bone to break. Also present are two broken noses (RES 11 and RES 13), missing teeth (RES 5), and a head injury (RES 11), all probably associated with personal disputes, if not clumsiness. The fractured mandible from RES 4 also could be related to a previous fight, or a kick from a horse. Two individuals (RES 5 and RES 11) exhibit multiple fractures; for example, RES 5, a female, may have been subjected to physical abuse. All individuals buried in this mass grave died in a violent manner, yet also apparent is that their lives up to that point already included some physical injury and suffering.

The Battle context of 41CF3

Placement of the mass grave on the battlefield is difficult because very little archeology has been done. The original lines of the armies are not readily apparent. Presumably the current marker noting the battle is approximately on the old road between the resacas, where the Mexican artillery batteries were positioned. 41CF3 is to the west of this central point, away from the road. The soldiers from this mass grave most likely were buried where they fell, and thus indicate the movement of forces in that area during the battle.

Artifacts from 41CF3 reveal the presence of the Mexican Tenth Infantry but, as mentioned earlier, most of the material remains are from irregulars conscripted from local towns. Officers were well equipped, but most of the recruits were not. Many were conscripted "by sending out recruiting detachments" to capture the Indian men for service (Thompson 1846:172). While the officers and regular soldiers wore splendid uniforms and were well provisioned (see Hefter et al. 1958), the presidiales and other irregular soldiers lived under poor conditions (Olivera and Crete 1991). According to Waddy Thompson, "drilling consist[ed] mainly in teaching them to march in column through the streets" (1846:173). The lack of training, along with the thick chaparral and terror associated with war, made communication difficult and added to the confusion.

The position of these troops has been noted by several authors (Ramsey 1850; Wilcox 1892). This study is primarily concerned with the left (western) Mexican flank since this is where the mass grave was located. On this side, the Mexican forces initially positioned the famed Guarda Costa of Tampico, along with the Second Light Infantry, the Fourth Infantry and the Regiment of Canales (see Figure 60). The presidiales and other irregulars made up the bulk of the reserves directly behind General Arista's camp.

Ramsey provides the most detailed description of Mexican troop movements during the battle, and records that many officers and soldiers on the western flank were killed during the initial assault, and, in retreat, "disconcerted the corps on the right" (1850:52). He states Taylor concentrated on the left flank because it was the weakest part of the line. Also, Barbour (1936:59) notes fighting on the western side was especially difficult "owing to the impenetrable nature of the thicket". The Fourth Infantry was the last line of defense before Arista's camp, but they also were defeated. Mexican forces making up the right flank, including the Tenth Infantry, moved toward the road during the battle to engage the enemy on the left, and other Mexican troops generally headed south to escape the American assault (Wilcox 1892).

This information supports the few identifiable artifacts recovered. The emblem from the Fourth Infantry and the buckle from the Tenth probably came from individuals killed relatively late in the battle since that is when these two battalions engaged the enemy at that approximate location. While the buckle from the Tenth Infantry was not recovered during the archeological investigation, this researcher was told it came from the pelvic area of RES 19 (Michael Collins, personal communication 1993). Possibly some accouterments were taken by U.S. soldiers as war booty. Skeletons with a large number of artifacts associated with irregular troop dress would not have been looted by other soldiers or history buffs with metal detectors, so it may be possible to determine which individual primary burials were not regular Mexican military. Capt. William S. Henry (1847:100) noted "three captains and four lieutenants were buried on the field; and they [Mexican military] acknowledge that forty-eight officers, besides these, are missing". From the historical accounts, it is evident only a few of the dead at Resaca de la Palma were buried hastily, while hundreds more were left on the battlefield.

The disarray of the skeletons in the mass grave is obvious in the incomplete nature of the primary burials, and by the extensive assortment of commingled remains not associated with a particular individual. A minimum number of individuals (MNI) can be determined by noting which bone occurs most frequently in the sample. In this case, there are 28 right femurs and left tibiae. Leg bones are most prevalent in this sample, followed by arm and foot bones. This is less than the number of primary burials (30) assigned by the archeologists and physical anthropologists, probably signifying the separation of individuals into several distinct primary burials.

While the MNI is simply the minimum possible number of remains present, it probably is a more accurate reflection of the true number of people present in this grave, given the excellent preservation of the bones, and the trying circumstances under which the archeology was conducted. It also could be an indication of disturbance shortly after the battle. In 1848, Helen Chapman described another mass grave:

Further on... we came to a very beautiful spot, a large green open space which was the camping ground of General Arista where all his baggage and booty was found. On the opposite side of the road are two large circular places where the turf has been turned up, and there lie the bodies of those who fell upon the field. Two large pits were dug and into were thrown Americans and Mexicans. On the camping ground of Arista, are three or four graves, two of Sergeants and two, I believe, of Officers whose bodies have since been removed (Coker 1992:29).

The passage indicates the remains of specific individuals were removed after their initial interment. This is not unusual, as the battle site at the Little Bighorn River also had the remains of fallen soldiers disinterred and returned to their families (Scott et al. 1989). At Resaca de la Palma, there also were efforts to recover the remains of certain soldiers. The body of Lt. Richard E. Cochran was buried on the battlefield, and retrieved several months later using a map drawn by Lt. Alexander Hays (in a letter to Cochran's wife, August 7, 1846). A newspaper clipping describes the journey to recover Lt. Cochran, and details the other activities of the doctors:

Immediately on our arrival [to Resaca de la Palmal, we despatched a man to the Palo Alto battlefield to procure us some Mexican skulls — a few of which we have with us (York Republican, December 23, 1846).

Any of these possibilities may explain the jumbled and incomplete nature of the skeletons in the mass grave, resulting either from attempts to locate particular persons, or from the gathering of human remains for "scientific" purposes.


From the skeletal evidence presented above, clearly the remains from this mass grave are not typical of other military samples, either in the number of women present, or the lack of trauma associated with the battle. The pathologies observed in the remains depict a rugged life for the people even before they were in the Mexican military.

The preliminary examination of skeletal remains is complete, but other analyses of the bones, such as chemical composition and radiographs, still need to be done. Further studies on the artifacts, and much more archival research also are needed to complete the account of this battle. Evident from this particular site is that a multidisciplinary approach is essential to truly understanding this mass grave. History, archeology, ethnography and military strategy are all important facets to the story of these soldiers, and there is much more to be done before we can write the final chapter on Resaca de la Palma.


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Last Updated: 25-Feb-2009