At stake was whether the Hefferman gravesite was on Beeville Independent School District property near, as legend said, the trunk of a long-deceased oak tree at, appropriately, Hefferman and Jackson streets.
The main characters of the drama were a state archaeologist, her husband, a school board trustee operating a backhoe on steroids, an eighth-grade teacher, some of her gifted-and-talented students and a cluster of onlookers.
WHILE SHE was alive, historian Margaret Moser often told how she remembers her great-grandmother leaving flowers at the base of the oak tree, saying that was where, after they were massacred in 1836, nine members of the Hefferman family were buried.
Debra Hanus, who teaches gifted and talented students at Moreno Middle School, wondered if — as a class project — it would be possible to authenticate the site.
Her first idea was to obtain the use of underground radar, but that proved too expensive and research brought the accuracy of the device into question.
Last December, she went the low-tech route. Her students used string and stakes to lay out a grid over the site where David Vickers doused the area.
The procedure resulted in a number of “hits.”
Spurred by the findings, Hanus sought the cooperation and funding from the BISD board — Superintendent Dr. Sue Thomas was an enthusiastic witness to all the activity at the site — and the Bee County Historical Commission to hire Dr. Catrina Whitley, an expert in excavation and analysis of gravesites.
THE PROCEDURE was simple: scrape off almost two feet of soil to find evidence of a grave shaft.
“You can immediately tell it by the change in color of the soil. Usually a grave is dug like a rectangle. It’s easy to spot,” explained Roy Whitley.
Huie climbed into his machine and started excavating.
The pattern: scrape two inches at a time, then stop while Whitley examines the soil. It is archaeology by skid-steer tractor and garden trowel.
If any artifacts are uncovered, work stops while she places a wooden arrow on the ground, using her cellphone compass to find north. She then photographs it, puts it in a plastic baggie, and documents it.
Then the excavation starts over.
It was a repetition that would continue all day.
By noon, Huie had dug a moat more than two feet deep, creating an island occupied by the stump of the oak tree. Before the day would be over, his volunteer work would be the equivalent of around $1,000.
“I’m doing this because my daughter, Abigail, is in Mrs. Hanus’ class. And, whatever Abby wants...”
He sat in his machine talking on his cellphone.
“So far, we have dug a great big hole,” he reported.
TO MAKE a long excavation story short — well, shorter — by 5 o’clock the moat was more than three feet deep.
“We ought to just fill it up with water and call it Hefferman Pond,” someone joked.
Hanus, who was full of excitement nine hours earlier, was glum. Whitley had found no evidence of a gravesite.
“There always is a sense of disappointment,” she said. “You want the client to have the answer that ‘yes, this is where it is.’ But one of the things we are taught is that negative archaeology is archaeological evidence because now we know, pretty much, that they are not here.”
Hanus agreed. “How many times in your life do you get to excavate a possible gravesite? Now, it’s no longer on my bucket list.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.