Covert Federal Effort Rescues Remains of Army Indian Wars Graves from Further Looting

BLM Archeologists Work Secretly at New Mexico's Fort Craig to Preserve Remains of 67 Graves from Further Desecration by Grave Robbers

Saturday, August 30 2008 13:14   New Mexico
Mention grave robbers and many people think about Egypt's ancient desert tombs being looted. But mention grave robbers to two of the federal government's top archeologists in the West and they will tell you about the looting that took place in recent times at the almost forgotten military cemetery at New Mexico's Civil War-era Fort Craig.

The archeologists, Jeff Hanson and Mark Hungerford with the Bureau of Reclamation, spoke with OldWestNewWest.Com about a covert effort that began in 2007 to exhume as many bodies as they could find at the post cemetery after the agency was tipped off to looting that had taken place, possibly even as recent as a few years ago.

"We found many empty coffins, some of which that obviously had been looted," Hanson said. "It looked like it was a nasty process. In some cases they left behind fingers and toes and buttons. They were probably looking for artifacts, but they were also taking human skulls."

Why the team of archeologists can date the looting to as early as 30-plus years ago is because they found a 1970s-era Pepsi can in one coffin, next to where bones, and bits of hair and skin, had been tossed back in. They also found a 1979 diet Seven-Up bottle in another coffin.

The exhumation of the unmarked cemetery was completed in October 2007. It was only earlier this year that the public was allowed to learn about the looting and the archeological dig and remains preservation efforts by the Bureau of Reclamation.

According to Hanson and Hungerford, the dig team removed 67 skeletons from the post cemetery. The skeletons were those of 39 men, two women and 26 infants or young children. The men were mostly soldiers. Many were in a mummified state.

"The adult male remains appear to have been Civil War, or Indian Wars soldiers," Hanson said. "We don't think there were any Confederates there. After the battle of Val Verde, the [fallen] Confederate Texans were buried down around there, but [the remains] have never been located. It was clear that where we were digging was a Union cemetery."

Established in 1854, Fort Craig was one of the largest and most important of the West's federal frontier forts. Located in the rugged terrain of Socorro County, New Mexico, the post was one of eight forts built along the main north-south trail in the Rio Grande Valley.

Visitors really have to want to get there. Fort Craig National Historic Site is about 35 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico and 45 miles north of Truth or Consequences, on the west bank of the Rio Grande. Fort Craig is 4.5 miles east of the paved frontage road (NM 1) and at the end of the gravel fort road. Open year-round, the area has picnic facilities, interpretive signs, restrooms and drinking water There's not much else.

Hanson said he found it interesting that bodies were still there at the almost-forgotten post cemetery. Fort Craig is actually on Bureau of Land Management property, while the cemetery, perhaps 500 yards away, is on property managed by the Bureau of Reclamation.

"In many cases the military would hire contractors to remove bodies from post cemeteries," Hanson explained. "The original [exhumation] contractor had told the military that they had taken everyone out. The area had been exhumed on two occasions - in 1878 and then again in 1886. The post closed down in 1878 as a result of a subsidence of the Indian Wars."

Record keeping was sloppy, to say the least. Headboards became dilapidated, and not all burials were reported in the federal registry.

According to federal records, there were supposed to be 251 graves at Fort Craig, but Hanson said when you add it all up it doesn't even come close. It's also possible contractors didn't dig deep enough.

"Relative to the battle of Val Verde, bodies were only buried a couple of feet under ground," he said. "Others that we found that were intact were buried four or five feet deep."

Through a combination of federal records and observation of the remains they found at the fort's cemetery, archeologists have a pretty good idea of what life-and death-was like in those frontier days.

Medical records were pretty good in describing how soldiers died." Hanson said. "Some died from disease at the post, and records tell us many died from dysentery, cholera and typhoid fever, but there also was some evidence of blunt force trauma."

The two archeologists said they found no historical information on women and children. They suspect the two women were wives of the soldiers. Exhumation also showed there were some infants buried at the post cemetery. Some still-born, while others may have succumbed to any variety of childhood diseases.

Hanson and Hungerford said they now believe all of the graves have been located, inspected, remains collected and removed for reburial. There is nothing left for future looters.

"If the remains we found were in coffin, they went back into a coffin and will be buried," Hanson said.

The team found the graves of six Buffalo soldiers from 125th infantry, African-American soldiers who were nicknamed Buffalo soldiers by Native Americans.

"Because we believe we might know who one of soldiers was, he will have a marker identifying him," Hanson said. "All the others will be given an unknown soldier marker."

At the time of our interview, the Bureau of Reclamation was suggesting the remains from Fort Craig be re-interred at Fort Bayard National Cemetery in New Mexico. The decision will be up to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Was there anything that struck the two archeologists while they were doing their excavations?

"This was a once in a career kind of project," Hanson said. "So often in this work you try to do the best that you can, and also do the right thing. What I saw was the remains of human beings left behind by history. We are doing right by these people. Where could they get the honor they deserve?"

Hungerford also was moved by the history of the project.

"This hadn't been especially comfortable," he said. "When you see one after another of young men who didn't get to live real long, and infants so well preserved that could have passed on last year, you see that life is very fragile."

Both men ask that if any of our readers had relatives that were at Fort Craig during that perioid, and believe they were buried there, to please them at the Bureau of Reclamation office in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Find Some Bones? Touch Nothing and Call the Feds

What should you do if you find the uncovered remains while your out hiking in the West? Call for help, and don't touch anything, experts said.

While the exhumation of 67 graves at Fort Craig's cemetery was an unusual task for archeologists of the bureau of Reclamation, experts are called out from time to time to examine remains that have accidentally discovered by citizens.

"A little over a year ago, an individual started poking around out in the desert, and what they found turned out to be a skeleton," Jeff Hanson, an archeologist with the Bureau of Reclation, said. "It was on Bureau of Reclamation land, so the FBI was called in. We carefully and systematically excavated it, and it was an old skeleton."

Results were that there was no sign of foul play, and the remains were not of a historical nature. They were respectfully laid to rest.

"If people go out poking around and find what may look like human remains, they should leave them alone, maybe take a photo, or draw a sketch map," Mark Hungerford, an archeologist with the Bureau of Reclamation, said. "After that, they should go to the managing agency and report what they found. Because the sooner a trained archeologist can get out there the better."


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