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Planet Earth

Archaeologists Discover Lost Graves From Milwaukee's Boom Time

Field NotesBy Elisa NeckarSep 24, 2015 7:36 PM


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Bones unearthed at the gravesite discovered in Milwaukee. Credit: Elisa Neckar, Discover In 1874, Milwaukee was swelling with immigrants. The city’s population had more than septupled in less than thirty years, and German immigrants to the area had established the largest concentration of a single ethnic group anywhere in America. In response to this exponential growth, the Common Council decided that 13^th Street would have to be expanded – and the new street would have to run through the German Protestant Cemetery in the city’s Second Ward. The Common Council ordered the cemetery owners to relocate the bodies within 30 days. Since I’m standing in a partially excavated lot in the middle of downtown Milwaukee in August of 2015, with 13^th Street to my back and gravesites all around me, it’s pretty obvious that relocation never happened. The graves were uncovered during construction for an addition to the Guest House homeless shelter, which occupies the lot to the south of the cemetery site. In June of 2014, construction of a rainwater-harvesting pavilion for the shelter’s urban garden just across 13^th Street uncovered two burials. Based on those finds and information from the Wisconsin Historical Society that an unmarked cemetery may be in the vicinity, and in accordance with Wisconsin statutes, the Guest House had an archeological monitor on site when construction began, in case any further burials were uncovered. “I think it took all of 20 minutes,” Dr. Patricia Richards says wryly. Richards is the associate director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Cultural Resource Management (UWM-CRM) program, the contractual branch of the university’s Department of Anthropology, which helps clients maintain compliance with the state’s archeological standards and provides interpretation services. And she’s seen plenty of “relocated” cemeteries resurface before. “In my career as an urban archeologist, if I had a dollar for every time remains were supposed to be moved and they weren’t,” she says, her voice trailing off meaningfully. Often, only headstones were relocated; following through with transferring the bodies themselves was dependent on whether there was family in the area to “steward the remains.” If an immigrant had come to America alone, or if his or her family had moved out of the area or died themselves, chances were no one would make sure gravesites were tended. Or, when necessary, dug up and moved. In this case, the director of the Guest House was hopeful that the graves had been relocated, since she knew late-19^th century housing had stood on the lot. In fact, Richards points out where the foundation of a rather shallow basement had to be removed in advance of her team’s excavation. But, she says, when they lifted it out, clear stains from the disintegrating wood coffins marked the bottom of the cement – the 19^th century homebuilders must’ve known exactly what they were building on top of.

A panoramic map of Milwaukee in 1879, looking north.

Uncovering the Remains

Other evidence shows that this isn’t the first time these early Milwaukeeans have been disturbed. Richards indicates a deposit of comingled bones in the dirt wall of the excavation area, much closer to the surface than the other burials I can see her team working on. Likely assorted pieces from one or more sets of remains that were disturbed at some point, they were simply tumbled together for reburial along the edge of the lot. In another place, she says, the team found that piping had been run right through the pelvis of one individual. Actually, Richards tells me, the least disturbed remains at this point are the ones currently under 13^th Street – since graves were found across the street last year and the team can clearly see some burials under the existing sidewalk, there are almost certainly additional remains waiting under the street. But for now, the focus is on the graves in the lot beside the Guest House. Those wood coffins are long gone, but the stains they left behind helped guide UMW-CRM’s excavation. As the work began, the top layer of soil was stripped, and the dark rectangular stains were marked with spray paint, telling the archeological team exactly where to dig. Uncovering each body is then a process of digging down and boxing out each grave, then working closer to the body with wooden tools, which are less likely to damage the bones. Segments of the body not being immediately focused on must be kept covered to prevent them from drying out in the August heat. The body is pedestaled: The dirt is carefully removed around the body, isolating the bones and uncovering hands, feet, and pelvis last. When pillars of soil are left only directly below the bones, the remains are documented and then lifted out. The process takes a day to a day and a half of work for each body.

Get Some Context

Context is incredibly important, Catherine Jones, the site’s field director, tells me, which is why the documentation of each burial before removal is key. It’s also important to have people who “cross over,” working both at the site and in the lab. As I watch, several members of the team step forward to hold a tarp up and shade an uncovered skeleton, while Jones lays a placard labeling the site, the date, and the lot on the dirt, photographs the grave, and logs it. Anthropologists can learn from the position of the remains in the grave, of course – as in many Christian cemeteries, the 55 bodies in the Second Ward Cemetery are oriented with their heads at the west end of the grave, facing east, in line with the traditional belief that the Resurrection would come from the east like the rising sun. Placement of hands and arms can be significant as well. Richards has led excavations on Catholic cemeteries from around the same time period as the Second Ward Cemetery, including the Spring Street or “Old Catholic Cemetery” in Milwaukee, not much more than a mile away from the cemetery in which we stand. There, bodies were usually oriented with hands clasped near the pelvis, often holding a rosary. Here at the Second Ward Cemetery, Richards and Jones keep commenting on the absence of such “grave goods” – the Protestant reputation for simplicity seems to hold up. Some cloth associated with clothing or shrouds has been uncovered, as well as some straight pins from the shrouds, a few buttons and other fasteners, and a couple items of jewelry. As of the date of my visit, the team hadn’t found any religious items. When the cemetery was in use (from about 1849 to 1861), ornaments for Victorian beautification of death like coffin handles and engraved plaques would have been cheap and readily available – they could even be ordered via catalogues like Sears, Roebuck and Co. But there’s little evidence of them here, only a few handles and viewing panes. “Very austere,” Richards remarks as we stand at the edge of a grave, watching team members brush dirt away from a femur. These are largely first-generation immigrants, she concludes, so their resources were likely being funneled into needs beyond ornamentation for their dead.

Reading the Bones

Life as a first-generation immigrant wasn’t particularly kind – cholera and diphtheria were rampant in Milwaukee during the time the cemetery was in use. Even more run-of-the-mill ailments could be deadly: One juvenile already removed from the cemetery had signs of what was likely an extensive infection in his or her leg. The bone itself was swollen, with signs of a deep cut and holes that had likely leaked pus. Richards and Jones note the individuals’ dental health as well. Adults, they say, had overwhelmingly good teeth. The juveniles, however... “Massive cavities,” Jones says. The adults would have grown up in Germany, where meat and protein was a large part of their diet. But living in the New World, in cities and with limited funds, meat would have been much more scarce. The juveniles’ diets were probably dominated by carbohydrates, leading to tooth decay. Of course, observations made on site are just the precursors to the deeper analysis that will be conducted in the lab. Once removed, the bones are stored in paper bags to prevent drying out and transported to UWM. In the temperature- and light-controlled environment there, they’ll be cleaned with water and brush to keep from degrading further, and analyzed. Richard’s team will look for age and sex markers, as well as pathology and stature, and any general information about the individuals’ general health and nutrition status that can be gleaned. The researchers will also pursue a cause of death determination where it’s available via osteological analysis. And, the Wisconsin Historical Society has tasked them with determining ancestry wherever possible.

Future Study

One thing the analysis likely won’t yield: Identification of the remains. The Second Ward Cemetery is also referred to as the “German Protestant Cemetery” in 19^th-century newspapers, but it was not affiliated with any one parish or congregation. The mortgage on the land was held by early Milwaukee businessman and Pomeranian immigrant John Grunhagen and likely got its name as a nod to the ethnicity of the surrounding neighborhood. Because of the lack of parish affiliation, there are no known burial records, and the lack of records makes identification extremely unlikely. In addition to the remains themselves, the dirt removed from each grave is saved to be sifted or floated to search for small bones or other items; buckets of soil are constantly being ferried back and forth from the graves as Richards and Jones stand and talk with me. In particular, floating the dirt from the pelvic region can uncover fetal bones, if the deceased was a pregnant woman, which can help establish sex and age range. Dirt from the abdomen and pelvic area will also be sent to a researcher for parasitological analysis; information about what was in these earlier settlers’ guts can yield information about migration, cultural changes, and dietary habits. What will happen after the analysis is completed is still unknown. In Wisconsin, decisions about final dispensation of human remains from disturbed burial grounds are made based on three factors: First priority is given to any direct ancestors of the dead or anyone with a kinship claim. In the case of the Second Ward Cemetery, where it seems unlikely that identities of the individuals can be established, there’s probably little chance of anyone coming forward to claim family members. If no one makes a claim based on family ties, religious, tribal, and cultural concerns are considered next. The remains from Richards’s previous project at the Spring Street Catholic Cemetery, for instance, were reburied at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Calvary Cemetery. The third consideration is scientific interest. In some cases, the state might allow the remains to be curated by an institution like UWM for purposes of research. For example, Richards was involved with the removal of over 2,000 individuals from the Milwaukee Country Grounds paupers’ cemeteries in the early 1990s and in 2013; those remains are stored at UWM, where they are analyzed as part of an ongoing project to establish the identities of as many individuals as possible. In the case of the Second Ward Cemetery, nothing had been decided as of August: No particular group has shown interest in final dispensation of the remains. While some members of the public might clamor for reburial, it remains a contentious proposition. Reburial is expensive. But that’s not the only concern for Richards: Often in cases where individuals aren’t claimed and identities aren’t established, reburial means a single mass burial of all individuals from the site. “I’m uncomfortable with reburial that eliminates individuality,” Richards admits. “Individuality was clearly important to families of these dead at the time of their deaths.” The dead of the Second Ward Cemetery have finally found, in Richards and her team, someone to steward their remains.

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