Despite Ceremony, NY Fort's Skeletons Not Buried

Published February 6, 2012 7:45AM (EST)

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. (AP) — For decades, tourists visiting this popular Adirondack village could gape at the skeletons of soldiers from nearby French and Indian War sites. Then in 1993, a somber reburial ceremony was held to finally put the remains to rest.

Only that never happened.

Almost all of the 18th-century skeletons were never buried. Instead, the collection of remains eventually was taken to Arizona and Canada for study and has yet to be returned for reburial. In this small upstate New York town that was the real-life setting for the historical events depicted in "The Last of the Mohicans," people had no idea.

"Most of them aren't there?" asked Robert Blais, mayor of Lake George since 1971, who learned about the decision from The Associated Press.

The AP spoke to archaeologists who have dug at the site, fort officials and the anthropologists who have the remains to confirm that the bulk of the skeleton collection is not at the fort.

Now, the people behind the decision are publicly discussing for the first time how such important artifacts left Lake George, and why they haven't been returned after nearly two decades.

"You're reaching the time when they should come home," said David Starbuck, a New York archaeologist who has written about the history behind Fort William Henry's skeleton collection.

On Memorial Day weekend in 1993, a well-publicized reburial ceremony was held to honor the redcoats and American provincial soldiers whose remains were being reinterred in the cemetery at the fort, a full-scale reconstruction of the outpost the British built here at the outbreak of war in 1755. The original fort was the real-life setting of the historical events in James Fenimore Cooper's classic, "The Last of the Mohicans."

But what fort officials didn't bother to tell the dozens of history buffs, tourists, and local, British and Native American dignitaries at the ceremony was that only three of 15 mostly complete skeletons were actually reburied. The others were still being analyzed by two anthropologists. The fort's owners decided to go ahead with the ceremony anyway.

"We didn't make an issue out of it," said Robert F. Flacke Sr., longtime president of the Fort William Henry Corp., which owns the fort and an adjacent resort hotel.

Those involved in the '93 project said there was no intention to deceive anyone, but a local historian who said he was at the reburial ceremony recalls no public mention being made of a change in plans.

Starbuck, who spoke at the ceremony, said a longer-than-expected analysis that spring, followed by other issues and job changes among the anthropologists, all combined to leave the reburial in limbo. He and others involved in the project didn't bring up the issue at the ceremony, figuring the bones would be returned soon enough.

"It was not intended to drag on this long," said Starbuck, who has conducted several digs at the fort over the past two decades. In the early 1990s, he recommended that the fort's skeletons be removed from exhibits and reinterred after being studied by experts in bioarchaeology, the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites.

Those experts, anthropologists Brenda Baker and Maria Liston, both told the AP they had longstanding agreements with the fort to keep the collections while their studies continued. Neither Baker nor Liston attended the reburial ceremony.

Baker said officials at Fort William Henry haven't asked for the return of the collection, which includes a dozen skeletons from the '93 project and three more uncovered during a follow-up excavation two years later.

"They know where they are and they know what I have and we keep in contact," Baker told the AP.

Though the findings of the anthropologists appeared in professional journals and other publications in the 1990s, few in the public knew where the bones were, including the residents of Lake George, who had long been led to believe the remains were buried there.

"Arizona?" asked a stunned Paul Loding, town historian in nearby Kingsbury, when informed of the skeletons' whereabouts.

"Why don't they do the right thing and get them back?" asked Randy Patten, a French and Indian War re-enactor and former member of the New York commission that promoted the 250th anniversary of the war.

But the fort lacks the facilities to properly preserve and store a large collection of full skeletons, and building such a space is cost prohibitive for a seasonal business, Flacke said. If the collection were to wind up back at the fort, the skeletons would be buried for a final time, he said.

Baker, the anthropologist who took the bulk of the skeletons with her to Arizona State University in 1998, said the remains are stored at the campus in Tempe in climate-controlled conditions that preserve the bones. She's had them so long, it's clear she's protective of them, even though the bones rightfully belong to the fort.

"When they build an adequate storage facility, they will go back to the fort," she said.

Liston said company officials, after being contacted by the AP, asked her to return the fort's boxes of human bone fragments that she had for years at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

"I am happy to cooperate," Liston said.

Baker, a former employee of the New York State Museum in Albany, said she has gleaned vital information from her years of studying the skeletons.

"Skeletons of any sort from this time period in North America, particularly people of European descent, are incredibly rare, and to have them from some sort of military context is even more rare," Baker said. "These skeletons were a window into what life was like at the fort."

In August 1757, the French burned the fort to the ground after the British surrendered following a weeklong siege. After the surrender, Indian allies of the French killed about 200 of the garrison's defenders.

"We want to treat human remains with proper respect. That is always the priority within anthropology," said Benjamin Auerbach, a member of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists' repatriation committee, which deals with issues involving human remains.

Committee members are aware of the situation surrounding the Lake George skeletons, though no formal complaints regarding possible ethics violations have been brought.

Some of the remains did make a homecoming of sorts last year, when Baker brought a few of the bones back to Lake George for a four-part historical forensics series airing this spring on the National Geographic Channel.

By Salon Staff

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