Working on an archeological dig several years ago at Fort William Henry's west barracks are (left foreground) the late John Farrell, Matthew Rozell (right foreground) and retired curator Gerry Bradfield (right rear). Archeological digs on the premises of the Fort over the past decades have unearthed skeletons of soldiers who fought in the French and Indian War.The remains of many of those skeletons — under forensic examination at several universities — are expected to be returned to Lake George later this year for reburial. Photo by Dr. David Starbuck, archeologist in charge of various digs at Fort William Henry
Research is nearly complete on the skeletal remains of more than a dozen British soldiers who perished during the French and Indian War, and the remains are expected to be returned to Fort William Henry later this year for reburial.
For decades, visitors at Fort William Henry could view the skeletons on display: those of British Soldiers from the 18th century. In 1993, officials of the fort decided, as most museums had out of respect, to take down the exhibit, and rebury the remains.
The Fort held a publicized reburial ceremony on Memorial Day weekend of that year attracting reenactors, historians, veterans and media representatives.
What wasn’t known to most was that only a few of the remains were actually buried that day. The others — some 15 nearly complete skeletons — were not on site, and were awaiting research to be conducted by two anthropologists, Maria Liston and Brenda Baker.
The Fort publicly acknowledged in 2012 that the remains were out of the area and never buried that day.
Many of the people who attended the ceremony back in 1993 were outraged and demanded answers.
Fort officials had never meant for the skeletal remains to be gone this long; the plan had always been to return them to the fort.
In fact, both Liston and Baker received jobs out of state shortly after receiving permission to study the skeletons. Both were granted permission to take the remains with them to finish their analysis. Liston was hired at the University of Waterloo in Canada, while Baker took a job at Arizona State.
“The Fort has always tried to do the right thing in regards to these remains; they had no idea they’d be gone this long, but the research that’s come from this is unprecedented,” said noted archeologist David Starbuck of Chestertown.
Liston voluntarily offered to return the collection of bones on multiple occasions but was asked to retain it as the Fort lacked a proper storage facility.
The vast majority of her research had to do with pathology, including determining the cause of death.
“These samples showed a lot of various diseases; they weren’t a healthy bunch,” said Liston. She said the type of research she does is important because it allows a person’s story to be told and not just forgotten. She also said she realizes how important it is to people in the area to get the samples back where they belong, but under the proper care.
Brenda Baker still has 15 skeletal remains in Arizona that belong to the Fort and her research is near finished. She is in Sudan doing research and unavailable for comment.
Fort William Henry Spokeswoman Melodi Viele said that the remains have always been handled with respect and the researchers have worked with the Fort through the entire process.
Officials of the Fort claim they weren’t hiding anything and said the nationally acclaimed, historic attraction was always to be the final resting spot of the soldiers.
Local Historian Paul Loding said that he was happy the research was being conducted but added that 20 years is a lengthy time to accomplish it.
“I was extremely happy to hear that the remains will be returned soon, it’s long overdue,” Loding said.
One of the reasons it’s taken so long is that technology has changed a lot since 1993, allowing more accurate testing.
In fact, one of the remains Baker had taken has garnered a considerable amount of interest nationwide.
Known as “Burial 14,” the remains are of a Native American male between the age of 25-40, found in the 1995 dig along with the remains of the British soldiers.
In March of 2012, National Geographic Channel aired an episode in its “Decrypters” series called “The Last Mohican?” The episode was about this individual.
All of the remains were originally buried outside the Fort sometime between its construction in 1755 and its destruction by the French two years later.
Most were discovered during the Fort’s reconstruction as a tourist attraction in the mid-1950’s.
Ongoing construction of the public park on the side of the Fort’s military cemetery could further delay the process of reburying the soldiers. Archaeologists estimate more than 1,000 graves are located in the cemetery.
“The cemetery has a fence on that side and we don’t foresee any issues, but it’s something we need to pay attention to,” Viele said.
The military cemetery borders the former Gaslight Village property, now a public park that is being transformed into green space to filter silt runoff into Lake George.
Viele said there is no definite time line for when the skeletal remains will be reburied.
“We need to have a place to rebury these remains in the dignified manner they deserve,” she said.
According to Fort officials most of the research on the remains is complete and they expect the remains to be returned later this year.