‘It happens more often than you think’: Historians weigh in on uncovered human remains

‘It happens more often than you think’: Historians weigh in on uncovered human remains
Published: Mar. 10, 2023 at 5:48 PM CST
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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WFIE) - Human remains, buried deep under the streets of downtown Evansville, were uncovered by Evansville Water and Sewer Utility construction crews.

[Previous story: ‘Archeological discovery’ of human remains found during downtown Evansville construction]

EWSU officials say on Feb. 23, crews uncovered a stone they thought might be a historical marker or artifact while working at the intersection of Fourth and Vine Streets.

Crews say they contacted the Department of Natural Resources, in accordance with the law. They say DNR told them they could keep digging.

The next day, on Feb. 24, EWSU officials say crews uncovered what they believed was a human bone.

They say the coroner’s office confirmed the bone was human.

Crews say the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the bones were not from a recent death.

“We’re digging to a depth of about 16 feet,” EWSU Project Manager Matt Montgomery said. “Which is deeper than it’s probably ever been at this intersection.”

While that may be deeper than EWSU crews have dug, it’s not deeper than Evansville’s founding fathers.

Before the intersection of Fourth and Vine was a city street, it was a cemetery.

“It was the first city cemetery,” said retired Evansville Historic Preservation Officer Dennis Au. “It was a cemetery until about the 1820s or 1830s.”

Back in 2016, Au discovered the intersection once served as a family cemetery for Evansville’s founder Hugh McGary Jr.

“Hugh McGary had several children and they’re buried here. His wife also died and was buried here,” Au said.

Au says the remains don’t belong to McGary Jr. He says Evansville’s founder is buried in Arkansas.

“There’s a good chance it someone related to him, but there’s also the possibility that it was another early Evansville death,” said Vanderburgh County Historian Stan Schmitt.

Schmitt says due to the small size of early 1800s Evansville, it’s likely more than just McGary’s family were buried on the plot.

As the city grew, the cemetery was moved to a new location, but 200 years ago, not every grave was marked by a headstone.

“The issue is a lot of times, people didn’t pay much attention to where burials were located and after a period of time people forgot where people were buried,” said Dr. Michael Strezewski, an associate professor of anthropology said. “If there were no markers or anything like that, they would be forgotten after a relatively short period of time.”

“These are all family cemeteries out on the farm,” Schmitt said when speaking about 1800′s cemeteries. “You bury your relatives there. Some have disappeared totally, because there were no markers.”

Dr. Strezewski and historians agree it’s unlikely we’ll ever know whose remains were found, but experts can learn a great deal about the person by examining the bones.

“You can say if it’s a man or a woman, probably, maybe about what age they were when they died,” Strezewski said. “As for the actual identity of that individual, probably not gonna happen.”

While the identity will likely remain a mystery, whoever it was may not be alone.

“If it’s a known cemetery, I’d say there’s a possibility that there’s still some remains there,” Strezewski said.

This isn’t the first time human remains have been uncovered by construction projects in Evansville.

“It happens more often than you think,” said Strezewski.

“It’s only a little unusual,” Au said.

Schmitt says there’s no record that shows exactly where the cemetery was located, just the general area, which encompasses Fourth and Vine.

EWSU officials say they were aware a historic cemetery sat somewhere in the area of Fourth and Vine when they started construction. They hired an archeologist to excavate the area where remains were found.

On Saturday, EWSU officials told 14 News that DNR has approved their permit to resume work at the intersection of Fourth and Vine.

Crews are reminding curious people that this is a dangerous construction site, and people should stay away due to safety concerns.

They added that anyone who is not with construction crews is not allowed road closure barriers.