Richland Chambers cemetery remains reinterred
By Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun May 30, 2012
Corsicana — The 25 children’s bodies that were found in an unmarked cemetery under Richland Chambers Reservoir are being reinterred at Woodland Memorial Cemetery. The graves were dug Wednesday afternoon and the first of the small containers of bones were lowered into them around dusk Wednesday evening. The rest of the bodies will be interred Thursday morning, according to Darrell Andrews, with the Tarrant Regional Water District.
The district has overseen the process of removing the bodies, and is responsible for the reinterment. The bodies were found at what was formerly Montgomery Hill, an area that is now underwater, flooded when the lake was created in the 1980s.
Although only 25 bodies were found, an additional grave is being created for the scattered remains found at the site, explained Elizabeth Borstad, Corsicana city engineer.
There will be individual markers for each site, and then one larger monument, Borstad said.
“The larger monument will explain where these people came from, and how they came to be here,” she said. “We had the archeologist write up a very nice summary.”
Corsicana agreed to care for the graves in perpetuity at the request of some Corsicana residents who believe the former Montgomery Hill residents have relatives buried at Woodland.
The original graves were rediscovered in 2010, when the water receded at the lake and unearthed some bones. Serious excavation took place last fall, and the bodies have been stored in the property room at the police station since December 2011.
Resthaven is helping with the reinterment.
Margaret Evans said her family spoke of the area, and told stories of the old cemetery out at Montgomery Hill. She believes it’s a Sanders family cemetery for children who died in the latter part of the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth centuries.
“My people came from where the bodies were found,” Evans said.
The plans are for a memorial service this summer to mark the occasion of the reinterment, possibly attended by some other descendants of people who were once settled in that area of Navarro County.
“This is history, right here,” said Cathy Douglas, who has been active in the Woodland Memorial Cemetery Association.
Corsicana Daily Sun Janet Jacobs January 29, 2012
CORSICANA - At noon on Friday, the last of the bodies from the Richland Chambers Reservoir cemetery was removed, just ahead of the rising lake level that has surged nearly two feet since Wednesday’s torrential rains.
In all, archeologists removed 25 bodies — four adults and 21 children — from the Montgomery Hill area that is now underwater, according to Woody Frossard, environmental director for the Tarrant County Water District. The water district owns the water in the lake and is paying for the removal of the bodies and their reinternment.
“The water elevation-wise, was probably four inches below the lip of where the last grave was, and 16 to 18 inches away. The water was that close,” Frossard said. “We couldn’t have made it until tomorrow. One more day and we probably wouldn’t have gotten the last one out. Everything worked out perfectly for us, thank goodness.”
In a slightly related issue, District Judge James Lagomarsino signed an order Wednesday afternoon to have the remains reburied in Woodland Memorial Park Cemetery in Corsicana. The water district had resisted their being buried in Woodland because it wasn’t a perpetual care cemetery, but local historians argued that the remains were most likely those of African Americans who may have relatives buried in Woodland, and asked the city to seek perpetual care status under state law. Woodland, located in the eastern sector of Corsicana, is a historically African American cemetery.
“The court, having heard the evidence and arguments of counsel, and having reviewed the application, finds that the Woodland Memorial Park Cemetery, located at North Bunert Street, Corsicana, Texas 75110, is a perpetual care cemetery... and that the human remains and associated caskets and funery items removed from the Montgomery Hill Cemetery shall be, and are hereby directed to (be) reinterred, in the cemetery,” the order states.
Currently, the remains are in the evidence room of the police department, according to City Engineer Elizabeth Borstad.
Texas Drought Uncovers Forgotten Cemetery
by Weather.com and The Associated Press (Angela Brown) Jan. 14, 2012
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) -- Crews of scientists with wooden spoons and small metal picks dig carefully around bones embedded in a dry lake bed, excavating what is believed to be the remains of freed slaves and their children buried in a long-forgotten cemetery.
More than two dozen graves were exposed this summer in a section of a reservoir that dried up in the severe Texas drought. Officials later organized a thorough excavation effort and were recently embroiled in a brief legal battle over where to rebury the bones.
With the legal issues resolved and the excavation effort two weeks from completion, the unidentified skeletal remains then will be moved to a cemetery in Navarro County where other black families have been laid to rest.
"I'm pleased that we're able to finally move them to a place of dignity and honor," said Bruce McManus, chairman of the county's historical commission.
A memorial marker will be placed at the new burial site about 80 miles southeast of Fort Worth, but identifying the newly discovered remains likely will not happen. Crews have found no nameplates on the wooden coffins that have long since deteriorated, and no headstones were in the cemetery on land that became Richland-Chambers Lake in the 1980s. No DNA testing is planned.
"I have talked to people who say they don't know where their grandmother is buried," McManus said. "I've done a lot of research, and I have a good idea of who could be buried there, but I don't know for sure."
The remains are being examined by an anthropologist after their removal, painstaking work that takes about a day for each grave, said Nick Trierweiler, program director for cultural resources at Ecological Communications Corp., an Austin company hired to excavate the cemetery.
Trierweiler said an anthropologist is measuring the bones -- a process that can usually determine gender and race -- but that may not be possible with the babies' remains because they were not as developed. Most remains found so far are those of infants, including one who was 6 to 9 months old.
"It's really a heartbreaking thought to know that all of these babies died on the Texas frontier, although we have no way of knowing if they died at the same time," Trierweiler said.
Crews have found few personal items with the remains, including a few buttons and some beaded jewelry.
Recently scientists found an 1853 silver quarter in one grave and an 1860s coin that was pierced. McManus said his research shows that some slaves wore coins around their necks and sometimes placed them on their children's necks as charms to fight off evil and as a precaution for health concerns.
"We were excited to find the coins, but it doesn't mean they were placed in the graves in those years," Trierweiler said. "People will often place tokens of remembrance in coffins -- things of value and things that were important to them."
The cemetery doesn't just contain children's graves. Scientists recently unearthed the remains of a woman, believed to be between 40 and 50 years old when she died, he said. Another skull found in the area in 2009 when waters receded during another dry spell was that of an adult black male.
Because many nails remain on the dried-up surface -- too many for the 25 coffins that have since rotted -- McManus believes the cemetery was larger but that other adult remains have washed away. The area of Richland-Chambers Lake is on property formerly owned by a slave owner, and several black families worked in the cotton fields there, McManus said, adding that he believes the cemetery dates to the mid- to late-1800s.
The Tarrant Regional Water District, which owns the land, has said thorough surveys were done before the land was flooded in the 1980s and several other cemeteries were moved. It's unclear why this particular cemetery was missed.
The district initially planned to bury the remains in a perpetual-care cemetery as required by state law, so it chose Resthaven Memorial, which happened to be a predominately white cemetery. But now the remains will be moved to Corsicana's Woodland Cemetery, after the City Council voted last month to make part of it a perpetual-care cemetery -- on the heels of the Navarro County Historical Commission's lawsuit in state district court to stop the water district's plans.
"It's been a long ordeal, but this will be a beautiful site near a gazebo," McManus said. "They can finally rest in peace
Council Votes To Add Perpetual Care
Stephen R. Farris, December 22, 2011
A major hurdle was cleared Tuesday evening at the Corsicana City Council meeting, after a resolution was passed to clear the way for the city to become the permanent trustee for the perpetual care fund of the Montgomery Hill addition of Woodland Memorial Park.
Councilpersons voted unanimously in favor of the resolution, much to the relief and excitement of members of the Navarro County Historical Commission, especially chairman Bruce McManus, who has worked countless hours in pushing that the remains from the Montgomery Hill Cemetery, which had been covered up for years by the waters of Richland Chambers Lake, be reinterred in Woodland Cemetery. Councilwoman Ruby Williams, Pct. 2, made the motion in favor of the resolution, followed by a second from councilman Don Denbow, Pct. 4.
“We have one more step to clear,” McManus said. “We are so grateful for the council’s consideration and for passing this resolution. We (NCHC) are very appreciative of the help we have received from City Manager Connie Standridge, and Engineer Elizabeth Borstad.”
Borstad explained to the council some of the guidelines that are to be in place when a cemetery is designated as perpetual care.
According to section 713.002 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, titled Local Trust for Cemetery, Paragraph (b), in order for the city to be considered to inter the remains under perpetual care, a resolution must be passed by the council, in which a trust fund must be set aside and maintained separately from the city’s fiscal budget.
“This resolution is just establishing the city’s willingness to act as a trustee for the fund established for the perpetual care of this addition, which is to be called the Montgomery Hill addition,” Borstad stated. She also included in her packet given to councilmembers and media, an engineer rendering of the proposed site where the graves will be reinterred, which will be located near the gazebo in the new part of Woodland Cemetery. Under the proposed plan, a large granite marker would be placed in this section in honor of the 25 to be buried at this spot.
Councilman Don Denbow, Pct. 4, asked if the city was going to fund the removal and internment of the remains. Standridge explained that the only cost to the city was storing of the remains.
Richland Chambers Lake is owned and operated by Tarrant Regional Water District, and has agreed that if the city passed the resolution, it will give money to the trust for upkeep and maintenance of the 25 graves that are to be exhumed and reinterred in Woodland, as well as providing the funding for the removal. As of Tuesday’s council meeting, Standridge announced that remains of at least eight graves are presently being stored in the Corsicana Police Department’s evidence room until the final word is given by District Judge James Lagomarsino that they can be reinterred at Woodland.
Borstad went on to mention that the archeologists in charge of exhuming the remains will take a break for the holidays, and resume work at the site probably around the first of the year.
She also pointed out that a final arrangement agreement has not been made with TRWD, but one would be forthcoming soon.
Sarah Keathley, with Keathley & Keathley Law Firm, representing NCHC, was on hand to answer any questions the council may have had for the commission.
Council makes Woodland perpetual care
By Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun December 20, 2011
Corsicana — The Corsicana City Council approved making Woodland Memorial into a perpetual care cemetery when the group met in regular session Tuesday, opening the door to have the unknown people buried at Montgomery Hill moved to Corsicana.
The bodies were discovered when drought drew down the lake levels at Richland Chambers Reservoir, and they are now being exhumed. State law requires that remains taken from a forgotten cemetery be put into a perpetual care site.
Thus far, eight boxes of remains have been taken from the lake shore and are being temporarily stored in the Corsicana Police Department’s evidence lock-up, according to City Engineer Elizabeth Borstad. Archeologists estimate there are 25 bodies in the Montgomery Hill cemetery.
By Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun December 18, 2011
RICHLAND-CHAMBERS LAKE - Using only a small paintbrush to dust back the mud, archeologist carefully revealed a tiny white button in a baby’s grave Tuesday at the unmarked cemetery at Richland Chambers Reservoir.
The work is painstaking because anything left in the graves is precious. The wood from the coffins is completely gone, leaving small, sometimes crushed bones, pressed down by the weight of the soil and water compacting them for the last century or more.
A small group of archeologists and anthropologists are excavating the cemetery uncovered when the waters of Richland Chambers Reservoir receded this past summer. The work to remove all remains from the estimated 25 graves will be completed by mid-January, according to the project team leader Nicholas Trierweiler, an archeologist with Ecological Communications Corp. of Austin.
“What’s interesting about this cemetery is that all of the grave shafts are small, so we think this is all children and infants,” Trierweiler said.
Child deaths were much more common prior to the middle of the 20th century when vaccinations, advanced medicine, and safety precautions became more prevalent.
“It’s very poignant, all these little children and infants,” Trierweiler said, standing among the graves. “Infant mortality was horrible. It’s very sad. Life on the Texas frontier was hard.”
The scientists are looking for information about when the cemetery was created, how these people lived, and perhaps even what killed them. Estimates are that the graves date from about 1880, but some could be from a later date.
“The caskets were made with square nails, definitely suggesting pre-20th century internment,” said Rachel Feit, principal investigator at the site. “There were some screws in another one, so it could be later.”
Simply put, the archeologists are looking at the history, while two anthropologists on the project are looking at the people.
“The bones can be so fragile, so we want to take the utmost care to keep them preserved for lab analysis,” said Willa Trask, anthropologist. “We’ll try to see their age, if there was any sickness or pathology — long-lasting diseases show up in the bones and teeth, as well. With adults, we’ll look at age, sex, pathological lesions, trauma. In general, we’re looking at the history of the person.”
The issue of whether or not they were African Americans, which became an issue in court two weeks ago in trying to determine where they should be re-interred, may not be possible to determine. Race and sex characteristics show up later in life, and may not be apparent in the bones of children, Feit said.
Before the lake was filled with water, there were houses located near the site, on what used to be called Montgomery Hill, Feit said. Local lore says they were tenant houses occupied by African Americans.
“We’re trying to assess the ethnicity of the tenants, but we’re still just beginning our research,” she said. “It’s likely they were African Americans, but they may not be.”
The scientists are taking the graves individually, and most of them are covered with tarps to prevent erosion in the rain. For now, the graves are safe from flooding. The edge of the lake is about 60 feet from the closest grave. Even though there has been rain this fall, the lake level is still about 8 feet low, and the edge of the water lies about 60 feet from the closest grave.
The water district did a thorough survey of the land before the lake was created, but the cemetery was missed, according to Darrel Andrews, assistant director of the environmental division for Tarrant Regional Water District.
It was rediscovered in 2009 when a skull was found washed up on shore and reported to the sheriff’s department. Archeologists determined there were several graves out there, but even those were covered again with water when the lake levels rose. In the meantime, the water district was planning the removal of the remains to a perpetual-care cemetery. The excavation began again this past summer, as the drought once again pulled the water levels back down.
The excavation work will continue through the end of this week, and resume again after the Jan. 1, Trierweiler said. It should be completed within a month.
Some local residents and the Navarro County Historical Commission are convinced the bodies are African Americans related to some residents of Corsicana, and wanted them buried in the historically African American municipal cemetery, Woodland. The water district agreed that if the City of Corsicana declares Woodland Cemetery to be perpetual care, that the bodies could be buried there. State law requires that bodies found in this kind of situation must be moved to a perpetual care site. If Woodland isn’t declared perpetual care on Tuesday, the bodies must be buried in Restland Memorial Park, a privately-owned cemetery west of Corsicana.
The cost of the project is expected to be about $250,000 to $300,000, Andrews said.
By Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun December 13, 2011
CORSICANA - A small group of archeologists and anthropologists are excavating the cemetery uncovered when the waters of Richland Chambers Reservoir receded this past summer.
An estimated 25 children’s graves are at the cemetery, according to team leader Nicholas Trierweiler, archeologist with Ecological Communications Corp. of Austin.
“What’s interesting about this cemetery is that all of the grave shafts are small, so we think this is all children and infants,” Trierweiler said.
Only three of the graves had been excavated as of Tuesday, when the Tarrant Regional Water District took reporters from WFAA of Dallas and the Corsicana Daily Sun to the site. The other grave sites, which will be worked on later, are covered with tarps to protect them from rain. The edge of the lake is about 60 feet from the closest grave, so there’s not too much danger of water rising to cover up the cemetery again before the bodies are removed. The lake level is still about 8 feet low, according to Darrel Andrews, assistant director of the environmental division for Tarrant Regional Water District.
The water district did a thorough survey of the land that would eventually be covered with water when the lake was created, but the cemetery was somehow missed, Andrews said.
It was rediscovered in 2009, when a skull was found and reported to the sheriff’s department, and an investigation revealed a historic cemetery. When the water rose again in 2010, the water district began looking into how it could remove the remains and move them to a marked and perpetual-care cemetery. Work began on the removal when the waters once again receded this past summer, Andrews said.
After a dispute in early December with the Navarro County Historical Commission, members of whom are convinced the bodies are African Americans with relatives in Corsicana, the water district agreed that if the City of Corsicana declares Woodland Cemetery to be perpetual care, that the bodies could be re-buried there.
The cost of the project is expected to be about $250,000 to $300,000, Andrews said. All the expenses except temporary storage of the remains will be the responsibility of the water district. The storage will be at the expense of the City of Corsicana.
by CRAIG CIVALE WFAA Dec. 13, 2011
EUREKA, Texas — Digging has begun at the site of a Navarro County cemetery that has been hidden for more than a century.
Archaeologists started to unearth the graves, which are believed to have been buried at the current site of the Richland Chambers Reservoir.
Last summer's drought dropped the water levels so dramatically that skeletal remains were found on the newly exposed beach. The remains appear to be those of infants and young children.
A team of archaeologists plan on spending the next month removing the remains and transferring them to a cemetery.
"When you find a whole cemetery of babies, infants and kids, it's very poignant... makes you realize that life was very tough here in Texas in the frontier," said project manager Dr. Nick Trierweiler.
The group has identified 25 graves, buried in a horseshoe shape along the exposed beach.
Removing them is a very slow, monotonous job. Workers use shovels, paint brushes and small wooden tools to delicately remove the dirt that has hidden the bones for more than 100 years.
In that dirt, archaeologists have found clues to help identify the people who were buried there, like the square-off nails that were used to build the caskets.
"People use cut nails in the 19th century; round nails started being produced in the 1880s," said archaeologist Rachel Feit.
They have also recovered lead bullets, like bird shot, in one grave. A button, likely from an infant's clothing, was found in another.
The remains will be removed from the beach and placed in storage while it's decided where they will end up.
The Tarrant County Water District, which oversees the dig, is at odds with the Navarro County Historical Society over where the remains should be transferred.
Either way, the unmarked graves will be removed from where nature has hidden them for more than a century.
"I think it deserves a lot of respect and a lot of care, so we're taking the time," said archaeologist Amanda Murphy.
A major step has been achieved concerning the fate of former slaves buried in what has now become labeled as the Montgomery Hill Cemetery, located on an island in Richland Chambers Lake.
Lawyers from Tarrant Regional Water District and the Navarro County Historical Commission, represented by Sarah Keathley, of Keathley and Keathley Law Firm, were able to reach a tentative agreement which will be enforced in its entirety once the City of Corsicana meets on Tuesday, December 20, 2011, for their next regularly scheduled council meeting.
While TRWD was simply abiding by State Law regarding perpetual care cemeteries, NCHC’s Chairman, Bruce McManus, lobbied to have the remains re-interred in Woodland Cemetery, predominately occupied by African-American gravesites, which is owned and maintained by the City of Corsicana. The only problem is that Woodland is not a recognized perpetual care cemetery.
The only recognized perpetual care cemetery in Navarro County, according to research found by TRWD, is Resthaven Memorial Park, located in the city’s west end of town, which is a predominately Anglo cemetery, but an affidavit filed on Thursday – which had no merit in the outcome either way – by the owner of Resthaven, stated that the cemetery is occupied by approximately 10 to 20% African-American gravesites.
“Obviously the law is pretty clear on what the court can and cannot do,” District Judge James Lagomarsino explained early on in the precedings. “… let me tell you, I’ve learned a lot about perpetual care cemeteries as you do in this job.”
Lagomarsino re-instated the previous order in which he had signed on November 16th, along with some additional language added to that order since both sides mutually agreed as to what should be done with the remains.
The judge’s main concern at that point was the secured location that will house the remains until they can be re-interred, and whether or not the facility will be watched over by a security guard.
Keathley reassured Judge Lagomarsino that a security guard would be provided onsite.
Under the agreement, the city has agreed to cover the cost of storing the remains until re-interment can take place. Scott Funeral Home will be in charge of burying the remains once the final order is given to do so.
Keathley said she has already talked with Corsicana Mayor Chuck McClanahan concerning the agreement, and stated that he is on board with having the remains final resting place be that of Woodland Cemetery. All that needs to be done at this point is a final decision made by the city council.
Under the State’s Health and Safety Code, a municipality can declare a city owned cemetery perpetual as long as an ordinance or resolution is passed deeming it so. Currently, the city sets aside money each year in their budget for the maintenance of Woodland Cemetery, but state law only recognizes a cemetery as perpetual only if a trust has been set aside. The ordinance or resolution, if passed, would satisfy the state in regards to the law.
City Engineer Elizabeth Borstad, representing the city on behalf of City Manager Connie Standridge, who had a prior engagement and was unable to attend Friday’s hearing, had documentation ready to provide to the court if needed showing a location in the new section of Woodland Cemetery where the graves would be re-interred together.
“I do believe we’ve jumped a huge hurdle today,” said Ruby Williams, Pct. 2 Councilwoman for the City of Corsicana. “It’s not about black or white, it’s about the people of the community in which we are a part of, and we would like them (remains) in our community so they can be reverenced … and that they have been respected and moved from the lake to their final resting place.”
The next step, according to Williams, is to get the backing of her fellow council members to pass an ordinance to recognizing Woodland Cemetery as a perpetual care cemetery, and the final step is for Judge Lagomarsino to sign off on the final order.
“I am very pleased with the outcome the judge has made,” said former Navarro County Commissioner Faith Holt. “It’s been a long, hard battle, and hopefully it’s going to go well from here on out.”
Friday’s agreement had much deeper meaning for Corsicana resident Eleanor Sanders Washington, whose people lived in the area near the cemetery long before Richland Chambers Lake was ever thought of being built, and long before the days many African-Americans were freed and given the opportunity to become sharecroppers in their own right.
“I am so happy,” Washington said with a sigh of relief. “A lot of work went into this. A lot of emotional work, along with people doing their steppin’ trying to get it done … just to make ‘we the people’ better.”
“I feel this is very close to a win,” he stated. “I think it was the right thing that was done, and appreciate TRWD for negotiating and coming to a resolution … we’re very thankful to Sarah Keathley for agreeing to represent NCHC on very short notice. She did a wonderful job, and we’re very pleased with the outcome of today’s hearing!”
McManus was one of those “steppin’” to keep the cemetery at the forefront of local residents, as well as TRWD and the Texas Historical Commission, giving up the majority of his free time and weekends for the past several years to research, interview, and document as much of the history of the cemetery and talking with many who knew of its existence.
State Health and Safety Code law allows for one full day per gravesite to be moved in order for archaeologist to exhume, examine, photograph, test, and move the remains to a new resting place, or storage facility until such final burial can be achieved.
Removal first began after Judge Lagomarsino signed the original order, but was halted after McManus filed his petition to the court.
Right now, everyone involved is hoping all of the gravesites can be removed before lake levels cover them up again.
“I don’t think they’ll (archaeologist) be working 24/7,” said Jeremy Harmon, one of the lawyers for TRWD. “But they will be working seven days a week to get this done.”
By Janet Jacobs Corsicana Daily Sun December 11, 2011
Earlier this week, the Tarrant Regional Water District declared that it would move the bodies to Restland Memorial Park, because it was the only perpetual care site. However, local residents and the Navarro County Historical Commission objected, saying that the people probably have relatives in Woodland, and should be buried there.
After some negotiations, the water district agreed to have the bones disinterred and turned over to the City of Corsicana. If the Corsicana City Council agrees to declare Woodland a perpetual-care cemetery, then the bodies can be moved there. The next regular meeting of the city council will be on Dec. 20.
The temporary storage of the bodies will be paid for by the city, but everything else will be paid for by the water district. The water district was responsible for moving any cemeteries before the area was flooded for the lake. Five other historically African American cemeteries were ordered moved when the area was flooded, and it’s unclear why this one was missed, said Bruce McManus, chairman of the historical commission.
According to the state Health and Safety Code, a city can declare itself a permanent trustee for a the lots and graves in a cemetery by passing an ordinance or resolution stating its intention to act as a trustee.
“When the ordinance or resolution is adopted and the trust is accepted, the trust is perpetual,” the law states.
The water district’s only concern is that the remains go “someplace suitable and respectful,” said Jeremy Harmon, attorney for the water district.
For the last two years, as water at the lake has receded, the bones have been appearing, and now archeologists for the state believe they have found 25 grave shafts. Some work on the removal of bodies had begun in mid-November, but stopped when the dispute arose. The work should begin again immediately, Harmon said.
“I’m not sure the archeologists will work 24/7 but they are working seven days a week,” he said. “It’s a pretty big job.”
Harmon said time is of the essence to get the remains taken out before rain causes the area to be covered again with water.
Corsicana’s plans include accepting the remains, burying each one in an individual grave with individual markers, and then creating a larger marker explaining the situation. The site would be near the gazebo at Woodland, and would include a small garden or sitting area for contemplation. All would be paid for by the water district, said Elizabeth Borstad, city engineer.
“Where ever they end up, Tarrant Regional Water District is responsible for the price,” she said.
The Historical Commission doesn’t have any hard feelings against the water district, McManus said, expressing relief for the outcome Friday.
“I do appreciate what the Tarrant Regional Water District is doing here, they’re footing a large bill,” McManus said. “I just wanted to see that (the remains) went to the right place.”
McManus and the other volunteers with the historical commission are convinced the cemetery is a historically African American cemetery, and that the relatives of what used to be the Montgomery Hill area moved to Corsicana in the 1900s.
“I have witnesses, people who remember the cemetery,” McManus said. “There are two people who used to live on the island still alive.”
He said the historical commission chose Woodland because some of the surnames of people who used to live in that area are the same as those of people who are at Woodland now.
The water district has allowed for one day per grave for the archeologists to remove the bones from the ground, photograph them, run any tests and then turn them over to the city.
Janet Jacobs may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to “sound off” to this article? E-mail: Soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com
By MANNY FERNANDEZ New York Times November 29, 2011
MARTINS MILL, Tex. — For more than three years, the lake on Jack Mewbourn’s ranch here held a secret at its murky bottom: A 1999 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. His grandson was the first one to notice the top of the car peeking out of the water. It wasn’t luck, or even fate. It was drought.
The water level in the seven-acre lake has dropped about five feet from a lack of rain. Stand on the grass lining the lake’s edge today, and in any other year you would be standing nearly waist-deep in water.
On a recent Saturday, Mr. Mewbourn, a longtime rancher in this rural unincorporated community about 90 minutes southeast of Dallas, took a boat to the middle of the lake with two of his grandsons. They confirmed that the object they thought at first might be a barrel was indeed a car. Mr. Mewbourn called a local constable, and with the help of a diver and a tow truck, the vehicle was slowly dragged out. Inside, still buckled into the driver’s seat, were the remains of Brenda Kay Oliver, who had been missing since July 2008.
Ms. Oliver’s relatives said she had never recovered from the trauma of her 19-year-old son’s suicide. He had drowned himself in a nearby lake. The authorities believe Ms. Oliver, 55, took her own life by driving her car into Mr. Mewbourn’s lake, about a mile from where her sister, the last person to see her alive, had been living at the time.
Mr. Mewbourn and the Van Zandt County constable, Pat Jordan, have found themselves in recent days calling a cruel thing like a drought a strange sort of blessing. “If it wouldn’t have been for the drought,” Mr. Jordan said, “she’d probably still be in the car in that lake.”
The historic drought that has devastated crops and forced millions of Texans in small towns and large cities to abide by mandatory water restrictions has had at least one benefit: As lake levels have dropped around the state, objects of all kinds that had been submerged for years, decades and even centuries are being revealed.
Some of the discovered items are common debris like computer monitors, tires and sunken boats. But much of it has attracted the attention of historians, anthropologists, criminal investigators and, in one case, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Long-submerged marble tombstones from the 1880s have become visible in the receding waters of Lake Buchanan in Central Texas. Near the Texas-Louisiana border, the grave sites from an early 19th-century cemetery have turned up at one drought-stricken lake. Pat Mercado-Allinger, the director of the Texas Historical Commission’s archaeology division, said one water authority estimated having roughly 200 previously unreported archaeological sites resulting from lowered lake levels.
“The drought in Texas has been so severe and so widespread, across essentially the entire state, that we’re hearing reports from all over,” said Ms. Mercado-Allinger, who was reluctant to discuss precise locations of many sites because of concerns for looting. “There are artifact collectors out there and looters who look for opportunities and go add to their personal collections or mine the sites. We have to be very careful.”
At Lake Georgetown north of Austin, where the water level has dropped 23 feet, fishermen found a human skull at the edge of the water last month. The Georgetown police initially thought it might be related to the 2002 disappearance of a 19-year-old woman, but the skull was ultimately found to be of historical, not criminal, significance. It is believed to be the skull of an American Indian man that is hundreds or thousands of years old, and is being studied in a lab by anthropologists at Texas State University in San Marcos.
In East Texas at Lake Nacogdoches, which has dropped 12 feet in the drought, residents stumbled onto a much larger object in late July. It was a spherical aluminum tank, four feet in diameter, that was cracked on top and sat in the mud at the lake’s edge. NASA officials later determined that it was a piece of debris from the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, killing the seven astronauts aboard.
The debris, one of 18 cryogenic tanks used to store the oxygen and hydrogen that provided electrical power to the shuttle, was put on a truck and driven to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Only one of the 18 tanks remains missing, a NASA spokeswoman said.
At Richland-Chambers Reservoir in north-central Texas, which has decreased more than eight feet, a post-Civil-War-era cemetery of freed slaves has emerged along the shoreline. The wooden coffins and the remains of more than 20 African-Americans, most of them children, have been found. A skull was first discovered in 2009 after the lake level dropped, but when the waters rose again, the site was submerged, forcing local amateur historians to wait.
“Everybody hates the drought, but I needed the drought,” said Bruce F. McManus, chairman of the Navarro County Historical Commission. “I knew it was there.”
Despite periodic rainstorms, lower temperatures and even snowfall in Amarillo late last month, Texas remains in the midst of one of its worst droughts.
From January through October, statewide rainfall totaled 10.77 inches, about 15 inches below average. The year that ended in September was the driest in Texas since at least 1895, when statewide weather records begin, breaking the previous record low set in 1956 by 2.5 inches.
“It’s the most severe single-year drought on record,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “There literally is no point of comparison.”
Professor Nielsen-Gammon said that the drought would persist and that most of the state would be experiencing major drought through next summer. “We have so much rainfall to make up, it’s unlikely to be made up in the spring and summer,” he said.
The water levels at many of the state’s man-made lakes have become a drought barometer. Lake levels have decreased statewide by as little as a few feet to as much as 50 feet or more. Some lakes are completely dry, and others are close to it. Lake E. V. Spence in West Texas, which normally has a maximum depth of 108 feet, is less than 1 percent full.
In Canton in East Texas, the drought has hurt Donna McWilliams as it has other Texans — she and her husband lost trees and sold off cattle because of a lack of hay — but it also helped her. She is the sister of Ms. Oliver, whose body was found in Martins Mill.
Ms. Oliver’s relatives had mailed fliers with her picture to homeless shelters and clinics, and put them up in local restaurants and pharmacies, always hoping, always wondering.
“I guess ‘closure’ is the word,” said Ms. McWilliams, 60, one of Ms. Oliver’s two sisters. “Now we don’t have to wonder anymore. I do think the drought is a negative, but if there’s anything that can happen good out of a drought, it’s this, and it’s a blessing.”
The graves are a mystery, but some believe they could belong to former slaves who became sharecroppers for their former masters. They were submerged when the Tarrant County Water Improvement District No. 1 in Fort Worth created the man-made lake in the 1980s.
The Dallas Morning News reports (http://dallasne.ws/vXbBO9 ) archaeologists and Navarro County historians want the water district to move the graves to a perpetual care cemetery soon, before rain covers them again.
"They are taking too long to get this done," said Bruce McManus, chairman of the Navarro County Historical Commission in Corsicana. "That is my only beef. If they started digging tomorrow, I'd say that's great."
The water district board has authorized hiring of an archaeology company to exhume the remains and relocate them. But spokesman Chad Lorance says it's "more complicated than just saying, 'Yep, there they are.'"
In 2009, boaters spotted a white object on shore and went to investigate, finding a cranium and detached jawbone.
Sheriff's deputies went to the site with Richardson-based archaeologist Alan Skinner. They found a grave in the same location but no evidence of an entire cemetery. The bones appeared to be 100 to 120 years old and consistent with those of an adult male of African descent, but ethnicity was not conclusively established.
A short time later, rains submerged the site.
When water levels went down again this summer, Skinner, under the authority of the water district, returned and found adult bones scattered along the beach.
Later, the shafts of 25 children's graves were discovered on the beach. Square-cut coffin nails suggested the bodies had been buried before 1890. Little is known about the site, and why children were buried separately. Was an entire adult cemetery located nearby? What happened to those graves?
"We've got small wood caskets for children and no full adult caskets, only a few adult bones," Skinner said. "It is an important, unique and unusual discovery."
Skinner and others have bid on the contract to excavate the graves and rebury them in a perpetual cemetery. Skinner estimates the project could cost $150,000 to $200,000, but the contract has not been awarded yet.
Margaret Montgomery Thomas said the graves may have been associated with black farmers who worked for her family in the 19th century.
Thomas, 70, says her great-grandfather, Prosper King Montgomery, a white businessman, came to Texas from Mississippi in 1866. He settled in Navarro County as a cotton farmer and cattle rancher.
"I do know that my great-grandfather's house was located very close to where these graves have been found," she said. "It's sketchy, though. I know black people worked for my family and other white families like mine.
"Whoever they were, they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity."
McManus, of the Navarro County Historical Commission, said the water district should rebury any remains in Navarro County.
Lorance, the water district spokesman, said the district wants to see the matter resolved. He said he expects the grave removals and reburials to get under way this month. For the burial site to be submerged again, he said, would be the "worst case scenario."
The reservoir is about 70 miles south of Dallas.
More graves found in Navarro County reservoir
by CRAIG CIVALE WFAA October 12, 2011
CORSICANA — More graves have been found in the receding waters of Richland-Chambers Reservoir.
Archeologists have now recovered the remains of 20 people who were buried on the half-acre site.
The remains are believed to be part of a 19th century cemetery for slaves. The discovery has caught the interest of Eleanor Washington, whose ancestors were slaves who once worked and lived on the property.
"For them to find bones and think they're part of a slave cemetery, to me that means a great deal," Washington said.
The Tarrant Regional Water District operates the lake, which was completed in 1987. The agency is working with the Texas Historical Commission to protect the remains.
But some feel the government is moving too slowly to adequately protect the remains.
"We are not happy with the way Tarrant County has handled the situation," Carolyn Montgomery Taylor said. Her family once owned the land that the cemetery sits on.
She believes the agencies are dragging their feet to avoid paying to move the remains.
"Everyone buried down there has a releative somewhere, and they need to do something about it instead of pretending they don't know about it," Taylor said.
The water district first became aware of remains in 2009, when a skull and some bones were discovered.
Rising waters at the site prevented them from doing anything at the time.
This summer's severe drought dropped the lake by five feet, and once again revealed the location.
The water district denies putting off a decision and in a statement to News 8, a spokesman said: "It is our goal to get them moved to an appropriate resting place as quickly as we can."
Residents like Eleanor Washington hope that decision will come soon, before the lake's waters rise again, and a possible piece of her family's history again disappears.
By Oliver Sheehan Corsicana Daily Sun October 9, 2011
Slave Cemetery find larger than originally thought
CORSICANA - More graves have been discovered by archeologists at Richland Chambers Reservoir, according to Bill Martin, an archeologist with the Texas Historical Commission.
Approximately 20 bodies have now been found at the half-acre site, which archeologists believe is the remains of a 19th century slave cemetery.
Historians and archeologists led by Dr. Alan Skinner from AR Consultants out of Dallas, began work at the site in August after the continuing Texas drought dropped water levels at Richland Chambers to their lowest level in two years, exposing two grave sites.
Working in conjunction with Tarrant County Regional Water District and the state historical commission, the archeologists are now trying to determine the best course of action to take on the grave sites, Martin said.
Drought conditions are forecast to continue for several months, according to the National Weather Center in Fort Worth. This has put pressure on agencies to take action to prevent looting if the bodies continue to be exposed.
“They did find some more graves and that is what they expected, but the question now is what they are going to do with them. I really hope something happens soon in case some rain comes in,” Martin said.
Martin explained the THC has issued an antiquities permit to allow the removal of the bodies, and also indicated that all parties want to protect the grave site.
“I am still working with the lake and the archeologists to work out what is going to happen next. There is still the option of preserving in place,” Martin said.
“Now we have a number of questions that we need to look at. At this point we are looking at a variety of options. I think it is going to be resolved pretty soon.”
The find was originally made in 2009 by an unnamed individual trespassing on the site, Detective Hank Bailey from the Navarro County Sheriff’s office confirmed in August.
When the discovery of a human skeleton was made, the NCSO did not know what to make of it until forensic tests showed the remains to be those of a 40-year-old African American dating back to the 19th century, Bailey said.
The NCSO took custody of the bones at the time.
Archeologists from SMU and the Texas Historical Commission remained aware of the site and waited until the water receded to give them another opportunity to work on the site and gather more evidence.
Historians such as Bruce McManus, the chairman of the Navarro County Historical Commission, have done their own research to uncover more information about the grave sites.
“I have spoken to several African Americans and they remember the cemetery was about a half-acre big,” McManus said. “They actually know of a maid that was buried out there in the 1940s and a little girl that died of lockjaw being buried out there. She was between 6 to 10 years old.”
McManus also said he hopes that if the remains are removed then they will be given a proper burial.
“We are talking about a half-acre-size cemetery. If there is a way to keep it in place, by building a retaining wall and protecting the site then that sounds nicer to me,” McManus added.
“I will support whatever decision the experts make but that I would like to see some sort of memorial or marker to these people at some point in the future.”
Cemetery Clues Surfacing
By Oliver Sheehan Corsicana Daily Sun September 4, 2011
Clues are still coming to the surface as archeologists continue their work on a potential 19th century slave cemetery at Richland Chambers Reservoir.
A possible pelvis bone has been found near one of the two known grave sites, leading archeologists to believe they have found the grave site of a female, said Bruce McManus, chairman of the Navarro County Historical Commission.
“They found some of the bones of a female, they think,” McManus said. “They found the pelvis bone. They are supposedly going out there to do some scraping and removing the top layer of the soil just to find the dimensions of the cemetery.”
“They think most of the original male skeleton is washed away,” McManus added. “The female skeleton is not next to the male. It is on higher ground. They think there is quite a distance between them.”
McManus also said that local African-Americans to whom he has spoken believe they remember the cemetery covering an area of about half an acre.
The find, on the shoreline of the lake, was originally made in 2009 by an unnamed individual trespassing on the site, Detective Hank Bailey from the Navarro County Sheriff’s office confirmed last month.
When the discovery of a human skeleton was made, the NCSO did not know what to make of it until forensic tests showed the remains to be those of a 40-year-old African-American dating back to the 19th century, Bailey said.
With the water level in the reservoir having dropped by approximately five feet earlier this summer, shoreline that had not been visible for two years revealed the two graves of which archeologists are aware.
Bill Martin, an archeologist and reviewer for the Texas Historical Commission in Austin, said Dr. Alan Skinner was leading his team from AR Consultants out of Dallas on Thursday to continue work on the project.
Skinner was issued with a Texas Antiquities Permit by the historical commission allowing him to do an archeological study on land that is owned or controlled by a political entity or sub-division. Richland Chambers is currently owned by the Tarrant County Water District.
AR Consultants and the historical commission are also in the process of trying to obtain a court order which would allow them to take further action such as exhuming the bodies if such action becomes necessary, Martin said.
“The basic nature of the work we permit them to do is to do some shovel skimming to expose the soil to see if there may be other graves nearby and it looks like there are,” Martin said.
“It is possible that other graves are found and if there aren’t any bones showing, there could be protective measures used. We are doing that on other lakes, we are protecting them with rocks. We will have to wait to see what they find and then see what seems to be the best solution.”
Martin said the cemetery at Richland Chambers is one of three from across the state which have become visible in lake areas due to the ongoing drought.
“In this particular case since bones were exposed on the surface, they will go back to the site where more bones might be and exhume those and they will be looking for other graves nearby,” Martin said. “(The first two bodies that were discovered) were truly on the surface.”
He added that archeologists at the site think some of the bones belong to someone else, possibly from another grave site. He also said it is a race against time to get as much work done as possible before any torrential rain fills the lake up and covers the graves, as happened in 2009.http://corsicanadailysun.com/news/x803542803/Cemetery-clues-surfacing
Lost cemetery search begins Monday
By Oliver Sheehan / Corsicana Daily Sun / Sun Aug 07, 2011, 06:30 PM CDT
The water level in the reservoir has dropped about five feet this summer, exposing two graves on the shoreline that haven’t been visible for two years. It is also possible that the graves are from one of a number of unmarked cemeteries in the area, said Bruce McManus, chairman of the Navarro County Historical Commission.
“There is a misconception that this is a slave cemetery, we don’t know that,” McManus said. “It’s possibly a slave cemetery because we had heard a rumor that there was a slave cemetery. But there is also a rumor that there is an Anglo cemetery. We won’t know for sure until the archeologists have finished their job.”
Archeologists will start work on the site on Monday and work is expected to be completed quickly, McManus added.
The shoreline discovery was originally made in 2009 by an unnamed individual trespassing on the site, said Detective Hank Bailey with the Navarro County Sheriff’s Office.
When the human skeleton was found, detectives with the sheriff’s office did not know what to make of it until forensic tests showed the remains to be those of a 40-year-old African-American dating back to the 19th century, Bailey said.
“In 2009, some bones were discovered on the shoreline and from that it was discovered to be a grave site. I believe the Texas Historical Commission has found another grave site,” Bailey said. “We took custody of some of the bones in 2009, just to keep it safe until they could rebury them.”
The sheriff’s office still has custody of the bones today.
Since the 2009 discovery, archeologists from Southern Methodist University and the Texas Historical Commission have kept the site in mind. They waited until the water receded again to take another look at the site and gather more data.
McManus said there is evidence to suggest that the finds could be those of slaves belonging to a man named Prosper King Montgomery, Jr. Montgomery was registered as buying slaves in Mississippi around 1860 before buying land on the site of Richland Chambers in 1865, according to the 1870 census.
More interest in the site was sparked last week when the pelvis bone of a woman was found in the same area.
“When the lake is at its correct level the site is covered with water. Wave action has eroded about three or four feet of the land away and it has been uncovered,” McManus said.
“There are other missing cemeteries around the lake. Two had to be relocated before they built the lake and there are also Native American burials out there. But this is a rare find. If it wasn’t for the drought, this wouldn’t be happening.”
McManus said a visit has already been made to determine whether the site is still intact, and for more excavations.
“They will remove the remains, look for other burials and then they will be reburied according to Texas State law in an appropriate manner at a site yet to be determined,” McManus added.
“They will be going really quickly because it is an exposed site. Even though we are in a drought, if it starts raining it could get covered very quickly. This is our one shot. We may have to wait five years to get this chance.”
The work will be completed with the direction of AR Consultants, a company based out of Dallas and hired by the Tarrant County Water District, the agency that owns the water in Richland Chambers Reservoir.
By BEN FORER / ABC Aug. 4, 2011
While the heat may be taking a toll on crops, livestock and people's livelihoods, it has helped archaeologists uncover two graves that are believed to have been buried for more than a century.
"This grave was actually uncovered by erosion from the water. It was several feet deep years and years ago," Sgt. Hank Bailey of the Navarro County Sheriff's Office told ABC News Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate WFAA-TV.
Cemeteries were marked and moved before the Richland Chambers Reservoir in Navarro County, Texas, was filled in the 1980s, but this small cemetery without tombstones went unnoticed.
Human remains were initially discovered in 2009 by boaters when the water level was low, but the water rose quickly and archaeologists and historians have been waiting ever since for the reservoir to reveal the cemetery again.
"It's not one of the great finds of history, but it's important to us on a local level." Bruce McManus, chairman of the Navarro County Historical Commission, told WFAA-TV. "It's one of the lost cemeteries we've been looking for."
The remains that have been found will be reburied elsewhere. For now, investigators are keeping the cemetery's location a secret because they are afraid of looters.
The record heat is not only adding to the local history books, but also to the stress placed on energy providers. The electrical grid is under so much stress that companies are bringing old power stations back to life.
"We are setting all-time peak records three days in a row," said Luminant spokesman, Scott Diermann. "We've never had that happen before."
Texas is not alone. Four of the eight largest power grid operators in the U.S. and Canada have set all-time records over the last two weeks.
In Dallas, the heat is supposed to keep on coming. Forecasters predict Dallas will see triple-digit temperatures for at least another week.
Slave cemetery revealed by Texas drought
by JASON WHITELY / WFAA August 3, 2011
The Navarro County Sheriff's Office has one set of remains locked away in its evidence room, including a skull, jaw bone, several vertebrae and a few other fragments.
They may date back to Civil War times.
"This grave was actually uncovered by erosion from the water," said sheriff's office Sgt. Hank Bailey. "It was several feet deep years and years ago."
Forensics experts told Bailey the remains appear to belong to an African-American man, about 40 years old, who was likely a freed slave.
"We believe it was a person who worked on a plantation in that river bottom," Bailey said.
The reservoir is one of Tarrant County's water sources.
Cemeteries were noted and moved before it was filled in the 1980s, but this small cemetery was not marked, and the graves did not have tombstones.
Boaters first found the remains in 2009 along the shoreline. But lake levels rose again within days, quickly reclaiming the site.
So, for three years, archaeologists and historians have waited for the reservoir to reveal them again.
With the lake down almost five feet right now, archaeologists are back at work, looking for more graves before rain again refills the reservoir.
"It's not one of the great finds of history, but it's important to us on a local level," said Bruce McManus, chairman of the Navarro County Historical Commission. "It's one of the lost cemeteries we've been looking for."
The exact race and date of burial will not be known, McManus said, until archaeologists complete their work.
A lot of freed slaves lived in that area, and most of the Anglos are already accounted for in other cemeteries, he added.
The remains found at Richland-Chambers Reservoir will be reburied somewhere else.
Slave Cemetery Discovered At Lake
By Stephen R. Farris / Navarro Co. Times July 28, 2011
The discovery was made in August of 2009, when a fossil hunter stumbled across a partially intact human cranium on a remote shoreline of the lake. Although the individual was trespassing at the time on Tarrant Regional Water District property, he did the right thing by notifying authorities about his discovery.
Research indicates that an Archaeologist/Consultant, Alan Skinner, was called in to take a look at the burial site after it was discovered by authorities that an unmarked grave, possibly dating back before the turn of the 20th Century, existed where the cranium was found.
The cranium is believed to be that of an African-American male, middle-aged, who was buried on the site sometime after the Civil War and before the turn of the Century.
At the time of the re-discovery of the burial site – which has been kept silent over the past two-years – it was believed to be part of an old slave cemetery that had been long ago forgotten about, along with rumors circulating soon after that an additional cemetery, or two, could also be near the present discovery.
A study on the site began soon after the re-discovery, and Skinner made his assessment, but the opened gravesite remains open even though newly adopted laws pertaining to such occurrences had been put into place around that time period.
The recommendations given by Skinner concerning the site at the time was that the burial should be excavated in a timely manner to satisfy the newly adopted State Health and Safety rules for removal, analysis, and disposition of human burials, with the results compiled and presented to local law authorities, the Texas Historical Commission, the Navarro County Historical Commission, and Tarrant Regional Water District.
None of which (per recommendations made by the Skinner) has been done up to this point, mainly because the grave was taken back in by the rising waters of the lake not too long after it was found. The cranium, which was placed in the hands of local authorities, remains in the property room at the Navarro County Sheriff’s Department to this day, at least until the remains are eventually exhumed and reburied elsewhere.
Due to the current drought conditions, water levels in the lake have decreased to the point that the gravesite has now reappeared enough for excavation to begin again.
According to sources, Skinner has returned to the site during the past week or two, to study it more, and his findings have resulted in the discovery of even more remains, which may belong to a female that was buried near the male.
A new mystery has surfaced according to Skinners new findings, in which he believes the remains could be Anglo and not African-American as he first thought. He won’t know for sure until further research on the remains has taken place.
NCHC Chairman, Bruce McManus, still believes the remains to be those of African-American descent, due to his research on slaves that were brought into that area, where the lake not sits, just after the Civil War ended.
McManus is currently working on finding out if any of the former slaves – former, since they were brought to Texas after the end of the war – have descendents still living in the United States.
“They’re going to be hard to find, especially with name changes and remarriages that occurred so often during that period of time,” said McManus, indicating that government census records help to a point, but not in every case.
Sources stated that TRWD is ready to move forward with the study.
Time may be running out again though, or at least for the near future, as a tropical depression is currently forming in the Gulf of Mexico with computer models showing at least one forecast where heavy rains could come across the area and increase the lake levels to the point where the burial(s) are again covered by water, which would mean yet another delay in excavation.