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.
The remains are being examined by an anthropologist following 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.
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.
The area of Richland-Chambers Lake is on property formerly owned by a slaveowner 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.
“It's been a long ordeal, but this will be a beautiful site near a gazebo,” McManus said. “They can finally rest in peace.”