When the river washed away the bank years ago in Red Lake Falls, Minn., it exposed a pair of small caskets resting side by side.
Mother Nature uncovered the unmarked graves of two young girls, whose remains experts dated to the late 19th century. But interest largely waned when it was determined no foul play was involved, and the nameless, displaced bones were forgotten.
Handling the aftermath of similar cases across Minnesota has become the mission of a small team of scientists and researchers that spends hours working to identify and respectfully rebury human remains that have ended up in the state’s possession. They call it the Historical Human Remains Project.
“My goal is to give them back their names,” said Susan Myster, an osteologist and professor at Hamline University.
Minnesota is home to thousands of cemeteries, some old and unmarked. It’s not uncommon for developers, construction workers and farmers to accidentally unearth unidentified human remains from time to time, Myster said.
Remains considered historic — more than 50 years old — are typically turned over to the Minnesota Archaeologist’s Office and stored in a secure, temperature-controlled facility at Hamline. Bones from an estimated 100 people have been kept there, some for many years. No one knew quite what to do with them.
But when Amanda Gronhovd took over as state archaeologist two years ago, she decided it was time to take action.
Gronhovd assembled a team to lobby the Legislature for funds from the state’s Legacy Amendment, which sets aside a small annual tax increase to pay for arts, conservation and cultural heritage projects.
In 2017, the group received more than $100,000 from the state toward its efforts to identify the deceased, find their living descendants and give them a proper burial.
“My goal is to not leave them sitting in a drawer for another 10 years,” Gronhovd said. “They need to be put to rest.”
The first thing someone should do when coming across human remains is to contact law enforcement officials, who will get a coroner or medical examiner to inspect the bones, Gronhovd said. If the possibility of crime is ruled out, then she or Myster gets a call.
By law, American Indian remains are sent to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. Other remains deemed historic fall under the Human Remains Project’s scope.
Any clues that might help
The team surveys the discovery site and takes note of details such as the condition of the soil and the type of nail used in the coffin. Any kind of information can be useful when trying to identify remains.
Jeremy Jackson, a self-trained historical researcher, starts to scour databases from courthouses and historical societies. He digs through old property records, death certificates and news obituaries — anything that might help narrow the search.
“Because so much is online today, you can actually research these types of cases and solve them from your living room,” he said. Such research became possible only in recent years when organizations and institutions began to digitize public records.
Kyle Knapp, an archaeology records specialist at Hamline and Myster’s former student, helps with this part of the process. Sometimes, in the case of private burials, determining who owned the land where the remains were discovered can yield answers. Other times, even knowing where to start looking for clues is a challenge.
“It’s all part of solving that puzzle, solving that mystery,” Knapp said.
Knapp helps Myster assemble a biological profile for the deceased based on their bones, a report typically consisting of the person’s biological sex, age, stature and ancestry.
Almost none of the remains at Hamline are complete skeletons due to decomposition, Myster said, so what she can verify depends on what bones are recovered. Sometimes she can determine the cause of death by spotting signs of trauma or disease.
“It’s amazing how you can have a very small piece of bone and it can tell you so very much,” Myster said.
A sense of humanity
After combining the team’s skills and knowledge — a true “holistic” approach, Jackson said — they sometimes find a prime candidate. They search for a living descendant of the person in question, often using genealogy websites, in hopes of running a DNA test.
“I think because of shows like CSI, the general public assumes that DNA is the silver bullet,” Knapp said. “But sometimes DNA begs more questions.”
Gronhovd said she is driven to do this work out of a sense of respect. Not everyone believes in life after death, she said, but all who have died deserve an acknowledgment that they lived.
“These people were people,” she said. “I think that this is basic ethics.”
The group works hard to care for the remains and protect their privacy, prohibiting outside photos of their work so as to be sensitive to the deceased and their heirs.
The project’s contract ends in December, at which point Gronhovd said she hopes they will have made more progress in a number of cases.
Jackson said, however, that the team always keeps in mind “feasibility” — the likelihood of identifying remains. Fewer than half the remains have been identified to date, and some mysteries may never be solved.
But Gronhovd said she hopes to give all the research subjects a dignified resting place. She doesn’t know how that will happen yet. It’s something the team plans to look into, and fight for, down the road.
Jackson said they’re fairly confident they’ve identified the younger of the two Red Lake Falls children, using property records from around the time she died. Now they’re conducting a DNA test to compare the remains of the two girls to see if they were related.
Slowly but surely, the long deceased resting in the Hamline lab are being buried again — this time with nameplates.
“You have to keep in mind that sense of humanity,” Knapp said. “Even after they’re gone.”