September 07, 2005

High-tech tools may help detect Cherokee graves

by Pete Rosenbery

henson cemetary

Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A Southern Illinois University Carbondale geophysicist is pursuing historical legend involving the forced relocation of thousands of Cherokee through Southern Illinois nearly 170 years ago.

Research project specialist Harvey Henson, Jr. is using non-invasive, remote geophysical sensing methods to locate unmarked graves at a cemetery east of Anna, where historical accounts suggest that early German immigrants allowed Cherokees to bury their loved ones who died while making the trek to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears' northern route in the winter of 1838-39.

A small section of the Campground Church Cemetery, measuring approximately 60 feet by 50 feet, remains seemingly undisturbed, tucked away under trees and a short distance away from sandstone monuments of the region's early settlers. Stories passed through generations indicate the Cherokee were befriended by the German settlers during their encampment and provided small plots of land for burial purposes adjacent to the settlers' own family plots. Interment records were not kept and while 400 Native Americans are believed to have died in Southern Illinois, there are some suggestions the toll was as high as 4,000.

"We have found lost graves here. We don't know if they are Cherokee or not, but we are expanding the study to investigate more of the area," he said.

Relying on instruments including ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic induction and a detailed Geographic Information System, Henson will probe for soil conductivity and look for changes locally in the soil's sub-surface. While the ground can appear undisturbed, any movement in soil layers produces magnetic anomalies showing subsurface disturbance, which might indicate the presence of interment or graves.

The data being collected does not identify the ethnic origin, sex, race or age of the individual.

"It is possible if the cemetery records or local historical accounts can eliminate some unknowns that we might be able to get some cultural information," he said.

Henson emphasizes the work is non-invasive and that graves will not be disturbed.

There are numerous benefits to reviewing the site, including contributing to the historical accuracy of the number who died.

"Specifically at this site, our work will help preserve the interred remains of these people who perished in this tragedy of the Trail of Tears, locally, in Southern Illinois. It's going to preserve their right to rest in peace," he said.

"It's a very unique part of the history of Southern Illinois," Henson said. "It was a tragedy but it is also an opportunity to further recognize and memorialize this event."

The project dates back to 1999 when a cemetery board member approached Henson about the possibility of locating unmarked graves. Rumors had persisted for generations that unmarked graves were in a section of the cemetery, and the cemetery's preservation board is "very concerned" that if true, the area remain undisturbed, Henson said. The cemetery is on the National Park Service's Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

An SIUC civil engineering class performed non-invasive mapping and surveyed existing monuments and elevations in 1999. With that preliminary data and new instruments, Henson believes that he will get better results than he had before.

Henson anticipates the current study, which begins this fall, will take a few months. He anticipates some preliminary results from the existing site in mid-2006. SIUC geology students, along with anthropology students from Southeast Missouri State University and geology/geography students from Eastern Illinois University will participate. In addition, area high school students from SIUC's geology outreach program will participate.

Anneesa Lehman, 17, a senior at Carterville High School, has been helping Henson with surveying the cemetery. In addition, she is working on a similar non-invasive cemetery-finding project near Tilden for a family hoping to find their descendents. The investigations are exciting, said Lehman, the daughter of Bibi and Wesley Lehman of Carterville.

Henson would like to find some additional funding. The University's geology department and the College of Science are providing financial support for the current work, and several people are volunteering their time, Henson said.

"If we can get some funding we are going to advance our work at this local site and then continue on to other prospective areas along the Trail of Tears to try and figure out if there are lost graves along those areas," he said.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

For more information on the project, contact Henson at 618/453-7349 or

(Caption: Taking measurements – Harvey Henson, Jr., a geophysicist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is using a conductivity meter – which looks for subtle variations in soil conductivity – in looking for unmarked graves along a portion of the historic Trail of Tears, east of Anna, Ill.)


Anneesa Lehman

Photo by Jeff Garner