November 07, 2006

Grant funds additional Trail of Tears research

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A hunt for unmarked Cherokee Indian graves in a Southern Illinois cemetery has garnered additional funding for a Southern Illinois University Carbondale geophysicist who is leading the project.

Harvey Henson, a research project specialist in the geology department in College of Science at SIUC, will get about $30,000 to expand his non-invasive search for the unmarked graves at a cemetery east of Anna. The National Park Service and the University are roughly splitting the cost for the study, which researchers hope will identify the graves of Cherokee who died in Southern Illinois during the 1838-39 Trail of Tears forced relocation.

Stories passed down through generations said German settlers allowed the Cherokee to bury their dead in the cemetery during the harsh winter that trapped them in the area. Some records indicate about 400 Cherokee died here, but other reports claim the dead numbered up to 4,000.

Last year, Henson began searching the two-acre cemetery with instruments that allow researchers to peer beneath the seemingly undisturbed ground for indications of gravesites. Using magnetic, electric conductivity and ground-penetrating radar instruments, the team confirmed the existence of up to three unmarked graves in a relatively small part of it.

Although researchers don't know whether the graves are Cherokee, the work captured the interest of the Park Service and the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation, both of which enthusiastically supported the SIUC research.

"It's all about preserving and educating people about these important historical sites," Henson said. "One of the things that could come out of this is we might add to the number of graves that may be Cherokee. It could open it up for more investigation."

The project traces its roots to 1999, when members of the cemetery board asked Henson to find out whether the Cherokee graves actually existed as legend claimed. During the ensuing time, Henson surveyed some marked graves, gravestones and open areas to gather baseline and comparison data. For instance, the data allowed researchers to compare the underground signatures of known graves with similar signatures where suspected unmarked graves are located.

The next steps now under way involve surveying a 70-by-80 meter area — it includes most of the existing cemetery —focusing on the area devoid of tombstones. Henson is optimistic the research will add to the historic record.

"We've found that we can find unmarked graves using these instruments, which we have now tailored for this site," he said. "We've got the field techniques, and the instruments we'll be using are even more sensitive than the ones we were using last year."

In 1838, the United States forcibly removed more than 16,000 Cherokee from their homes in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee and sent them west across the Mississippi River. Some Cherokee passed through Southern Illinois while taking the northern route to territory in Oklahoma. The hardships along the way took the lives of many tribe members and led to the tribe referring to the route as the Trail of Tears.

Strung out in wagons and on foot along the trail, the tribe developed campsites along the way that provided the best shelter and provisions they could find. The cemetery is believed to be near one of these campsites, Henson said.

To look into the past without disturbing it, Henson's team will rely on three main types of instruments.

Magnetic gradiometry measures the magnetic properties of soil substrate. Because the Earth's magnetic field typically is uniform and predictable, the instrument can identify areas where the substrate has been disturbed — such as by digging a grave — by showing the subtle magnetic contrast between it and surrounding areas.

Researcher also will use an instrument that measures the electrical conductivity of soil, which will indicate such things as water content of the soil, which can indicate a subsoil disturbance.

A third method involves ground-penetrating radar, which uses light energy beamed into the ground and reflected back to show a multi-dimensional snapshot of underground soil structures. Researchers can view the images in real time as they move it across the survey area before running the data through a computer program that corrects and sharpens the images collected for analysis.

After laying out a grid, team members will guide the instruments over the area and collect data. They will then cross-reference findings from each instrument to build a case for the existence of an unmarked grave, Henson said. If one instrument detects anomalies, that data is compared to data from another instrument from the same area to double check.

"If we get agreement on subtle anomalies from different instruments, it's like building a court case," Henson said. "If you get one witness, that's one thing. But two or more saying the same thing makes the case stronger."

Henson hopes to finish the survey this spring and complete a report on his findings by December 2007. The project's success could mean additional investigations at other sites.

"There are a lot more sites in Illinois that could benefit from these techniques," Henson said. "For Southern Illinois, this history has gotten a lot of interest. We may never solve the questions surrounding these sites, but we need to try."

Identifying, pursuing and obtaining new sources of external grant and contract funding is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.