Archaeologists use 21st-century forensics to identify and honor Vermont’s 19th-century war dead
A dozen long, white cardboard boxes sit arranged neatly but unceremoniously on a shelf in a room full of tools and artifacts. Stacked amid sifting trays, Colonial-era pottery shards, ancient arrowheads and desiccated fish bones, the boxes would be unremarkable if not for their label: “HUMAN REMAINS.”
It’s here, in the second-floor laboratory of the University of Vermont’s Consulting Archaeology Program , that the skeletons of 20 American soldiers who died in the War of 1812 currently reside. Construction crews discovered the bones at various times between 2002 and 2006 while renovating streets, sidewalks and utility lines in Burlington’s Old North End. The archaeologists who exhumed them have been working to find a resting place better befitting their status as some of America’s earliest war dead.
In the meantime, they’re also trying to solve the nearly two-century-old mystery of who these soldiers were, where they came from and what killed them. Their research, which draws on such disciplines as physical anthropology, genealogy, epidemiology, archival research and 21st-century criminal forensics, is reshaping our understanding of the War of 1812 and Burlington’s role in it.
It’s an exceedingly rare opportunity. The Burlington burial site is one of only three War of 1812 military cemeteries ever excavated for archaeological study — and the first in the United States. With support from the city of Burlington, Vermont’s Division for Historic Preservation  and a grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program , UVM archaeologists, led by Dr. John Crock  and Kate Kenny , have enlisted the help of two outside experts.
The first of these, Dr. Lynne Bell , is an associate professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology Forensic Research Centre in Burnaby, British Columbia. Bell, a forensic anthropologist, specializes in the use of isotopes to determine where individuals were born and spent their formative years based on their remains.
The second expert, Dr. Bill Belcher , is a forensic anthropologist with the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. JPAC’s congressional mandate is to recover and identify the remains of American service personnel killed in 20th- and 21st-century conflicts. Belcher and his team agreed to analyze the 19th-century bones partly out of curiosity, to see if they could make the oldest positive identification of an unknown American soldier, and partly to fulfill JPAC’s mission of achieving “the fullest possible accounting” of all American soldiers missing in action.
“From our perspective, these individuals are, arguably, also MIAs,” says Crock, director of UVM’s Consulting Archaeology Program, which is overseeing the project. “They’re known to have died in Burlington but were in unmarked graves and haven’t been memorialized to any extent other than whatever ceremony was performed at the time of their burial.”
The discovery of several skeletons on North Street in the fall of 2004 created a local stir, but it was hardly the first time war graves from that era had been disturbed. Accounts dating back to the early 1820s tell of UVM medical students raiding the military cemetery for skeletons. At the time, a local doctor noted in his diary how disappointed he was with the condition of those bones, which had already begun to deteriorate.
In 1864, Civil War soldiers from the 17th Vermont Infantry reported accidentally disturbing some military burial sites while digging latrines on what was then the county fairgrounds. Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century, grave sites and skeletal fragments were occasionally unearthed in the Old North End. However, it wasn’t until recently that anyone tried to document, map and study those graves, let alone identify their occupants.
In October 2004, shortly after more skeletons were recovered, Vermont Commerce Secretary Kevin Dorn and Historic Preservation Officer Jane Lendway sent a letter to Paul Wolfowitz, who was then U.S. deputy secretary of defense. They informed him of the discovery of “15 burials clearly attributable to the War of 1812” and of their belief that as many as 500 more unmarked military graves from that period exist.
It was nearly nine months before an Army spokesman responded on Wolfowitz’s behalf. He declined to assume any responsibility for the military burial sites or to provide assistance in exhuming them.
“The Department of the Army is neither staffed nor resourced to excavate such a large number of graves,” the letter read. Moreover, JPAC’s agreement to examine three skeletons “should not be construed as a commitment by the Department of Defense  to excavate this abandoned cemetery.”
Burlington’s unknown soldiers could be a fitting metaphor for what historians have called “America’s first forgotten conflict.” Other than 19th-century-history buffs and scholars who study the period, most Americans know little about the War of 1812 except that it inspired Francis Scott Key’s lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Far fewer can say why the war was fought or what its consequences were.
Officially, the Department of Defense lists just 2260 American soldiers killed in action in the War of 1812 — which, in a nutshell, was the last flare-up of tensions between Britain and its former colony before the two settled into an enduring alliance. But new research, including the work done at UVM, suggests that the actual number of dead from combat injuries, accidents and diseases exceeded 10,000 and may have been as high as 20,000.
Even as the war’s bicentennial approaches, there’s been virtually no public discussion about commemorating Vermont’s involvement. Yet Burlington, which was then a village of about 1000, served as the site of a major cantonment, or military base, from June 1812 to June 1814. That outpost was located strategically on a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain, on or near the current site of Battery Park. It housed as many as 5000 American troops, as well as British and Canadian prisoners of war and civilians accused of smuggling or treason.
Chief among the cantonment’s features was a 300-bed military hospital, the largest in the Champlain Valley. According to historical records, the number of patients there occasionally exceeded 700. In the aftermath of the Battle of Plattsburgh, on September 11, 1814, it topped 900, and the military took over several UVM buildings to house all the wounded.
UVM’s Kate Kenny welcomes an opportunity to dig deeper into the forgotten history of the Burlington cantonment. Kenny is something of a military-history buff. Back in high school, she came across a microfilm version of the War of 1812 enlistment records and went out and bought herself a copy — all 13 rolls.
Kenny, who helped exhume some of the graves found on North Street, has combed through the records and determined that at least 550 American soldiers died in Burlington, as well as an unknown number of state militiamen, POWs and civilian camp followers. Most were probably buried in or near the military cemetery. Many of those graves have never been found and, presumably, still lie beneath the city.
Standing beside the shelves housing the skeletons, Kenny carefully handles some of the artifacts recovered from the graves and notes their significance. They include artillery buttons, gun straps, pocketknives, even a few gold earrings found near the skulls of remains. Though all the exhumed bodies were military personnel buried in coffins, Kenny says, different arrangements reflect their different statures in life. Some were simple burials, others more elaborate.
In one case, archaeologists recovered lead “buck and ball” shot near the ribcage of skeleton number “2004-8,” which was probably stored in his vest pocket. Kenny says this undoubtedly belonged to a U.S. soldier.
“This is distinctly American ammunition,” she explains. “The British didn’t like it.”
Few such remnants have been recovered from this period in Burlington’s past. For years, scholars assumed they had already disintegrated or been looted or irreparably damaged by urban development. But the discovery of these 20 skeletons, most of which were exhumed in surprisingly good condition, suggests there may be significantly more evidence to be found, preserved and studied.
“The burials themselves are fascinating, but what they lead you to at each turn just expands their story,” Kenny says. “You start to get this 360-degree view of Burlington at this time and the lives that crossed through it.”
In an effort to focus that “360-degree view,” Crock and Kenny decided to see if it was possible to pinpoint the geographical origins of these 20 soldiers. After all, the 1812 enlistment records already indicate where many of the Burlington troops came from and their previous occupations.
Artifacts found in their graves, such as a vest button indicating that one person belonged to the Second Artillery Regiment, offered Kenny and Crock some hope of matching skeletons to names. But, as Kenny points out, there were 14 known artillerists stationed in Burlington and two from the Second Regiment. The exhumed grave containing the Second Regiment button turned out to contain buttons from other regiments, too, raising the possibility that the supposed artillerist was reusing buttons from fellow soldiers.
To try for a more accurate geographic match, the archaeologists turned to Bell of Simon Fraser University, who specializes in analyzing stable isotopes stored in human teeth and bones that can be extracted long after a person has died.
Bell, a criminology professor, has plenty of experience with old bones. Her past projects include the Mary Rose warship , a flagship of Henry VIII that sank near Portsmouth, England, in July 1545. Historians had long assumed that all the soldiers and sailors who went down with that vessel were British. That is, until Bell showed that many of the men were probably mercenaries who’d been recruited from all over Europe and the Mediterranean.
The secret, Bell explains, was to look for isotopes, which are telltale markers of where people were born, where they lived and what they ate. Unlike DNA, Bell explains, “Stable isotopes tell you nothing about ancestry and everything about life history.”
First she looks for oxygen isotopes, which enter the body via the water we consume. That water originates as precipitation, and its “oxygen value” can tell scientists whether it fell closer to the poles or the equator. Since water is essential to the formation of all human tissue, oxygen isotopes are stored in the body and can be recovered and measured centuries later.
“The enamel in your teeth, for instance, was formed during your childhood years,” Bell explains. “So all the information stored in your enamel reflects what you were doing and where you were living in your childhood.” Similarly, the dentin under the enamel contains information stretching back to the teenage years, she adds. Bones store isotopic information about the last 15 years of the person’s life. Examined collectively, these markers provide a montage of the various locales where a person lived.
In the case of Burlington’s 1812 bodies, Bell did what’s known as a mass-spectrometry analysis on 12 of the 20 skeletons. Even in this small group, she found tremendous geographic diversity, with origins as far north as Canada and as far south as the Carolinas — findings that confirmed what UVM researchers knew from the enlistment records. The marker for at least one individual “doesn’t look right” for having grown up in the United States at all, suggesting he was Canadian, Icelandic or European.
But oxygen isotopes currently offer Bell only an indication of latitude, not longitude. “So I don’t know whether I’m dealing with someone who was from Canada or somebody who was from Norway,” she says. “That’s the frustrating thing about oxygen: It tells you something and nothing all at once.”
Bell does have other tools in her toolbox. The dietary isotopes of carbon and nitrogen, which enter the body through food we eat, record the proteins and carbohydrates commonly consumed in the second half of our teenage years.
When Bell analyzed the bones and dental roots of the Burlington skeletons, she once again found an interesting spectrum of results. For example, she’s able to say that many of these men had a positive “maize signature,” meaning their diets were rich in corn, while others tested negative, suggesting they grew up in Europe, where maize was less commonly eaten at the time.
Similarly, several skeletons contain high nitrogen values, suggesting these individuals ate diets rich in protein, while others don’t. Bell admits she’s unsure how to interpret her findings. One may be tempted to assume that a big protein eater in the early 1800s was an officer, but she points out that he could just as easily have hunted or trapped his own food.
“It’s not very helpful, is it?” she jokes.
If we want to nail down the eating habits of our presumed artillerist from the Second Regiment, maybe not. However, as Kenny points out, Bell’s isotopic analyses won’t be considered in isolation but as pieces of a larger puzzle. And, as in solving any puzzle, it helps to have some frame of reference to know what you’re looking at.
Bill Belcher faced a similar challenge in his analysis of the Burlington bones. A civilian forensic anthropologist with JPAC in Hawaii, the world’s largest skeletal identification laboratory, Belcher typically recovers and identifies MIAs from more recent wars, notably Vietnam and World War II. His efforts to find missing American soldiers, pilots and seamen have taken him to the jungles of Papua New Guinea; to the upper reaches of the Himalayas; and even to a tiny, remote island in the South Pacific known as Butaritari, famous in Marine Corps lore as the site of a diversionary battle during the fight for Guadalcanal.
Belcher spent several months doing a complete analysis of three of the 20 skeletons recovered in Burlington, and he’s extracted DNA from all 20. So far he’s obtained a lot of useful information, including the soldiers’ ages, race and sex, as well as general data on common dentistry practices of the time. (Interestingly, military rules governing the privacy of MIA remains prevent Belcher from sharing these findings with Seven Days, even though the soldiers died two centuries ago.)
“Actually, the remains coming out of North Street are quite good,” Belcher notes. “We’ve been able to pull DNA sequences off all of them. The problem is, we don’t have anything to compare them to.”
The issue, Belcher explains, is that he usually uses medical and personnel records to make a positive ID. Few detailed military records were kept in the War of 1812 era, and the remains come from a large pool of soldiers. By contrast, JPAC scientists are having more luck with their current work on remains recovered from the USS Monitor, which sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1862. “That’s relatively easy because it’s a closed population,” Belcher says, meaning that records indicate exactly who was on the ship when it sank. But the Old North End remains are among those of 500 or more soldiers known to have died and been buried in Burlington.
To make Belcher’s search even more complicated, the genetic material he removed from the 1812 skeletons is mitochondrial DNA, which contains genetic information only from the mother’s side. Genomic or nuclear DNA, the kind most people are familiar with from such TV crime shows as “CSI” and “Cold Case Files,” contains equal parts genetic material from both parents. But it doesn’t remain viable for long in very old skeletal remains.
“I’m not sure we’re ever going to be able to identify these [Burlington] guys as individuals, but it’s something we’re going to try to do anyway, because it’s important,” Belcher says. “Even when you go back that far, they’re all American heroes.”
Does this mean we’ll never know the identities of the unknown soldiers who were buried in the Old North End? Not necessarily. The UVM researchers say a positive ID could come from one of their contacts, a man who maintains extensive genealogical records of his ancestors dating back to the 1700s, including a family DNA library.
Craig Trout  of Lovettsville, Va., claims that his second great-grandfather, Martin William (1797-1870) and his father, Timothy Hatch (1767-1813), both served in the War of 1812 at the cantonment in Burlington.
“Since we have the Y-DNA signature ... for proven descendants of Timothy Hatch, plus a physical description of Timothy Hatch at the time of enlistment, there is some possibility that his remains may eventually be discovered and positively identified during the course of continuing archaeological digs,” Trout writes in a recent email. “If this does occur, Timothy and son Martin will make an interesting ‘case study’ of a father-son War of 1812 experience at the cantonment at Burlington.”
Crock and Kenny consider such a match the holy grail of the project. Even if it doesn’t pan out, however, they’ll have learned far more about this period in Burlington’s history than they knew when the project began, and their research is far from complete.
Kenny points out that the archaeological and historical evidence, combined with Bell’s and Belcher’s findings, has already led to some “eye-opening” discoveries about health and medical procedures in this period. For example, an especially virulent strain of influenza raged through Burlington in the winter of 1812-13 and killed far more soldiers than combat did. Kenny’s archival research has turned up previously unpublished records about medical treatments from that era, including bloodletting and the use of lead, arsenic and mercury. Evidence of past diseases, and doctors’ attempts to treat them, may still lie preserved in the bodies.
“If somebody in the future wanted to do more studies of these guys, you could probably find the biggest killers from the War of 1812: dysentery, typhoid, measles, stuff like that,” Kenny says. “It should all show up in the teeth.”
But preserving such archaeological finds for future researchers means getting public officials involved. Kirsten Merriman Shapiro, special projects manager for the Burlington Community and Economic Development Office , says one mandate of the federal battlefield protection grant is that the city must educate the public about the importance of these archaeological finds and suggest how to react to new discoveries.
“Some people might say, ‘Wow! This is super-neat!’” says Merriman Shapiro about the possibility of residents discovering new graves on their land. “But other people might be freaked out, or feel that it devalues their property.”
Indeed, the 2004 discovery of several skeletons was particularly traumatic to one Old North End resident, a former refugee from Rwanda, who thought what workers were unearthing outside her home was a mass grave similar to ones she had witnessed in her home country.
However, Merriman Shapiro says most Old North End residents have been excited by news of their previously underground neighbors, as evidenced by the number of people who’ve shown up for community presentations about them.
City officials and researchers agree that their ultimate goal is to find a proper internment site, such as a crypt or below-ground mausoleum, where the war dead of 1812, named or unknown, can be properly memorialized and remain accessible in the future, as science progresses and, perhaps, descendants come forward to claim them. Crock, Kenny and Shapiro all say they’d like that site to be located in Battery Park, near where the soldiers served their country.
“Long ago, archaeologists were labeled as grave robbers, because they were,” says Crock. “Today, we want to do something that honors these individuals who have not been honored for 200 years.”