The 16 men had a gruesome job unearthing remains from a graveyard in the hot summer weather.
Progress had made it inconvenient for the Carlisle Indian School cemetery to stay where it was just west of the track and stadium on the Carlisle Barracks campus.
The Army Medical Field Service School needed room to expand, so in July and August 1927 workers were tasked with removing the bodies for transport and burial elsewhere on the post.
“All the bodies disinterred so far are skeletons,” The Evening Sentinel reported on Aug. 15 with only 50 corpses left. “Coffins crumbled when handled to any extent.”
In one casket, the men found a girl whose hair had separated from her skull “but it was of luxuriant growth and in good condition,” according to the newspaper.
Elsewhere they came across a skull with a bullet hole. There was speculation it belonged to a former student who had committed suicide nine years before in downtown Carlisle.
“Only a bit of flesh was found on one side of his body,” The Sentinel reported.
Here and there, among the bones, was a diamond ring, remnants of clothes, a necktie and a pair of shoes – all in a remarkable state of preservation. That was almost 90 years ago.
Today, the bodies of Indian school students still rest in the soil of Carlisle Barracks — hundreds of miles away from their ancestral homeland. They are buried beneath row upon row of identical white grave markers in the post cemetery along Claremont Road.
That graveyard is the scene this August of healing and reclamation as the Army honors the requests of three families and returns the remains of Little Plume, Little Chief and Horse back to the Northern Arapahoe tribe.
The Army Corps of Engineers is working with the Army National Military Cemeteries to disinter and transport the bodies of the three boys to Fremont County, Wyoming, where they will be buried in private cemeteries on tribal land.
As part of the process, the Engineers hired contractors to compile archival research that not only details the background of the Indian school cemetery but at least other burial grounds in the long history of Carlisle Barracks.
Old burial ground
The earliest known cemetery is associated with the British encampment Col. John Stanwix established in 1757 during the French and Indian War. The war ended in 1763 leaving the encampment to fall into disrepair until the American Revolution.
The research turned up an anonymous undated sketch map titled Plan of the Works at Washingtonburg that shows the location of a “British cemetery” along with barracks, officers housing, a powder magazine and storehouses. Washingtonburg was a major logistical base for the Continental Army during the Revolution.
In 1933, excavation work to install steam lines near the Hessian Power Magazine unearthed human remains along with British coins, uniform buttons and clothing fragments belonging to members of the Seventh Royal Fusiliers. These were soldiers that were captured during the Battle of Trenton and imprisoned at Carlisle Barracks during the war. The relationship between the British camp cemetery and this POW cemetery is unknown.
It is believed that in 1803 Jonathan Holmes Sr. died in Carlisle and was buried within a two-acre family-owned plot that was later incorporated into barracks land. This parcel remained in use and was used for burials during the 19th century military occupation of Carlisle Barracks, according to the research.
There is research to suggest the Old Burial Ground on post was established with the opening of the cavalry school in 1838, but the earliest reference to death among soldiers stationed at Carlisle Barracks was a pneumonia outbreak in 1815 that claimed four lives. Though their burial sites were not recorded, those bodies may be buried on the Holmes family plot.
“Disease, suicide, military executions, and other causes resulted in the deaths of other soldiers and their dependents at Carlisle Barracks until the mid-19th century,” the report reads.
One source from 1871 described the Old Burial Grounds as a rectangular parcel about 210 ft. long and 54 ft. wide, but records vary on the number of graves from as low as nine to as many as 100. “It appears that most of the burials during this period were either unmarked or indicated with temporary, folk, or nondurable markers.”
Most of the records on this cemetery were destroyed when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia burned Carlisle Barracks during the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania. A present-day aerial photograph of the post approximates the location of the Old Burial Ground as being next to Root Hall in the vicinity of the intersection of Barry Drive and Brooke Avenue.
After the Civil War, the military presence diminished and the cemetery suffered from neglect, the report reads. Capt. E. Lauren, Carlisle Barracks commander, noted that cattle were allowed on post and that graves had been damaged by trampling. With the possible closure of the installation on the horizon, the Quartermaster General of the Army ordered the transfer in 1871 of all the military personnel interred in the Old Burial Ground to the federally owned plot at nearby Ashland Cemetery.
When the Carlisle Indian School opened in 1879, founder Richard Henry Pratt was not prepared for the prospect of a student death. The first child to die, Amos LaFromboise, was buried at Ashland before his body was disinterred and buried in what became the Indian school cemetery.
The same aerial photograph shows the location of that cemetery as being along Forbes Avenue to include portions of the present-day courtyard and gymnasium of Root Hall, the main academic building of the Army War College. There is research that suggests the northwest corner of the Indian school cemetery overlapped the southeast corner of the Old Burial Ground.
One of the earliest maps of the Indian school cemetery depicts it as a .67-acre polygon located north of what was then a barn and wood shop and west of the present-day track and grandstand. It is believed the cemetery grounds sloped gently to the west towards Letort Spring Run.
As school superintendent, Pratt orientated the graves of deceased students in a manner consistent with European and Christian tradition. The graves were organized in linear ranks, with rows expanding outward from both directions from the oldest graves. This arrangement maximized the use of the available land. No photographs of the school cemetery have been found.
A review of ledgers on file with the National Archives revealed a lack of coffin purchases. However, there were regular orders placed with suppliers of nails, screws, stains, fabrics and wood typically used in the construction of coffins. This suggests to researchers that most of the burial receptacles used in the Indian school cemetery were made on campus in its trade workshops.
There is research that embalming was reserved mostly for students whose remains required transportation before interment. The possibility exists that some of the students buried in the campus cemetery were also embalmed. In most cases, the school uniform served as his or her burial attire.
After the Indian school closed in 1918, jurisdiction over the Carlisle Barracks site was transferred back to the Army from the Department of the Interior. The Army operated General Hospital No. 31 for about two years to care for the wounded veterans returning from Europe after World War I. The hospital was then replaced by the Army Medical Field Service School.
In 1926, the service school made a formal request to relocate the graves of the Indian school cemetery to another location on post. This request was granted and, in April 1927, the Quartermaster General allocated $4,120 (about $58,000 in today’s money) towards the removal of the school cemetery.
This included a total of $3,620 to disinter and rebury 181 sets of remains along with $200 to remove and re-erect the headstones, $150 to prepare the new cemetery with landscaping and $150 to install a perimeter fence.
This new cemetery was christened the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery to distinguish it from the earlier burial grounds, the report reads. From 1935 to 1984, this cemetery was opened for the burial of military-related personnel who died on the post.
There are 34 non-Indian School graves in the post cemetery. Three graves contain double interments bringing the military dead to 37 individuals. Thirty-two are infants and young children. One is the military wife. The rest are active or retired servicemen.
The earliest military burial was that of Herbert B. Rasmussen who died on Jan. 21, 1935. The last military burial during its active period was that of Army master sergeant Clarence F. Barr who died on Aug. 22, 1984.
While officially closed for military burials in 1984, the cremated remains of Julie Barr were interred with her husband Clarence in 2005. There are no plans to reopen or expand the post cemetery for future burials.