There is no way of knowing, short of exhuming the remains, that the graves of Indian school students buried in the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery actually match the names inscribed on the tombstones.
A recent study by the Army Corps of Engineers turned up research that suggests the grave markers may have been placed at random locations after the bodies of about 180 students were reburied during the 1927 relocation of the Carlisle Indian School cemetery.
“If enough remains are present upon excavation, the gender and age of the individual can be determined from the remains and should provide additional data to support the information recorded on the marker,” according to the study released in late July.
The Army has scheduled Tuesday as the start date to disinter what may be the bodies of three Northern Arapaho boys who died in the early 1880s while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
The notice of intended disinterment from the post cemetery was published in the June 21 edition of the Federal Register. The Army National Military Cemeteries is honoring the requests of three families.
The Corps of Engineers is helping the ANMC process the requests — a procedure that included the gathering of archival research on not just the Post Cemetery but all the burial grounds that once existed at Carlisle Barracks, the second oldest military installation in the country.
The study identified other gaps in the historic record that led to the conclusion that the Post Cemetery may contain the remains of soldiers dating back to the American Revolution and even the French and Indian War.
The research traced the first burial ground back to 1757 and the establishment of a British military camp in the Carlisle area during the French and Indian War. There is reason to believe this original graveyard was then used by the Continental Army during the Revolution and that a burial plot also existed for British POWs captured during the Battle of Trenton.
However, there is no research available that can pinpoint the location of either burial ground or verify whether each had occupied the same space. So the possibility exists that bodies buried in the late 18th century could have been reinterred or included in the cemeteries that followed.
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 was used for burials during the 19th century military occupation of Carlisle Barracks, according to the research.
The Old Burial Ground was established on post after the opening of the cavalry school in 1838. The earliest reference to death among soldiers stationed on post involved a pneumonia outbreak in 1815 that claimed four lives. Though their burial sites were not recorded, there is reason to believe those bodies may have been buried in the Holmes family plot.
Most of the burials through the mid-19th century involved graves that went unmarked or were “indicated with temporary, folk or nondurable markers,” the study reads. What’s more is many of the records on the Old Burial Ground were destroyed when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia burned Carlisle Barracks during its 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania.
After the Civil War, the military presence on post diminished and the Old Burial Ground fell into neglect. There was even a report that cattle were allowed to roam on the installation and that the graves were damaged by trampling.
The research found no trace of a survey or inventory made of the Old Burial Ground prior to 1871 when the bodies buried there were disinterred and transferred to the federally owned plot at the nearby Ashland Cemetery. A source said as many as 300 sets of remains where moved under a contract awarded to Carlisle funeral director Alexander B. Ewing. But there is no way of knowing whether all the bodies were accounted for.
“While there is every reason to believe that Ewing performed a competent job with the relocation, poorly marked graves could have caused some to be missed,” the study reads. “Thus, it is possible that complete or partial human remains from this burial area were still present at the time the Carlisle Indian school cemetery was established and used and may have been among those that were ultimately reinterred in the current Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery.”
The Carlisle Indian School received its first students in October 1879. The first child died that November and was buried in the federal plot at Ashland. Later the body of Amos LaFromboise was disinterred and buried in what became known as the Indian school cemetery.
That cemetery was located in the same general area as the Old Burial Ground behind the present-day track and grandstand in the vicinity 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 former Old Burial Ground.
After the Indian school closed in 1918, the Army operated General Hospital No. 31 for about two years at Carlisle Barracks to care for wounded veterans returning from Europe after World War I. The hospital was then replaced by the Army Medical Field Service School.
In April 1927, money was allocated to relocate the Indian school cemetery to make way for an expansion of the service school. That summer the bodies of about 180 Native American children and young adults were moved to what became the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery along Claremont Road.
Ninety years later, research coordinated by the Corps of Engineers turned up no reports or reliable descriptions of the relocation effort so the process and the parties involved in the transfer are unknown. “Lack of information on who was responsible…limits our ability to find data that describes the protocols and procedures used…” the study concludes.
This significant gap in data means the Army has only limited information on how and why burials were placed where they were in the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery. There is research that suggests the only map and inventory of the Indian school cemetery may not account for all the bodies and that the pace of relocation was so brisk reburial took place shortly after each body was disinterred.
“It is not known what order the graves were removed from the Indian school cemetery nor could it be determined where reinterment started or finished in the Post Cemetery,” the study reads. “What is known is no attempt was made to organize the graves according to their sequence from the Indian school cemetery. Patterning in the Post Cemetery probably reflected expediency and reinterment probably took place in the order the remains arrived at the relocation site.”
The layout of the Post Cemetery is different from what is known of the Indian school cemetery. The school cemetery was organized into five sections, A-E, each with its own row of grave markers. The length of the rows and number of burial sites varied. The Post Cemetery has six sections, A-F, organized around a central monument – the grave marker of Thomas Marshal.l. Each section had parallel rows of graves with the outer sections (A, B, E and F) being longer with more graves than the inner sections (C and D).
Because there is no clear pattern on how the reburials were made, the Corps of Engineers can only speculate the amount of care given to the task depended on who was doing the burying. “It is possible both the recovery and relocation were haphazard events that followed no system of organization,” the Army study concludes.
“The random distribution of markers could reflect a complete disassociation between the reburial of remains and the placement of burial markers,” the study reads. “With the data at hand it is impossible to definitively state whether the markers are correctly associated with the physical remains of the individuals’ names on these respective markers without physical investigation.”