Test excavation of possible grave site at Ninth and New Hampshire likely to happen in next few days

It now appears that the mystery of whether there are Civil War-era graves at a vacant lot at Ninth and New Hampshire streets may be solved in a matter of days.

Lawrence Mayor Bob Schumm said he’s been told that the state archeologist will conduct test excavations on the vacant lot at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets, which has been approved to house a multistory hotel building.

Schumm said he was not sure when the excavations would happen, but another source said the tests are scheduled for Monday. Attempts to confirm that with the state archeologist or the city manager’s office weren’t immediately successful.

The issue of possible unmarked graves re-emerged last week when the Journal-World reported that state archeologist Robert Hoard had sent a letter to city officials in March expressing interest in testing the site.

Several opponents of the proposed hotel project had argued to city officials that the site may well be an unmarked burial ground for several black soldiers who were killed in Quantrill’s Raid. A 1903 master’s thesis by a Kansas University student contends the site was a burial ground for victims of the raid, but historians haven’t been able to find any other corroboration for the claim.

The test excavations also come after some archeologists at Kansas University began to express concern that the site may not be properly researched to determine if unmarked graves are present.

“If human remains are discovered there, I think there is a very good chance they represent union soldiers who died during Quantrill’s Raid,” said John Hoopes, an associate professor in KU’s department of anthropology. “I think it could potentially be a very important find.”

Hoopes said he spoke with City Manager David Corliss about the scheduled test excavations. Hoopes said it is his understanding that a backhoe will be used to determine whether a trench once existed on the site. If signs of a trench are found, more detailed archeology work can proceed. Hoopes said he’s been told the state’s archeologist will oversee the excavation.

The idea of a trench on the site is important because the 1903 KU master’s thesis contends black soldiers were buried in an open trench that was part of construction of the St. Luke AME Church.

Property records confirm St. Luke AME bought the lot just 10 days before Quantrill’s raid, so it is conceivable an open trench existed on the property at the time of the raid. For reasons not documented, the church never completed construction at the site.

Hoopes said he thinks there is a good chance unmarked graves may be on the site. He said he has talked with a noted Civil War historian who said it is known that the makeshift burial of bodies was common in the aftermath of Quantrill’s Raid, in part because the attack came in the heat of the summer.

But Hoopes said there is a more basic reason he believes the reports of graves there may be true. He said it is significant the master’s thesis was written only 40 years after Quantrill’s Raid.

“You have to remember that when this was written, there were still people walking the streets of Lawrence who were eyewitnesses to Quantrill’s Raid,” Hoopes said. “It seems very likely to me the author would have accessed eye-witness accounts.

“And I don’t know why someone would make up a story like this.”

If remains are found on the site, there are state laws that dictate how the bodies must be treated or removed. The grave site issue, however, is not the type of issue that would stop the hotel project from moving forward.

A state review board would have to decide whether the remains should remain on site or be moved to a more appropriate burial. Hoopes said if moved, the bodies very well may be entitled to a proper military burial.