Search for 1776 graves pressed

Revolutionary War trenches located, N.Y. scholar believes

From Battle of Brooklyn

May 08, 2002|By Andy Newman | Andy Newman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - H. Arthur Bankoff thinks he knows where the bodies are buried.

Bankoff, the chairman of Brooklyn College's anthropology and archaeology department, says that using electrical probes, he has detected formations beneath Prospect Park that may be burial trenches for American Revolutionary soldiers killed in the Battle of Brooklyn.

If he is right, the burial ground will be a major historical site. But to find out for sure will take money, and Bankoff has been searching for it in a place where even an archaeologist would have a hard time digging it up: the ever-shrinking city budget.

Bankoff, representing a nonprofit group called Brooklyn Heritage Inc., is asking for $44,000 for the next fiscal year to do some more noninvasive probing at the site, which is somewhere in the park's Long Meadow. (Bankoff would not divulge the exact location for fear of tipping off grave robbers.)

The group's president, Robert Furman, told the City Council that an investment in developing Brooklyn's revolutionary heritage would quickly pay for itself via tourists' tax dollars.

A long shot

But the head of the Brooklyn delegation, Councilman Lewis A. Fidler, said that the project was a long shot to win financing, albeit an appealing one.

The ground disturbances that may be burial trenches are just north of what was once Porte Road, an east-west route that ran through hilly, mostly unfarmed land.

On Aug. 27, 1776, British and Hessian soldiers who had outflanked the outnumbered Americans attacked them from behind in what is now Prospect Park.

Many Americans were killed as they fled west along Porte Road, and most of the rest died in the siege of the Old Stone House west of the park.

Human remains and musket balls were unearthed when the park's East Drive was being built in 1866.

The park's commissioners had reported that "the workmen regularly turn up balls and bones in the course of their excavations, where once the tide of battle surged."

Suspicions that there was a military burial ground in the park grew in 2000, when an expedition led by Bankoff, equipped with instruments that use electric current to sense differences in soil density, turned up what he called several "long, kind of ovoid, rectangular shapes about 10 feet down."

Bankoff and Brooklyn Heritage are looking for money to use more sensitive probes to do another search. If it turns up trenches, they will try to get permission from the city's Parks Department to dig.

No exhumations

Bankoff hastened to add that he did not intend to exhume bodies.

"Maybe if we could find a couple of artifacts, we could tell who they might have been, were they British or American," he said. "There's good arguments against disturbing the graves themselves. They're there; this is where they were buried - it's a cemetery."

Soldiers were often buried in mass graves during the war, he said. "Individual burials were beyond them at that time."

The historians said that if the city did not come through with the money, it was highly unlikely that they would find another source.

"We applied for a federal grant, but we don't think we'll get it," Furman said.

Fidler said he wished he could help. "In flusher times," he said, "this is something we'd really love to support."

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