N.Y. plot yields Indian grave

Five skeletons found by homeowner on East End of Long Island

November 13, 2003|By Peter C. Beller | Peter C. Beller,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SHELTER ISLAND, N.Y. -- The who and why remain a mystery, but what is known for certain is that the skeletal remains of at least five people, most likely American Indians, buried in a communal grave more than a century ago, were uncovered recently by a homeowner here.

"I wasn't exactly sure, exactly what I had," said Walter Richards, 29, a Shelter Island police officer who uncovered the grave site recently while excavating next to his new house on this 8,000-acre island 95 miles east of New York City on the East End of Long Island. Richards noticed bones protruding from a trench where he was digging the foundation for a horse barn and, after seeing teeth and realizing the bones were human, notified officials.

Police officers, town workers and local historians returned to the site on Osprey Road and unearthed the partial skeletons of at least five people, the Shelter Island police chief, James Read, said.

"There's at least five and, more than likely, more than five individuals," said Dr. Vincent H. Stefan, a forensic anthropologist brought in by the Suffolk County medical examiner's office. By studying jaw structure and dental features, Stefan determined that the skeletons were probably those of local Indians.

The skeletons were arranged on their sides in a fetal position with knees and arms tucked toward their chests, said Stefan, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at Lehman College in the Bronx, N.Y. He said that the skeletons were those of adults and that he hoped a further examination might determine their ages, genders and possibly the cause of their deaths.

Radiocarbon and DNA tests could give further clues to who was buried in the grave and when they died, although the grave is at least 100 years old and could be centuries older, he added.

The remains are probably those of Manhanset Indians, a tribe that settled the island more than 4,000 years ago and were assimilated after the arrival of Europeans, said Beverlea Walz and Louise Green, historians consulted by the police. They said communal graves like the one uncovered this week are rare.

"It's uncommon to have them so close," said Green, 56, Shelter Island's town historian, noting that Indians on the island were usually buried individually in unmarked graves before the 18th century, when burials moved to cemeteries.

Richards and his wife, Susanne, 37, bought the three-acre plot in 1998. It was part of a subdivided estate once owned by the publisher and philanthropist Artemas Ward. The Manhansets occupied villages throughout the island, said Walz, museum curator of the town's historical society. She said an attack by Connecticut tribes, with whom the Manhansets fought frequently, or an epidemic of smallpox or influenza were possible causes for the communal grave.

Members of the Shinnecock Nation from the tribe's Southampton reservation performed a religious ceremony at the grave and asked the Richardsesfor permission to bring in an archaeologist to investigate the extent of the grave.

"We left some offerings of tobacco and sage," said Clay Carle, 40, a member of the Shinnecock tribal council. The Shinnecocks, invited by the Richardses to advise them on what should become of the burial ground, would like to see the skeletons remain where they are while experts determine the site's historical significance, Carle said.

Although Indian relics are commonly found all over the island, residents were amazed at the number of skeletons.

Theresa Andrew, 47, compared the find to a classic horror movie theme and commented, "I don't know if I'd want to live there now."

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