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US fort’s 18th-century skeletons closer to return

January 16, 2014

LAKE GEORGE, New York (AP) — Skeletal remains of more than a dozen British soldiers who died during the French and Indian War are expected to be returned this year to upstate New York for reburial near their original resting place on a Colonial American battleground.

The skeletons originally had been buried outside Fort William Henry between its construction in 1755 and its destruction by the French two years, a historical event depicted in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.” The French and Indian War, as the conflict is known in the United States, was part of a larger imperial conflict between Britain and France called the Seven Years’ War.

Two years ago, fort officials publicly acknowledged for the first time that the skeletons had been taken in the late 1990s by an Arizona State University anthropologist.

Fort officials told The Associated Press on Thursday that the anthropologist has completed her research. The 15 mostly complete skeletons likely will be returned to the fort “before the end of the summer,” fort spokeswoman Melodie Viele wrote in an email.

Ongoing construction of a public park adjacent to an area containing the fort’s unmarked military cemetery, estimated by archaeologists to contain more than 1,000 graves, could delay the reburial plans, she said.

“It would be totally irresponsible to bring these skeletons home without either a proper (storage) facility or to be able to return them to their original burial place,” Viele said.

Two years ago, fort officials revealed to the AP that most of the skeletons they said were reburied during a 1993 ceremony actually had been taken by Brenda Baker, an anthropologist who worked on archaeological projects in the fort’s cemetery. Baker told the AP in 2012 that when she moved to Arizona State in 1998, the fort gave her permission to take a dozen skeletons from a 1993 project and three others from a 1995 dig for more study. The remains have been stored at the university since.

Baker was unavailable for comment Thursday. She’s doing archaeological field work in Sudan until April 1, according to her voicemail.

Another anthropologist took boxes of human bone fragments with her when she moved to Canada to teach at a university there. Those remains were returned to the fort last spring, Viele said.

The skeletons were unearthed when the site was reconstructed as a tourist attraction in the mid-1950s. In the decades that followed, they became one of the fort’s most-viewed displays and a sightseeing fixture in Lake George, a popular tourist village 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Albany.

In the early 1990s, the fort decided to no longer display the remains and said it would rebury them after anthropologists studied them. In May 1993, it held a reburial ceremony attended by British, American and Native American officials. No mention was made that the anthropologists’ work hadn’t been completed and not all of the skeletons were being reburied.

When the 2012 AP story revealed the skeletons’ actual whereabouts, some historians who attended the ceremony were angered.

Among them was Paul Loding, a re-enactor and historian for a nearby town. Loding said he sent copies of the AP’s 2012 story to friends in Great Britain, including retired British Army Maj. Jeremy York, whose former unit traces its lineage to a regiment formed during the French and Indian War. Last year, York, 71, wrote a letter to the president of the private company that owns the fort and the neighboring resort hotel, urging him to give the skeletons “a decent burial once more at Fort William Henry.”

When told in a phone call Thursday to his home in Marlborough, west of London, that the skeletons could be heading “home” later this year, York called it “good news.”

“The military is a great brotherhood,” said York, who retired in 1992 after 28 years in the army. “It’s a matter of honor to give a decent burial to these chaps.”

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