What Will Happen to Prehistoric Human Bones Found Under Rochester?
While the remains discovered under Main Street remain in the state's care, history sheds light on where they came from, and the director of a Native American service group explains what should happen next.
Rochester’s Main Street redevelopment has something in common with similar projects under way across the country: workers and on-site archaeologists discovering prehistoric human remains.
In early August, construction workers operating a backhoe in downtown Rochester at the intersection of Third and Main streets hit bone buried just a few feet deep in the ground — hidden for decades under asphalt and concrete.
It’s a story playing out across the country as redevelopment projects and road construction fill the season with orange cones and traffic back-ups.
In June, road workers reconstructing the main thoroughfare through downtown Oak Harbor, Washington, struck a burial site with Native American remains. In July, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas state archaeologist found Native American remains while surveying an area scheduled to become a new section of Houston’s Grand Parkway. Also in July, archaeologists in Onalaska, Wisconsin, found Native American remains under Highway 35 currently under reconstruction.
The discovery in Rochester was surprising but not entirely unexpected. City officials and local history enthusiasts anticipated the unearthing of a slew of historic finds, including evidence of Native American burials in downtown Rochester.
The 173-year rumor
The talk of a Native American burial ground lying beneath portions of downtown Rochester dates back to 1875 when Avon Township pioneer Christian Z. Horton wrote a series of letters to The Rochester Era newspaper recalling the township’s early settlement years from 1825 to 1830.
Horton traveled from Ontario to Avon Township, Michigan, with members of his family and a host of others in 1825. In his letters to the paper 50 years later, Horton recalled interacting with local Native Americans and mentioned at least three burial sites including one in downtown Rochester.1
Horton’s letters were also recorded by the Oakland County Pioneer Association (now the Oakland County Pioneer & Historical Society) and referenced by Samuel Durant in his publication, The History of Oakland County, Michigan, published in 1877.2
In a portion of his book, Durant relied heavily on Horton’s descriptions and memories about Indians in and around Avon Township, appearing to copy Horton’s writings verbatim.
“One burial is on the site now occupied by the store of Mrs. Rollin C. Sprague,” Durant noted in his publication.
“Some five or six persons were buried” at this location, reported Durant.
That store is today’s Home Bakery on the northeast corner of Third and Main streets.
The Old Stone Store
Originally known as the “Old Stone Store,” the Home Bakery building was built in the 1840s and is today the oldest commercial building in downtown Rochester. In early August 1899, the building was remodeled. As workers dug to deepen the building’s cellar they uncovered two skeletons buried under concrete.3
The Rochester Era reported on Aug. 11, 1899, that one skeleton was found with the head facing east while the other skeleton’s head faced west.
“The bones were gathered up and it was not long before the matter was noised about town and a large crowd gathered to view the remains,” the paper stated.
The paper also noted that the skeletons’ teeth indicated “a very old person. No trinkets were found. It has been suggested that the store was on the site of the old Indian burying-ground, but Mr. T. J. Jones, who has been a resident of Rochester for sixty-five years says he never heard of such a thing, the burying-ground being on the Michigan Central railroad east of the village, which was unearthed when the road was put through.”
Despite long-held beliefs that Native American burials existed in the community, the paper’s report dismissed the notion, theorizing instead that the bones were likely “medical subjects placed there by two physicians who forty or fifty years ago did business in the old stone store. It is of course a mystery that will never be solved.”
Flash forward 113 years almost to the day of the 1899 discovery and the town is once again talking about the unearthing of human remains in the same vicinity. But this time, the mystery may finally be solved.
Who has the remains and how old are they?
On Aug. 8, the Michigan Department of Transportation released an official statement about the find in Rochester, explaining that “The remains appear to be from a prehistoric burial as determined from excavations by MDOT’s archaeological consultant,” and that the agency was “consulting with Michigan Indian Tribes about the remains and their proper treatment in accordance with federal and state laws.”
Since the remains were found in the proximity of a state-owned highway, they are currently in the custody of state officials.
“The state has taken the lead to contact the appropriate Native American tribes,” said Rochester City Manager Jaymes Vettraino, who also indicated that the state will issue a final report on the findings in about six months.
“The archaeological team that came out dated bones to prehistoric,” explained Vettraino. “The excavations are done . . . and all material removed from [the site] was screened by archaeologists.”
The term “prehistoric” means before the time of recorded history. While "prehistoric" can refer to any time before humans and all the way back to the beginning of the universe, it most often means any time since the beginning of human existence to the advent of writing in about 3000
While that’s quite an expanse of time, previous archaeological research conducted around Oakland County offers a bit more insight as to the probable and approximate age of the remains.
According to “A Pilot Survey of the Archaeological Resources of Oakland County, Michigan” conducted by Richard B. Stamps and Richard L. Zurel in 1980, evidence from the county’s prehistoric sites date to the “earliest Paleo Indian period, through the Archaic, Woodland and Historic periods “ with the “majority of artifacts appearing to “be from the Archaic period ...“
Retired archaeologist and freelance writer K. Krist Hirst notes, “the Archaic period is the name given to generalized hunter-gatherer societies in the American continents from approximately 8,000 to 2000 years B.C.”
What happens next?
Understandably, a lot of excitement has been elicited from the discovery of ancient remains in Rochester. However, if these remains are Native American in origin, as MDOT’s official statement suggests, they must be treated with the care, respect and dignity befitting a deceased person.
But what exactly happens to the remains now that state officials have exhumed them?
Fay Givens, executive director of American Indian Services in Lincoln Park, Michigan, and a Mississippi Choctaw, explains that the remains can only be reclaimed by a federally recognized Indian tribe which will then hold a ceremony to rebury them.
If the remains can’t be traced to any one tribe, Givens notes, they will likely be turned over to the Inter Tribes Graves and Repatriation Committee whose members represent 12 federally recognized tribes. The committee will then decide which tribe can reclaim the remains for reburial.
Determining which tribe can reclaim the remains depends on certain factors.
“There are a limited number of things they can ascertain from studying remains — among them are diet, age, and illnesses,” said Givens.
But funerary and cultural objects often buried with Native American remains are more likely to help determine from which tribe they originated, since each tribe buried their dead in their own way.
“When a Native American person dies,” Givens explained, “there are a whole lot of things buried with them to carry them to the spirit world.”
Those items, including fabric, can “last a long, long time,” she said.
At this time it’s not clear if funerary objects or any additional cultural items were found with the remains discovered in Rochester.
However, the issue of exhuming Native American remains either accidentally or intentionally during construction projects is, of course, controversial.
“It happens on a fairly regular basis,” said Givens, “about two to three times per year.”
Givens said that the Native American community prefers the remains not be dug up or disturbed at all, but that it’s understood it can and will happen.
“Sometimes there’s a road going through or construction,” she said, indicating that it’s unavoidable.
Still, she pointed out, there is a great disparity between final resting places for Indians and non-Indians.
A burial site “for non-Indians is called a cemetery,” said Givens. If it’s a cemetery with Indians it’s called an archaeological site . . . all [Native American burial sites] should be called a cemetery . . . it would be nice to receive the protections of the cemetery designation.”
For now, it seems the State of Michigan is taking great care to work closely with the Native American community and to ensure the remains found in Rochester are properly returned for reburial.
“For us it’s a very important and sacred thing,” explained Givens, “even when they are being reburied.”
- Durant, Samuel W. History of Oakland County, Michigan (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1877), pp. 132, 140-141.
- http://oaklandregionalhistoricsites.org/property/1514103011. A web site created by the Rochester-Avon Historical Society to document historical resources in the greater Rochester community and Oakland County.