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Human bones uncovered in Old Mission, Michigan | Jane Boursaw Photo

As we reported in September, human bones were discovered in the village of Old Mission while Old Mission Peninsula resident Jeff Manigold was digging an irrigation ditch in a vineyard next to the Old Mission General Store.

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We now have a bit more information about those Old Mission bones, which were sent to the Medical Examiner and Forensic Services office at Western Michigan University. Following is a conversation with Jered Cornelison, a forensic anthropologist who’s been studying the bones. Read on for more details, including gender, age, and a surprising find along with the bones.

Jane: I know you’ve been studying the bones since they arrived there a few months ago. What can you tell us? Do we know any more about who it was?

Jered: We probably don’t know who it was. We do know it was Historic (from the early 1600s on) and not Prehistoric (pre-colonization of Michigan). We uncovered quite a few coffin nails, and there was a pretty apparent contrast in the soil along the edge of the burial that indicated this female was in a casket at one time. There were two really dark lines on either side – it wasn’t as clear at the top; the soil was kind of muddled and not as clear on top – but everything pointed to an individual who’d been buried with the arms crossed around the chest area. So, it looks like a purposeful burial. We were able to identify one small fragment of coffin material wood, but that was about it. It had pretty much completely decomposed. It had been there long enough for that to happen.

Jane: Do we know when the burial took place, and whether it was a Native American?

Jered: We’ve had cases like this in the past, where we’re trying to distinguish Native American from historic non-Native American, and in this case, unfortunately, all of the parts of the skull that we would use to assess ancestry were no longer present. They had decomposed, and the bone and skull were in pretty rough condition, so we’re not able to comment on ancestry. We know it’s Historic, so it could be Native American, or it could just be another settler in the area.

Jane: So, you can’t really say how old it is?

Jered: Probably more than 100 years old. The lower portion of the skeleton had been dug up by the backhoe, but basically everything from just above the waist up was still in place, where it was when it was originally buried. So that, along with finding the edge of the burial pit, helped us to determine that it was Historic and probably more than 100 years old. But it could be much longer.

Jane: Can you determine anything by the nails or fragment of the coffin you were able to recover?

Jered: I’m going to try to get an archeologist or a historian to look at the nails and clean them up. They’re really rough, and not super clear. It’s that kind of rust that expands in different areas, so you don’t really know the shape, but they appear to be square top nails. And nail styles changed through time, even though people tended to make their own nails. But that’s not going to answer the important question of who, unless there were records kept for where a cemetery may have been in the area. My sense is that there’s not.

Jane: That was my next question, because we heard someone mention that there may have been a cemetery there.

Jered: The historian in me still wants to figure that out. From my perspective, where the body was buried was sort of what you would expect for a cemetery type location. It was not right at the town site or at the mission site, but kind of on a hill and away from the lake. But it could have been a family plot, as well.

Jane: What else can you tell us about the burial?

Jered: Shortly after we got back to the lab, we realized there was a second individual represented by a part of a pelvis, and that represented probably a two- to five-year-old individual. That’s not to say that it actually came from that burial pit. That bone was found in the piles of dirt on the side of the pit, so it very well could have come from another location or close to that burial. But we can’t say for sure whether or not it was in the coffin with the female.

Jane: Wow! That’s interesting.

Jered: Yeah, it was kind of a surprise to me. I was surprised that we didn’t see it initially, but we had some MSP (Michigan State Police) officers helping us and other people from the sheriff’s department, as well as the medical examiner’s office. So, people were collecting things that looked like bone from the pit, as well as from the piles of dirt along the edge of the pit.

Jane: Do we know how old the female was?

Jered: The main parts that are used to determine age – in the pubic region where the pubic bones come together – was destroyed. The other very reliable area we use to determine age is the end of the rib that connects with the sternum, and those were completely destroyed. It’s not super reliable, but you can use cranial sutures, and what happens typically in older people is those sutures that are separate bones can fuse. They can either be completely fused and obliterated – so you can’t even see that there was actually a suture there – or they can be partially fused, where the bones are either fused on one side, or the inside of the bone and the outside of the bone. Hers were based on a suture closure, so we estimate her age to be between 24 and 49 years.

She also didn’t have a whole lot of evidence of arthritis, which could put her more on the younger side, but she did have really marked dental wear – dental wear that you wouldn’t see in modern people, because historically, people used stones to grind up their grains and corn and things like that, and invariably, that grit ends up in the diet and tends to wear down the teeth much faster than it does in a modern diet. So, the tooth wear also indicates that this is Historic and not a modern individual.

Jane: What do you mean by Historic and Prehistoric?

Jered: Prehistoric is before colonization of Michigan. In a recent case that I worked for Mecosta, which was Native American, we determined that it was somewhere after 1500, probably after 1600 in Michigan. It’s different depending on where you are in the state. If you’re on one of the lakes, I suspect that the time period may be earlier, because you had French and British and Native Americans along the edges of the lake. But I believe I saw a record where the first person in the region, the first white man from Europe was in the early 1600s around Mackinaw. So Prehistoric would be a situation where you wouldn’t find any historic remnants like a coffin and nail. Then my report would read, ‘Could be Prehistoric or Historic.’

Jane: And when does Historic begin?

Jered: Probably somewhere in the early 1600s, but if you’re looking for a date between when Historic and Prehistoric would be for the Grand Traverse area, I don’t know the specific answer to that.

Jane: Is there anything that would indicate whether the child was hers?

Jered: There may be, but it would require genetic testing. If this were a case of forensic importance – a modern medical examiner case as opposed to one that’s not of medical or legal interest – then that’s something we would have done. It’s a possibility, though, that the child is hers.

Jane: My family actually owned this property at one time. I think my dad bought it sometime in the 1960s.

Jered: (Laughs) Oh, so you’re calling to find out whether or not your family murdered somebody.

Jane: Well, it’s curious! I mean, obviously, we never had any indication that there were any bodies there.

Jered: Well, trust me, it goes way back before that. And also, I don’t know how long the cherry orchards were there or how far back they go, but there were a lot of cherry tree roots that permeated the ground all the way down to the burial.

Jane: That makes sense, because my dad was probably the first one to plant cherries there. Again, that would have been in the 1960s. I remember there being an outhouse right in the area where the bones were found. I think the outhouse was probably there when my dad bought the property. Since we don’t really know if there was a cemetery there, did you kind of dig around in the dirt to see if there were other bodies buried in that area?

Jered: No, I walked the edge of the pit to examine the piles that were there, it was maybe 140 to 150 feet of ditch that was dug. So I did take a walk along the edge of that to see if I could see anything else, and I didn’t see anything obvious.

Jane: What can you tell us about the soil there?

Jered: Well, that’s interesting, because depending on where they’re buried, it’s going to determine how well preserved things are and for how long. The layer that she was laying on … imagine if you were a settler digging a hole, and you get down about three feet and all of a sudden you hit this really hard layer. You’re probably going to stop because a) it’s deep enough, and b) this stuff is really hard to dig through. So, you had several sandy and kind of gravely layers, and then you had a clay layer, a really hard pan, just super dense layer underneath her. I think that layer held some of the moisture instead of it being able to drain through the bones and into the ground water. I got the impression that the water kind of pooled there.

When you look inside of the skull – inside of it because the face was missing – there’s a really nice line around the inside where it indicates almost like a level, where the back of the skull was deeper and the front of the skull was shallower. The bone is really well preserved in the back of the skull, and as you go towards the front of the skull, it’s really weathered. So, I was thinking that possibly, the water may have preserved parts of the skeleton better than others. That was kind of an interesting finding when we were doing our analysis. Clearly, it was right at some zone between good preservation and not so good preservation, which is why most of the ribs didn’t make it, and we just had a few fragments. It was even sort of coming apart in the lab as we were cleaning it up.

Jane: How far down were the bones found?

Jered: About 20 to 24 inches down to the actual skeletal remains. When they were digging that trench, it seems like it was almost 30 inches to the bottom of it.

Jane: Is that normal for a burial of that era?

Jered: In Historic burials, yes. That’s why in a lot of photos of old historic burials, you see a pretty good heap of soil above it, because by the time you put the casket in there, you don’t have enough room to put all that soil back in. So typically, in my experience, two or three feet is what you get. It was only after modern legislation when they started requiring people to bury to a certain depth, and that happened in the 1940s to 1950s. It was in the middle to late 1950s when they started requiring a concrete vault.

Jane: How far down are they required to bury now?

Jered: It has to be six feet to the bottom of the vault. We have very specific rules and regulations on how deep they have to be and what you have to use, primarily because of all the preservative that are used. People don’t necessarily want it in their ground water. That’s why caskets have kind of a protective shield from the elements, depending on where you are in the world.

Jane: Do you get a lot of these types of bones?

Jered: This fall, yeah. We just did that one for Mecosta and then this one, and we get a lot of skeletal portions that come in, like parts of a vault or people working under a house or digging up foundation. We can’t always determine whether or not they’re Historic or Prehistoric based on a part of a skeleton, because skeletons can weather given the right environment. So, typically, we enter them as unidentified cases and send a sample of DNA to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System in Texas, where they do a DNA profile. If we suspect that it’s Prehistoric, we get those carbon dated. It’s about $350, which is rather cheap compared to the resources that are used for DNA. And you’re putting it in a database (the National Missing and Unidentified System) where it really doesn’t belong, where there’s a possibility that they could be identified. We’ve done one carbon dating on a skeleton from Mecosta, and it came back 1543. Prehistoric, and the skull indicated that it was Native American.

Jane: What happens to the bones now, and what do you do with the information?

Jered: Well, we’re not really sure what we’re going to do now. I would like to try to answer some of the questions that you have, regarding who possibly this could belong to, is there a family, and potentially, is there a family in the area who could be genetically linked? But then the question becomes, who pays for the genetic testing? We’ve already determined that it’s not of a medical or legal interest or concern, and so most likely, the medical examiner’s office is not going to pay for that.

Jane: How much would it cost?

Jered: It depends on the quality of the bones. If bone isn’t preserved well enough – and sometimes you can’t just look at the bones because of DNA degradation, where the genetic profile decomposes and parts are deemed incomplete – then you turn to mitochondrial DNA, which can be really expensive. Basically, that will determine the maternal ancestor, because mitochondrial is handed down through the mother. I can answer your questions, but I just don’t have the prices right now.

Jane: Would this be done through your office?

Jered: There’s a gentleman who might be interested in helping out with this, David Foran from Michigan State University. He does a lot of our DNA identification and mitochondrial DNA. It’s one of the few labs in the country that does mitochondrial DNA, so that might be worth pursuing. He would look at the bones and tell you what would be best. He trains forensic biologists, the folks who work in crime labs doing DNA identification. I think nuclear DNA testing is typically running around $300.

Jane: What happens now to the info that you’ve gathered?

Jered: Technically, I work for the medical examiner’s office, so my report goes into the file in the medical examiner’s office, and I also sent it to the sheriff’s department, because they wanted a copy of the report. From here, most likely, the bones will probably stay here until we figure out something, and they’re just here for study. There’s really no home for them right now. It would be kind of cool if we could find the family. Do you have any people you can talk to?

Jane: I wish my dad was still around. He was a local historian and he’d be a great person to ask, along with owning the property at one time.

Jered: If you find anything out about potential families, I’d like to talk about it, get hold of David Foran and try to figure out where we come up with the money.

Jane: I wonder if this is something the Old Mission Peninsula Historical Society might want to take on.

Jered: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering too. Some interested party to help build a history. What did they do? Who were they? Where did they come from? What were they doing in Old Mission? All of those things that we can’t always answer with the skeleton. But there are certain things we can answer – like this person was put in the ground in a very respectful manner, a very purposeful manner, in a nice coffin, arms crossed across the chest. It was done probably with family. These are all things we read into it as human. Looking at that scene, we know that she wasn’t randomly thrown into this pit. She was intentionally placed, and her burial was most likely intentional in terms of the location, whether it be a family cemetery, family property, or a formal cemetery. We know that whoever did it, did it intentionally and with respect.

Jane: It makes it harder when we don’t know exactly how long she’s been there. But maybe we could go back and figure out who owned the land, as far back as we can go anyway.

Jered: And again, I am not opposed to that, if we could come up with the money. Because the problem is, we can’t justify the expense from a medical examiner’s perspective. But I’m not opposed to it if somebody came to me and said, here’s $350, can you send it to the lab and get it tested? For sure. So I think all things are possible. We just need to figure out what you can do outside of the medical examiner’s jurisdiction.

Jane: Well, I’m a member of the Historical Society, and we’re having our Christmas potluck tomorrow night, so I’ll bring it up.

Jered: There we go. And in the meantime, I’ll run it by Dr. deJong, the medical examiner, to make sure that we can get the tests done, either genetic or carbon dating. I’ll let you know. I’ll send you an email.

Jane: Sounds good. And thanks so much for all your time. I sure appreciate it, and it’s super fascinating.

Jered: Oh, it is. I love these things, because in a way, it’s sad, but if we do our analysis and handle the remains in a respectful manner, then we make the best of a bad situation. And unlike a lot of the cases we work with, this is an inadvertent discovery and a person who was put in the ground intentionally and respectfully.

Jane: And we know that Peter Dougherty built the Dougherty home just down the road, like a half-mile away, and that was in 1842, I believe. So we have that historical benchmark to work with.

Jered: Right, and it was a mission long before it was actually a county. I have dates that go back to 1839, when John Fleming and Peter Dougherty arrived in the harbor, and I believe that’s right around the time when the mission was established.

Jane: Well, thank you so much again. It’s just a wealth of information, and I’ll pass the word along to the historical society and we’ll go from there.

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Old Mission Church, 1842, located near the current site of the log church replica on Mission Road

2 COMMENTS

  1. Jane, Those old plats I showed you 2 summers ago I purchased from OMP Clerk’s office. They’re out of my reach for now but I’m sure the originals are still with that office. Most interesting stuff for us old timers! P…

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