Monday, December 9, 2013

Boerner Family Cemetery Project: The Background

Excavations at the Boerner Family Cemetery
I blogged previously about including a fieldwork experience - the Boerner Family Cemetery Project (BFCP) - in my Intro to Archaeology class. While a field project in an intro class is rare (and unprecedented for me), from a research perspective, at least, the BFCP was straightforward.

The land on which the cemetery sits was a timber claim staked by Julius Boerner in 1873. He arrived in Grant County, Minnesota with his extended family, including his wife, children, brothers, and parents. Life was hard for these new settlers. The U.S. government had recently completed the Euro-American conquest of the area (the Dakota Wars had ended only 10 years earlier); access to emergency food and medical care was minimal. Soon, Julius had to consecrate a portion of his land to house the dead. The first burial was that of Norman Boerner, his two-year old son, in 1877. The last burial was of Harvey McCollor, his infant grandson, in 1902. Other known burials at the site include Julius's parents, Fredrick and Christine Boerner, at least one sister-in-law, and numerous children (all grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Fredrick and Christine).

The cemetery before the destruction.
The graves were located in the grove of trees in the
center of the picture (photograph by Scott Boerner)
A number of local families buried loved ones in this ground in the late 1800s, but in the 1910's, many of these graves were moved to nearby Lakeside Cemetery. The Boerners alone remained. We do not know exactly how many people are buried at the site. There are at least ten people resting there, but more graves may have been unmarked or forgotten. For many years, the grove of trees surrounding the graves was a peaceful and contemplative spot, frequented by members of local families, many of them descendants of the Boerners. Even today, it is a lovely area, with a view off to the west of rolling fields and neat farmhouses.

The site after the destruction of the cemetery.
(photograph by Scott Boerner)
About a year ago, the site was bulldozed, and all surface indications of the cemetery disappeared. Not only were the tombstones removed, but the grove of trees around the graves, including a large cottonwood, were also destroyed. The area was, at first glance, nothing but an open field.

The following Spring, I was contacted by a member of the Boerner family. The family would like to restore the site, but this requires relocating the graves in order to replace the headstones (all of the headstones have been recovered by the sheriff's office). The family hoped I could help, and I am glad to do so.

I try to teach my students that archaeology is important, not just for what we learn about people long gone, but for what we learn about ourselves. The study of the past, ultimately, is the study of our own identity and development. The tragic loss of the Boerner Family Cemetery is an example of the power of the past to touch us in the present. But it gave me and my students an opportunity to use our skills to help a local family and the community, to restore a part of their lives that had been lost.

In my next post, I'll discuss the research design for the project.

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