Exhumed for football field, unidentified remains may be those of Virginia family

Cordelia Lynn had outlived her husband and many of her children when she died of tuberculosis at age 67 in her home in Washington in 1889.

A widow for many years, she was buried with her family in the tiny graveyard by their old homestead near Independent Hill, south of Manassas, Va.

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There, in simple graves marked only by unmarked field stones, rested her husband, John, who died in 1862; her children, Robert and Annie, who died in 1870 and 1872; and her teenagers, Seymour and Mary, who died within a month of each other in the winter of 1877.

And there they, and other family members, would rest until last month, when they were exhumed by the Prince William County school system to make way for a new high school football field.

Such is the portrait that has emerged in recent weeks since the remains were removed from the overgrown graveyard and local Lynn descendants began voicing their outrage.

The school district, for its part, says it did not know who was buried in the long-abandoned cemetery when it began the exhumation. The district says by the time complaints were made, it was too late to stop the work.

And it notes that the connection to the Lynn family is not definitive.

Local researchers agree. But Don Wilson, the Virginiana librarian at Bull Run Regional Library in Manassas, says mounting evidence indicates that the cemetery was that of the Lynns.

A public meeting to discuss the issue, and where the remains will be reburied, was held Monday evening in Manassas.

Wilson, who has helped research the family, said a key piece of evidence has been the discovery of Cordelia’s obituary in the Leesburg Mirror newspaper.

The obituary noted that she had lived in Prince William County most of her life, except for her last 16 years in Washington.

She was placed in the “family burying ground in Prince William near Independent Hill,” Wilson said the obituary read. Independent Hill is a short distance from where the graveyard was found.

“That’s as specific as you can be as far as indicating that she’s buried on that property,” Wilson said earlier Monday. “That’s the property that she and her husband owned. That’s as much proof as you can hope for in something like this, if there’s no engraved tombstones.”

But Boyd Sipe, an archaeologist and exhumation coordinator, said the minimal “coffin hardware” in some graves suggests burials that may predate the earliest Lynn burial, in 1862. “It’s still not definite,” he said Monday.

Researchers and archaeologists who conducted the exhumation had hoped to extract DNA from surviving bones and teeth to make a biological comparison with descendants. Such a comparison could confirm or rule out a Lynn connection.

“It’s looks extremely unlikely that there will be any” DNA samples, Sipe said. “It’s kind of like a million to one at this point.”

The story began in September, when the school district announced plans to move the cemetery, which it originally said had been discovered in July.

Then, last month, a school official revealed that evidence of the cemetery had been found in 2008 by contractors surveying the site, who, for unknown reasons, didn’t tell the school system until July.

There were 11 graves found in the cemetery, and as work on the site began, researchers poring over old deed books and microfilm quickly traced the land to a 100-acre farm occupied by Cordelia and William Lynn, their numerous children, and their slaves.

The school district said it had to remove the cemetery because nearby wetlands and other protected areas where the football field could have been located were off-limits to construction.

The remains were taken to the Towson University laboratory of Dana Kollmann, a bioarchaeologist who is consulting on the case.

The artifacts were taken to Sipe’s Thunderbird Archaeology in Gainesville, Va.

The remains, artifacts and soil from the graves are tentatively slated to be reburied in Stonewall Memory Gardens, northwest of Manassas, where the school system has bought plots for them.

One Lynn descendant, Carolyn Lynn of Manassas, has said that the remains should be buried as close as possible to where they were laid to rest originally.

“I think they have the right to be buried were they lived and died,” Lynn said Monday night.

The school district said the Stonewall cemetery would be the most affordable, but it had another location under consideration on the high school grounds that is northwest of and not far from the original site.

 
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