Experts at the Smithsonian Institution Solve Mystery of Buffalo Soldier Remains

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

He was little more than a teenager, about 19 or 20 years of age. Small and slight for warfare on the frontier, he had the delicate facial bones of a boy and had likely once been a slave.

He was a Buffalo Soldier: one of the legendary African American members of the U.S. Army who served at remote and Godforsaken military outposts in the years after the Civil War.

But his grave outside an abandoned New Mexico fort had been violated. His bones were scrambled. And investigators believe his skull, still with most of its hair, became a relic hunter's trophy before it was returned to authorities in a paper bag.

Last month, experts working at the Smithsonian Institution matched the young man's skull with a skeleton exhumed from the fort's cemetery, solving a gruesome mystery of looted graves, purloined artifacts, and life and death on the old frontier.

It was part of a project of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and federal land, water and law enforcement agencies looking into the decades-long ransacking of the cemetery outside Fort Craig, in New Mexico.

Federal officials shipped 39 sets of well-preserved remains by rented van last month from New Mexico to Washington. Scientists pored over the bones with microscopes, CT scanners, X-ray machines and digital measuring devices for insights into the lives of the fort's dead.

The study yielded what experts said were clues to the isolated existence at Fort Craig from the 1850s to the 1880s at the edge of a broiling, wind-swept region called Jornado del Muerto -- roughly translated, the journey of the dead.

A John Wayne cavalry movie it was not.

In addition to the harsh conditions and frontier warfare, there were murders, suicides, fatal accidents and disease: typhoid, cholera, dysentery and smallpox, among others.

The bones of one woman -- burial No. 33 -- revealed the ravages of what was probably advanced syphilis. The spines of men in the cavalry were deteriorated from long hours in the saddle. And several skulls bore gunshot wounds, most likely the result of a bloody Civil War battle nearby.

"The fort was like a little city," said Marion Cox Grinstead, a New Mexico researcher who has written about the site. There were men, women and children; black, white and Hispanic. There were soldiers, scouts, butchers, bookkeepers, clerks, servants, doctors and washerwomen, from as far away as Ireland, Germany and Wales.

"What we're looking at here is a portion of the population at a time in history that has not been studied well," said Mark Hungerford, a New Mexico archaeologist with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the lead agency handling the case.

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