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.
Thomas Smith, the frail, 5-foot-2-inch Buffalo Soldier, whose identity has been established through military records, was a member of Company A of the 125th regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, officials said. Although Smith died of cholera Nov. 21, 1866, Smithsonian anthropologist Doug Owsley, who directed the institution's portion of the probe, said he also suffered from tuberculosis.
Next month, the remains of Smith and the others from Fort Craig -- most of whom, officials said, remain unidentified -- will be reburied with honors in the national cemetery in Santa Fe: at rest, finally, after a hard life and harsh treatment after death in the Old West.
The story of Fort Craig's forgotten dead began with a more recent passing. Four years ago, former Vietnam War fighter pilot Dee Brecheisen of Peralta, N.M., died of Lou Gehrig's disease. Brecheisen, 66, was a retired airline pilot whose hobby was relic hunting.
Several months after his death, a colleague and local historian, Don Alberts, walked into the Albuquerque office of the Bureau of Reclamation and told bureau archaeologists that, many years before, Brecheisen had shown him the remains of a Buffalo Soldier he had dug up from the Fort Craig cemetery and kept in a barrel at his home. Based on a map of the cemetery, Brecheisen identified the remains as those of Smith.
The archaeologists were incredulous and began an investigation.
The crumbling fort had been abandoned in the 1880s, and all the bodies in the cemetery were supposed to have been removed long ago.
But as Brecheisen and other relic hunters apparently discovered, many had been left behind. Investigators heard stories of skulls for sale online. They heard that relic hunters had looted graves at the cemetery. They heard that Brecheisen had several skulls and that he kept Smith's as a "trophy" stored in an ammunition can.
But because Brecheisen was dead, there was little authorities could do but try to retrieve Smith's remains and scour the cemetery for other bodies.
There turned out to be dozens. All were exhumed by the government two years ago and placed in storage. But only Smith's skull could be found -- it was dropped off anonymously for investigators in a paper bag.
The rest of the body remained unaccounted for until last month.
On May 22, Alaina Goff, a University of New Mexico graduate student, was examining Smith's skull at the Smithsonian. She knew there was a chance that Brecheisen had reburied Smith's body but kept his skull.
Four of the skeletons in the lab were missing skulls, and Goff decided to see whether Smith's fit any of them. The first three were much too big. But when she put his skull with the fourth, it matched perfectly. "It absolutely solves the mystery," she said.
And it was fitting, Goff said, that Smith was at last made whole. In a way, she said, the looting at Fort Craig might never have come to light "if it wasn't for him."