Anthropologists, Historians Return Coffins to Burial Site



Janet Sutton/Free Press
East Carolina University Professor Randy Daniel, Pre-Historic Anthropology, and Professor Charles Ewen and his team of students balance the coffin for reburial Wednesday at Caswell family cemetery off Herritage Street.

Anthropologists, historians return coffins to burial site

September 08,2005

Karen McConkey
Staff writer

Tossing a handful of dirt on the two cast-iron coffins, the Rev. Michael Singer intoned the timeless words uttered at graveside services throughout Christendom: "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

With that, two coffins containing the remains of two women were placed reverently back into the ground where they had resting for more than 150 years.

The coffins were excavated in late July by a team of anthropologists, students and historians. Taken to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, forensic and anthropologic scientists examined and tested the remains. Both of bodies are those of women. Only one has been tentatively identified.

"We are reasonably sure one of the women is Louisa Caroline Hernandez Washington," Martha Mewborn Marble said. Marble, a former Kinston resident, along with Susan Burgess Hoffman, a five-times great-granddaughter of N.C. Gov. Richard Caswell, have pushed for the past four years to get the Smithsonian involved in this historic quest.

Louisa Washington is thought to be the first wife of George Washington, a prominent Kinston resident. Despite what some genealogy experts have hinted, Marble said most local historians agree Lenoir County's Washington family was no kin to the country's founding father, President George Washington.

The Washingtons traveled extensively up and down the east coast until settling in Kinston sometime after 1850, Marble said. Louisa was the daughter of a Joseph Martin Hernandez, Florida's first governor as it became a provisional state.

Birth and death records indicate Louisa most likely died in childbirth, but her child survived. A record of her burial is in the records of St. Mary's Episcopal Church and a tablet there is inscribed with a tribute to her.

"But the records are sketchy, so that's all we know really at this point," Marble said. She plans to continue her quest to learn more about the two women and their lives. "We do know that the people who are buried up here were all members of St. Mary's church," she said.

East Carolina Professor of anthropology Charles Ewen headed up the team of graduate students who excavated the graves and took the coffins to Washington, D.C.

For Ewen, bringing the two women back to their burial ground was unique. "This is the first re-burial I've been part of," Ewen said. "Usually an excavation occurs when the gravesites are threatened in some way, like a highway or road coming through and they have to be relocated."

Mattie Rasberry, a graduate student under Ewen's tutelage, knew in her years as a former Arendell Parrott Academy student that Kinston was a town ripe with history. Being a part of the excavation team and the ensuing studies has been a landmark opportunity for her professionally.

"Actually seeing the bones, seeing a glimpse of life from more than 100 years ago, the experience has been extraordinary," Rasberry said.

Ewen said the bodies of the women were in better condition now than when they were excavated. Water had seeped into the coffins through the faceplates and disarranging the remains. Now they are back in place and the coffins have been reinforced against water and further decay.

Patience being a virtue in their chosen careers, the anthropologists and historians will wait for the final results from the Smithsonian forensics testing.

But for now, the two ladies have ended their travels from Kinston to the nation's capital and back again - earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
A thicket of bamboo will shroud them from intruders as it has for more than 150 years.

"They're back home where they belong," Marble said with a sense of completion.

Karen McConkey can be reached at (252)527-3191, Ext. 232, or kmcconkey@freedomenc.com.

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