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Meet the team trying to identify the state’s surprisingly large cache of unidentified remains

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
The remains in question are those have have been found over the years in unmarked graves as land was developed around the state for businesses, apartment complexes or homes. These bones were donated to the university for research and study.

Susan Myster can learn a lot about a person from their bones, even if some bones say more than others. 

If Myster could get only one bone from an entire skeleton, she would want a specific piece of the pelvic bone — or the “gold mine bone,” as she calls it. From the pelvis alone, Myster can determine the gender and age of the bone’s owner when they died, and sometimes, if they’d ever had children or certain diseases. Whatever she can’t gather from that bone, Myster can learn using other key pieces of a skeleton: the skull, teeth, even certain leg bones.

It’s a macabre skill, but it’s part of Myster’s job. A forensic scientist and a professor at Hamline University, she’s the only certified forensic anthropologist in the state, a distinction that’s led her to some grisly scenes. She’s been called by medical examiners to investigate possible homicides, and been asked to identify the remains at the scene of a house fire. In 2016, she was the person investigators summoned to a pasture near Paynesville to identify the bones of Jacob Wetterling, who had been missing for nearly 27 years. 

It’s Myster’s latest job that finds her in an unexpected partnership, though — with the state of Minnesota. Last May, state legislators passed a funding bill that included more than $100,000 but little description — other than to identify and bury human remains currently in the state’s possession.

The remains in question are those that have been found over the years in unmarked graves as land was developed around the state for businesses, apartment complexes or homes. By law, any remains identified as belonging to American Indians are sent to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, while all non-Indian remains more than 50 years old are transferred to the state archaeologist.

For years, that’s where they stayed, until now. As part of the bill approved by lawmakers, Myster is teaming up with the state archaeologist and a self-trained historian to examine as many as 100 different sets of remains in the state’s possession — all in the hopes of giving those people back their names. 

A pitch for the bones

Finding the office of the state archaeologist is an expedition in itself. It’s located on the campus of historic Fort Snelling, just off Highway 55 in St. Paul, in the fort’s history center building. 

But to get to the center, you first have to drive to an open surface parking lot where’s there’s not a building in sight. “Walk towards the obelisk at the river outlook,” directs Amanda Gronhovd, Minnesota’s archaeologist. From the obelisk, a ramp leads down to the entrance of building that’s basically buried underground. It’s a fitting setting for Gronhovd, a lifelong archaeologist, whose office is filled with filing cabinets and boxes of artifacts piled to the ceiling. 

The state has had an archaeologist since the 1960s, when lawmakers passed the Field Archaeology Act, which banned unlicensed practitioners from conducting archaeological investigations on state sites. Part of Gronhovd’s job is to review and approve archaeologists who can work on state sites, but she also works with government agencies to make sure they don’t disrupt any historic sites or burial grounds when embarking on construction projects.

Susan Myster
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Susan Myster is the only certified forensic anthropologist in Minnesota.

To do that, Gronhovd keeps a list updated of all cemeteries in Minnesota and consults with state agencies. But people have lived — and died — in Minnesota longer than the state kept a record of cemeteries, so remains are still sometimes found unexpectedly. When that happens, the first step is to make sure the remains are not potential evidence in an active homicide investigation. The state must also determine whether the remains are American Indian, which are not handled by the state, and if they are more than 50 years old. If so, they say in the state’s possession. 

For years, though, there was no plan in place as to what to do next for the bones the state kept. “We don’t have any money, or consistent funding for, ‘OK, we found this person, now we need to do something with them,’” Gronhovd said. “So … they would just go into drawers.”

But Gronhovd and other state officials had an idea: Ask legislators to jumpstart a project to identify the bones. They would identify the bones, find living relatives, or at the very least, give the remains a proper burial. Last year, they took the pitch to legislators who were considering a package of projects to fund with the state’s Legacy Amendment, which was passed in 2008 as a tax increase to pay for arts, conservation and cultural heritage projects.

Amanda Gronhovd
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Part of Amanda Gronhovd’s job is to review and approve archaeologists who can work on state sites.

One of those lawmakers, Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, was shocked to learn the state had unidentified human remains sitting in storage. As chair of the committee that puts together the Legacy Funding bill, he was quick to support the project. “It would be proper to do something with them,” Urdahl said. “Nothing’s happened for a heck of a long time.”

But Gronhovd hopes that the money will allow the state to do more than just identify and rebury the current remains. She hopes the project can lead to a system that would allow the state to deal with any remains discovered, long into the future. “These are humans who had families and they were loved and these people were put in the ground in a way that was respectful and caring,” she said. “For us to come along and dig them up and just throw them off to the side, it’s not OK. We need to have a system in place.”

‘Who doesn’t like a good mystery?’

Jeremy Jackson isn’t an archaeologist or expert in human remains, but he was also pulled into the project because of bones.

A employee recruiter by trade, Jackson grew up in Brainerd hearing stories about the “Blueberry War.” In 1872, 22-year-old Ellen McArthur left her home to walk to Crow Wing Village, a settlement near what’s now Brainerd, but she never made it there. Her family assumed she drowned in the river along the way, and the issue wasn’t brought up again until several months later, when someone accused two men, brothers who were part Ojibwe, of killing McArthur.

The men were eventually lynched by an angry mob before the case could go to trial, even though some believed the two men were forced into making false confessions. After the lynching, a large number of American Indians made their way to the town, setting off panic among the settlers that the tribal members wanted revenge. The fear even caused the governor to call out the militia to protect villagers, the first time in state history that had ever been done. But the alarm was unneccessary. The native group had come to town to sell blueberries.

Jackson’s passion project became trying to figure out exactly what happened to McArthur, whose bones were discovered five years after the lynching, near where one of the men had confessed to burying them. Other bones found at the men’s encampment turned out to be the burned bones of a deer. 

“Who doesn’t like a good mystery?” Jackson said. “I thought the human-remains aspect of it would bother me, but it’s the exact opposite. It’s made it more of a passion for me. It’s something that’s missing that I wanted to do. I wanted to be an archaeologist as a kid but I went into business, so I feel like now I’m making up for it.”

Jeremy Jackson
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Jeremy Jackson: “I wanted to be an archaeologist as a kid but I went into business, so I feel like now I’m making up for it.”

Working on the case is how Jackson met Myster, who had a chance to examine photos of McArthur’s remains. He wanted her input on what could have happened to the girl based on her bones. Myster wanted to know what Jackson was able to figure out with his methods of research, which included poring through historical documents he could find on the internet. Both were impressed with the other’s ability to discover a lot with very little information. “I couldn’t believe how much he could find through records online, and so quickly too,” Myster said. 

Myster suggested they try teaming up on a couple of test cases, including a skeleton discovered in Hastings, Minnesota, during construction of a CVS Pharmacy. From the Hastings skeleton’s pelvic bone, Myster could tell the bones belonged to a woman who died sometime in her mid 20s or early 30s. The woman had borne children, and despite her young age, had developed arthritis.

Using that information, Jackson went to work. He learned that European settlers started arriving in Hastings around 1853, and the woman had likely been buried not long after that, before formal cemeteries were established. That put her time of death sometime before May 1856. A search of all recorded female deaths in the Hastings area between 1853 and May 1856 turned up only one woman who fit the biological profile Myster had established examining the bones: Susan Twitchell Fox. Using reverse genealogy, within days, Jackson had tracked down potential living descendants.

“The internet has become a very powerful tool,” Jackson said. “So literally, I had most of this within 48 hours.” 

‘There’s still a lot of people out there’

Myster is at home in her lab at Hamline University, a classroom filled with long tables and a wall of large drawers, many of which contain human bones.

Most of the bones in her lab were donated over the years, tools Myster uses to train the next generation of forensic investigators. Others are a part of the human remains project. Myster moves from one drawer to the next, carefully picking up certain bones and describing what she learned from each one. 

There are plenty of other mysteries Myster, Jackson and state archaeologist Gronhovd are still working to solve with the state’s human remains, and not all will be resolved as quickly as the case of the Hastings woman.

In one drawer lie the remains of an unidentified person found in a privy near Faribault, Minnesota. From the bones, Myster was able to determine that they belonged to a man who didn’t live beyond his 20s. He likely died of natural causes sometime in the 1800s, but the skull showed signs that the body might have undergone some kind of an autopsy. The young man had a hard life, Myster said, pointing to unusual indents in the man’s leg bone near the joints, likely made over a long period of time and due to a lot of hard labor. 

He had a sad end, dying young, his body thrown in a privy pit after his demise. The team working on the human remains project want him — not to mention the dozens of others whose bones remain with the state — to have their names back, and maybe, a dignified end.

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, was shocked to learn the state had unidentified human remains sitting in storage. These bones were donated to the university for research and study.

For Myster, the project represents a continuation of a lifetime of work. When she started working at Hamline right after graduate school, she worked with a nationwide project to help identify skeletal remains across the nation. It’s overwhelming to think how many thousands of individuals there were unidentified back then, Myster said, and how many remains still need to be identified today. 

“The more I got involved with that, the more I wanted to do that sort of work,” she said. “There’s still a lot of people out there, where we don’t know who they are.”

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