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Despite ceremony, N.Y. fort's skeletons not buried

By Chris Carola

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 6 2012 8:12 p.m. MST

--HOLD FOR STORY BY CHRIS CAROLA-- A stone memorial from the 1950s, at left, marks where the remains of an unknown soldier from the French and Indian War lie near the Fort William Henry Memorial Cemetery at Fort William Henry in Lake George, N.Y. Friday, Feb. 3, 2012. The skeletons of French and Indian War soldiers unearthed in an upstate New York in the 1950s were on exhibit for decades, but have not yet been buried as the public had been told. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Associated Press

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. — For decades, tourists visiting this popular Adirondack village could gape at the skeletons of soldiers from nearby French and Indian War sites. Then in 1993, a somber reburial ceremony was held to finally put the remains to rest.

Only that never happened.

Almost all of the 18th-century skeletons were never buried. Instead, the collection of remains eventually was taken to Arizona and Canada for study and has yet to be returned for reburial. In this small upstate New York town that was the real-life setting for the historical events depicted in "The Last of the Mohicans," people had no idea.

"Most of them aren't there?" asked Robert Blais, mayor of Lake George since 1971.

"You're reaching the time when they should come home," said David Starbuck, a New York archaeologist who has written about the history behind Fort William Henry's skeleton collection.

On Memorial Day weekend in 1993, a well-publicized reburial ceremony was held to honor the redcoats and American provincial soldiers whose remains were being reinterred in the cemetery at the fort, a full-scale reconstruction of the outpost the British built here at the outbreak of war in 1755. The original fort was the real-life setting of the historical events in James Fenimore Cooper's classic, "The Last of the Mohicans."

But what fort officials didn't bother to tell the dozens of history buffs, tourists, and local, British and Native American dignitaries at the ceremony was that only three of 15 mostly complete skeletons were actually reburied. The others were still being analyzed by two anthropologists. The fort's owners decided to go ahead with the ceremony anyway.

"We didn't make an issue out of it," said Robert F. Flacke Sr., longtime president of the Fort William Henry Corp., which owns the fort and an adjacent resort hotel.

Those involved in the '93 project said there was no intention to deceive anyone, but a local historian who said he was at the reburial ceremony recalls no public mention being made of a change in plans.

Starbuck, who spoke at the ceremony, said a longer-than-expected analysis that spring, followed by other issues and job changes among the anthropologists, all combined to leave the reburial in limbo. He and others involved in the project didn't bring up the issue at the ceremony, figuring the bones would be returned soon enough.

"It was not intended to drag on this long," said Starbuck, who has conducted several digs at the fort over the past two decades. In the early 1990s, he recommended that the fort's skeletons be removed from exhibits and reinterred after being studied by experts in bioarchaeology, the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites.

Those experts, anthropologists Brenda Baker and Maria Liston, both told the AP they had longstanding agreements with the fort to keep the collections while their studies continued. Neither Baker nor Liston attended the reburial ceremony.

Baker said officials at Fort William Henry haven't asked for the return of the collection, which includes a dozen skeletons from the '93 project and three more uncovered during a follow-up excavation two years later.

"They know where they are and they know what I have and we keep in contact," Baker told the AP.

Though the findings of the anthropologists appeared in professional journals and other publications in the 1990s, few in the public knew where the bones were, including the residents of Lake George, who had long been led to believe the remains were buried there.

But the fort lacks the facilities to properly preserve and store a large collection of full skeletons, and building such a space is cost prohibitive for a seasonal business, Flacke said.

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