Mysterious Graves Found in Water Reservoir

At least 25 graves discovered after water levels lowered

At least 25 graves were discovered when Texas' record drought lowered water levels at Richland Chambers Reservoir this summer.

The graves are a mystery, but some believe they could belong to former slaves who became sharecroppers for their former masters. They were submerged when the Tarrant County Water Improvement District No. 1 in Fort Worth created the man-made lake in the 1980s.

The Dallas Morning News reports archaeologists and Navarro County historians want the water district to move the graves to a perpetual care cemetery soon, before rain covers them again.

"They are taking too long to get this done," said Bruce McManus, chairman of the Navarro County Historical Commission in Corsicana. "That is my only beef. If they started digging tomorrow, I'd say that's great."

The water district board has authorized hiring of an archeology company to exhume the remains and relocate them. But spokesman Chad Lorance says it's "more complicated than just saying, `Yep, there they are."'

In 2009, boaters spotted a white object on shore and went to investigate, finding a cranium and detached jawbone.

Sheriff's deputies went to the site with Richardson-based archaeologist Alan Skinner. They found a grave in the same location but no evidence of an entire cemetery. The bones appeared to be 100 to 120 years old and consistent with those of an adult male of African descent, but ethnicity was not conclusively established.

A short time later, rains submerged the site.

When water levels went down again this summer, Skinner, under the authority of the water district, returned and found adult bones scattered along the beach.

Later, the shafts of 25 children's graves were discovered on the beach. Square-cut coffin nails suggested the bodies had been buried before 1890. Little is known about the site, and why children were buried separately. Was an entire adult cemetery located nearby? What happened to those graves?

"We've got small wood caskets for children and no full adult caskets, only a few adult bones," Skinner said. "It is an important, unique and unusual discovery."

Skinner and others have bid on the contract to excavate the graves and rebury them in a perpetual cemetery. Skinner estimates the project could cost $150,000 to $200,000, but the contract has not been awarded yet.

Margaret Montgomery Thomas said the graves may have been associated with black farmers who worked for her family in the 19th century.Thomas, 70, says her great-grandfather, Prosper King Montgomery, a white businessman, came to Texas from Mississippi in 1866. He settled in Navarro County as a cotton farmer and cattle rancher.

"I do know that my great-grandfather's house was located very close to where these graves have been found," she said. "It's sketchy, though. I know black people worked for my family and other white families like mine.

"Whoever they were, they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity."

McManus, of the Navarro County Historical Commission, said the water district should rebury any remains in Navarro County.

Lorance, the water district spokesman, said the district wants to see the matter resolved. He said he expects the grave removals and reburials to get under way this month. For the burial site to be submerged again, he said, would be the "worst case scenario."

The reservoir is about 70 miles south of Dallas.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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