The bones of Mississippi County are calling, and the dead unearthed in the floods of 2011 appear to be from Southeast Missouri's ancient tribal communities.
Several weeks after bone fragments were first discovered near the north end of the blown Birds Point-New Madrid levee, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and state archaeologists have taken the lead in uncovering who the remains belong to. Perhaps it's too early to tell if the search, now reportedly involving the Oklahoma-based Osage Nation American Indian tribe, could delay the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilding of the breached levee.
On June 18, Mark Seesing, funeral director at Ford and Sons Funeral Home and member of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association's Disaster Response Team, traveled to the 6.5-acre site, prepared to flag and mark via GPS a reported 20 to 25 bone fragments. Before a heavy rain fell and reduced the site to ankle-deep mud, Seesing said he and his teenage son had marked 143 fragments -- ranging from 1-inch by 1-inch chips to jaw fragments to a nearly complete femur.
"These were some very old bones, with very dark colors. That means that they've probably been there for quite some time," Seesing said.
During the torrential rains, Seesing did some research at the county library. He found out there was not a cemetery near the site, so the early consensus is that the bone fragments were either from an early Missouri homesteader family or from a native burial mound. He said it's more than likely the force of the corps' explosions when breaching the levee in early May and drowning the floodway land disinterred the bones and washed them to the other side of the levee.
Seesing said that by the time he returned to the site, jurisdiction had been bumped from Mississippi County Coroner Terry Parker to the state. Judith Deel, archaeologist with the DNR's State Historic Preservation Office, is leading the effort, Parker said, with the assistance of FEMA, the corps of engineers and other state officials.
Parker said some pottery and other relics were discovered at the site, further indication that the bone fragments were from a native tribal community.
Deel could not be reached for comment Monday, and a DNR official said she was not familiar enough with the case to comment.
Don Otto, executive director of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, said that representatives from the Osage Nation were meeting with state archaeologists about the disinterred bones in Mississippi County. The lead archaeologist for the tribe could not be reached for comment Monday, but an Osage official did say she was in Missouri.
The Mississippi valleys around Southeast Missouri are filled with burial mounds, from ancient civilizations to early white explorers to family plots. A federally recognized tribe, the Osage had deep roots in Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma by the mid-17th century. There are plenty of Civil War dead buried in and around the floodway, too.
Otto said federal, state and local officials had made preparations for the possibility of disinterment in the days leading up to and after the corps' detonation of the levee. The planning, he said, was exceptional.
"The first two weeks in May we had phone conference calls every morning dealing with the Birds Point situation and how it might affect cemeteries and human remains," he said. The National Guard, the corps, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, Mississippi County's coroner, FEMA and others were part of the discussion, Otto said.
It could take months to identify the remains and properly bury them, particularly if there are federal and tribal guidelines that must be followed.
Corps spokesman Jim Pogue said the agency's archaeologist working the case was not in the office late Monday, so he could not say whether the morbid discovery would slow down the corps' efforts to rebuild the levee. There is some concern that the levee was built on top or near old burial mounds.
"There are certainly mitigation efforts that will need to take place, but as to whether or not they can be done parallel with the work, I honestly don't know," Pogue said. "With regard to cultural artifacts, that can take place in several different ways based on the tribal group involved."
The ultimate goal, Seesing said, is to reinter the remains where they belong, respecting the dead every step of the way.
"That's what we're in the business to do, put these things back in a respectful manner," he said.
Mississippi County, MO