Remains of the Day

Colorado's future ran headlong into its past on a dusty piece of land north of Pueblo last month.

A bulldozer driver preparing the ground for a new Wal-Mart store unearthed a grave site within view of Interstate 25. At first he thought he'd found animal bones. But when he saw two skulls and the fragments of a coffin, he stopped and told a supervisor, who called police.

Since then the site has been investigated by the Pueblo County coroner, the office of the state archaeologist and a forensic anthropologist from the Denver Museum of Natural History. The experts agree that the four sets of human remains they've found--two male and two female--came from a small burial plot on a family farm. And they agree on something else: As development reaches farther into land once used for farms, stagecoach stops and wagon-train rest points, bulldozers will unearth more and more Colorado pioneers.

"The more Wal-Marts we put up in remote areas, the more we are going to be digging up family plots," says Diane France, director of the Human Identification Laboratory at Colorado State University.

It was fairly common to bury relatives "right on the farm," especially in the days before World War II, notes Robert Pickering, a forensic anthropologist at the Denver Museum of Natural History. And it was equally common for gravestones and other identifying markers to succumb to the elements once families moved on. In the Pueblo case, work crews saw no sign of a graveyard on the property. According to Richard Lipich, a coroner's investigator and detective with the Pueblo Police Department, that may be because floods swept through the Fountain River Valley in 1921, 1935 and again in 1965.

"The earth has changed considerably over the years," says Lipich. Even granite markers could have been swept away in the flood of 1921, whose muddy fingerprints are all over the site: Work crews found a thick layer of black muck in an even band over the recently discovered graves. Even if the grave sites weren't flooded, Lipich adds, they may have been marked with wooden markers, which disintegrate over time.

Authorities are now working to identify the remains, and it isn't just a historical exercise. If it turns out that they're more than 100 years old, the bones will become the property and responsibility of the state. That's because a state law passed in 1990 calls for the state archaeologist to take all human remains over 100 years old and, if they can't be identified or a next of kin can't be found, make them a part of the state's collection. (The rules are different for remains belonging to an American Indian; in those cases, the archaeologist still investigates, but federal authorities are also involved, and the remains may be turned over to an existing tribe.)

Authorities have already learned a few things about the Wal-Mart Four. There's some evidence, for instance, that they had more money than the average person living near Pueblo around the turn of the century. One of the men, who was between the ages of 35 and 50, had an expensive denture. The two women, both in their early twenties, had amalgam fillings.

Authorities are researching land records and death certificates as part of their probe. They've determined that the property where the bodies were found was used as a farm from 1915 to 1969. They've also identified the families that lived there, but all those people are accounted for. The last farmer was Clyde Pitcock, who worked the land until his death in 1969. His estate sold the 100-acre farm to Vince Baker in 1972. Baker tried to farm it for one season but quickly gave up the notion of scraping a living out of the brittle dirt. "I farmed it one year. That was enough," he says.

Even when he owned the land, Baker says, he never saw any evidence of graves. He tried to turn the land into a mobile-home park but never got the necessary permission and finally sold it a couple of years ago to a Texas development firm, which landed the Wal-Mart deal.

The fact that the whereabouts of the farm's known residents have been determined means the burial plot must have been created before 1915--perhaps even before 1898. If that's the case, the state's 100-year rule will swing into effect, and the remains will become the responsibility of state archaeologist Susan Collins. Because Colorado's population grew rapidly around the turn of the century, notes Collins, an increasing number of grave sites are likely to fall under her purview.

If a grave is less than 100 years old, however, it becomes the responsibility of the county coroner, who gets the job of reinterring the remains in a city cemetery. "It would be, I think, unethical to do anything else," says Pueblo County Coroner James Kramer.

And it's something Kramer already has experience with. He will soon begin to rebury the remains of more than 100 bodies discovered on the grounds of the state mental hospital in 1992. The bodies appear to be those of people who died in the hospital and were not claimed. No records were kept of their names.

Kramer, who notes that he and Collins's office are "having a little professional difference of opinion" about just when the Wal-Mart Four met their maker, is hoping the state will take over this latest set of remains. But that's not likely. A report written by assistant state archaeologist Kevin Black says that because there was still some hair on one of the skulls and because another one of the skulls had a pink dental insert that had not completely degraded, the remains are probably less than 100 years old. "All of this suggests that there's not a lot of antiquity," Black says. "But it does fit in a gray area."

Black also discovered remnants of coffins, though they had been crushed and were barely recognizable. He recovered a few of the hinges and knobs from the caskets and may be able to use those to determine the date of manufacture. But even if the coffins turn out to have been made prior to 1898, there's no way of knowing when they were actually put into use.

While Kramer and Black don't agree on the exact age of the bodies, they do agree that it's something of a miracle the remains were found in the first place. "This was a huge bulldozer," Kramer says, adding that one scoop could have easily obliterated the evidence. If the crew hadn't reported the find, not only would the bodies have been lost forever, but the workers would have been breaking the law, which requires that all human remains be reported to authorities. "That crew deserves a lot of credit for reporting this," says Lipich. "They could have easily kept digging, and nobody would have been the wiser."

Whoever laid the Wal-Mart Four to rest broke no law. In fact, even today state law doesn't specifically prevent anyone from burying human remains wherever they want, even in their backyards. Getting a permit from the state or the county, though, can be difficult. Under current rules, for instance, before even one body can be buried in a new graveyard, the state health department has to certify that the remains won't contaminate water supplies. The grave site must also be registered with the state to avoid the kind of confusion authorities are untangling right now outside of Pueblo.

Wal-Mart spokesman Keith Morris says that as far as the company knows, this is the first time in its 3,000-store history that a facility will be built where bodies were once laid to rest. Morris adds that while Wal-Mart has taken pains to cooperate with local authorities, excavation work for the new store has resumed and construction is back on schedule.

The remains, meanwhile, are at Kramer's office, awaiting their final resting place. And the effort to identify them continues. Notes the natural history museum's Pickering, "We'd sort of like to bury them with their names on the headstones."

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Scott C. Yates