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Starting next year, researchers will seek relatives of long-lost Oakwood Cemetery residents

The Oakwood Chapel during renovations in 2017.
Gabriel C. Pérez
The Oakwood Chapel during renovations in 2017.

City officials say genetic testing of 35 Austinites buried at Oakwood Cemetery more than a century and a half ago is done, and researchers could be ready to test possible descendants of those people as soon as next year.

City staff discovered the bodies of 36 people under the Oakwood Chapel during a renovation in 2016. The remains were interred there long before the chapel was constructed in 1914, when the graves were paved over.

Of the 36 people exhumed, six were Black, six were white, seven were Hispanic and one was presumed Asian, according to an initial analysis by Texas State University. The others were not able to be immediately identified, and researchers could not reliably test one of the 36.

The bodies were reinterred in 2021.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department has partnered with the University of Connecticut to identify descendants of the people buried at the cemetery, which is as old as the city itself.

At a public hearing Tuesday, Samantha Archer, a University of Connecticut researcher, said the Oakwood project is one of the only projects in the country to ever try and identify descendants of people buried centuries ago.

"This is really pushing at the boundaries of what has been possible only within the last couple of years," she said. "And, so, if we do find a family link, this would be one of the first studies to do that. And we would be part of ... trying to figure out what happens then."

Archer said the project needed to be OK'd by UConn, then researchers would begin to solicit DNA samples next year from people who believe they may be related to those buried at the site.

If you are interested in participating in the project, you can find more information and sign up for updates at the PARD website.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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