Buttons, Buckles And Jewelry Shed Light On The Lives Of Forgotten Dead At Austin's Oakwood Cemetery

May 18, 2020

For a century and a half, their graves went unmarked, their lives unconsidered, and their legacies paved over. They are survived by buttons, by buckles and by beads – by the things with which they were interred.

But now, those 59 people buried in Oakwood Cemetery are being reconsidered, their legacies unearthed, because of the things they took with them to the grave.

Thirty-six of the 59 were exhumed from Oakwood, Austin's oldest city cemetery, over a yearslong process. A report out last week detailed those buried in graves paved over in 1914, when the city built Oakwood's cathedral.

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department first discovered the graves in November 2016, when the city began refurbishing the cathedral as part of its Cemetery Master Plan. While 22 of the graves would not have been impacted by the improvements, the city needed to excavate the chapel to find those that would've been.

Initially, city officials suspected they'd stumbled upon a swath of graves in a section that was once a segregated site reserved for Austinites of color and people who couldn't afford plots.

Tonja Walls-Davis, a manager of cemetery operations with the parks department, says the city suspected that was the case, but wanted to make sure. She says the department wanted to present as accurate a portrait as possible of these folks' lives and knew it couldn't be done overnight.

 

A crucifix that was found in the grave of a child at Oakwood Cemetery.
Credit Austin Parks and Recreation Department

"Once we discovered those remains, they were never forgotten about," Walls-Davis said. "So it was more so proceeding with caution, and we knew that it was a very sensitive situation ... and we tried to make sure that we brought in the right people."

The department contracted an archaeology firm to exhume the remains and then sent them to Texas State University's Forensic Anthropology Center (FACTS) for analysis.

While FACTS is renowned for its ability to identify remains – as it's been doing for nearly a decade along the South Texas border – the remains of those buried at Oakwood were hundreds of years old. On top of that, the soil in which they were buried was hard and dense, making preservation next to impossible. That made for a delicate exhumation process.

Still, investigators were able to identify within a high level of certainty the racial and ethnic backgrounds of those buried. (One grave they excavated contained no remains.)

All told, the 36 people exhumed represented a fairly diverse group – six were black, six were white, seven were Hispanic and one was presumed Asian, according to researchers at Texas State. Twenty-two were adults, two were children and 12 were infants.

But the little things they left behind – things like beads from jewelry, buckles, buttons and even the hinges from their casket handles – were key in determining when and how they lived.

For example, six hard-rubber Goodyear buttons in the grave of one black man, between 20 and 25, suggest he'd lived between 1851 (the year stamped on the button) and 1870.

A button from the grave of a young man suggests he lived some time between 1851 and 1870.
Credit Austin Parks and Recreation Department

A gold ring, collar studs, cuff links and suspender buckles suggest another man wore a suit, but the presence of cattle-bone buttons suggest a pragmatism, the reports says, because they were usually readily (and locally) available and not as highbrow as other types of buttons.

The presence of one coin, known as a Seated Liberty Dime, suggests one woman lived within the span of that coin's minting – between 1837 and 1873.

A handmade, well-preserved porcelain crucifix in a child's grave suggests it was either made by their parents or bought locally, the researchers say.

But while the analysis found the overall lack of personal items suggests "the deceased generally were of limited economic means," that doesn't mean they weren't buried with care.

Still, their graves eventually were forgotten, says Kim McKnight, program manager for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department's historic preservation and tourism department.

"We intend to make sure that, while these people may have been neglected and forgotten back in 1914 when the chapel was constructed, that we have no intention to ever forget them again," she said.

Ultimately, the city has plans to reinter those who were exhumed. The parks department also plans to install a memorial and hopes to put together a virtual tour of the site. Of course, COVID-19 has scuttled those plans for the time-being, but McKnight says at least their memory is still alive – however incomplete. 

"We still don't know who they were, nor will we ever likely ever know who they are," she said. "But we know far more about the lives that they lived than we did before."

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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