It’s not every day that you find a human skeleton out in your backyard. But this is exactly what happened in a residential part of the City of Bethlehem in February of 1995.
A construction crew unearthed the remains and the homeowner promptly notified local authorities. Once the coroner determined the skeleton was “very old” and had been in the ground for quite a while, city officials contacted the PHMC seeking assistance, as they believed the remains had historic significance. In response to this request, Dr. Dorothy Humpf and I, staff archaeologists with the Bureau for Historic Preservation, were dispatched to Bethlehem for one day to examine the recovered human remains. Immediately upon arrival at the burial site, we understood why this discovery was thought to be of historic importance. Located in the immediate vicinity is a memorial, consisting of a crypt and an inscribed bronze tablet, which reads:
Within this crypt rest the bones of an Unknown Soldier in the War for Independence. He was one of more than 500 men who died in the Continental Hospital here at Bethlehem and were buried on this hillside.
On two occasions during the Revolutionary War, from December of 1776 until March of 1777 and again from September of 1777 to May of 1778, upon General Washington’s orders, his medical officers commandeered a large, nearby communal building of the Moravian community, which founded Bethlehem in 1741, for use as a military “hospital.” At the time, the imposing multi-story limestone building was known as the Brethren’s House, where unmarried men lived in a dormitory-like setting. Today, this building is still in use as part of the Music Department of Moravian College. If its walls could talk, what sad stories would be told.
Having learned a little of the history of the area, Dr. Humpf and I recognized the very real possibility for additional human remains nearby, if indeed the recently unearthed individual was one of the 500 Continental Army soldiers laid to rest here. We visually examined a six-foot tall wall of earth which had been created by mechanical excavations into a sloping hillside. Soon we identified a second skeleton, fully articulated. We found this at a depth of about three feet below the current ground surface. We observed several foot and toe bones which had been exposed, but narrowly missed, by the backhoe bucket. In view of the circumstances (the earthen wall would soon become a concrete retaining wall, and the human remains it held would soon be sealed off, possibly forever), we determined to archaeologically remove the remains. We paid particular attention for the presence of any objects found in association with the skeleton, as these objects, if present, would provide the best opportunity for ascribing a date for the burial and answering the question that everyone was asking: “Are these Revolutionary War soldiers?”
We spent most of that day in Bethlehem carefully recovering the skeletal remains of the second individual found at the site. We found the burial to be in a fully extended position with the head oriented toward the west. This positioning is characteristic of traditional Christian burial practices (Cotter et al 1992:204). We found fragments of what appeared to be coffin wood in an advanced state of decomposition as well as what appeared to be several highly corroded coffin nails in association with the skeleton. We also recovered a small, crude one-hole button fashioned from bone in the area of the collarbone of this individual. The only clothing related item to be found, this very modest artifact testifies to the poorly clad state of the soldiers at Bethlehem, as described by a Moravian writer on October 14, 1777:
Orders were received for the collection of clothing for the soldiers in the army, and General Woodford kindly protected us from lawless pillage. We made several collections of blankets for the destitute soldiers, also shoes, stockings, and breeches for the convalescents in the Hospital, many of whom had come here in rags swarming with vermin, while others during their stay were deprived of their all by their comrades (Jordan 1889: 75).
The recovered objects, as well as the skeletal material collected by the construction crew and the skeleton excavated by Dr. Humph and I, were temporarily removed to our office in Harrisburg for further study. Shortly thereafter, the construction crew encountered the remains of a third individual, and these too were sent to our office for analysis.
The late Dr. Dorothy Humpf (1960-2002) had a strong background in physical anthropology, and using standard osteological techniques, her examination of the three sets of skeletal remains revealed the gender and age at death of the three individuals. All are relatively young males, with one estimated to have been about 15 to 20 years old at the time of his death. This is consistent with contemporary written descriptions of the composition of the Continental Army. For example, a British officer, writing of some captured Americans in the Fall of 1776, made the following observation:
The rebel prisoners were in general, but very indifferently clothed. Few of them appeared to have a second shirt, nor did they appear to have washed themselves during the campaign. A great many of them were lads under 15 and old men and few had the appearance of soldiers. Their odd figures frequently excited the laughter of our soldiers (Colley 1976: 37).
Archaeological investigations at other Revolutionary War-related burial sites in both Langhorne and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania also revealed the remains of adolescent males (Stewart 1992: 20; Cotter et al 1992:209). The other two individuals recovered in Bethlehem were slightly older, one of whom was about 20 to 25 years old, while the other is estimated to have been about 30 to 35 years old at the time of his death. Measurements of the available long bones suggest the two older individuals stood about 5 feet 8 inches and 5 feet 9 inches tall respectively. In sum, the age and sex structure of the three individuals is consistent with the demographic profile that would be expected from a burial ground for Revolutionary War soldiers.
It is noteworthy that Dr. Humpf found no evidence of traumatic injuries or other bone lesions on any of the three individuals. While written accounts indicate that epidemics of typhoid and smallpox plagued the Bethlehem hospital, it is impossible to determine solely on the basis of osteological indicators whether the three individuals died as a result of these or another highly contagious disease. This is because these are relatively fast acting diseases which rarely affect bone, with death usually occurring before a bony response is produced. However, Dr. Humpf felt it highly likely that these three individuals died from an epidemic disease. Concerning the conditions in the Bethlehem hospital, Dr. James Tilton of Delaware wrote of his December 1777 visit and his conversation with Dr. Samuel Finley of the hospital staff there:
All the doctors were of the opinion that only about two hundred patients should have been admitted, whereas from five to seven hundred had been crowded into the building at times. To enable me to form some idea of the great mortality, he asked me whether I was acquainted with the Sixth Virginia Regiment, commanded by Colonel Gibson, reputed to be one of the best in the army, and stated that forty had been admitted, but not three would return to their regiment, all the rest had been buried. He had no hesitation in declaring that we lost from ten to twenty of camp diseases for one by weapons of the enemy (Jordan 1896: 149-150).
We submitted several of the corroded coffin nails to former PHMC objects conservators Brian Howard and April Berry for analysis in an effort to help date the burials. Nails can be useful dating tools because significant changes occurred shortly after the American Revolution in the manner in which they were manufactured (Nelson 1968: 1-10; Noel-Hume 1970: 253). During the eighteenth-century, and before, nails were made by hand, one at a time, by blacksmiths. By the beginning of the nineteenth-century, means were developed by which to mechanically and more cheaply and quickly make nails. As these very knowledgeable and capable objects conservators would soon demonstrate, it is sometimes possible to distinguish the earlier wrought iron nails from later machine-cut nails because the two types have different structural characteristics. Their analysis involved X-Ray imaging of the nails, and the Radiology Departments of Carlisle Hospital, Carlisle, PA and Polyclinic Medical Center, Harrisburg, PA graciously provided this service. The X-Rays revealed that while most of the metallic iron had converted into corrosion product from being in the ground for an extended period of time, there remained enough metal structure intact to detect slag inclusions, which are characteristic of wrought iron. The corrosion on the nails was then reduced using an air abrasive unit, a device similar to a miniature, extremely fine sandblaster, with aluminum oxide powder used as the abrasive. This mechanical cleaning revealed that the nails were fabricated with a faceted “rose head,” a trait which is also characteristic of the earlier wrought iron nails.
To summarize, the analysis of the coffin nails suggests the associated burials pre-date the nineteenth-century. This evidence, coupled with the information derived from the skeletal material, corroborates the written accounts of this area being used as a burial ground for those who died in the nearby hospital of the Continental Army. The writings of John Ettwein, a prominent figure among the Moravians during the Revolutionary War period, provide some details on the burial of the dead at Bethlehem. He wrote that the Brethren made coffins for and buried one hundred-ten unnamed individuals, said to be primarily Virginians and Marylanders, in the winter of 1776-1777 (Hamilton 1940: 168). Ettwein also noted that the following winter, that of 1777-1778, the task of burying approximately four hundred more dead was carried out by the soldiers of the hospital guard. Another source indicates that with hundreds of additional bodies to bury, the point came at which individual coffins were no longer made, and the bodies were buried in trenches (Levering 1903: 476). The fact that each of the three recently unearthed individuals was encoffined suggests these remains relate to the first period of the army’s occupation of Bethlehem in the winter of 1776-1777, when the Moravians were asked to bury the dead. A mid-eighteenth-century illustration of the Moravian community indicates this area was a cleared, open field on the outskirts of the small town. As Bethlehem grew in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, this area became the residential neighborhood that it is today.
Once our study of the human remains and associated objects was completed, we made a presentation of our findings to Bethlehem City Council. Although all of the evidence is circumstantial, we are confident that in all likelihood, these individuals are indeed Unknown Soldiers of the War for Independence, some of the first American soldiers. To honor these dead, the City of Bethlehem, in cooperation with today’s Moravian community and various historical organizations and veterans groups, carried out a re-interment ceremony at the site of the existing crypt along First Avenue on Memorial Day weekend of 1996. Members of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, also known as “the Old Guard,” who preside over the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, participated in this ceremony, which attracted several hundred spectators.
Our experience at the site suggests the potential is high for additional burials to be preserved in yard areas in the 400 block of First Avenue in the City of Bethlehem. Depending on the extent of grading associated with the construction of First Avenue, burials could possibly be located beneath the street and sidewalks. The dimensions of the area used to bury the dead, thought to number approximately 500, remains unknown. However, a nearby highway, Route 378 may mark the eastern boundary of the burial ground mentioned in primary source materials, corroborated in later written accounts and commemorated by the historical marker and crypt, which was dedicated in 1931. Boundaries to the north, south and west of 411 First Avenue are much less clear. We speculate the size of this burial ground could cover considerably more than one acre.
We suggest once again, as we did in 1995, that steps be taken to avoid and preserve additional burials in this neighborhood. This includes informing homeowners of the potential for human remains and minimizing earthmoving activities in undisturbed locations. If and when major construction projects are contemplated in this area in the future, we recommend that a plan be developed for systematic archaeological reconnaissance and, if necessary, the recovery of human remains and associated burial objects prior to ground disturbing activity. However, we also feel that the best way to honor the memories of these long forgotten Unknown Soldiers of the War for Independence is to refrain from any more major earthmoving activity on this historic hillside.
1976 Two Hundred Years of Life in Northampton County, Pennsylvania:
Volume X, Military History. Northampton County Bicentennial Commission, Easton, PA.
Cotter, John L., Daniel G. Roberts and Michael Parrington
1992 The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia. University of
Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Hamilton, Kenneth Gardiner
1940 John Ettwein and the Moravian Church during the Revolutionary Period.
Times Publishing Company, Bethlehem, PA.
Jordan, John W.
1888 Bethlehem During the Revolution: Extracts from the Diaries in the
Moravian Archives at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania
Magazine of History and Biography 12(4): 385-406.
1896 The Military Hospitals at Bethlehem and Lititz During the Revolution.
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 20: 137-157.
Levering, Joseph Mortimer
1903 A History of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 1741-1892 with Some Account
Of Its Founders and Their Activity in America. Times Publishing
Company, Bethlehem, PA.
Nelson, Lee H.
1968 Nail Chronology as an Aid to Dating Old Buildings. History News 24(11)
[American Association for State and Local History Technical Leaflet No.
48], Nashville, Tennessee.
1970 A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Stewart, R. Michael
1992 Grave Site Delineation and Archaeological Survey of 4 Acre Tract, Woods
School Cemetery. Report on file at Pennsylvania Historical and Museum
Commission, Harrisburg, PA.
For Further Reading:
Shaffer, Mark and Dorothy A. Humpf
1996 A Revolutionary War Burial Ground in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Archaeologist 66:43-52.
Shaffer, Mark D.
1998 The Revolutionary War Burial Ground in West Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Proceedings of the Lehigh County Historical Society 41: 100-110.