Wisconsin Historical Society

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Case Study: Property Owner Finds a Bone

What Happens When a Private Landowner Finds Human Bone? | Wisconsin Historical Society

Leila lived on a farm that had been in her family for generations. When her porch began to sag, she hired a local contractor to rebuild the porch and add a new set of steps.

One morning she noticed a young worker looking at something in the front yard. He had a bone in his hand. It looked like a human leg bone.

Leila asked the young man to show her exactly where the bone came from. While they were talking, the construction supervisor showed up. He told Leila to forget about the bone, since it would only cause trouble. He told Leila that the "Government" would stop her from building her porch, and maybe even take her house away.

Leila knew that wasn't right, since her neighbor had found Native American mounds on his property. Not only was he still able to enjoy his land, the Wisconsin Historical Society even helped him lower his property taxes. Leila instructed the contractor to stop digging, and went inside her house to call the local sheriff.

While she was waiting, Leila checked the Wisconsin Historical Society's website to see what to do next. She found out that she had already taken the most important steps — stopping the construction work and calling the police.

A few minutes later, the sheriff arrived. He noticed glass trade beads scattered around the area where the bone had been found. The sheriff knew that the glass trade beads were old, and thought the bone might be too, but wasn't sure if it was human or not. Leila and the sheriff covered the area with a tarp and told the contractors to work on another section of the porch.

Because Leila had checked the Wisconsin Historical Society's website, she knew that Wisconsin state law required that she notify the Wisconsin Historical Society that possible human remains and artifacts had been found. She took pictures of the bone and beads and emailed them to the Wisconsin Historical Society. She also called a phone number she found on their website. She explained the problem and gave Society staff her address and phone number.

Society staff members looked at the photographs she sent and agreed that the bone was human. They asked if she could move the new stairs and leave the burial where it was found. Leila didn't think so. She remembered that an old water line ran very close to the grave. Leila knew that even if she moved the stairs away from the grave the bones would just be disturbed again when the water line needed to be replaced.

Society staff helped her find an archaeologist (PDF, 137 KB) to exhume the grave. The archaeologist she hired took the bones and beads back to a lab and examined them and learn more about the person they belonged to. He discovered the remains were of a young Native American woman who had died after badly breaking her leg. The glass beads she was buried with were of types popular in the mid-1800s.

The archaeologist studied historic records and found a record of a Ho-Chunk village existing in the area at the time woman was buried. The Wisconsin Historical Society notified Wisconsin's Native Nations that exhumed remains were ready for reburial and passed on the archaeologist's findings. The Ho-Chunk claimed the bones and tribal members reburied the remains of the young woman in a cemetery on tribal land.

When Leila's porch was completed, she informed the supervisor she would never hire his company again. He not only told Leila to do the wrong thing, but also to do something illegal. Failure to report the discovery of human remains is against the law. What if the bones had belonged to a missing person?

Leila was relieved that she had done the right thing. Now the young Native American woman could rest in peace on Ho-Chunk land.

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