Illinois graves may hold Cherokees' remains

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ANNA, Ill. -- The tiny Camp Ground church cemetery includes among its dead some of the earliest settlers from this part of southern Illinois -- Germans whose weathered sandstone grave markers date to the 1800s.

Still, a mystery lingers about others who might be buried on this solemn ground: Is the graveyard the final resting place of Cherokee Indians who died here during the winter of 1838-39 as they were forced westward on the infamous Trail of Tears to what now is Oklahoma?

Local legend has it that the graves are here, but Harvey Henson wants to know for sure. And the geophysicist at Southern Illinois University in nearby Carbondale has rolled out high-tech gadgets including ground-penetrating radar to try to get to the truth.

''We've definitely got unmarked graves, no doubt," he said. ''But are they Europeans or settlers or Native Americans? No one quite knows that, and that's a nice problem to solve."

Henson calls his evidence ''pretty circumstantial" and, barring a court order to dig up the property, the answer may forever elude him.

But he thinks he has pinpointed at least two single, unmarked graves. Results of new data could reveal more, perhaps a dozen, he said. ''We're dealing with so many unknowns," he said. ''We're out to find where the Cherokee are buried, and how many are there. You just have to take it systematically and line up the evidence."

Henson has been trying to build his case since 1999. That's when Sandy Boaz, whose ancestors are buried in the Camp Ground graveyard, sought his help to scientifically prove whether the cemetery included any Cherokees who succumbed during their relocation journey.

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