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Historian's research backs theory on skull

July 19, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Research by a local historian could support an expert forensic anthropologist's theory that a skull found at a school construction site is that of a black teenage girl who died before the Civil War.

William Theriault of Halfway, who has done extensive historical research in Jefferson County, said census records of the time show that a black female slave lived on a farm owned by Michael Foley in the 1830s and 1840s.

Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist based at the Smithsonian Institution, has handled more than 10,000 human skeletons. He identified the age and sex of its owner after checking the skull for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department.

An 1852 map of Jefferson County shows that Foley's farm was on land where the new elementary school is being built on Job Corps Road.

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Census records of 1850 listed no female slave on the farm leaving Theriault to deduce that one might have died there sometime between 1840 and 1850.

Theriault said it could be "all speculation, of course. The female slave listed in the 1830 and 1840 census could have been a different person and we don't know the age of the slaves listed at that time."

He said census takers back then did not list the names of slaves, only their sex and age. Slaves were considered property much like cattle.

Large farms or mansions in Jefferson County before the Civil War would have as many as 20 or 30 slaves, but many small farmsteads like Foley's often owned a single slave, a female who worked as a domestic in the house or a male farm hand.

Adding to his theory about Foley's slave girl, Theriault said prior to the Civil War, cemeteries were segregated. Farms often had family burial plots on the property, but slaves were not buried in them.

A single slave who died might have been buried in a separate grave on the farm. Time, and later construction projects, would have destroyed any marker over it, Theriault said.

The girl's skull was found July 2 by workers digging a drainage ditch.

According to Jefferson County Sheriff Robert "Bobby" Shirley, one of the workers saw what he thought was a rock fall into the ditch. When he went to remove it he found it was a human skull.

Police have cordoned off a 30-foot wide circle around the ditch where the skull was found. Investigators are waiting the arrival of a special team of archeologists to comb the area for more bones or clues, Shirley has said.

Ralph Dinges, assistant superintendent for construction for the Jefferson County School District, said the investigation site should not cause a delay in construction for now.

The cause of death is unknown. The skull was damaged, but police believe that might have been caused by blasting at the site or by construction equipment.

The skull is in the custody of the state medical examiner's office.

Owsley is the subject of a book titled, "No Bone Unturned," about his experiences as an expert in the field of forensic anthropology. He has testified as an expert witnesses in several Eastern Panhandle criminal court cases.

Theriault, 63, was born in Waterville, Md., and grew up in Waltham, Mass. He earned a bachelor's degree at Boston University and a master's at the University of Denver, both in English, and a Ph.D. in American literature at George Washington University.

He lived in Bakerton in Jefferson County for 24 years. While there, he delved heavily into county history writing articles for "Golden Seal" magazine and other publications, was a regular columnist for the Spirit of Jefferson Advocate, a weekly newspaper, and he wrote a book titled "The History of Eastern Jefferson County." 

He is past chairman of the Jefferson County Historical Landmarks Commission and has amassed a collection of more than 12,000 photographs of Jefferson County subjects.

A year ago Theriault was the subject of a Herald-Mail article on baking artisan bread, which was baked in a brick oven after the fire has been removed. His book on the subject, "Artisan Bread Baking for Living History Organizations," describes the construction of brick ovens and contains recipes. Theriault has given demonstrations at the Washington County Rural Heritage Museum south of Hagerstown.

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