What doesn’t lie beneath: No slaves’, soldiers’ bodies found in ground of proposed Gowanus school site, state says

Remember the Red Shirts: Park Sloper Patrick Stewart wants a memorial to the Maryland 400 at this Ninth Street lot, where he believes the war heroes are buried.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Professor X did not mark the spot!

Archeologists finished excavating a Gowanus lot and found no human remains at the site that local historians and actor Patrick Stewart — who famously portrayed the mutant headmaster in the X-men comic-book series — believed was the final resting place of slaves and a band of Revolutionary-War soldiers.

The experts uncovered a few interesting finds, including a 19th-century well, cistern, potty, and an exterior wall of a brick farmhouse, but no bones of slain American heroes, prompting the state to authorize the city to move forward with building a school on the land without fear of disturbing the dead, according to a letter from a rep in the state office that mandated the dig.

“The planned project will have no impact on cultural resources,” wrote Philip Perazio, an archeologist with the state office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Perazio fired off the letter to the city’s education department on Friday, following months of digging at the lot on Ninth Street between Third and Fourth avenues that some area history buffs demanded be excavated after Council voted last December to construct a 180-seat pre-kindergarten there.

The historians contended that slaves from a nearby farm and members of the Maryland 400 — soldiers who died amid a rearguard action that allowed Gen. George Washington and the Continental Army to flee British troops during the Battle of Brooklyn — were interred en masse on the site. And Sir Stewart, who moved to nearby Seventh Street in 2012, buoyed their case when he told Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine earlier this year that he would petition the mayor to erect a memorial to the fallen heroes on the lot.

“All it is is a concreted-over car park, but underneath the concrete is the mass grave,” he said. “It’s worth making, I think, a bit of a fuss of.”

In March, the city announced that archeological contractor AKRF would perform the excavation, and its crew later unearthed evidence of underground shafts in its initial dig, suggesting the possibility of additional historical findings, including the gravesite itself.

The state’s historic preservation office then told the city to further excavate, a process that revealed a “thin scattering of 19th- and 20th-century artifacts” in addition to the well, cistern, and privy dating to the 1800s. No bodies turned up, however, and AKRF’s archeologists said in their report that it was “highly unlikely” Revolutionary-era remnants or human remains would be found at greater depths.

But some history buffs who initially pushed for the dig are contesting the results and hired a specialist to review them looking for anything that suggests the city’s contractor may have cut corners in the process.

“We have an expert from Maryland who specializes in studying bones and how they work and where they’re found,” said Bob Furman, author of “Brooklyn Heights: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of America’s First Suburb.” “The point is that we don’t feel that, based on this, what they did is adequate.”

Furman claimed the cistern, well, loo amount to what is essentially a 19th-century dumping ground, which would have been located beside a slave quarters on the grounds of an area farm. And the fact that surveyors didn’t find evidence of a cabin or slaves’ remains is enough to raise eyebrows, he said.

“Our expert feels it’s likely that if those things existed, there were houses and slave quarters there,” Furman said.

Other historians from a borough museum dedicated to the Battle of Brooklyn disagreed, however, arguing that the remnants found on the site in fact disqualify it from being a mass grave.

“The fact they found these things on that site lends credence to the fact it’s not a mass burial site or a grave yard,” said Kim Maier, executive director of the Old Stone House.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.
No bones: Archeologists finished digging up a Gowanus lot and found no human remains there, despite claims by some history buffs who said the site contained remains of slaves and Revolutionary-War heroes.
Colin Mixson / Community News Group

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