Grave robbers desecrate and loot Fort Craig, N.M., cemetery

8/22/2009 • Buffalo Soldiers, Civil War, Open Fire

Last year, federal archaeologists exhumed 67 bodies from Fort Craig, a Civil War-era fort in New Mexico, after a looting investigation led them to a house where remains of a uniformed “Buffalo Soldier,” the nickname American Indians gave to black troops in the U.S. Army, had once been displayed.

Established in 1854, Fort Craig was a frontier outpost in present-day Socorro County near the Rio Grande. During the Civil War, Union troops stationed there fought in the February 1862 Battle of Valverde, a Confederate victory that presaged the more famous clash at Glorieta Pass that March.

After the war, Buffalo Soldiers staffed the fort, helping to protect settlers against Indian raids. By 1885, the fort was abandoned.

In 2004 archaeologists with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—which manages the fort’s cemetery—got a tip that Vietnam veteran and former Air National Guard pilot Dee Brecheisen had repeatedly stolen human remains. Don Alberts, a retired Air Force historian, told authorities he had seen a mummified Buffalo Soldier in Brecheisen’s house decades earlier.

By the time the investigation was launched, however, Brecheisen had died, leaving behind what reclamation archaeologist Mark Hungerford calls a “looters’ paradise,” with Civil War- era artifacts lining Brecheisen’s driveway and gardens. Still, investigators quickly discerned that Brecheisen had divested some of his most valuable acquisitions before his death.

Only the skull remained of the purported Buffalo Soldier skeleton—its curly black hair eerily intact—and the body has yet to be recovered. Unfortunately, the macabre criminal case was dropped after Brecheisen’s death.

Before formal digging, the agency commissioned a ground-penetrating radar study to find other bodies and found 251 coffins with human remains.

The agency began more invasive excavations between August and October 2007, exhuming 67 intact or near-intact bodies—39 men (some with uniforms still visible), two women and 26 infants or small children. Archaeologists also found widespread evidence of looting and desecration, including plastic bags and soda cans tossed inside the coffins. Most bodies from Valverde were gone—thought to be disinterred by the U.S. Army in the late 19th century or simply stolen.

“The looter’s technique would best be described as sloppy,” says Jeffery Hanson, a reclamation archaeologist. “It was basically metal detecting, taking a shovel, digging in the ground, getting what he wanted, throwing what he didn’t want back into the coffin, and then he was off to the next one.”

Scientists are now studying the remains, which will be reburied at appropriate family plots—if next of kin can be established—or at national cemeteries. Archaeologists will continue to educate the public about the impact of looting on historic sites. “We are getting looted to death,” Hanson says. “Looting is big business. We have to have people willing to say that they’ll enforce antiquities laws and put people in jail for this kind of crime.”

September/October 2008