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The Real Story behind Dr. Mindy Pitre’s Death in St. Lawrence County Project

Written by Brenda Winn '17

May 22, 2017 will mark three years since Dr. Mindy Pitre, assistant professor of anthropology, was contacted by St. Lawrence County’s (SLC) Department of Social Services to visit the site of the St. Lawrence County Poorhouse cemetery. The Grasse River at the site had exposed bone, and they did not know if it was human or not. Dr. Pitre identified the bone as being animal, but while there, she heard stories of how human bone was found on the site many years ago and was reburied in an undisclosed location. Pitre has since then been working with St. Lawrence County to develop a conservation plan for the site.

Pitre is director of the Death in St. Lawrence County (DSLC) project. According to the website, the mission of DSLC is to “document, map, and digitize all of the 200+ cemeteries in St. Lawrence County in upstate New York.” Dr. Pitre relays how “The whole project really started with my Dealing with the Dead course.” She explains how in the course students carry out cemetery research in SLC. Not surprisingly, the St. Lawrence County Poorhouse cemetery became the first focus of DSLC.

The conservation issue at the site is complex. The main issue is that erosion by the Grasse River and human intervention are affecting the preservation of the cemetery, according to the DSLC website. In 1978, there were 140 tombstones at the Poorhouse and today there are only 111 left. Working with the County, Dr. Pitre developed a rescue archaeology plan to deal with the disappearing graves. Specifically, the plan involves using a combination of maps, historical information, and ground penetrating radar information to determine which “at-risk” graves need to be moved to safer areas on the cemetery property. As part of their relocation, individuals will also be identified, giving them a place in history that they never had.

As part of the project Dr. Pitre enlisted students to carry out massive amounts of data collection on the SLC Poorhouse and its residents, all chronicled on www.dslc.info, the project website created with the help of SLU’s Digital H Director of Digital Initiatives Eric Williams-Bergen. “Having students involved from the ground up was the most important to me,” Dr. Pitre said. “I don’t want to do research if I cannot involve students.”

Students began inputting information about anyone who ever walked through the SLC Poorhouse doors into the project database. The point of this was to really begin to understand who the poor were in SLC, while also chronicling the people in the cemetery. At the same time, Dr. Alexander Stewart, associate professor of geology, was brought in to provide an assessment of what was going on at the cemetery in terms of erosion and geological threat. Other consultants were also brought in to give their best ideas of how to deal with the cemetery.

Dr. Pitre explains that at first a popular idea was to alter the Grasse River, but this didn’t make sense due to engineering and geology restrains. She explains that the county concluded that the best plan of action was to excavate and remove individuals to safer areas on the other site of the cemetery.

In the summer of 2015, Dr. Pitre, Dr. Stewart, and students began using ground penetrating radar (GPR) to see locate unused areas in the cemetery that could be used to relocate graves. The funding for this project came from SLU student fellowships and the Walker Fellowship from SUNY Potsdam. One way that Dr. Pitre demonstrated her commitment to student work at the site, and commitment to the county and university, was that she insisted that students should learn to use the GPR equipment that SLU had. A company could have been hired for this aspect of the project, but Dr. Pitre wanted students to get the invaluable experience of using these pieces of equipment. Carol Cady, GIS map specialist, was also on site and assisted students with GIS mapping.

From this summer of work, it was determined that it is possible to move all individuals located near the river to areas where there is extra space. Following this, Dr. Pitre developed an excavation plan and went to the county with it. It was developed with the county, social services, SLC, the NY State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), and the St. Lawrence Funeral home in Canton. The SLC Poorhouse was given status as an archeological site with a number. The group followed every protocol necessary to get this project running.

In terms of this coming summer, students have been working for the past two years in generating the death records. It is known that there are 596 people in the cemetery, and there are documents containing the first and last names of all of them. However, at a certain point in history, the SLC Poorhouse stopped keeping track of exactly where the bodies were buried, and instead began documenting their cause of death. “We know where 341 of these people are buried, but do not know the locations of the remaining 257,” Dr. Pitre said. “We need to identify these people.”

Dr. Pitre explains that when the in-danger graves are excavated, they need to identify who they belong to before they are reburied. “We need to attach names to these individuals based on sex, age, health, and cause of death,” she said. “We want to give them the place in history they deserve, while at the same time understand what life was like for them.”

In 1984, the Monroe County Poorhouse in Rochester was excavated. In 1988, the Oneida County Poorhouse in Rome was excavated, and in 2012, and ongoing, the Erie County Poorhouse in Buffalo. “These people buried at these poorhouses were left behind by society,” Dr. Pitre explains. “They have no identity, no proof of their lives.  Their graves were unmarked, the cemeteries were sold, and then their graves were found during construction. We [archeologists] are then asked to come in and try to fix these issues, and end up facing a lot of vilification and pushback as we try to do so.”

Dr. Pitre emphasized that the bones will be non-destructively studied following standard techniques and will culminate in a respectful reburial that all follow professional ethical treatment codes. She explained that prior to excavation, they will reach out to descendants.

This summer, there will be four St. Lawrence students working on the project – Mona Williams ’17, Ian Girdwood ’17, Caroline McCarthy ’18, and Abbie Hale ’19. In addition, Dr. Jennifer Muller, associate professor and assistant chair of the department of anthropology from Ithaca College, will be bringing four to five students as well to assist in the project. They will be working from June 1 through July 15 in excavating 16-20 skeletons who are at danger of being eroded and washed away by the river.

Their plan is to remove these at risk skeletal remains and associated materials from the site to the Anthropology Research Lab in Bewkes here on campus. They will be reburied next summer, once extensive study and identification has been performed.

“Everything we do has, and will, be in contact with the county and the legislators,” Dr. Pitre explains. At the end of this leg of the project, they will be in contact and see what the next steps, if any, should be taken at the SLC Poorhouse cemetery site. “We will be in contact with many people to make decisions of where to go next after this,” Dr. Pitre said.

Students will be given the unique opportunity of being able to participate in an archaeological dig in the North Country. Williams is a graduating senior, but said that she was first attracted to the DSLC project because she “wanted the chance to be able to give back to the Canton community.” In addition, Williams is excited to be able to identify the graves. “The chance to give a voice to people who did not necessarily have one during their lifetime is what really cemented my interest,” Williams said. “By doing so, I will be able to use the skills I’ve learned at SLU throughout my four years.”

For Hale, whose mother works for the county, being involved in this project is the culmination of years of following the progress of it. “I was instantly excited about being a part of it,” she said. “I hope to get more hands-on experience in the field and learn more about my county within the context of archaeology and anthropology.”

Girdwood immediately knew that he wanted to be a part of the dig. “As someone who’s looking to go into archeology, this is a great opportunity to get hands on experience in the field,” he said. Girdwood will be assisting in the excavation, recording, and preservation of the human remains that need to be relocated, and is looking forward to seeing what can be learned about the lives of these individuals.

For McCarthy, her involvement in the project dates to her sophomore year, when she was looking for an anthropology research project to get involved with. “Learning about the history of SLC is what grabbed my attention,” she said. “As I learned more about the people who passed through the Poorhouse, it was very important to me that their lives are remembered, and that they got the final resting place they deserved.” McCarthy hopes to provide closure to the individuals buried in the cemetery for their families and the entre SLC community. “This summer, I hope to learn even more about the Poorhouse and the people who lived there,” she said. “As well as more about anthropological and archaeological techniques and ethics.”

About the author

Brenda Winn '17