top of page

Tell It Like It Was - Digging Up Bones, Part 1

Adapted from the original email letter from Paul Ovaitt, sent July 27, 2023

Digging Up Bones, Part 1 – Maria, the Poet of WashMO – Seltzer, anyone? – Van Reidhead – Mary Ann Reidhead – Uniform Unmarked Burial Act - Evelyn Voelker - Entombed in the capitol rotunda

Questions About Place by Maria Brady-Smith

Can you ever really know a place?

You show up,

Dwell in it for a short time

Or long,

But you never know

Its whole history.

Gentle readers, once upon a time…possibly 1000 years ago…maybe more…there was a farming hamlet…or maybe a smaller farmstead occupied by 2-3 families…or maybe it was just a prehistoric burial ground. And maybe you think I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I have actually been to the site of this…mmm…site. Problem is…the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office doesn’t want me to talk specifics, because they fear that you, gentle readers, might suddenly turn into a not-so-gentle looter/digger of bones and artifacts - unafraid of mosquitos, snakes, and the law.

(Sigh.) The funny thing is, if you were living between Augusta and Defiance in 1994, you could easily have seen an archaeological dig in process, or at least have heard about it from your neighbors or from the clientele of Terry and Betty’s Tavern in Defiance. And many of you knew the Augusta couple who owned the farm ground that contained the excavation site. Many of you know the present owners who live on Schell Road. Some of you, like your gentle writer, went to the presentation given at the Augusta Museum in 1994 in which Professor Van Reidhead, of Moll Road, told the whole story and revealed all that I…now cannot tell you. This is frustrating.

But read on my friends. Maybe I’ll inadvertently drop enough crumbs for you to pick up the trail. If not…maybe when you see me again, I’ll whisper the story to you. Even better, maybe you’ll encounter Van or Mary Ann Reidhead, and they’ll enlighten you.

So, anyone who actually recalls anything I write, might remember that in Turn, Turn, Turn - Ep. 1, I introduced you to the previous residents of some very historical real estate in St. Charles County. I was talking about the Darst Bottoms, Missouriton, Daniel Boone territory, Matson, and the farm of ________, now owned by ________. And maybe I mentioned an archaeological dig that was brought on by the big floods of 93 and 94. And, maybe the daughter of the farmer who owned the site, told me she had more info on the dig, but she couldn’t quite unearth it…in her own home. Well, she…I’ll call her Glenda…recently found the official report of the excavation. A couple weeks ago she placed it in my hands. The cover reads:

DATA RECOVERY INVESTIGATIONS AT THE _______ SITE ST. CHARLES COUNTY, MISSOURI Authors: Joseph Harl and Patti Jo Wright Illustrators: Dianna Georgina and Patti Jo Wright August 1994


That almost sounds boring, but I’ve been reading it lately, and it’s rather interesting…when it’s not utterly tedious. I guess that’s the life of archaeologists and anthropologists. Let me share a little of the Abstract on page ii. Please excuse my redactions.

“The record floods during the summer of 1993, exposed human remains on a natural levee within the Missouri River floodplain, near the community of ______, __ _______ County, Missouri. Specifically, this burial is situated within Section __ of Township __North, Range _ East as depicted on the _______ 7.5’ USGS quadrangle. It was decided that this prehistoric grave should be removed and reburied at a safer location. This operation was performed in October, 1993. A surface survey performed at that time, indicated that 3-5 other individuals had also been buried here during the late Emergent Mississippian Period (ca. A.D. 950-1100).”

Anyway, there was once a farmer, now deceased, whose last name rhymes with seltzer, who was inspecting his fields after the flood of 93, and he found an unmarked grave. Now this farmer was no dummy, and he immediately called Van A. Reidhead, Chairman of the Anthropology Dept., University of Missouri-St. Louis. I’m gonna hand this off to Van now. I spoke to him by phone July 9, 2022. ((Remember, anything in parentheses is my input.))

Paul: I think I have your correct job description for 1993, but maybe you should bring me up to date.

Van Reidhead: I’m a Professor of Sociology at East Stroudsburg University. Stroudsburg…that’s a town in northeastern Pennsylvania.

P: You own a house on Moll Road (Schleursburg), and your wife’s name is Mary Ann.

VR: You’re probably going to want to talk with her too because she had a real unique and historical role at the site, and I’ll explain it to you as we go along. She’s more connected to it than I am.

P: Did you already know Glennon Stelzer? (There, I said it.)

VR: Yeah. I knew him from the time we first moved to Augusta in 87. We met Glennon and Ruth that very first year.

P: And did you already know Joe Harl (principal investigator) at that time?

VR: Yeah. Joe had been a student of mine at UMSL…probably in the late 70s. I was an assistant professor of anthropology at that time. But I was later department chair for 15 years…and various other things. I was at UMSL for 29 years.

P: At the excavation site, did you see any locals…like the Kamphoefners or Koenigs?

VR: No. I knew the Kamphoefners from little league baseball. My son Matt got started in baseball right away and Paul Kamphoefner was his coach. But I didn’t interact with Paul in any way having to do with the archaeology site. I never saw anyone other than Glennon. Glennon called up and told me about the skeleton being washed out in the 1994 [sic] spring flood. After the 93 flood there was a pretty severe 94 flood that exposed that skeleton [sic]. Glennon wanted me to go look at it and tell him what I thought ought to be done. So, I did, and I told him I would want Joe Harl and his team to go out and remove it…and to survey the site. It wasn’t just a lone skeleton…there was other…material…artifacts on the surface of the ground. Then Joe would assess whether it was worth excavating. At that time Joe was running the Archaeology Survey which was a research operation in the department.

What happened here


a day ago,

a decade,

a century,

a millennium?

VR: So, Glennon (remember he was born and raised there) was excited about that. And we decided it was worth excavating.

VR: I should tell you Mary Ann’s role in it, because it’s an important one…really a lot more significant than anything I did. We had only just a few years before got a Burial Law passed in Missouri…in 1987…protecting Native American graves. And that was a historic thing. In 1987 there were only a half dozen states that protected Native American grave’s from being pilfered. And the Native Americans of Missouri had been working for a few years trying to get a burial law passed. So, Mary Ann and I started working with them in 86 or 87. And Mary Ann…

If you are perfectly still

for a very long time,

can you feel its past

whisper across your senses?

Is the memory stored somewhere

In the collective unconscious?

Or is that only your imagination,

Your ownness

filling up the space?

Paul calling on 7/12/22: Let me start with a few basic questions. How old are you and where were you from before you settled in this area?

Mary Ann Reidhead: I’m 70yo and I’m originally from St. Louis.

P: What is your occupation?

MAR: I raised a bunch of kids. Van and I brought 2 families together, so there were 8 of them. He had 3; I had 3, and we had 2 together. Not all of them lived with us at the same time though. Then I started going back to school…I had wanted to do archaeology. I had been doing it…actually met Van at UMSL doing archaeology. Then I switched to anthropology, working with Native Americans in STL. I had to do a practicum class, so I went to the Native American Center and talked with them about what I could do as a project. And they asked me to…they needed statistics on their population. Anyway, that’s how I got active with the Native Americans.

MAR: Later Van got connected too, and we were doing work…on projects that had to do with their community. One of the things I got involved with early on was the burial act. They were trying to get a law passed here in MO to protect the unmarked burials. It was called the Uniform Unmarked Burial Act.

MAR: So, I met with the Director of the Indian Center in Kansas City, and he had been working on it for 3 years. Then I talked with my brother. He was chief of staff for STL Mayor, Vincent Schoemehl. My brother was also a lawyer who worked for General American, and he had been an alderman for years, so he had worked on different bills. I asked him what the right way was to go about doing this and get it passed.

MAR: What we wanted was to have it so that when archaeologists found burials, they would treat them in similar ways to how they treated European (descent) burials. Like if an archaeologist finds a burial and knows it’s…say…a pioneer…they can tell by what’s in the grave…they have to call a coroner…just to make sure it wasn’t recent…and the cause of death. Then they have to look for relatives. That takes quite a bit of time and research. And if they want to keep it, they have to get permission from the family. None of this, though, with Native Americans. If you found a grave you could just remove it. And you could put it in a box…in a school…and keep it there. And maybe you’d work on it…research…or maybe you wouldn’t…if you didn’t have a grant to do research…those bones could stay in a box for years, and sometimes never returned to anybody. This upset Indians and sent a terrible message to youths.

MAR: So, my brother said it was definitely worth doing but he also said, “I’ve worked on some bills for 10 years and they still haven’t passed. I don’t want you to be disappointed.” But I started working on it…and this is really interesting…every year the Catholic Church…in the St. Louis Review…puts out a section on Christian burials…and all the money we spend on them…and how important that is to people. I took it with me when I testified in Jefferson City…about why we needed this law. It passed!

Paul: When was that?

MAR: It was 1986 or 87. We were living in Augusta, renting that house there…Frieda…?

P: Koetter’s. (Now the home of Bill Ferris.)

It is a mystery

And now that you have come

to occupy this place,

you have become a part

of everything that went before,

a part of the mystery.

MAR: Now, Van said you are interested in the skeleton that was found on Stelzer’s property. What I did was more involved with the Indians. We called Evelyn (Wahkinney) Voelker, the director of the Indian Center. She was a medicine-woman; she was Comanche.

Gentle readers, l’d like to share some more information about Evelyn. First, I received this text from Van: “…she was taken away from her parents as a child, along with her little brother, and sent to Indian boarding school, not seeing her parents again until after she graduated, along with all the horrors this entailed. Evelyn was from a lineage of Comanche medicine women that included an aunt named Sanapia, a famous medicine woman about whom a book was written.”

Second, I found Evelyn on Find a Grave. And third, look what Wikipedia has to say about Evelyn’s aunt, Sanapia – it gave me the chills.

Mary Ann: So, I called Evelyn, and I said, “…we have this burial. and we want to know how we should handle it.” Because in the law…one of the things we had written up…was to call in a Native American. Obviously, we may not get the group to which this individual belonged to...

P: Especially in a case like this; the person was from the Mississippian Culture…about a thousand years ago.

MAR: Right. Whoever is the local Native American group, they can come in and do a ritual. And the remains…it has to be agreed on…if the archaeologists want to keep them…to do study on…they get 2 years, but no more. And the Indians were very good about that. So, Evelyn and I…Evelyn wanted me to assist her…and I said I’d be honored. The first thing she did was “sage” me…you light the sage…are you familiar with any of this?

P: Yes, I’ve been in the middle of one of those ceremonies. They get the sage smoke all over you.

MAR: Right, it’s a purification, and she had eagle feathers, which at the time were illegal to own, unless you were Native American, or you had collected them before they passed the law. Also, a local priest…at that time…the one at Dutzow. He was very interested in NA culture. Evelyn said some prayers in Comanche. When we were finished the archaeologists went to work. It was very cool to be involved in something historical…well, it was so obviously wrong to say your ancestors don’t matter. That (the ritual) was a wonderful thing to happen, and I think that blessing ceremony might have been the first one in Missouri.

Gentle spirits, when I was a child in Jefferson City, I often had reason to be in the capitol building. In the left wing of the rotunda floor there were many historical displays: flags, guns, tools, an early incandescent bulb display, various Native American artifacts…but unbelievable to our modern sensibilities, there were two complete NA skeletons behind glass in a cave-like setting. My memory tells me it was a mother and child. By way of a reality check, I quizzed my brothers on this topic.

A. (younger brother): That display always freaked me out as a kid. I felt sorry for that mother and child.

B. (younger still): I remember being told that the skeletons came from a cave in the bluffs that you see heading east on I-70 at the river crossing east of Boonville, just before Rocheport. Then again, perhaps someone was pulling my leg…

Paul: Those were good answers, but I went a step further and called the Cole County Historical Society; I had to leave a message. It was a Saturday, and I wasn’t surprised that a homo sapiens didn’t answer. But…for the hell of it, I also called the Missouri State Museum which is in the capitol. Bingo! A helpful woman answered, and she assured me that the display once existed, but the skeletons had been returned to a NA tribe in the 1980s. (No doubt due to the burial act.) She didn’t know what tribe had the remains. She also looked for a photo in the archives, but nothing turned up, which is just as well.

Now it’s Monday, July 25, and I have received a call from Darrell Strope of the Cole County Historical Society. We talked, and he promised to help me research the cave burial display by looking for interesting newspaper articles and other links. Apparently, Darrell is a man of his word. By nightfall I had 2 news stories and a link to the Unmarked Human Burials Consultation Committee. Here’s the link:

and also look for the photo attachment of an article by The Daily Standard (Sikeston, MO), Monday, April 12, 1954. It gives more background on the cave-burial display. If you want more info on the work of the Burials Committee, read the longer story from the Daily Capital News (J. C. MO), April 11, 1998 (2 photos).

Click to open and/or download

Click image to open and/or download

So, thank you gentle readers for following me through another excavation of the past. I have a few photos for you: some artifacts from the dig, courtesy of Glenda Drier: circular object and bird points, a recent pic of Mary Ann, one of Van, and a photo of Van’s handwritten message to Ruth and Glennon Stelzer on the inside cover of Joe Harl’s official 100-page investigation report.

BTW this dig was discussed in a TILIW video interview with Donald Struckhoff, Bob Struckhoff and Glennon Stelzer. Fast forward to !:03:50.

In part 2, I will converse with Joe Harl, the principal investigator at the excavation site. There will also be further conversation with Van Riedhead, Becky Forristal (once a student of Van), Glenda Drier and who knows…maybe you?


In a hundred years

Or a thousand,

Someone may come here

And wonder-

Who was here before?

And the mystery of you

May whisper across their senses.

Every Sunday I go to Maria Brady-Smith’s blog, Bringing in the Day, to read her current offering. Each poem is paired with a beautiful photo taken by her husband, Mike. If you wish to read more of Maria’s poems, here are two links:

Stay curious,


143 views0 comments


bottom of page