Gaye LeBaron: Finding long-buried Bear Flaggers bones may only be beginning of long tale
Let’s talk about where the bones are buried. It’s a common phrase, usually used to question political motives. But not today.
Today, it is a real question about the location of the bones of two men killed 169 years ago while on an errand for the Bear Army.
Chances are you already know the back story. The search got considerable coverage last winter when the first search dogs - properly known as forensic canines - went tracking for the burial sites.
If all this sounds unlikely to you after so many years, you were not alone. Lots of us are curious about the ongoing search. Where the bones are buried. And what happens next.
Background: In June of 1846, that ragtag group of Americans who “captured” the pueblo of Sonoma, with a vague notion of setting up a new nation, dispatched Thomas Cowie and a young man named Fowler (maybe George, maybe William, no one seems sure) to “Fitch’s Ranch” (read “Healdsburg” on today’s map) to pick up gunpowder.
Along the way (read “Santa Rosa”), they were captured and killed by a band of “defensores,” young “Californios” led by Juan Padilla, the owner of the Roblar de la Miseria Rancho (read “Penngrove”), who were bent on stopping what they perceived as an American land grab.
The search has involved oft-told tales, 150-year-old newspaper clippings, wooden markers at wild-guess locations and now, a truly scientific effort to find the graves.
The searchers, led by Rural Cemetery volunteers Bill Northcroft and Ray Owen with the support of the Sonoma County Historical Society, have learned a lot since December, when the first group of forensic dogs came sniffing around a site that is still being kept secret to keep the curious out of people’s backyards.
Since then, another band of dogs, on a less-damp day, pinpointed the same location. They sit down. That’s what forensic dogs do. After sniffing in wide circles around a site, they hone in on a single spot and then, when they are pretty sure, they sit down. No digging. They know better than that. For dogs that find remains of prehistoric man and/or ?10,000-year-old Native American bones, the Bear Flaggers are short-timers.
So now, with the findings of two sets of dogs, the location of the graves of Cowie and Fowler has been become an issue for the scientists. And the bureaucrats. And everything gets more complicated.
First, academia. Anthropologists from Sonoma State University have prepared a set of maps using data from a GPR search. GPR is ground-penetrating radar, a method that uses radar pulses to detect subsurface objects.
From the GPR mapping, Dr. Alexis Boutin, an associate professor in the department, has confirmed that there are “shallow anomalies … worthy of further investigation.”
So, they have a pretty good idea where to dig but not how deep. And, of course, they don’t know for certain what (or who) is down there.
This mystery won’t be solved in the hour allotted Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot by the BBC. And the excavation of any human remains is not nearly so simple as mystery writers make it sound.
Boutin is very clear on what comes next.
“Before we break any ground,” she said in an email to Jeremy Nichols, president of the county historical society, “a comprehensive research plan must be created.
“This will involve several steps, including:
“Applying for, and obtaining, approval from SSU’s Institutional Research Board to undertake research involving human subjects.
“Determining which permits and notifications are necessary to excavate human remains from private land (e.g., how to meet the terms of CA Health and Safety Code 7050.5).
“Identifying a secure temporary repository where any human remains recovered can be stored and analyzed.
“Making plans (at least preliminarily) for the final disposition of any human remains recovered, and ensuring that their memorialization is sufficiently inclusive of all stakeholder groups.”
It’s clear that this is going to take a while. And there are some sticky wickets in there, like “final disposition” and “memorialization.”
While Santa Rosa’s historic Rural Cemetery supporters have offered gravesites with proper plaques, some historical society members feel that the bones should be returned to Sonoma, where it all began. And some are holding out for a burial site in the Plaza, where the monument to the Bear Flaggers stands on the northeast corner, across the street from where General Vallejo gallantly offered his sword - and his brandy - to his captors.
Were they heroes? Were the “defensores,” defending Mexican land, villains? Nothing about history is simple. Stay tuned.