Grave search underway in Santa Rosa for Bear Flag rebels killed in 1846

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Under the towering trees of a hillside Santa Rosa home, a group of grave diggers set to work Saturday with picks, shovels, buckets and brooms to search for the 169-year-old remains of a pair of rebels from California’s past.

The group of archaeologists and anthropologists, students and the curious, gathered to continue what’s been a decades-long search for the bones of Thomas Cowie and George Fowler, two members of the Bear Flag Revolt killed in 1846 — four years before statehood — by defenders of Mexico.

By mid-day, the diggers hit a collection of rocks about two feet down in one of two holes — a potential clue that they were getting close to what could be the graves of the slain men.

“There are multiple versions of the story,” said Alexis Boutin, associate professor of anthropology with Sonoma State University, who was leading the dig, “but in one, the graves were shallow with stones piled on top.”

Oral histories, an old wooden sign, a scent picked up by a pack of forensic dogs and images returned from ground-penetrating radar led the group to dig in two locations in the verdant Montecito Heights backyard off Chanate Road. The spots were between a seasonal stream and a back deck.

Cowie and Fowler — whose first name might have actually been William, but nobody knows for sure — were part of a ragtag group of Americans who in 1846 briefly “captured” the pueblo of Sonoma and declared it part of the nation, in what’s been described as a botched, almost comical Yankee land grab.

They were apparently the only casualties, and they suffered a gruesome fate at the sharp end of knives and bullets. Lore has it they were captured by Mexican troops while en route to a ranch near what’s now Healdsburg on a quest for gunpowder.

Bill Northcroft and Ray Owens, a pair of Santa Rosa’s historic Rural Cemetery volunteers, have been credited with doing the research that had them sending the letter to the property owner to ask permission to take the historical mystery to the next level.

Sifting through dirt Saturday, Northcroft showed a Santa Rosa High School student how to look through the soil.

“It got us to this place, in this spot, at this time,” said Northcroft, 59, of Santa Rosa.

A dig that might possibly unearth human remains or objects of historical or archaeological value requires a lot of people and oversight.

Evans Sulme, a Sonoma County deputy sheriff representing the coroner’s office, joined the group in case they did find bones, which would launch a death investigation.

Sulme said they would work with the team to properly collect the evidence and quickly determine if they are in fact historical and not recent remains. If they are old, the research team would have the first opportunity to conduct analysis. Then the coroner’s team would likely send the bones for further tests at a special lab in Chico.

“We get taught about this in coroner training but we rarely get to see it,” Sulme said of the dig.

The team had radar maps, measuring tape, tarps, buckets, catalogs with every imaginable soil color and a group of very upbeat volunteers.

By one hole, a graduate of SSU’s master’s program in anthropology, was taking detailed measurements of each rock’s location while another was sweeping dirt away with a small broom.

Standing in another hole, Whitney McClellan, a staff archaeologist with the SSU-affiliated Anthropological Studies Center, held up a piece of dark glass to the sky.

“It has a blue tinge, I see bubbles and inconsistencies,” McClellan said. “I wouldn’t say it’s modern.”

“Tag it and bag it,” Boutin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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