Is the search for Gov. Caswell's grave over?
New Bern, NC –
INTRO - A mystery surrounding the whereabouts of North Carolina's first constitutional governor may be solved. George Olsen has more.
Not only was Richard Caswell the state's first governor, he was an important figure in state Revolutionary War history and established the town of Kingston now Kinston in 1762. That all makes Caswell an important part of North Carolina history which makes it odd that at some point he got misplaced.
"He dies in Fayetteville. They have a state funeral for him. The last thing you read in the Fayetteville Observer is he's on a cart being sent out to Kinston, but there's nothing about him arriving in Kinston, there's nothing about him being buried in Kinston. The documentary record of that time period is completely mute on that particular topic, and that's what adds to the mystery."
Dr. Charles Ewen, a professor of anthropology at East Carolina University. Two-hundred-and-twenty-one years after his death in 1789 no one is sure where Caswell is buried until now sort of.
"To my way of thinking, we found the grave and all that's left of him there."
Dr. Ewen has been on an off-and-on search for Caswell's grave for around ten years. To say the grave is "lost" is a bit of a misnomer while some have suggested he was buried in Fayetteville where he died, most of the historical record indicates he was buried at one of two Kinston locations. Ewen and his archaeology students have conducted excavations over that ten-year period trying to determine where Caswell is buried. The most recent was in 2008 following the discovery of a photo by the North Carolina Museum of History indicating the location of Caswell's grave. That site conveniently at the CSS Neuse and Gov. Caswell memorial state historic site in Kinston.
"We followed up on that, we did some radar work, found where a grave was located, scraped off the top, found the grave pit, excavated that and it's just one of those mysteries that keeps on going, we got to the bottom of the grave and found the bottom of a coffin, and that was it."
There was nothing, though, in some ways, finding nothing was correct. For instance, Caswell was a Masonic grand master, which led Ewen to wonder why Caswell wasn't buried with Masonic regalia.
"But the Masons that I spoke to, they told me the only thing he would've been buried with was a leather apron and any rings or medallions would've been passed on to his children, so the fact we didn't find any Masonic regalia would've been expected."
But in fact something was left behind, though it took chemical analysis of soil samples taken during the excavation to find it.
"When a body decays and its in a dark cool damp area, it actually, the fats start to render into a soapy substance in fact it is soap and its called grave wax or adipocere. If you have the opportunity to have the body actually change into this adipocere, some of that can be stable and left in the soils surrounding it and in fact we found it in the dark soil above the bottom of the coffin and below the coffin where I think the grave wax leaked down into the area underneath the coffin."
During excavation, water actually had to be pumped from the grave pit, so its Ewen's theory that the water table rose and lowered again and again with the coffin and its contents soaked and then drying repeatedly over a couple hundred years that ultimately everything but the coffin bottom somewhat preserved because it stayed consistently inside the water table decayed into nothing.
"So long story short, I think we found where Richard Caswell was buried and there's just nothing left of him now."
One other thing to indicate this is in fact Gov. Caswell's grave it's marked, though as with so much of the mystery, it's marked sort of. There was never any indication that Caswell's grave received a proper headstone. The only historical mention of anything marking his grave was an oak tree growing at its head. And yet, about 100 years ago, something was placed at the site that Charles Ewen believes is the final resting place of North Carolina's first governor.
"Interestingly enough, there was a monument downtown in Kinston, an obelisk type of thing, then when there was a fire in downtown Kinston, the obelisk was damaged and it was an obelisk to Caswell and so they moved it to this cemetery and they just sort of plopped it down in there or that is the story that they had to move it so they moved it to the cemetery. I think its pretty coincidental that where they put the base of this monument is right at Caswell's grave, and that kind of leads me to wonder, well, was he really lost or did people at that time just generally know where he was and that's where we'll put the monument."
So Dr. Ewen's search is concluded. However, he adds, if someone comes up with compelling evidence disputing his belief
"Well then maybe we'll look. You never say never."
Dr. Charles Ewen is a professor of anthropology at East Carolina University. The Gov. Caswell Memorial and, apparently, the Governor's grave is located on W. Vernon Ave. in Kinston. I'm George Olsen.