Routine dig last June turns up remains of 15 Hessian soldiers
Archaeologist Wade Catts told students and residents at a family archaeology day on May 21 how the remains of 15 Hessian soldiers killed in the Revolutionary War’s battle of Red Bank were found two years ago.
Red Bank Battlefield Director and Rowan University historian Jen Janofsky and Catts were leading a routine dig around Fort Mercer that day in June of 2022 when they made a stunning find: a human femur, then four femur bones next to each other.
“We were not sure if it was two people or four people,” Catts said. “The bones were in poor condition. There was no DNA.”
The dig was soon expanded with help from Rowan and West Chester University archaeology students, and when the fieldwork ended two months later, the human remains of 15 soldiers were found – including skulls and teeth.
“We were able to get a lot of information from the crania and teeth, which are being tested for DNA now,” Catts explained. “We are working with German officials, who have created a list of all Hessian soldiers who fought in America, with their age, rank, what units they were in and where they were killed.
“What a great outcome it would be if, after 250 years of being unceremoniously thrown into a pit, that a person’s remains would be reunited with their families.”
“This is the first of four family archaeology days this year,” Janofsky said of the May 21 event. “Students and residents will dig and get their hands dirty.”
The next three family archaeology days will be on June 4, 10 and 17.
Janofsky pointed out that the Hessians were killed trying to seize Fort Mercer from the Continental Army during the war, but were repelled in what was a major victory for the Americans. Their remains were found in a pit some 50 yards outside of the fort itself, which no longer exists but is represented by a monument on the site.
“These archaeology days are very important,” Janofsky said. We learn about our history.”
Among the more than 100 people who participated in the recent archaeology event was Dana Linck, a metal detector specialist and retired archaeologist who worked for the National Park Service.
“We have found brass pieces, buttons and plenty of musket balls,” she revealed. “More importantly, we are teaching students and residents about the science of archaeology and what types of tools we use.
“This is an incredible opportunity for children and students to touch the past,” said Heather Simmons, deputy director of the Gloucester County Board of Commissioners. “They actually dig in the dirt and touch things. It is a very tactile way of learning.
“Young people ask questions about how and why, and that lights the fire of their curiosity,” added Simmons, who noted that Rowan field archaeology students get to work their hands on their first day as college undergraduates and attend once-weekly classes at the battlefield.
There are plans to test the DNA of the remains and possibly send them back to families in Germany. Catts said he looks forward to the test results and to continuing excavation at the battlefield, located in National Park on the banks of the Delaware River.
For information, go to www.gloucestercountynj.gov/67/red-bank-battlefield.