Man wants to know what to do with old bones he found in an attic

By Wilson Ring
Brownington, Vermont (AP) 10-07

Ralph Swett is a self-described pack rat, but even he was surprised when he pried open a box taken from a Ryegate attic decades ago and saw what was inside: two human skulls, some long bones, pieces of spine and other remains.

Written on one of the skulls was an explanation. The bones belonged to victims of an Indian massacre in Colorado in 1854 and they’d been dug up during construction of a hotel in Pueblo in 1888. Another bone, a scapula or shoulder bone, bears what appears to be anatomical notations.

Now Swett, 77, who claims Abenaki heritage and is the leader of a loosely affiliated group of people with Indian ancestry who call themselves the Clan of the Hawk, is trying to decide what to do with the bones.

He first discovered the bones about 15 years ago, but put them away and rediscovered them last spring. Over the summer he had them on display in a small Indian museum on his property, but last week they were packed up and brought inside for the winter. He says he wants to do the right thing with the bones, but he doesn’t know what that is.

“I was hoping somebody would come along and offer me a million dollars for them,” said Swett.

Earlier this summer Swett told the Pueblo Historical Society about the bones. Vermont officials know about the bones, too, but so far the only official communication he had was one phone discussion with the chairman of Vermont’s Commission on Native American Affairs.

“They’re welcome to come, I have no problem with anybody or anything, but they belong to me,” he said.

Deborah Espinosa, the director of the El Pueblo History Museum built near the site of the massacre, has referred the matter to the Colorado state archaeologist.

“I want these bones to come home to Colorado,” said Espinosa. “It really sounds like he has a very significant part of our city’s history.”

Espinosa said that on Dec. 24, 1854, a number of Ute and Jicarilla Apaches Indians, upset by their treatment by the settlers in the region, attacked or kidnapped everyone at the trading post, which at the time was on the U.S-Mexican border. About 13 or 14 people died, including a handful of attackers.

Neighbors of the settlers who were killed buried them where they died. Espinosa said it was likely the bodies of the attackers were left to the elements. After the attack, the area was abandoned for years by outsiders.

“It’s really a very dramatic story, one of the first episodes of the result of the rising American Indian tensions here,” Espinosa said.

Swett doesn’t think the bones are those of Indians, but rather the remains of settlers.

The ethnicity of the bones is critical. Federal law describes a process to handle Indian remains and turn them over to the proper tribe for disposal, said Colorado state Archaeologist Susan Collins.

Sometimes experts can tell American Indian remains from Europeans, but in this case it might not be that simple.

“I do understand the people who were present at the El Pueblo fortified trading center included Hispanic settlers, French trappers and several different Native American groups that were friendly toward the occupants,” Collins said. “People killed in this encounter could be any one of those ethnic categories.”

The writing on one of the skulls in Swett’s possession said it was dug up in Pueblo in 1888 during construction of the Farris Hotel on the site of the raid. That fits with the records of the area. And archaeological excavations in the area in the 1980s discovered human remains as well, Espinosa said.

Swett was working as an auctioneer in the late 1970s when he bought the contents of the house in Ryegate. He wouldn’t say who owned the belongings. It wasn’t until about 15 years later that he pried open the plain, but well-made oak box that he discovered the bones.

He then stored those bones away again until earlier this year when he rediscovered them. He said no one complained about the bones when they were on display in the museum.

Swett had no idea how the bones got to Ryegate.

Mike Noble, a spokesman for Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, showed a photo of the shoulder blade to a hospital pathologist, who said the writing on the bone was anatomically correct and it suggested the bone had been used in a teaching setting of some kind.

Vermont State Archaeologist Geovanna Peebles said she was helping to find an expert to study the bones to determine what the next step should be before returning them to Colorado.

Swett said he didn’t really expect to get a million dollars for the bones.

“That’s a good dream, ain’t it?” Swett said.

Despite the challenges, Peebles said she felt the bones would eventually end up where they needed to go.

“What’s really wonderful is the collaborative nature of this entire effort, that everyone is just working together to help the folks find their home, go home and spend the rest of eternity in peace.”

On the Net:

Colorado Historical Society

Clan of the Hawk