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On the Edge: Lost Graves, Trail of Tears

March 27, 2010  - By
Image: GPS World

By Steven M. Di Naso, Vincent P. Gutowski, Harvey Henson, and Ryan Leonard

During the winter of 1838–39, the great Native American Cherokee Nation trekked across southern Illinois, in a forced removal by the U.S. government from their ancestral homeland in Tennessee. Harried, unequipped, and unsupported by their captors, thousands died on the Trail of Tears. Burial records were not kept, and burial locations remain lost to this day. Local history suggests that some Illinois settlers allowed the Cherokee to bury their dead on small plots of land adjacent to their own family cemeteries. One such plot, the Campground Presbyterian Church cemetery near Anna, Illinois, may contain unmarked Cherokee graves.

Researchers from Southern Illinois University and Eastern Illinois University used GPS to navigate and precisely map probes of a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) instrument in the cemetery. We monumented the geophysical survey grids using real-time kinematic (RTK) DGPS. Site topography was also mapped using GPS, as were the individual cemetery headstones. Adding geographic information systems (GIS) software to our mix to map cemetery headstone distribution and record headstone attributes (dates of death, names), we could determine chronological gaps within the cemetery that coincide with the probable emigration of the Cherokee.


GPR and electromagnetic conductivity produced contour plots of high-resolution magnetic gradient data. Small dipolar anomalies detected are typically related to disruptions within near-surface soil horizons and may correspond to locations of shallow graves: the lost final resting places of many Cherokee.

By close examination of the geophysical survey data and the anomalies produced from them, we were able to present plausible if not possible locations of several gravesites. However, at this time, and for obvious reasons, the actual location must remain secure and cannot be published.

The figure below shows a mosaic of amplitude depth slices at .30–.70 meter intervals from processed interpolated 250-MHz GPR profile data. White rectangles denote known graves. Most marked graves were imaged, although some were represented as more subtle anomalies on this display. Some possible unmarked graves were interpreted at UTM coordinates xxxx, yyyy.


The cemetery is within working distance of CORS station ILCB at Southern Illinois University. Two RTK GPS units communicating with the station via CDMA cellular radio used real-time differential corrections along a variable baseline length of approximately 28.5 kilometers, enabling mapping of the site at centimeter-accuracy resolution.

Survey data were edited, mapped, and analyzed with a GIS. Family genealogy polygons were generated using last names, to produce family distribution plots throughout the cemetery.



The study, supported by a National Park Service grant with Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, used two Leica 1250 RTK GPS units, a Leica TC802 robotic total station, and Esri ArcGIS ArcInfo. Equipment was provided by Kara Company of Countryside, Illinois.