Work on Grave in the Road finished; Route reopens, renamed to honor family

The bones tell the story of hard work and pioneer life in Johnson County.

Seven sets of remains have returned to the county’s famed “Grave in the Road.” Three adults and four children — ages estimated from infant to 11 or 12 years old — were unearthed in the gravesite. Evidence of arthritis and wear from labor was found in their backs and fingers.

No catastrophic injury or chronic disease indicates what the cause of death is. Most likely, it was a disease such as cholera, smallpox or influenza that afflicted them.

The clues are meager when trying to glimpse history nearly 200 years in the past. But through this entirely unique project, a better picture of the 1830s is constantly emerging, said Christopher Schmidt, archaeology professor at the University of Indianapolis.

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“The project isn’t really over for us. We have a report to write, we have analysis to do. We’ll have things trickle out for years,” Schmidt said. “We have good data, we have good pictures and we’ll do the best we can to continue to honor these people by letting them tell their story.”

County highway officials reopened County Road 400S on Friday after a nearly four-month-long project to reconfigure the area around the “Grave in the Road.” Nancy Kerlin Barnett, as well as six other individuals whose bones were discovered at the site, have been carefully buried and their graves marked at the site.

What was formerly an imposing mound of dirt buffered by stone is now a raised median, a simple polished black marker embedded in the concrete. County officials have renamed the road Barnett Cemetery Road in honor of the family’s history and the significance of the people buried there.

The project has succeeded in making the site safer for drivers as well as protecting the graves of those buried there, county commissioner Brian Baird said.

“I know in my heart that we’ve done the right thing, not only by Mrs. Kerlin Barnett and her family but by the citizens of Johnson County and all those who will use this road to travel and come to this specific location to see this monument,” he said. “It has come to a good and right conclusion.”

More than 80 people, many of whom were descendants of Barnett, gathered at the gravesite Friday to witness its rededication. Some still lived near the original family farm of Barnett and her husband, William Barnett. Others drove from around the country to be part of the event.

“The family tree is huge,” said Janie Willard Hall, Barnett’s great-great-great-granddaughter. “Nancy and William had 10 children. When she died, her oldest was 20 and her youngest was 6 months. She had 47 grandchildren that she didn’t even know.”

Officials acknowledged that this was a difficult request to ask the family, and the plan to move the remains and rework the site was emotionally charged. Though many from the family were in attendance and helped with the project, those feelings remained Friday.

“No one in our family is happy. Would you be?” Hall said.

Besides the disturbance of Barnett’s remains, family members did not like the appearance of the new site. The grave had once been a monument that attracted curious people hoping to see a local historical curiosity; the new version was underwhelming, said Maryann Kopelov, a relative of Barnett’s who lives in Bloomington.

“I don’t like the gravesite as much as the other one. We all grew up with that old site, and maybe that’s part of the problem, that we grew up with it,” she said.

Barnett died in 1831 and was buried in her favorite spot, overlooking the banks of Sugar Creek. Her grave remained undisturbed for more than 100 years, when plans were made by the county to build a road through the area. All of the graves would have to be moved.

Local legend says that Barnett’s grandson sat near the stone with a shotgun to prevent her remains from being disturbed. So the road was built around it. County Road 400S wraps around the elevated grave with a black historical marker noting Barnett’s story. Rocks had been piled up as a barrier to protect it from being hit.

But over time, as more traffic emerged in the area, the solution became problematic.

The grave has been disrupted by accidents at that location as well as by farm equipment scraping the site. Sheriff’s deputies had reported remains emerging from the side of the grave mound.

Work started in May to ensure the gravesite was protected and that the area was safer for drivers.

Local officials with the Johnson County Highway Department had worked closely with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Johnson County Museum of History and Barnett’s descendants to find a solution that was respectful and met the safety needs of the roadway.

“This has been a lot of conflict of emotions for the family and the people involved in this. It’s not something we took lightly or something we did lightly,” Baird said.

The University of Indianapolis was chosen for the project to help ensure that the remains in the grave were handled with professional care. Schmidt, who is the director of the Indiana Prehistory Laboratory at the university, led his team of graduate students and other professors through the excavation of the gravesite.

The area seemed to be full of surprises. Instead of just one body in the grave, they uncovered six other individuals. The 3-feet-high mound that it had been assumed was Barnett’s grave only contained one set of remains. The others had been buried deep, below the level of the road.

Researchers had to sift through all of the dirt to find each of the hundreds of bone fragments that had been spread out over time. They slowly put each body back together then studied each to determine age, sex and potential cause of death.

Once all of the bones had been assembled, studied and photographed, Schmidt’s team placed each one in specially made boxes built by Barnett’s family. Each box was transported to the gravesite by Jessen Funeral Home and placed inside the concrete vault installed in the roadway.

The vault was filled with sand and covered in effort to help preserve the site, Schmidt said.

“They’ve got it built so that even if a truck drives over that median it won’t collapse,” he said.

With the remains back in their proper place, a special exhibition on Barnett is planned at the the Johnson County Museum of History. The exhibit will be a permanent part of the museum’s pioneer room, focusing on Barnett, the history of the era and this particular project, said David Pfeiffer, museum director.

A black historical marker previously mounted at the gravesite will be part of the exhibit, as will the original headstone, which has been weathered and is in disrepair. The exhibition also will include some of the information uncovered by the archaeological study of the site.

“There’s usually not a lot of information about pioneer women, so this is a great addition for us,” Pfeiffer said.

Plans also are in place for an updated historical sign about Barnett to be installed along the side of the road at the site, Pfeiffer said. The Department of Natural Resources also plans to put signs up reflecting the entire Barnett Cemetery.

“We want something vertical for people to see,” Pfeiffer said. “It won’t be in the middle of the road for safety reasons, but there will be a vertical presence on either side of the road.”