Colonial Cold Case


It starts with the Lost Towns Project, a non-profit organization in modern day Anne Arundel county Maryland where they conduct research to make new discoverers of the Chesapeake region.  And in 2003 they discoverer and old plantation on the site called Leavy Neck. The owners records indicate William Neale acquired the house and property in 1662 and abandoned around 1677 after his death. And around where the home would have been they discovered a colonial storage cellar used for food, beverages and household items. But another purpose is as a trash dump. This is not a unusual purpose for the cellar but after digging through a thin layer of clay they found a entire human skeleton! And based on the “archaeological”evidence(trash) below and above that was used to cover the body, he died when the Neale family lived there most likely pre 1670s. Based on the disrespectful manner of which he was buried he was not close to the family and has no loved ones near, most likely in England. And based on this evidence the initial assumption was he was a indentured servant.

Indentured servant contract.

Indentured servants were the work force of plantations in 17th century Chesapeake. At the time 3/4 of immigrants where indentured servants. And they would sign a legally binding agreement to serve there owner for a certain time frame they agreed upon, usually 4 to 7 years. And in return for their service the owner would have to pay for their travels to America, give them shelter, and provide food. After the agreed amount of time expires they gain their freedom and are given land to use by the government. But the work was hard and they had to do everything their owner demanded.

Life history based on the bones

But was he really a indentured servant? Once he was brought to the Smithsonian Institute they would try to solve that question. Based on the bones he was a European male, about 5ft 2in and still growing based on the incomplete fused epiphyses on his long bones. And he was around 15 to 16 years old. And based on the extensive muscle attachment on his shoulder and arm bones he did a lot of heavy lifting on a daily basis. Based on his vertebrae he did heavy lifting and he developed Schmorl’s depressions. This is a compression in the spine caused by heavy lifting. The same thing can be seen in weight lifters and gymnasts. Also based on stable isotope analysis he was a recent     immigrant. He also had poor health. He suffered for the beginning symptoms of tuberculosis. 19 of his 32 teeth had cavities, some of where infected which could have been the cause of his tuberculosis. All of these factors would have made work as a indentured servant difficult, if not impossible. Which could have lead to his death.

Because there is beveling on the ceramic edge this was definitely used to bury his grave.   

But why bury him under the cellar? Well based on the laws of the time it was prohibited to give a inappropriate burial of a servant and they had to be public. Public burials cost the owner money but also gave government officials the opportunity to look at indentured servants remains for mistreatment and abuse. Something the Neale’s might not of wanted them to see. There is other skeletal evidence that show foul play. Perimortem ( before death with no signs of healing) fractures in the right wrist indicate a defensive injury. This indicates that there was an altercation that lead to his death, mostly likely because he couldn’t preform the takes that his owner demanded of him. The burial that was given to him also supports the suspicious causes around his death because he was buried in a quick grave that didn’t even fit him completely, and the quickest tool he/ she could find which was the ceramic sherd (yes sherd) that was in the trash pit with him. A burial that was done in haste and secrecy.

More information:

Written in the Bones by       – has a lot of information on this case and other in Chesapeake during the 17th century. – Smithsonian site about the findings in the Chesapeake region.












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