About two years ago, a construction crew excavating a street in Riverside’s First Division as part of a storm sewer installation project dug up what turned out to be human remains near the curb line in front of 187 Bloomingbank Road.
Those remains were supposed to go from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, which analyzed the remains, to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.
But, they ended up in Riverside in the possession of the Riverside Historical Commission, which would like to host a public event to educate residents on the history of the area where the remains were found before shipping the bones to Springfield.
The commission has had the bones – quite an array as it turns out — in its possession since January, and they’ve had no luck finding anyone to help them perform DNA tests that might reveal something about the remains.
The medical examiner called the historical commission and asked if the group wanted the remains after the Army Corps of Engineers, which had sent archaeologists to Riverside in September 2017 to investigate the construction site where they were unearthed, apparently said they weren’t interested.
“We said, yeah, rather than have them end up in some vault down there,” said historical commission member James Petrzilka. “We’ll take them until we figure out where they should go.”
Petrzilka and historical commission chairwoman Connie Guardi went to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office in January to collect the remains, and since that time Petrzilka has tried, without success, to get anyone to suggest how or agree to do DNA testing.
The bones themselves would not be useful in that regard, said Petrzilka. But three teeth in the jawbone might just be able to provide such DNA. On July 18, Petrzilka appeared before the Riverside Village Board to both ask if the village would be interested in helping the commission host a public event where residents could respectfully view the remains and learn more about the history of that part of the village.
He also used his appearance before the board as a call for assistance.
“We would like to solicit the community’s help on possible further tests, because our own subsequent investigations have been frustrating,” Petrzilka said at the July 18 meeting.
Details of a public event haven’t been finalized, but the village has expressed support for the idea, Petrzilka said.
The medical examiner’s analysis of the remains proved to be of limited use. Initially classified by the medical examiner as “very old” bones, the final report stated that the remains belonged to someone who died “at least one year prior to discovery.”
The remains strongly indicated they belonged to a man, according to the medical examiner, but the stature, age and ancestry of the person could not be specifically determined. It appears, however, that the remains belonged to someone older, since at least one arm bone exhibited signs of “severe osteoarthritis.”
Some of the bones exhibited signs of healed fractures and there was no evidence of trauma, according to the medical examiner’s report.
All of the bones appear to be a single set of remains, and a small button discovered during excavation may or may not be related to them.
While the medical examiner didn’t conclude the remains might have been 100 years old or older, that is likely based on the location where they were found. That part of the First Division was well-known at the time of Riverside’s founding as a Native American burial ground. Early settlers are also known to have buried their dead in the First Division.
In 1980, skeletal remains were unearthed during a fire hydrant replacement project. After 20 years in the possession of the Riverside Historical Commission, those remains were taken to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, where tests reportedly indicated they belonged to an early European settler.
U.S. Army troops led by Gen. Winfield Scott are also known to have camped in the First Division in 1832 on their way to fight in the Black Hawk War. Scott’s troops reportedly were nearly wiped out by a cholera epidemic around that time, and some of those troops may have been buried in the First Division as well.
The remains discovered in 2017 likely will also find a permanent home at the Illinois State Museum. After Petrzilka contacted the museum to ask for help in trying to analyze the remains, archaeologist Diane Cobb emailed him, stating that the Army Corps of Engineers should have turned the remains over to the museum to comply with the human Skeletal Remains Protection Act.
The Army Corps in January 2018 sent a letter to the medical examiner directing them to transfer the remains to the museum. It is unclear why the medical examiner contacted the Riverside Historical Commission instead.