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Human remains of what are believed to be 13 Revolutionary War Hessian soldiers found next to Red Bank Battlefield, N.J.

It started as a routine public archeology dig this summer, with more than 100 people, including parents and young children and Rowan University students.

Wade Catts, president/principal archaeologist, South River Heritage Consulting, explains what was found at the dig site near the Red Bank Battlefield.
Wade Catts, president/principal archaeologist, South River Heritage Consulting, explains what was found at the dig site near the Red Bank Battlefield.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

It started as a routine public archaeology dig this summer, with more than 100 people, including Rowan University students, working an area immediately adjacent to New Jersey’s Red Bank Battlefield, just south of Philadelphia.

Then they found a human femur — and everything stopped.

When professionals took over, an extraordinary discovery ensued over several weeks: the remains of 13 people, believed to have been Hessian soldiers, who were hired by the British to fight in the American Revolutionary War nearly 2½ centuries ago. They were discovered in a 4½-foot-deep trench system that surrounded the battlefield’s Fort Mercer, university officials said.

They also uncovered a 1776 British gold guinea, a soldier’s monthly pay — which researchers called extremely rare — as well as pewter and brass buttons, a uniform knee buckle with human blood, and musket balls at the mass burial site next to the 44-acre battlefield, operated as a National Park along the Delaware River in Gloucester County.

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Officials from Rowan, the battlefield, and Gloucester County unveiled their findings Tuesday at the site, and plan to be there Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the public to visit and ask questions. Red flags were stuck in areas of the trench where skulls were found.

“As a public historian, to see that level of public participation in a project and to have so many moments of people finding things and seeing that connection with history in the raw is spectacular,” said Jennifer Janofsky, 49, a Rowan public historian who also serves as director of the battlefield. “The human remains just took it to the next level.”

The soldiers are believed to have died during the Battle of Red Bank, when American soldiers who were outnumbered pulled off a surprising victory. It was important because protecting Fort Mercer meant delaying the British from getting supplies up the Delaware River to Philadelphia.

About 2,000 Hessian soldiers were fighting for the British during that battle on Oct. 22, 1777, while American forces, including soldiers from Rhode Island and the New Jersey militia, numbered only 500, according to historians. Yet the Hessians lost about 377 soldiers, compared with only 14 American deaths.

“Based on everything we’ve found and the context of what we’ve found, these appear to be Hessians,” said Wade Catts, president/principal archaeologist for South River Heritage Consulting of Delaware, who led the site dig and has more than 40 years of archaeological experience.

Catts noted that some West Chester University students and their anthropology professor, Heather A. Wholey, helped early on with a ground-penetrating radar scan of the site that showed some anomalies and later with soil sampling. He hired two of the students, Jessica Miller and Joanna Maurer, as interns and they worked on the project throughout, including helping with the excavation, he said.

The human remains have been turned over to the New Jersey State Police public forensic unit, which will extract data from the bones and teeth to figure out their origin, officials said. They also will conduct “skeletal assessment, isotopic, genetic and radiological analyses” to understand their health and life history and gather other information. A mold of a jaw already constructed was among the items on display.

Historians are hopeful that they may be able to find descendants of the soldiers.

One of the skulls is believed to have been from a soldier, approximately 17 to 19, the same age as many of Janofsky’s students.

“Somewhere a mother and a father mourned the loss of their son so very far from home,” said Janofsky, who teaches classes in public history, material culture, and pre-Civil War America and who got her bachelor’s from the University of Scranton, her master’s from Villanova, and her doctorate from Temple. “As a public historian on this project, I will work with my students and we will do our best to share his story and all stories to better contextualize the pain, the loss, and absolute horror of war.”

The university also has made contact with the German Consulate, she said.

There was no indication based on historical records and previous surveys that a burial ground would have been there, officials said. Uncovering such mass grave sites from the war is extremely rare, Janofsky noted. All such sites were thought to have been uncovered by the early 1900s.

But in 2020, Gloucester County bought a quarter-acre wooded site, which included a part of the trench. The family that owned the site and knew of its potential historic context, Janofsky said, approached the county about the sale. Janofsky got a $19,000 New Jersey Historical Commission grant to conduct the initial dig there, as well as a public education and outreach program.

Janofsky said the work was merely expected to be a study of the trench. It included four public digs this summer, the last one on June 26, when the femur was found by one of the volunteers, Wayne Wilson, 50, a union electrician from West Deptford.

“I think we have human bone,” he called out, as Janofsky recalled. “We asked the public to leave.”

It was a moment she won’t forget.

Through extreme heat and long hours, the team “worked respectfully, carefully, methodically to document and remove these remains,” she said. “I personally witnessed the gentle laying on of hands as remains were lifted, the eye contact and subtle nods as a box of remains changed hands.”

Wilson called the whole experience “nothing short of amazing. It’s the history of the country.”

West Deptford police were even called in to make sure it wasn’t a crime scene. The county gave $30,000 more to continue the work. Then a 5-by-5-foot dig section grew to 10-by-13 feet. There’s probably more to discover. The trench actually extends well beyond the quarter-acre under an adjacent neighborhood, Janofsky said. But the digging at this time has stopped.

Non-human items from the dig eventually will be showcased somewhere at the park. The trench will be filled in and the human remains will be reburied at a place to be determined. But the discovery will become part of the ongoing educational program at the battlefield.

The find also likely will figure prominently in the 250th anniversary of the country in 2026, with the battlefield being on a list of top sites to visit in New Jersey to learn about the war. More studies are likely to follow, Janofsky said.

“This is truly a rich site that offers us so many opportunities to better understand the battle,” she said. “I would anticipate in the next year having another archaeological study with broad public participation and Rowan University students involved.”

Emily Schmidt, 19, a Rowan sophomore history and anthropology major from Jefferson, said she relished the opportunity to revisit history through the project. It confirmed her career choice.

“I want to be in this for the rest of my life,” she said.

This story was updated to include West Chester University’s involvement.