FORT BEND COUNTY, Texas. (CBS News) — Forty-eight sets of remains believed to have been buried between 1878 and 1910 have been exhumed from an unmarked cemetery in Fort Bend County, Texas, CBS Houston affiliate KHOU reports. Bodies at the site, which construction crews discovered in April, likely belonged to African-American prison inmates who were forced to work on plantations.
Artifacts, including chains, have also been uncovered.
“Some of these chains, especially the ones that date prior to the Industrial Revolution, some of them have swivels on them, which were more than likely utilized in chain gangs,” said Reign Clark, the site’s archaeological project manager.
In total, 95 sets of remains have been found since crews found the cemetery when they started work on building Fort Bend Independent School District’s $59 million career and technical center in Sugar Land, Texas, according to KHOU.
More than 100 years ago, the suburb south of Houston — now home to shopping malls, residences and Imperial Sugar Co. — was comprised of prison camps and sugar cane plantations, The Washington Post reported. Back then, it was known as the “Hellhole on the Brazos.” In 1883, the State Convention of Colored Men of Texas complained that convicts who were leased by the state to plantation owners sometimes worked chopping sugar cane until they “dropped dead in their tracks,” the Post reported.
KHOU reports that the site where the bodies were found is the first cemetery associated with the state’s convict leasing system, which was outlawed 108 years ago.
“So far, we have all males and one female,” said Catrina Banks Whitley, a bioarchaeologist. “They range anywhere from 14 to anywhere between 15 and 70 years of age.”
Crews digging a trench came across the first set of bones in April. Fort Bend Independent School District immediately halted construction, KHOU reported.
It is possible that the cemetery was once marked with wooden markers that have since decayed. It is unclear how the people buried there died.
Reginald Moore, a local historian who warned the district that it might find unmarked graves belonging to black prisoners, wants the bodies buried at the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery that he oversees.
“We’re trying to move forward in a positive way, getting them memorialized, getting them a museum put together, giving them recognition,” Moore told KHOU.
Once all the remains are exhumed, the new Fort Bend ISD Career and Technical Center will be extended to the location where the cemetery was discovered. It is scheduled to be finished in the fall of next year.
Experts believe there are more unmarked cemeteries and that excavations could soon uncover them.