After a tumultuous summer, Nancy Kerlin Barnett and her relatives are finally back at rest.
Work has finished on County Road 400 South, around the famed “Grave in the Road” where Barnett and what turned out to be six other people were buried.
Their remains have been returned and the site has been properly restored. The roadway around the grave is safer, the burial ground will be better preserved in the future, and archaeologists, historians and family have a better idea now about life in early 1800s Johnson County.
“It’s the perfect example of many different organizations coming together and finding a compromise to make sure we preserve history and improve safety of the road,” said David Pfeiffer, director of the Johnson County Museum of History.
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The Johnson County commissioners announced that County Road 400 South will reopen at noon Friday, after four months of reconstructing the area around Barnett’s grave. The University of Indianapolis archaeology department, led by professor Christopher Schmidt, had been selected to unearth Barnett’s remains, carefully study them and re-inter her body once the road work was complete.
With the work complete, those involved are proud of the way that Barnett’s wishes, her family’s concerns and the safety of the road have all been addressed.
“This was the ultimate compromise,” Pfeiffer said. “We kept Nancy and all of the other people where they were, we respected the wishes of the family, but we made it better for traffic as well.”
Barnett died in 1831 and was buried in a small cemetery south of Amity. 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. Work started in May to ensure the gravesite was protected as well as making the area safer for drivers.
The Johnson County Highway Department worked with the history museum and Barnett’s relatives to ensure the project was done with discretion.
The University of Indianapolis was partnered with so that the remains in the grave were handled with professional care.
“We set out with the goal that this was a very unique part of Johnson County history,” Pfeiffer said. “We understood that there was a concern about the safety of the road, and the integrity of the grave there. If it was being struck by traffic or snowplows or farm equipment, something needed to be done.”
The project started May 11, when Schmidt’s team and workers from the highway department dug into the grave mound.
Almost immediately, they realized the site held unexpected surprises.
Where they expected to find one body buried at the site, they instead found seven — three adults and four children.
“We realized early on that we had at least two people,” Schmidt said in an interview in July. “Some of the small bones that were distributed in the gravesite come from a child, and some came from an adult. Then halfway through the dig, we hit the intact graves sequentially as time went on.”
During the past four months, archaeologists have been carefully examining the remains that were uncovered. They have searched for causes of death, evidence of injuries or illness that each person suffered, and potential clues about diet and lifestyle of 1800s Indiana.
The site offered a perfect opportunity to better understand life in pioneer Indiana.
“The best part is that, at some level, we can let these people tell their own story,” Schmidt said in July. “We haven’t finished that part yet, so we don’t know what we have there. Looking at their teeth and looking at their skeletons, they’ll get the chance to have an input on how they’re described.”
The archaeologists finished their work earlier in the month and reinterred the remains of the seven people in the newly constructed grave mound.
To recognize the end of the collaboration, a ceremony will be conducted at the gravesite on Friday. A reception will follow at the Johnson County Museum of History, where Schmidt will share some of the details of the archaeological study.
The museum also plans to implement Barnett and the results of the dig into a permanent exhibit, Pfeiffer said.
“It’s a chance to include (Barnett) into a permanent part of our pioneer exhibit. She was a very important part of pioneer time in Johnson County,” he said.
Ceremony at the Grave in the Road
Where: County Road 400 South, just east of US 31
When: 10:30 a.m. Friday
What: A ceremony celebrating the reopening of County Road 400 South, as well as the re-burial of Nancy Kerlin Barnett and the other six people interred at the gravesite.
A reception will follow at the Johnson County Museum of History, 135 N. Main St., Franklin. University of Indianapolis archaeology professor and leader of the group studying Barnett’s remains will speak about the project.
The event is open to the public.