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Old Frankfort Cemetery

Site no.:







Historic (ca.1800s -1850s)

Open year round

Leslie Morris Park, Fort Hill,
Frankfort, Kentucky

Reburial site Monument marking the location where the remains from the Old Frankfort Cemetery were reinterred; Leslie Moriss Park, Fort Hill, Frankfort.


Location of the Old Frankfort
Cemetery on the 1854 map.

1854 map of Frankfort showing location of Old Frankfort Cemetery

For over 150 years, one of Frankfort’s earliest cemeteries lay buried and forgotten at the base of Fort Hill, no more than three blocks from Kentucky’s Old State Capitol.  Construction activities “rediscovered” this integrated burial ground in 2002.

Over the course of its use, from the early 1800s to about 1850, the Cemetery became a graveyard for Frankfort’s working class, the poor, immigrants, and undoubtedly, the enslaved.  The documentary record had little to say about this cemetery.  Archaeologists and biological anthropologists pieced together a picture of these people, who they were and when and how they lived, by relying on each person’s skeletal remains, the personal items placed with or worn by them, the characteristics of their coffins, and the location of their graves to in order.  The story of Frankfort’s antebellum poor and working class is one that is rarely told in history books, but through archaeology, their voices can now be heard.


The people of Frankfort used the Old Frankfort Cemetery for almost 50 years, from the early 1800s to the 1850s.  Commercial and residential development, which began in the 1870s, started a process that, by the 1950s, had completely removed it from view.  Construction workers “rediscovered” it in March 2002.  

The Cemetery was one Frankfort’s earliest community graveyards.  It started out small, like many other antebellum cemeteries in the capital city.  Interments increased in the late 1820s and 1830s, when the Old Frankfort Cemetery apparently outgrew its contemporaries.  The Cemetery’s shift to a working class neighborhood graveyard for people of African, European, and mixed ethnic heritage began in the late 1820s.  By 1835, almost 60 people had been buried there, in both the Upper Area and the Lower Area.

The Old Frankfort Cemetery exploded in size between 1835 and 1850.  Almost three times as many people were buried there during this period than in the preceding decades.  This trend mirrors the increase in Frankfort’s population in the 1840s.  As the Cemetery grew, the Lower Area saw more use than the Upper Area, but graves cluster in both, suggesting the establishment of family plots that saw long-term use.
After 1844, when the City chartered the Frankfort Cemetery on a bluff overlooking the town, there was a marked decline in the number of people in the Old Frankfort Cemetery.  The last people were buried there in the late 1850s.  An 1860s eyewitness described the Old Frankfort Cemetery as “neglected and overgrown with briars…” though the “remains of crude stones” were still visible. 

In the 1870s, residential, institutional, and commercial development occurred in the middle of the graveyard, disturbing an untold number of burials. These activities began a process of marker removal, cemetery destruction, and obliteration that extended into the following decades. 

Construction site shortly after the discovery of human remains
Construction site shortly after discovery of human remains.



1951 photograph of Frankfort looking towards project area
A ca. 1950s photograph of Frankfort Showing the general location of the Old Frankfort Cemetery.  Note the structures covering the entire area; image, courtesty Kentucky Historical Society 


On Monday, March 11, 2002, construction workers at the site of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s new office building noticed human bones in some soil waiting to be taken to the landfill.  Since relocation of the building was not an option, the Finance Administration worked with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey to document and relocate all of the graves.  For the next three months, a team of archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and volunteers excavated the remains of 242 people.  

As a result of this research, we now know when the Cemetery was used, have a sense of who was buried there, their diet, and their health. Documents, a critical element of historical archaeological research, were extremely scarce; and no one offered oral accounts that made reference to the Cemetery or came forward to claim any of the human remains. So, to learn about the people buried in the graveyard, investigators had to rely on the information they had recovered: each person’s skeletal remains, the personal items placed with or worn by them, the characteristics of their coffins, and the location of their graves. 

Archaeologist excavate graves at the Old Frankfort Cemetery
Archaeologists excavate graves at the Old Frankfort Cemetery;  KAS, 2002.


Producing the likenesses of these people from nineteenth-century Frankfort took hours of painstaking attention to scientific detail, combined with artistic vision.  In modeling the three-dimensional busts, the forensic artist applied clay to laser-made plastic casts of the skulls.

Muscle, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels, veins, and fat lie beneath the skin on our faces.  But before the forensic artist could correctly fashion these people’s faces, she had to know exactly how thick the tissue would have been. That information came from two different sources.  One was charts and documents that report the average tissue depths for both sexes and for people of different ethnic heritage. The other source was the human bone analysis of the Old Frankfort Cemetery population, which identified the age, sex, and ethnic heritage of the person.

Tissue depth varies slightly from person to person, and changes with a person’s weight.  From other information about these people provided by the project’s biological anthropologist, the artist knew whether to make the person strong and muscular or underweight.

Creating the bust for Burial 192b
Forensic artist Rebecca Agner creating the bust for Burial 192b.


From left to right Burial 192b, 192c, and 146
From left to right Burial 192b, 192c, and 146.


Meet the People

Burial 192c: A Working Woman

This woman died in her early thirties.  In life, she stood 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds.   Mitochondria DNA carefully removed from the pulp of her teeth shows she was of West African heritage.  She is depicted here with braided hair, since in her day, this hairstyle was common for women of African descent. 

During her life, she ate a fair amount of corn-based foods, but somewhat less than others of African descent also buried in the Cemetery. Her teeth were in fairly good shape, and she had few cavities.  From the many horizontal growth lines on the surface of her teeth, we know she experienced some kind of nutritional stress at ages 2, 3, and 4.  The extensive arthritis in her back indicates she worked very hard at challenging physical tasks throughout her life. 

After she died, her loved ones laid her arms alongside her body and placed her hands across her waist. She may have been buried wearing a dress, but evidence of buttons or hooks is lacking.  Her relatives then wrapped her body in a shroud and pinned it closed with swirled-headed pins. Because they used this style of pin, we know she died sometime before 1835. The they placed her body in a simple hexagonal-shaped wooden coffin.
Mourners carried the coffin to a spot in the northern half of the Lower Area, placed it in a stone-lined grave shaft, and then covered it with large limestone slabs.  Her final resting place was directly below that of a large robust man of African descent, Burial 192b.  Was this man her father? Her husband?

Bust of Burial 192c

Drawing of Burial 192c, front view

Burial 192b: A Very Hard-working Man

This very robust man of African heritage stood 6 feet tall, weighed 159 pounds, and lived to be over 50 years old.  During his life, he ate somewhat more corn-based foods than other people buried in the Cemetery.
His bones show he led one of the hardest lives of anyone buried in the Old Frankfort Cemetery. Over the course of his long life, he lost a fair number of teeth, and the remaining ones showed much wear.  He suffered from malnutrition throughout his life. As a child, he experienced a number of childhood illnesses or times when food was scarce, witnessed by many horizontal growth lines on the surface of his teeth. As an adult, he suffered from adult rickets, which is linked to Vitamin D deficiency.  In children, this condition makes legs and arms curved instead of straight.  In adults, bones become puffy, sponge-like, and soft. Adult rickets results in widespread bone pain and muscle weakness.

Burial 192b’s life was one of very physical, very heavy labor.  Features of his bones in his upper body suggest repeated lifting of heavy objects: arthritis in his shoulders, enlarged elbow joints, and strong muscle markings on his upper arms and forearms.   Years of heavy physical labor involving rotation while lifting are reflected in his lower back: arthritis and collapsed disks, the latter represented by painful protrusions on his spine. These conditions suggest that his work could have involved loading heavy bales of hemp onto a riverboat.

His expanded knee and hip joints would have made it painful for him to walk.  His right ankle had a boney scar, indicating he had twisted it very badly sometime in his life. This injury would have taken several months to heal.  Even then, he may have walked with a limp; certainly he would have had some trouble walking. Lesions on his skull, pelvis, and lower right leg suggest he experienced unidentifiable infections sometime in his life. On his head were button tumors. Though unsightly, they are rarely painful. 

At his death, this hard-working man’s family dressed him in a shirt with two small, four-hole shell buttons, and pants with 10 large five-hole bone buttons.  They placed his arms along his sides, with his hands on his pelvis. Then they wrapped his worn-out body in a shroud, pinning it in place with machine-made straight pins.  This style of pin indicates he died after 1835.
He was buried in the northern half of the Lower Area. His family placed his hexagonal wooden coffin in a simple grave shaft, then covered it with limestone slabs.  He was buried directly above Burial 192c.  Perhaps she was his daughter, who had died several years before.

Burial 192b

Burial 192b front view drawing

Burial 192b side view drawing

Burial 146: A Short Life

Based on long-bone measurements, it seems likely that this infant was a girl of African descent. She measured 30 inches long and weighed 18.7 pounds when she died.

She experienced some kind of nutritional stress shortly after birth, and again when she was about four months old, based on the horizontal growth lines visible in her baby teeth. Dying before she reached her second birthday, her grieving parents placing her arms along her sides, and then wrapping her in a shroud held in place with machine-made pins.  The style of pins and the use of late-cut machine-made nails in her rectangular wooden coffin show she died after 1835.

Despite her short life, her family went to a great deal of expense and effort to ensure her a comfortable eternal rest.  Her body was laid in a coffin lined with velveteen held in place by a host of tiny brass tacks.  Her coffin was one of only a few similarly cloth-lined coffins documented at the Old Frankfort Cemetery.  In addition, she was buried in a stone vault. The bottom and sides of the grave shaft were lined with bricks and rocks, and it was sealed with large limestone rocks and fragments of a headstone, discarded, perhaps, because a quarryman had broken it before he was finished making it.  This stone vault provided the excellent protection her family had intended for the tiny coffin. When her grave was discovered over 160 years later, it had not filled-up with soil.
She was buried in a cluster of other graves in the western quarter of the Upper Area. The range in age and sex of the people buried in this grave cluster suggests it could have been a family plot.

Bust of Burial 146


Stone and Brick Burial Vault
Burial 146's stone and brick-lined burial vault.


Archaeological investigations at the Old Frankfort Cemetery recovered a wealth of information about the people who were laid to rest there: ethnic heritage, age and sex, the state of their overall health and the diseases they experienced, their work history, the kinds of foods they ate, and the tangible evidence of their final days on earth.

For most of its history, the Old Frankfort Cemetery was an integrated burial ground for Frankfort’s working class and the poor.  Euro-Americans as well as freed and enslaved African-Americans would have been buried in this cemetery.

But even within this population, archaeologists were able to identify differences among the dead that had as much to do with their economic standing as it did their ethnic heritage. Regardless of a person’s ethnicity, people buried in the Upper Area were relatively better situated, financially, than those buried in the Lower Area.  This is reflected by the fact that the former ate a greater variety of foods, and by the amount of effort and resources their families spent on their loved ones’ burials (lining grave shafts to create below-ground vaults and purchasing somewhat fancier coffins).  Other factors, too, like religious beliefs or cultural traditions, undoubtedly contributed to the burial patterns researchers documented within the Old Frankfort Cemetery.  These include, for example, placing coins on the eyes of mainly adult women; the preference of wrapping infants and children in shrouds; or the custom that led men to wear wedding bands on their left hand and women on their right.

The people’s bones tell stories of hardship - but also ones of resilience and compassion.  Many had been born and raised in an urban environment.  Thus, they experienced many of the problems that went hand-in-hand with the growth and industrialization of cities during this era: overcrowding, lack of adequate sanitation, little access to clean water, and poor nutrition. Taken together, these factors made antebellum urban Frankfort unhealthy for the poor and enslaved. 

Adults - and children as young as 6 to 8 years of age - coped with the demands of hard work, and the challenges of poor nutrition and poor health.  Mothers weaned their children early in order to return to work quickly. Many of the children died young. Most people were routinely sick  throughout their childhood, and as adults, their health probably did not improve greatly. 

Living as they did before the advent of antibiotics and modern medical practices, their lives were shortened by chronic disease, serious infections, abscessed teeth, and malnutrition. By far, the most common aliment was arthritis.  About one-third of the people buried in the Cemetery had abnormally formed bones.  In most cases, the cause was malnutrition/poor nutrition or infections that were the result of the former.  Most people had unfilled cavities in one or more of their teeth.  Although most of these aliments did not kill them, these people would have lived with much physical pain and discomfort nonetheless. 
If someone survived to adulthood, they had a good chance of living a full life.  But it would have been a very hard and difficult one.  Even by nineteenth-century standards, the lives of the people who were laid to rest in the Old Frankfort Cemetery were not easy.  Their bones show that everyone worked very hard at tasks involving strenuous physical labor. Leg and hip muscle enlargements and protrusions on their bones are evidence of repeated heavy lifting, and arm bones reflect long-term and repetitive wrist and forearm movements. 

Everyone was laid to rest in a coffin.  Most of the coffins were plain wooden boxes made from eastern red cedar or cherry.  Hexagonal examples were the most common, followed by rectangular ones. 

Nails and screws held coffins together.  Because many different sizes of nails were used, it appears that the coffins were not mass produced, but instead were made by family and friends or by local furniture and cabinetmakers.

The coffins of a few people had extra amenities.  Tiny brass tacks found with 18 of the coffins show that the bottoms of these coffins had been lined with plain cotton cloth or more expensive velveteen.  Four rectangular coffins had handles: three had brass handles and one had iron handles.  The brass handles had inlaid designs, and thus are the most “ornate” objects investigators recovered from Cemetery.  But in comparison to the ornate coffin handles of the late 1800s, these handles were very plain.  Differences in coffin characteristics suggest that some families may have been better off financially than others or that some families spared no expense on their deceased relatives’ death arrangements.

All 242 people buried at the Old Frankfort Cemetery were laid out in their coffins on their back.  Women’s lower arms and hands were usually placed across their chest, while those of men were primarily placed across or on their pelvis. 

At least 155 people were dressed in clothing or were wrapped in a shroud before being placed in their coffins.  Men wore drop-front pants, or breeches or short pants, pull-over or button-up shirts, vests, and coats, while women wore primarily dresses, but also blouses and skirts.  One woman was buried wearing a hat, and two were buried wearing pants similar to those worn by men.  Infants and children wore pull-over shirts or dresses and pants.  No one was buried wearing shoes (their feet were bare or they wore stockings), but this was not uncommon at this time, since shoes could be passed on to other family members.

Only a very few people were buried wearing jewelry. These items consisted of bead necklaces (one was made of “faux jet” faceted black glass beads) and rings.  Adults of African descent older than 30 years of age were those buried wearing rings. Most rings were simple brass bands, but three were gold bands.

Most of the graves were simple rectangular pits.  In 67 cases, large limestone slabs, and occasionally bricks, covered and lined the sides and bottom of the grave shaft.  This created a box or below-ground rectangular vault.  Constructing these vaults required digging the grave shaft much wider than the coffin. Most of the stone was not cut or shaped.  Rather, it was natural rock undoubtedly collected from nearby rock outcrops.  In many instances, the use of a cover-stone was so effective that deterioration of the coffin wood and decomposition of the body created a void.

  Burial 123 showing stone-lined vault
Burial 123 showing stone-lined grave shaft (Note recycling of Greenup headstone).

Brass handle
Brass Hepplewhite-style swing-bail coffin handle.


brass tacks
Brass tacks were used to hold fabric lining in place in coffins after 1830. The copper in these tacks preserved some of the coffin wood. Eastern red cedar and cherry were the most common.


Calico Prosser buttons
Calico Prosser buttons were machine-made after 1840. Note the brown transfer-printed design.

gold rings
Brass ring with cut-out (left); Gold ring with an intricate floral design incised on the outside of the band.


Coins places over a woman's eyes
Liberty dimes dated 1838 and 1840 were found with a 51 to 65-year-old woman of European descent.


Visit the Capital City Museum, in downtown Frankfort, to view an exhibit of materials recovered from the Cemetery, or read about these people in Frankfort's Forgotten Cemetery, a volume in the Kentucky Archaeological Survey’s Education Series.

You can also visit Leslie Morris Park, on top of Fort Hill, where a small monument marks the place where the people’s remains were reinterred in 2006. The remains of the people who once were buried in the Old Frankfort Cemetery were reinterred in 2006 in Leslie Morris Park, on top of Fort Hill.

This simple monument marks the final resting
place for the people whose remains
were discovered in 2002.


Releted Resources

- KA Volume III

Curriculumn materials

- "KA Volume III Curriculumn

- Frankfort's Forgotten Cemetery," KAS Educational Series Booklet, 2009

- Trowel and Pen Article

- Capital Museum exhibit: Grave Matters

Professional Publications

Analysis of Enamel Hypoplasias in the Old Frankfort Cemetery: Comparisons Between Adult Male and Female and Juvenile Prevalence and Age at Onset of Defects (pdf - 773 kb)


Last Updated 2/10/2010