ANNA, Ill. --The tiny Camp Ground church cemetery includes among its dead some of the earliest settlers from this part of southern Illinois -- Germans whose weathered sandstone grave markers date to the 1800s.
Still, a mystery lingers about others who might be buried on this solemn ground: Is the graveyard the final resting place of Cherokee Indians who died here during the winter of 1838-1839 as they were forced westward on the infamous Trail of Tears to what now is Oklahoma?
Local legend has it that the graves are here, but Harvey Henson wants to know for sure. And the geophysicist at Southern Illinois University in nearby Carbondale has rolled out high-tech gadgets including ground-pentrating radar to try to get to the truth.
"We've definitely got unmarked graves, no doubt," he said. "But are they Europeans or settlers or Native Americans? No one quite knows that, and that's a nice problem to solve."
Henson calls his evidence "pretty circumstantial" and barring a court order to dig up the property -- something Henson doesn't endorse -- the answer may forever elude him.
But he thinks he has pinpointed at least two single, unmarked graves. Results of new data being processed could reveal more, perhaps a dozen, he said.
"We're dealing with so many unknowns," he said. "We're out to find where the Cherokee are buried, and how many are there. You just have to take it systematically and line up the evidence."
Henson has been trying to build his case since 1999. That's when Sandy Boaz, whose ancestors are buried in the Camp Ground graveyard, sought his help to scientifically prove whether the cemetery included any Cherokees who succumbed during their relocation journey.
The cemetery already is part of the National Park Service's Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, designated by Congress in 1987 and stretching roughly 2,200 miles across nine states.
The graveyard is along the trail's northern route, one of three key pathways used by about 16,000 Cherokees when they were ordered out of the Southeast.
By most accounts, those who made the move often lacked shoes, food, shelter, blankets and warm clothing, and many died of exposure, hunger, exhaustion and disease. They were buried along the way.
In southern Illinois, where the winter of 1838-1839 was brutal, Cherokees who made the trip on foot, by horse or by oxen-pulled carts became trapped between the frozen Ohio River to the east and the iced-over Mississippi River to the west.
"It just sounds like they just weren't prepared for this weather and a trip that lasted this long," said Karen Frailey, a Southern Illinois University graduate student in forestry whose thesis work, covered by a National Parks Service grant, is delving into the Cherokee's trek through this state's southern stretch.
"It was just a fluke of nature that they had one of the hottest, droughtiest summers followed by one of the coldest, miserable winters of that century," she said.
The total death toll along the Trail of Tears isn't clear. The official government account at the time was about 400 deaths, though most accounts suggest that some 4,000 Cherokees perished.
"No one really knows," Frailey said. "There does not seem to be any written history of the Indian removal" as it took place.
Complicating matters is that burial records involving any Cherokees in the Camp Ground cemetery were never kept, and Henson suspects that survivors of those dead may not have had time to erect grave markers.
After researching the matter for some 20 years, Boaz is convinced that Cherokees are spending eternity near her ancestors, who she says owned the property that became the graveyard.
"To me, it's not a mystery at all," said Boaz, 58. "My family have passed this word down for years. I feel this is legit."
Frailey said her research leads her to believe Henson may be onto something.
"The stories I'm looking at, collected in the 1930s, corroborated that (southern Illinois area) was definitely a place where Cherokee camped," she said. "I can draw the conclusion that the Cherokee are buried there."
In trying to unmask the mystery, Henson has marked off a small Camp Ground cemetery section -- roughly 50 by 60 feet -- that appears unblemished and "had been left alone pretty much through the years," given the legend of what may lie below.
Using such noninvasive tools as ground-penetrating radar, he said he has found disturbances in soil layers that would suggest the presence of interment or graves.
"We got a few interesting anomalies and patterns," he said. "When you start getting the same story from different techniques and methods, you start to believe. It's kind of like a court case -- you get people to testify and put forth evidence, then get the jury to determine who's right and wrong."
Though none of his information identifies the buried person's ethnicity, sex or age, Henson hopes his work will help ensure that any possible grave sites remain undisturbed "to preserve their right to rest in peace."
John Lee writes for the Chicago Tribune.