Know Your Place: Students Uncover History of Harpeth Hall’s Campus

By Camden Johnson (Features Editor) and Caroline Frederiksen (Photography Editor)

Over the past year, upper school English teacher Kristen Meltesen’s English IV classes have been investigating who inhabited the campus before Harpeth Hall students and faculty. This project is called Know Your Place and can be viewed further through the following link: Know Your Place. Throughout this project, we discovered that Native Americans inhabited Harpeth Hall’s campus long ago. 

At the beginning of the journey, we combed through photos, archaeology reports, emails and newspaper clippings. We established the basics of events that took place but were left with large gaps of information and unanswered questions. In March, both classes got the chance to sit down with Nick Fielder, former Director of Tennessee State Archaeology. In these interviews, our class was able to piece together the history of Harpeth Hall’s campus. 

Excavation site in 1987

We started off in 1987 during the construction of the Dugan Davis Track and Soccer Complex when a bulldozer scrapped off the topsoil exposing the first Native American grave. The contractors halted work and called the state archaeological office, headed by Mr. Fielder.

 He told the contractors that in order to continue construction, they had to receive a court order to relocate the graves to another place on the property. This process would typically take 30 days to complete, however, the judge’s daughter was on the track team at Harpeth Hall. The judge told Mr. Fielder that if he wrote an affidavit as to why the case should be expedited, he would prioritize the case. 

Mr. Fielder claimed that the graves were in danger because he feared the construction business heads would rather ignore and bulldoze over any new discoveries than report it thus delaying their project. The judge agreed and within three days, the archeology department recovered and removed a total of six graves. The department also composed a report detailing the discovery and removed the graves.

A year or two later, the Native American rights movement progressed nationwide. In  1990, congress passed the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act which required museums to repatriate any human remains or artifacts buried to be returned to modern tribes even though not directly related. Following this act, the Tennessee legislature passed a law stating that any remains discovered during construction had to be reburied within six months of the discovery, which gives archaeologists time to examine the site.

In 1992, Mr. Fielder’s office acknowledged the remains found at Harpeth Hall as a candidate for the repatriation and arranged a reburial service. Mr. Fielder described the service as “a very solemn ceremony” with various Harpeth Hall school officials, members of the Creek tribe, and the Executive Director of the Tennessee Commission of Native American Affairs.

Excavation of the Harpeth Hall softball field (1992)

Before the reburial and during the construction of the softball field, another grave was uncovered. However, there is only one photograph of this discovery and the state archaeology department never received a report. To learn more about how this could have happened, check out the Know Your Place project. 

Throughout our investigation, we have found very conflicting opinions as to what should have been done and why it was right or wrong. In conclusion, Mrs. Meltesen’s students are left with a very important question: what should we do now?

Excavation site in 1987

With consultation from Mr. Fielder, Mrs. Meltesen’s students have come up with various ways to honor those who came before us and tell the story of these remains. Such ideas include the following: an annual senior-fifth grade buddy activity that passes the history of our property down to younger generations; install a commemorative work of art; incorporate this story into our history classes; or a display case with pictures along with descriptions of the history and commemorates those who came before us. However, we must acknowledge the request made by local Native Americans that the graves on campus remain unmarked as originally intended. 

Our goal is to make their resting place known so that we can respect, honor, and remember those who came before us. Our goal is to know our place.

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