Weather Forecast


Researchers uncover identities, connect with families of Rose Hill remains

A nameplate engraved with "Robert Caleff, Aged 56 years" offered investigators and researchers a clue as to the identity of the remains discovered during a now-shelved construction project in Nininger Township. Photo courtesy of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office1 / 2
Researchers and historians investigating remains found at the former Rose Hill Cemetery site believe a steel casket unearthed on the property might have been part of burial protocol for a tuberculosis victim, or a heartfelt gesture from a man mourning the loss of his mother. Photo courtesy of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office2 / 2

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series about the former site of Rose Hill Cemetery. 

Jeremy Jackson had little to work with when he was asked to identify remains from a long-abandoned cemetery near Hastings.

An avid genealogical researcher, Jackson works with the state archaeologist's office to eak out information from forgotten and unmarked graves throughout Minnesota.

When construction in Nininger Township turned up human remains, a text message with the location's address offered the only clue: the property had once been Rose Hill Cemetery.

PREVIOUSLY: Construction turns up century-old cemetery near Hastings

Within two hours, Jackson said he was able track down the name Robert Caleff.

That name, according to a Dakota County Sheriff's office report, was engraved on a nameplate they found among the remnants of a casket at the site.

This nameplate helped Jackson and a team of researchers identify the remains of two out of at least four individuals the excavation discovered.

Although Jackson works full-time as a recruiter, Hamline University contracted him to work on the Historical Human Remains Project. This five-person team of researchers and scientists aims to identify remains from undocumented graves and, if possible, locate descendents.

"A lot of times, like this particular cemetery, there's no records," Jackson said. "No one knows where the records went, no one knows exactly how many people were buried there, when those burials occurred."

Digging in

Unmarked graves of early Minnesota settlers who died before designated burial sites pepper Minnesota's landscape.

State Archeologist Amanda Gronhovd, who also works on the project, said rapid development near the Twin Cities metro area has led to more of these remains resurfacing.

Construction crews digging the foundation for a sign at the Hastings CVS store discovered the grave of an unnamed woman in 2014.

Surviving family of people whose remains were left in Rose Hill Cemetery now hope to relocate their newly-discovered relatives.

Gronhovd and Jackson worked with a forensic science professor and graduate students from Hamline University to piece together the woman's identity.

From just a few bones and scattered buttons from the woman's deteriorated clothing, the team tracked the woman's identity and family, who live in St. Paul.

"It's really interesting and it's really cool that we have the tools now to reunite people," Gronhovd said. "In the modern world where we're always moving things and digging here and there, we don't always know where things are."

The project's success helped the team secure more than $100,000 in Legacy Grants from the Minnesota Legislature in April.

And their work has just begun.

Hamline University's osteology lab houses the remains of more than 100 individuals awaiting identification and reburial, if possible.

The process will take time and money, but Jackson said he find satisfaction in uncovering life stories that might not have otherwise come to light.

"Really, it's not just a name anymore; suddenly they're people," Jackson said. "Then you have documents that tell more of their story."

Evolving methods

Gronhovd's office was the first stop for the following authorities' assertion that the former Rose Hill Cemetery was not a crime scene.

Her tasks include cleaning the skeletal remains and making sure everything from bones to clothing remain intact.

Next, the remains head to Hamline University for a forensic anthropologist to study the bones for clues that point to factors like the person's sex, date and age of death and physical traits indicating pregnancies or illness.

Jackson said each detail helps him narrow the scope of potential identities through a process he calls "reverse genealogy," a method made possible by recent technological innovations.

"I couldn't do this job five years ago," Jeremy said. "The tools I use are now available on the internet, digitized newspapers, genealogy websites."

From there, Jackson can often track living descendents and discuss options to confirm their lineage through DNA tests and make burial arrangements.

"Many times, they're very skeptical, very nervous," Jackson said. "I can imagine how I'd feel if I got that phone call, but I've got to build that trust and explain what I'm doing."

Among the living relatives Jackson located are brothers Paul and Fritz Morlock.

Their great-great grandfather was Robert Calef's brother.


Fritz Morlock, a St. Paul resident, described the process as strange, meaningful.

"It's something unexpected," he said. "We certainly have been familiar with the fact that our part of the Caleff family had been a part of that community."

Although the Caleff surname frequently appears throughout the area's historical records, Morlock said he knows little about the mysterious couple.

Their graves, however, offered subtle clues.

Fritz Morlock said his family hopes to organize a reburial and ceremony in Oakwood Cemetery. Photo by Maureen McMullen

The nameplate from Robert's casket indicated he died around 1860 at age 56.

Researchers determined female remains found nearby in an iron casket with a glass window near the face belonged to Henrietta, due to the proximity to her husband's grave.

According to historical documents the team uncovered, he died from "consumption," or tuberculosis. The disease would claim Henrietta's life three years later.

Gronhovd said this may explain Henrietta's intricate, but unusual, casket.

Bodies of the dead, according to the World Health Organization, can sometimes transmit diseases like tuberculosis to the living.

Concerns over spreading the often-fatal disease may have prompted special burial accommodations like the heavy-duty caskets, while the window may have offered family members a safer opportunity to say goodbye.

The order of death, Gronhovd said, may also have been a factor.

Henrietta's casket, she said, cost about $300 at the time, while most caskets ran for about $1.

When Robert died, Gronhovd said his wife made the funeral arrangements and might have opted for a more frugal burial in a less extravagant wooden coffin.

When Henrietta died, her son was in charge of the burial, which could have bore different sentimental value.

Although Robert and Henrietta had a total of five children, including some from separate marriages, only on son survived.

The surviving son never had children, and Gronhovd said the team couldn't find census records for him.

Most families relocated their relatives' remains to the historic Oakwood Cemetery in Hastings when the Rose Hill landowner sold the property in 1898.

The couple left a sizeable inheritance for their son, but Gronhovd said he may have died or moved to another state before he was able to relocate his parents' graves.

Local legacy

Although the relocation of graves and headstones near the turn of the century erased most records of remaining Rose Hill burials like Henrietta and Robert's, the Caleff family's history in the area is well-documented.

The couple appears in Andrea R. Foroughi's book "Go If You Think It Your Duty," which compiles letters exchanged between Elizabeth Caleff Bowler and James Madison, the Morlock brothers' great-grandparents who married in the midst of the Civil War.

Bowler, Robert and Henrietta's Niece, lived on the couple's Nininger farm when the young woman wrote many of the letters to a husband she dearly missed.

Paul Morlock was among the surviving relatives of Robert and Henrietta Caleff, whose remains were discovered.A cousin of the Morlock's mother discovered the letters in a family trunk with a note from Elizabeth to destroy the letters.

Instead, they were handed over to the Minnesota Historical Society, who published Foroughi's book and produced a theatrical adaptation in 2013.

Hundreds of letters chronicled four years of the couple's life as Madison served in the third Minnesota Volunteer regiment. They spent only 12 weeks together during that time.

While Elizabeth admired Madison's dedication to the war efforts, she later lamented his absence while she was pregnant.

In an 1864 writing, she urged her husband to consider returning to his family, "while others who have had the comforts of home take their turn in the battlefield."

The Caleff family's mark on the community remains today.

The Tree House, which serves as a storefront for Law's Nursery, greets motorists entering Hastings on Highway 61.

Elizabeth Bowler Caleff and James Madison's grandson established the nursery in the mid-1950s. Paul Morlock, who had long worked at the nursery with his brother when they were younger, now owns the business.

The brothers said their family, including other Caleff Bowler-Madison descendents, hope to relocate their late but newfound relatives in Oakwood, where other members of their family have been buried.

Family members from Iowa who are both pastors and Caleff descendents, the Morlocks said, hope to honor the reinterment with a graveside ceremony.

"It certainly would certify that we as a family have been close enough that we would like to see remains taken care of in a proper fashion," Fritz Morlock said.

The remains of at least two other people, however, remain unidentified.

Jackson said although he's compiled a lengthy list of potential candidates, determining their age of death would help pinpoint a definitive answer.

"That's our goal: give them their names back," Jackson said. "I think it's human nature to want to solve the mystery, but in this particular case, it's very honorable to perhaps put them back where they're supposed to be, give them back to their family."