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Historian looks to preserve memory of John Hanson

By Bethany Rodgers

Sunday - 10/16/2011, 6:36am  ET

Peter Michael, a John Hanson historian, stands at the site in Mount Olivet Cemetery where 286 bodies were buried after being moved from a cemetery in downtown Frederick. The body of Jane Hanson, wife of John Hanson, is believed to be among the group. (Frederick News-Post/Bill Green)

The search for John Hanson's burial place ended with a busy parking lot and an old story of grave robbery.

Local historian Peter Michael had spent months trying to solve the mystery of Hanson's grave, but the answers that emerged were unexpected.

More than 200 years later, Michael set out to find the burial site. But where there once had been a family crypt, Michael discovered a waterfront resort.

Vandals had plundered the crypt in the 1980s and stole all the coffins, he later learned. Developers then leveled the emptied mausoleum as they built National Harbor.

"I was just good and ticked off," said Michael, president of The John Hanson Memorial Association. "What a fate."

The paved-over grave site is one of many snubs to Hanson's memory over the years, according to Michael. The Frederick County historian hopes that now, with the upcoming publication of his Hanson biography, the colonial leader will gain newfound recognition as a guiding hand through America's first hours.

Michael, a Hanson descendant, said he began work on the biography about three years ago after realizing he couldn't track down much information about his ancestor.

The historians he questioned couldn't explain the lack of material on Hanson, who spent one year as the nation's leader under the Articles of Confederation, the forerunner of the U.S. Constitution. But the consensus was that people seem to fast-forward from the end of the Revolutionary War to the election of George Washington, skipping over Hanson's term as president.

"The root cause of the neglect was just neglect itself," Michael said.

The nation's infant years -- from 1781 to 1787 -- deserved more attention than that, Michael believed. After all, during this period, the country's leaders kick-started U.S. foreign relations, created a national bank and peacefully gave way to a stronger government.

One of the historical blind spots that Michael encountered related to the burial places of Hanson and his wife, Jane.

John Hanson died in 1783 while visiting his nephew at Oxon Hill Manor. That much was clear. But Michael didn't know whether Hanson's family buried his body in Frederick or southern Maryland, and making a good guess wasn't going to satisfy him.

"I wanted to have this airtight, bullet-proof case about where he was buried," Michael said.

Michael thought he'd stumbled across his answer when he began talking with a woman from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. After months of slim pickings, a wealth of information appeared at Michael's fingertips as the woman emailed him maps, archaeological studies and historical documents.

The information from the park commission, Hanson's obituary and much of the oral tradition pointed in one direction: To a hillside crypt at Oxon Hill Manor, Michael said.

The obituary reported that Hanson was laid to rest at his nephew's home, in the burial grounds of the Addison family. And a biography from the 1930s, as well as a former resident of the manor, believed Hanson was buried in the family crypt, built into a riverside cliff on the Oxon Hill property.

"Oh my gosh," Michael remembers thinking as he spoke with the woman. "He's buried in the crypt."

But the MNCPPC representative had one final document to send. In 1987, two years after experts had reported the vault was intact, an archaeological study found the crypt open and empty.

Someone had stolen the coffins, which have never been found. The reasons for removing them are unclear.

As for the vault, since it was no longer a burial place, developers knocked it down and paved over the site to construct a parking lot.

Not only was Hanson's body missing, but Michael also found that no one could tell him where Hanson's wife, Jane, was buried.

Outliving her husband by almost 30 years, Jane Hanson died at home in Frederick and was buried in the graveyard of All Saints' Episcopal Church, then located on All Saints Street in Frederick.

In the early 20th century, the bodies in the graveyard were exhumed and moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery to make room for development. Finding Jane Hanson's body would be tricky since in the All Saints' graveyard, she likely had been buried with a number of relatives inside a family vault. Michael was concerned that meant the individual identities of the bodies were lost during the shift from the vault to Mount Olivet.

He was right.

Working with the superintendent at Mount Olivet, Michael concluded that Jane Hanson's coffin had been placed in a mass grave of 286 unidentified bodies. Standing on the 30-foot-wide grassy mound, Michael said he was struck by the national forgetfulness and twists of fate that left both John and Jane Hanson without marked grave sites.

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