A private archaeologist who concluded in June that a suspected slave cemetery was found on the site of the proposed Formosa Plastics chemical plant in St. James Parish now says he isn't sure who is buried in the graves. 

Paul D. Jackson, the lead author of a 58-page report about the investigation that found the cemetery, said a historical archaeologist his company had recently hired helped open his mind to other possibilities about who could be buried on the old grounds of the Buena Vista Plantation in western St. James.

Jackson, co-owner of TerraXplorations Inc., hasn't ruled out that the graves could belong to former slaves. But he said that without more information or the exhumation of the remains and the telltale artifacts associated with them, he can't rule out other possibilities, including that white field hands and overseers could be buried there.

"It could be an enslaved cemetery. It could be a European cemetery. Right now, we really just don't know and to say one way or the other right now would be risky," he said.

The 271-foot-by-229.5-foot cemetery has four confirmed burials and many other potential grave shafts. It has been fenced off and sits inside Formosa's planned buffer, according to Formosa and Jackson.

Environmental and community groups opposed to Formosa's plant last fall uncovered that company officials had learned about two suspected cemetery sites from the state and were prompted to investigate while they were seeking a land use permit in the last half of 2018 and early 2019 from parish government. An unnamed researcher had notified the state about an 1878 map showing two possible cemeteries.

The groups disclosed Jackson's June report and other documents and emails late last year, arguing the parish should rescind the land use permit in light of the new information about the graves. They also raised the possibility that other graves could be on portions of Formosa's site that haven't been investigated.

Jackson's original conclusion that graves may have belonged to enslaved black people presented a potentially potent argument for critics, many of whom are black residents from the area and are opposed to Formosa's plans for the nearly 2,400 acres of agricultural fields and swamp in the Welcome community.

The plant, these critics said, would be going in near the graves of enslaved people who once worked the fields along the Mississippi River during the brutal era of American slavery. Now, people who could be their descendants in nearby communities may face the brunt of pollution from the new complex proposed by Formosa affiliate FG LA LLC on those same grounds. 

The shift in Jackson's view of what may be buried on Formosa's property came to light Jan. 21, the same day the Parish Council formally heard from residents and environmental groups about rescinding a previously issued land use permit, in part, over the cemetery discovery.

The council hasn't acted on the request, but, at FG LA's request, Jackson wrote a Jan. 21 letter to FG spokeswoman Janile Parks. She then forwarded it to the council members the same day, summarizing the archaeological investigation and the latest conclusions about who may be in the ground.

"Archival research of the cemetery was unable to establish the origin of the location or its interments," Jackson wrote. "Any conjecture on the origin without physical proof would be only speculative and possibly inaccurate."

He added that evidence of another suspected cemetery on the adjacent Acadia Plantation — a cemetery that would have been more centrally located in Formosa's plant site — may have been destroyed years before by a prior landowner. Jackson's first report from June also notes this.

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When asked directly about the Jan. 21 letter and its timing, Jackson said he was under no pressure from FG LA, which is indirectly his client through another company, to shift his point of view on the graves on the Buena Vista property.

"No. I wouldn't do that," said Jackson, a registered professional archaeologist with bachelor's and master's degrees in anthropology.

He said he wouldn't make such a clarification without appropriate reason and emphasized that under state law, no matter who is in the ground, the remains must be protected. 

Since the council meeting, one of the groups that have raised the cemetery issue said they view Jackson's shift skeptically and see FG LA's hand in that change. They also added that whatever Jackson says now doesn't change that FG LA didn't tell parish officials about the graves at the time the project was up for approval.

"Nothing that they have said questions the idea that these could be the burial sites of enslaved people. They can come up with, again, all sorts of different stories, but the fact is their archaeologist's first conclusion was these were the bodies of enslaved people," said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Pamela Spees, the senior staff attorney of Center for Constitutional Rights who petitioned the Parish Council about the graves earlier this month, said her group is working with an independent archaeologist to see whether other graves may exist.

"The story's still playing out, and we'll see where it leads," Spees said.

Jackson's report from June reaches its original conclusion from field and archival research and from the process of elimination. Jackson found that the plantation's owners, the Winchester family, were buried elsewhere.

Citing census data, the report says the plantation had dozens of slaves in 1850, but no clear record existed of who might be in the ground. Jackson pointed to those facts and others, including the cemetery's use in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to support the conclusion that the graves could belong to enslaved people.

"The absence of verifiable indications (headstones or through archival research) of who was buried in the cemetery leads us to believe it could have been a slave cemetery associated with the Buena Vista Plantation," Jackson's June report says.

Jackson said his current position reflects a fuller appreciation of the possibilities, including that poor white field hands might be equally as likely as black slaves to have been buried without much record for posterity.

"The people that have the records are the wealthy," he said.

Jackson added that, in the absence of available public records, better context could be culled from community history, old family documents and even oral histories of those who lived and worked in the area. He said old diaries also are ways to find that information.

"My gut feeling is that's how more data would come us, is someone might remember, 'Well, this is where it used to be,' and then that would lead us to make sure that it is there or isn't there," he said. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.