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Research on the remains of the H.L. Hunley submarine crewmen, including Frank G. Collins of Fredericksburg, proved conventional wisdom to be wrong. By Scott Boyd
Date published: 1/7/2006
This conclusion is based on chemical analysis of the bones of the crewmen for the presence of carbon 13, an isotope found in human bones, the quantity of which varies according to diet.
"The diet in America is very different from Europe," Owsley emphasized. "There is corn in the U.S. diet which is not found in Europe." Wheat, barley and rye were staples of the typical 19th-century diet in Europe, rather than corn. This would leave a different amount of carbon 13 in their bones. He displayed a chart showing the different levels of carbon 13 isotopes among the crewmen, effectively dividing them into American and European groups.
The Hunley researchers tried to bridge the gap between the 19th and 21st centuries by locating living descendants of the crewmen. Linda Abrams, the Hunley team's forensic genealogist, identified the crewmen as closely as possible through documentary evidence in archives and family collections.
"Four [crewmen's identities] we're positive about, two pretty certain and two can flip either way," Owsley told the audience.
Once the crew's identities were established, Abrams reversed direction in her genealogical quest and searched for living descendants of the Confederate submariners.
The Hunley researchers believed they may have found living descendants of some of the eight crewmen, but this would have to be confirmed by DNA testing, Owsley explained.
Mitochondrial DNA that stays intact for a considerable time can be found in some kinds of human remains. This kind of DNA passes through the female line in a family tree, so for these Hunley crewmen the researchers had to trace a maternal line from them to descendants living today.
One of those sailors who might have descendants alive today was none other than Fredericksburg's own Frank Collins. The body of a suspected maternal relative, Edward Clarke Gosnell (1853-1929) was exhumed in 2004 to retrieve some DNA that could be tested against material recovered from Collins' body to see if the men were related. Gosnell has known living relatives.