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Col. Zackquill Morgan was the founder of Morgantown and a hero of the American Revolution. He raised a regiment and marched to New York to aid the Continental Army at the Battle of Saratoga, a key win in the fight for American independence. Morgan’s contributions were commemorated with a new statue in downtown Morgantown on West Virginia Day, June 20, 2016.

However, Morgan spent his formative years in Berkeley County. The youngest son of famed settler Morgan Morgan, he developed a piece of land called the Cool Springs Farm near his childhood home near Inwood. Great interest has surrounded this site in hopes of learning more about the younger Morgan.

In his recent column, “Reed needs better understanding of dig issue,” Robert Maslowski, a registered professional archaeologist, has called my recent column on the dig taking place on Cool Springs Farm in Berkeley County “confusing.”

The controversy centers around legal issues, chiefly who owns the property. While I defer to Maslowski in specific matters pertaining to his study of archaeology, a bit more information on the nature of life estates is in order.

In his op-ed, Maslowsky writes:

“If John Thornton Hillerary has a life estate in the property, it suggests that he is no longer the owner.”

That suggestion is Maslowsky’s, not mine. A life estate is a possessory interest in a piece of property that lasts for the life of a person but ends upon their death. A person who holds a life estate, known as the life tenant, has the right to do anything with the property that a full owner could do, short of conveying full ownership or permanently damaging the property.

Thus, John Thornton Hillerary, the life tenant, has quite broad authority to do with this piece of land as he pleases through the end of his life. As mentioned in my prior op-ed, Matt Howard, whose group wishes to perform a dig at the Cool Springs Farm, has secured permission to do that from Hillerary. Further, Howard maintains that this is not a piece of land currently designated as a historical site.

In addition, Howard has pledged that any artifacts found at the site would be handed over to the relevant public authority.

Beyond the life estate issue, an issue in play is the professional vs. amateur role of the person leading the dig. I will leave this issue to others, except to say that Howard has consistently maintained that he has been open to a professional archaeologist assisting with the project but no county or state agency he’s checked in with has had one available.

How long should Howard and his group wait for assistance from the relevant authorities? State and county governments are servants of the people and should at least try to work with them.

That is why I suggested in my prior op-ed that the relevant authorities might consider hiring a consultant to give proper, professional supervision for such efforts.

What has concerned Howard’s supporters is the threat of incarceration for doing a carefully done, if nonprofessional, dig. That seems rather heavy-handed. If the issue can’t be negotiated or adjudicated, fines would seem more appropriate, if county or state organizations wish to make a point.

The irony in this entire affair is that both sides probably would love to learn more about Zackquill Morgan and his time at Cool Springs Farm. Moreover, the public surely would benefit from discovering more West Virginia history through archaeology.

If everyone could take a step back and look at the big picture, namely, the benefit to Berkeley County and the state through learning through such sites, perhaps a meaningful compromise can yet be found.

Let’s hope so. A win-win compromise involving the Cool Springs Farm could set a fine precedent for other historical sites across West Virginia.

Stephen N. Reed is a former deputy secretary of state.

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