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AUDIO: The four Nantuck brothers are shackled in leg irons at the Tagish North West Mounted Police post in 1898, after they were arrested for shooting two prospectors, killing one of them. Dawson and Jim Nantuck were hanged in Dawson City in August 1899. (Canadian Museum of Civilization, Klondike Collection, 1898, no. J6186)

Archeologists working in Dawson City, Yukon, have identified two recently unearthed sets of human remains as those of two First Nations men executed during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Since the only aboriginal people known to have been hanged during the Gold Rush were Dawson and Jim Nantuck, the remains are thought to belong to them.

The brothers, who were from what is now the Carcross Tagish First Nation in southern Yukon, were hanged in Dawson City in August 1899 for killing prospector William Meehan.

Crews excavating a slope for Dawson City's new sewage treatment plant have dug up four coffins with human remains so far this month in what is believed to be a secret burial ground for executed convicts.

Up to 11 men were hanged during the Gold Rush, all for murder, but where they were buried was never mapped or marked, said Greg Hare, a Yukon government archeologist working at the site.

"A number of people were buried in something called the barracks, and others were interred in something called the lime pit," Hare told CBC News in Dawson City.

Bone analysis reveals ID

Bone identification specialist Susan Mooney spent this week measuring and analyzing the skeletal remains.

Her analysis, announced late Thursday, revealed that two sets of remains are those of young First Nations men and a third set belongs to an older man of European ancestry.

"It's amazing the stories the bones can tell you," Mooney said. "We take a lot of notes. We go back, we revisit it, we compare it to the historical record, and then we see what we have.

"There's measurements that we do. There's things that we look at that we call non-metrics, which indicate ethnicity, [and] it can indicate a variety of things, and we also look at pathology."

The Nantuck brothers were sentenced to death for shooting Meehan and another prospector on the McClintock River in southern Yukon. Meehan was killed in the shooting.

May have been avenging deaths

But Yukon historian Ken Coates said there appears to have been more to the story.

"From the First Nations perspective, there had been some troubles with prospectors and miners in the area," said Coates, the dean of arts at the University of Waterloo.

"There had been a difficulty related to eating food that was laced with a sort of rat poison, and [the shooting] … sort of had a revenge element to it."

Some historical accounts suggest the Nantuck brothers were avenging the deaths of two of their own people, who accidentally ingested arsenic powder that was mistaken for flour.

It is not clear if the arsenic was placed there intentionally by the prospectors or if the substance was simply part of their supplies.

Remains to be returned

In what was Yukon's first murder trial, the Nantucks were convicted in Meehan's murder and sentenced to death despite calls for clemency.

Their brothers, Frank and Joe, were also convicted in the case, but they died in jail of tuberculosis before they could be executed.

The Tr'ondek Hwech'in Han Nation in Dawson City says it will work with Tagish officials to determine if the men's remains should be brought back to Tagish territory.

"Trondek Hwech'in's position is to certainly work with the First Nation to assess family descendants, and then, we will work with the family to determine what plans should be made from here," said Jackie Olsen, the Dawson City First Nation's heritage director.

A fourth set of human remains was uncovered at the Dawson City site on Monday, but those bones have yet to be analyzed to determine their ethnic origin.

Meanwhile, the excavation for the Dawson City sewage plant continues under the watchful eyes of archeologists, in case any more remains appear.