Casimir Pulaski is an American Revolutionary War hero and the namesake for a holiday in Chicago. But for over 200 years, no one knew where the so-called “father of the American cavalry” was buried. Researchers thought they’d located his grave in the 1990s until they examined the skeleton in the plot and said it appeared to be female. Yet now, researchers say that the skeleton is indeed Pulaski’s, and that the general may have been intersex.
Like many who served in the American Revolution, Pulaski wasn’t born in the colonies he fought for. The Warsaw native first made a name for himself by fighting for his home country of Poland against Russia. In his early 30s, Pulaski traveled to Paris and met Benjamin Franklin, who convinced him to join the British colonies’ war for independence. Pulaski arrived in Philadelphia in 1777 and served as a general in the Continental Army until 1779, when he died in Georgia from wounds received during the Battle of Savannah.
Some historical records said Pulaski was buried at sea, while others said he was in an unmarked grave in Savannah. In 1996, anthropologist Virginia Hutton Estabrook of Georgia Southern University and her colleagues discovered an unmarked grave they thought could be his. Yet when they examined the skeleton in the grave, they thought its pelvic bones looked more female than male. Further tests that tried to identify the person’s sex came back inconclusive.
But years later, Estabrook and her colleagues found that the skeleton’s DNA matched a relative of Pulaski’s who died in the 19th century. They now believe that Pulaski may have been intersex, meaning he would’ve had a range of sex characteristics that we think of as male or female. In addition to having female skeletal characteristics, we know that Pulaski had male characteristics like facial hair and baldness.
We don’t know what percentage of people are intersex, but estimates usually place it around one percent. Some intersex people have ambiguous genitalia that is visible at birth or emerges later, during puberty. An intersex person might also develop other male and female secondary sex characteristics during puberty. Some people know they are intersex from either their own knowledge of their bodies or medial observation, but not everyone with a mix of male and female sex characteristics is aware of it or identifies as intersex.
Pulaski may not have known whether he had any intersex characteristics; and even if he had, he still might have thought of himself as male. But even so, this knowledge changes our understanding of him and broadens our understanding of intersex people in history.
There are many debates about how to categorize historical people who did not conform to normative sex or gender categories. Since researchers announced in 2017 that a Viking warrior assumed to be male was actually female, there has been much speculation about whether this person was seen as a man or a woman. These are the kinds of questions that, 30 years ago, researchers might not have even thought to ask.