Relic Hunting The Champlain Corridor
By: Ed Fedory
There's something to be said for sitting around a crackling campfire, under a full canopy of stars... a gentle breeze coming off the lake on a warm summer night... with the sounds of battle hours behind you. The contents of your mug have ebbed to a swallow, and the ground upon which you lie suddenly seems to be softer. The air is filled with laughter drifting from other islands of light across the encampment, while a lone fiddle, somewhere in the shrouded night, sends aflight the notes of a time-wearied tune.
It's difficult to keep your mouth from watering as the sergeant hovers over and turns the evening meal above the flames, while the rich fat drips into a collecting cup to be used to lubricate our musket locks or waterproof our leggings. Our pewter plates and bone-handled knives eagerly wait as the sergeant appraises the readiness of our fare.
"Come, lads!" sound the long-awaited words. "This bear is done!"
A scene of centuries past, drawn from an old Colonial journal, you might ask? It certainly could have been- but, it wasn't. It was only last September at Fort Ticonderoga, on the shores of Lake Champlain, during the Grand Encampment of the American Revolution, a major re-enacting event where Colonial history couldn't possibly become more real.
The Champlain Valley is a magical place, drenched in historic events. Beneath the surface of the lake are the remains of French bateaux and war canoes, armed whaleboats, and the gunships of America's first navy, lost in the Battle of Valcour Bay. The lands bordering its shores remain, in many cases, untouched by the progress of centuries. Certainly, farming and plows have had some minor impact on the land, but large tracts of deep woods and dense forest remain, and the relics of the Colonial Wars and the American Revolution are mere inches beneath the pine needle-blanketed soil. It's a place of great events and greater tragedies- a place where the birth certificate of a new nation was written in the blood of the fallen- a place where the dead find it terribly tiresome to remain dead.
Whoa! Steady, Eddie! Are we talking about relic hunting or ghost hunting? Well, it's something relic hunters don't talk much about, if at all. There's a certain, well, for lack of a better word, a certain sadness, that stains the ground where terrible events have taken place. Even with the full sun on your face, you might find yourself looking over your shoulder as you sweep the coil of your detector over the ground. There's something lingering in the air. You can't smell, taste, see, hear, or touch it- you can just feel it. There are places in the Champlain Valley where the setting sun becomes an EXIT light for relic hunters... places where I'd rather not have the darkness find me. Overactive imagination, you might say? Perhaps. Would I challenge those unearthly feelings? I think not.
The Champlain Valley is only a part of a much longer Colonial corridor that ran from Canada all the way to New York City. The longest stretch of this Colonial "highway" was formed by the Hudson River, a major thoroughfare for almost ten months out of the year, during those days; while along the western shore ran the King's Highway, from New York City to Albany, a small yet bustling city during that period of time. Additionally, the areas around the Hudson River, Mohawk River, and the northern lakes were the first to witness increases in population, and numerous 18th century dwellings, or their remains, can be found in close vicinity to their waters. It's a relic hunting paradise, to be sure!
The Lake Champlain and Lake George area, just north of Albany, was a hotly contested frontier, claimed by both the French and the English, and many major and minor actions took place in the area during the French & Indian War. Fort and blockhouse construction seems to have been a major preoccupation during this period of time. Some of the major forts have been reconstructed and preserved, offering tourists a glimpse of what life was like on a military installation during the 18th century. However, the minor defensive works, for the most part, have been reduced to a few cut and dressed stones found in the fields. Many old maps still exist and actually pinpoint their former locations. Getting permission to hunt those fields seems to be getting a little more difficult, but a warm smile and an offered handshake usually produce a good result.
Less than a generation after the last Colonial war, the Champlain corridor would become the invasion route for General John Burgoyne's troops as they marched south from Canada toward their destination of Albany- a goal they never reached, being thoroughly defeated at the Battle of Saratoga. Much of the land over which the troops marched and camped is now private property, needing only the owner's permission to guarantee a great day of relic hunting.
On one road trip we decided to search along the route of Burgoyne's march. The corn had recently been harvested, and permission to search the fields adjacent to the line of march was easily obtained. We searched three sections of field that day, and each provided us with a minimum of half a dozen musketballs, as well as some British regimentally numbered buttons. One field threw us a bonus... two pieces of Spanish silver.
None of our research indicated that troops had ever entered those fields, but since the fields overlooked the line of march, it seemed the logical place to deploy flanking units to protect the main column from possible ambush. Sometimes "reading the ground" is more important than reading a history book!
Yes, and sometimes you can just outsmart yourself! We've done it a few times while seeking the obscure and completely missing the obvious. The most memorable time this happened was with a farm site directly on the shores of Lake Champlain. We had been searching the interior lands on a small peninsula with good, but continually depreciating results. Prior to each hunt we would check in with the farmer, and on one particular occasion he asked if we'd like to check around his house and barn. With images of fragmentary farm equipment and modern trash in our minds, we opted for the open fields. Whenever I hear a tale of "lost opportunities," images of that site always come to mind.
While driving past the barn one day, a couple of years later, amid the heaps of rusting farm equipment, we spied a small hill directly overlooking the waters of the lake. My partner and I looked at each other and instantly read the other's thoughts: "Gun emplacement!" To this day, I can't explain how we ever missed it. We quickly turned the truck around, pulled into the driveway, and knocked on the farmhouse door. We were greeted by one of the new owners. Thankfully, she was the previous owner's daughter and recognized us. We asked permission to hunt the area behind the barn.
"Well," she said, "my husband, Froggy, doesn't want people on the property."
She certainly noticed the disappointment on our faces and continued with, "But Froggy doesn't come home from work until five o'clock. If you can be out of there by 4:30, I don't have any problem with you digging. That woman had far too much style to have been married to a guy named Froggy!
We had a little less than four hours to hunt. With three cannonballs, a handful of musketballs, a dozen buttons, a trade axe, and the brass base of a French powder horn recovered in the first two hours, we knew we could never complete a thorough search of the entire area in the time remaining to us. When we began shutting down the hunt at four o'clock, we knew we had missed a wonderful opportunity- and had done so on numerous occasions in the past. Subsequent attempts to gain permission to hunt the gun emplacement again proved fruitless, as we always seemed to be met at the door by a scowling Froggy. As his face twisted out of shape while forming the word, "No!", I could only think of that famous line from the movie Beau Geste: "We didn't name him only."
There are so many potential relic hunting sites along the Champlain corridor that sometimes you just trip over them. One of the finer hotels in the area was built on the site of a French & Indian War era fort. Just beyond the main building was a large, tree-covered rock outcropping rising above the roof of the hotel. I sensed that a vantage point of the lake, such as the one I stood upon, would have been manned in the past. Ten minutes and three musketballs later, I knew I had stumbled on an untouched site. "Fort Ramada" became the main focus of our relic hunts for several months and provided us with many interesting and unique relics.
The routes taken by civilian populations as they settled new territories... the lines of march traveled by advancing and retreating troops, form corridors of history... the paths they took are littered with the things they lost or discarded. The Champlain corridor is not unique... there's probably a similar one in your area!