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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (08/2009) AMP (06/2009) Featured Article (10/2009)   Vol. 43 August 2009 
This Month's Features
As seen in the August 2009 edition of W&ET Magazine

Found! 18th Century Community

By: Jerry Walz

In 1789, as George Washington stood on the balcony of the Federal building in New York City to give his inaugural speech and be sworn in as the first president of the United States, a life and death struggle was taking place hundreds of miles away in the U.S. territories between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Frontiersmen, explorers, settlers, slaves, and Indians were locked in a battle against the elements, starvation, disease, and often each other. At stake was survival and the westward development of Washington's new country (more about George Washington later).

The adventure began for me last year while I was reading the background information from a published report of an archaeological dig. For a treasure hobbyist, these reports make for some good reading, but what really got my attention was the description of a nearby 18th century community that I had never heard of. This community thrived in an unlikely place until it became (for a short time) one of the largest and most important on the Western frontier, including Harrodsburg, Losantiville (Cincinnati), Boonesboro, and Louisville.

Many of the trails made famous by people like Thomas Walker and Daniel Boone were actually buffalo migration trails that had existed for hundreds of years. Although the Indians coexisted with the migrations, early settlers disrupted them from the start, bringing the settlers into direct conflict with the Indians. Add floods, cholera outbreaks, and the promise of a better life elsewhere, and you have the recipe for extinction of what should have become one of today's typical U.S. towns.

After hours of research and a solid month of hunting, I made the discovery of a lifetime. With permission from the property owners, I found the center of this historic community that has been extinct for over 180 years.

I knew I was getting close when I started to dig up a variety of flat buttons that appeared to be from the 1700s. I found coat, shirt, and breeches buttons. There were engine-turned buttons, tombac, copper, pewter, and even a couple of hand-tooled silver buttons, but none of them had backmarks. There were no two-piece or three-piece domed buttons. Eventually, different debris fields could be identified. One of them in particular revealed 18th century silver and copper coins among rubble that appeared to have once been a manmade structure. Other artifacts from that debris field correspond to historical accounts and confirm that this was the center of activity.

I contacted two of my good friends from the Tri-State Historical Research & Recovery Association, Howard and Bill. They are two of the best detectorists you'll find in this part of the country. Over the next few trips to the site, the three of us rescued hundreds of 18th century artifacts, some of which would qualify as entries in W&ET's annual Best Finds competition.

Bill is a national orienteering champion. His style of hunting is extreme- extremely deep and thorough. We all use Minelab Explorers with the Pro coil. Bill's Explorer is chest mounted. On one particular day at the site, he found, among other things, four silver 18th century coins, each older than the previous one. The last was a 1723 cut two reales, minted in Seville, Spain. This turned out to be the oldest dated find from the area.

Howard hunts "survey style." He can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, identifying the debris fields and then scouring each one. Among his best finds at the site is a 1793 U.S. Wreath-reverse large cent. He sent it to Numismatic Conservation Services to be professionally worked on. They stabilized its condition and shipped it back, slabbed, with a VF net grade. Howard also found an intriguing double-sided wax seal pendant with cursive initials on one side and the image of a bearded man on the other. Since genealogical records and descendants of many of these people still exist, we think there is a chance it can be attributed.

Along with the many buttons and coins that were found there were also shoe buckles, utensils, broken porcelain, pots, chains, keys, etc. Among my favorites is a 1795 U.S. half dollar. This was the first full year that the Mint made half dollars. It grades out as, "EF details with corrosion." It was made with the same obverse die as one that appears in two different sections of The Official Red Book of U.S. Coins.

Another great find is a mysterious large coat button. I'll need some help on this one. Apparently inspired by Augustin Dupre, it bears what looks like the French allegorical nude angel Genius, who shows up in works by Dupre, including the 1784 Benjamin Franklin Genius medal issued by King Louis XVI. It most closely resembles the French "lucky coin" that is said to have saved Dupre from the guillotine and caused the downfall of Napoleon. Dupre, by the way, is also responsible for the Flowing Hair Liberty concept on the obverse of all denominations of U.S. coins issued in the first years of the Mint.

The most historically evocative find for me, though, is a Linked States Washington Inaugural button. George Washington's first inauguration was postponed several times. We know from his own records and eyewitness accounts that he bought a set of these buttons (though a different version) and wore them that day, on the balcony and in the gallery as he became our first president. No one could know that one of them would someday be displayed in the Smithsonian museum, or that prime examples would sell for thousands of dollars each. A collection of Washington Inaugural buttons was even featured in the box office hit movie National Treasure.

I feel the most important find is the site itself. It was surveyed and recorded before the founding of the first permanent English-speaking settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. Howard, Bill, and I recognize the historical importance of this spot and have agreed to cooperate fully with any serious investigation by the state archaeological authorities.

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