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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (12/2000) Relic Hunter (11/2000) Relic Hunter (01/2001)   Vol. 34 December 2000 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the December 2000 edition of W&ET Magazine

History Alive

By: Ed Fedory

As we walked the length of the dirt trail, between tents, the air filled with the aroma of baking bread, and the distant sound of drum rolls, bagpipes, and cannon fire, it was hard to imagine that we had just entered the 21st century. The calendar said we were halfway through the year 2000, but to each of us it seemed as if we were locked in the middle 1700s.

Dressed in the garb of modern times, a 35mm camera slung over my shoulder, instead of a musket, I felt out of place- literally, out of time- in my current surroundings. A man just recently emerged from a time machine could not have felt more strangely. I should have expected my own personal awkwardness. After all, I had been to similar events on a number of occasions. Yet the sensation of being an outsider was overwhelming!

Each of us came to the Grand Encampment of the French & Indian War at Fort Ticonderoga with different goals and expectations, but the common denominator was a love of history, and specifically, the 18th century. Rather than picking up another book on that period of time, walking among and talking with people who were living history was far more interesting and educational.

I had another reason for attending as well. For years, I had wanted to purchase a flintlock rifle... a sweet one... full-stocked of maple and between .40 and .50 caliber, handmade, a rifle that would show the gunmaker's love of his craft and his creation. I knew the rifle was out there somewhere. We had just never crossed paths... yet.

Always a constant source of fascination and interest was the care each reenactor gave to his style of dress. Each had established his own persona of the past. Some were British regulars, while others outfitted themselves as Ranger corps. There were Provincial militia units, female "camp followers," and no end to the variety of Native Allies. Each was a study and a lesson in the lifestyles of the past. It wasn't just what was worn, but how it was worn and decorated. The more you studied each reenactor, the more details you found to observe, and the greater you became aware of the breadth and depth of history and historical reenacting.

For the relic hunter, attending an event such as the Grand Encampment offers a unique and singular view into the period of time in which we are most interested. We can observe not only the costumes of those in attendance, but the tools and accoutrements we often find in the field. We learn how the camps were set up, and of strategies used as displayed in mock battles.

There exist numerous reenacting groups, their interests ranging from the days of ancient early Greeks and Romans, through the Civil War, and on into World War II. For a view of the variety of reenactors specializing in particular time periods, check out the website Not only will you be given a view of the different active groups, but the links associated with the various sites will allow you to gather more information on the history of your period of interest, and upcoming reenacting events.

One of my favorite web pages is that of On the Trail magazine, which deals primarily with historical trekkers, another interesting phrase to which I have been recently introduced. Their website at illuminates and graphically illustrates the world of the longhunters during the 1700s.

For those interested in history and relic hunting, I should provide a word of caution. The temptation to "play out" a part in history is very difficult to resist once you have been exposed to it. Remember the youthful days of playing cowboys and Indians... having a Davy Crockett coonskin cap... meeting up with your buddies to play "Army" after school was out... Halloween... camping? Well, reenacting is all of that, combined with historical knowledge and brought to an adult level. From what I've witnessed, it looks like a heck of a lot of fun, too!

Just for the sake of curiosity, and the fact that there are so many Civil War relic hunters out in the fields, I decided to check out some of the sites available for Civil War reenacting. I only checked out a few- the 16th Alabama, Co. A, the 11th Mississippi, and the Champlain Rifles, comprised of the 14th Vermont and the 123rd New York. Not only were the histories of each original unit found, complete with the various campaigns in which each participated, but there were detailed photographs and descriptions of the uniforms worn by each unit. Even if reenacting isn't in your future, these sites can provide the relic hunter with some interesting insights to the past and clues to relic identification.

As we toured the encampment and browsed through the numerous sutler's tents, I found numerous replica British regimental buttons. The problem with many of the pewter buttons we dig in the fields is that they have become so corroded over the years from constantly being turned in the soil and from the chemical reactions of the soft metal with strong fertilizers. In some cases, the buttons are barely identifiable.

Several of the buttons I purchased were later added to my collection to illustrate how the button would probably have appeared on the day of its loss, compared to the dug example and the condition in which it was found over 200 years later. For the trained eye of a relic hunter, a couple of slight features on the face of the button are all we need for the purposes of identification; but to the student or novice relic hunter, having the replica button seated beside the original helps to illustrate what our eyes would see as obvious.

In one sutler's large tent, amid the displays of handmade knives, powder horns, waistcoats, and tricorn hats, my eyes suddenly fixed on a display of a half dozen flintlock muskets and rifles. Five of the six would have held my interest for less than 30 seconds, but the tiger-striped curly maple stock on the bottom of the rack riveted my attention. I eased my way over toward the rack for a closer examination of the rifle, hoping that it would appear as fine close-up as it did from the other side of the tent. The stock had been polished with beeswax and hand rubbed to a satiny finish, and the use of iron furniture, rather than flashy brass, added a subtlety to the finished piece.

The sutler asked if I would like to hold the rifle. My answer of "Yes" would soon prove to be a fateful one. As I held the rifle in my hands, I viewed with interest the big bore and yet the almost delicate features the rifle possessed. Holding the stock to my shoulder and sighting down the length of brown steel, I could tell in an instant she was a sweet shooter.

The price of the rifle was a hefty one, and it was with a sense of loss that I handed the rifle back to the sutler and watched her put back on the rack with her poorer sisters. I turned and walked from the tent, and actually made it about 6' out the entrance, before quickly turning on my heels and reaching for my wallet. For the next four hours, not once did the rifle leave my hand, as I purchased a new horn, powder measure, and patch knife to complete the set.

I've always believed that magic can be found just around the next corner, and indeed, for this relic hunter, it was a magical day. I would not only be digging relics from the 1700s, but would begin living, in some small way, a part of history I had grown to love so much over the years. It would be the last day I would attend an encampment and feel like an outsider.

...and I have a feeling, as yet unconfirmed, that each future relic I dig, and each Colonial site I investigate, will be even more appreciated as this endless love of history continues along its various paths!

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