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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (02/2001) Relic Hunter (01/2001) Relic Hunter (03/2001)   Vol. 35 February 2001 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the February 2001 edition of W&ET Magazine

Twice Told Tales

By: Ed Fedory

There exist in our lives certain experiences whose memories are long savored, either for hours or years, and sometimes for a lifetime. They are remembered for any number of reasons. They may have been pivotal points in our lives- or the times when we opened a new door, just to see what was in the room beyond. By the same token, for the writer there are certain stories which will never be forgotten... old stories that retain their freshness long after the hunts are over. And while the recovered relics might, over the years, acquire a growing layer of dust, still the thrill of the hunts, the excitement of the finds, the sense of history, and the warmth of friends afield never fades. They are the stories for which a single telling is never justice, for they are destined to be Twice Told Tales...

As we stood on the edge of the newly harvested field of corn, there was the ever-present feeling of being surrounded by history. It wasn't only the cut and dressed stones, sticking from soil which had been dragged to the surface by the plow- stones which had once formed the foundations of several blockhouses- nor was it the long line of recoveries we had made during previous successful hunts. I guess it was just the knowledge that a great struggle had once taken place on the acres before us, and a fluid far thicker than water had once drenched the soil.

Only the day before, I had made the discovery of several pieces of grapeshot some distance from where the fort had once stood, and I recalled an old journal entry about the small stockaded fort "responding to the attack with grape and ball" when it had been assaulted by a large force of French and Indians.

The day before had been one of those blustery early November days, with dark foreboding skies and a stiff northerly wind. I had been searching by myself, first concentrating within the perimeter of the fort site, and then ranging farther afield once the finds began to dwindle. I had covered a lot of ground by mid afternoon, and from my position in the field, my car seemed little more than a small dot on the horizon. It was then that a bone-chilling rain began to fall. As the strength of the wind picked up and the rain increased, my once-tight search patterns began to loosen up as I worked my way back toward the car. I had gotten in a lot of relic hunting that day, and my collecting bag was far from empty, but you really hate to be forced from any field by inclement weather. It was at that point in the hunt, soaked and growing steadily colder, that I got the signal.

To be honest, it was more like a half signal, because I didn't have my discrimination turned all the way down, and I actually walked 10' past the target before turning around and digging it. I had quietly vowed that this would be my last dig of the day. As my entrenching tool turned over the soil, my mind turned over the possibilities as to what the target might be... an old twisted spike... perhaps a rusty piece of farm equipment that had fallen off a tractor years ago... or maybe the unavoidable half horseshoe.

When I checked the hole, I found the target to be missing and began running my hands through the wet soil. One clump of mud seemed heavier than the rest, and when I ran the coil over it, a signal once again sounded off. After a very quick field cleaning with the edge of my shovel, I knew that I had found the site once raked by grapeshot fired from the fort's cannons nearly two and a half centuries earlier.

Any thoughts of hurriedly quitting the field were now abandoned, and I began to search the rows of corn stubble surrounding me. In the next half hour, I was able to recover over a dozen rounds of grapeshot. I knew that the hunt for that day was quickly coming to an end, but I made another quiet vow to myself: I would return tomorrow and concentrate my hunt in the area of the original find.

Marking the site with a couple of large stones, I turned off my detector and headed for the car, soggy, soiled... smiling!

The following day my brother, Dennis, and I set about running tight patterns up and down the rows of stalks where the first recoveries had been made. Within minutes, another crop of grapeshot began coming to the surface. Since I had switched to a larger coil for additional depth, we decided that I would do the detecting, while my brother dug and marked each spot where a round of grape was recovered.

Marking each recovery spot with broken corn stalks, we soon saw a pattern of fire developing on the surface of the field. In fact, there were at least three distinguishable and separate blasts.

By late that afternoon, we had recovered over 150 rounds of grape, a couple of dozen fired musketballs, several pewter buttons, and a few fragments from Colonial grenades.

We ended the day with a couple of cans of beef stew, cooked on a small Sterno stove on the banks of the Hudson River. As we ate, we attempted to picture the violent scene as it had been played out so long ago on those quiet fields. The sound of the cannons and musketry had faded with time, the gentle waves lapping against the shore now the only sound that remained the same.

I couldn't have known it at the time, but that was to be one of the last times we would hunt together. It's been nearly two decades since I lost my brother, but the memories of the hunt and the excitement we shared on those sodden fields will never be forgotten. It was just one of those great days...

* * *

It was difficult to walk more than 3' in any direction without having to stoop down and pick up a fragment of our Colonial past. The field was literally and liberally strewn with pieces of old clay pipes, pottery and rum bottle shards, and rusted rose-head nails. From the great number of surface indicators, we knew the old fort site would provide us with a wealth of Colonial artifacts and weeks of relic hunting.

Built in the mid-1740s, the fort had been burned to the ground the year after it was built and manned, but another and far larger fort had been built on its ashes the following year.

I had found the site the previous fall but spent only a weekend conducting a relic hunt before the ground froze solid. I filled the long winter months with researching the site, and each time I would take out the coins, musketballs, buttons, and shoe buckle fragments I had been able to recover during my two short hunts, I could only hope it was going to be an early spring. I had only been served a small appetizer, and I was hungering for the main course!

With the coming of spring, every weekend was devoted to the site. From French records, I was able to determine the exact size of the second fort, and using steel probes I was able to establish the positions of each blockhouse foundation hidden beneath the surface of the field.

Due to the large numbers of nails used in the construction of the two forts, I varied my detector's discrimination, initially searching for as many non-ferrous targets as I could recover, before going with less discrimination and seeking the larger ferrous relics such as cannonballs and axe heads.

I spent the weeknights identifying, cleaning, stabilizing, and cataloging the pieces I had been able to find. I soon found that for each hour in the field recovering relics, I was spending at least double that time preserving and analyzing the growing collection. Given the situation, it was not surprising that spring seemed to fly by, and the farmers were soon plowing up the fields once again and planting.

With the spring window closed for a while, I was able to devote some of my time to other hunts, but always in the back of my mind was the longing to return to the site of the forts.

Once the fields had been harvested, there was a new "crop" of relics both on the surface and within the range of my detector, and I once again started the routine of collecting and cataloging the recoveries.

During this period of time, and knowing just how limited the fall window was, I decided upon a new strategy once the frozen surface of the field eventually put an end to detecting- I decided to begin sifting.

Knowing exactly where the foundations of the blockhouses were, I initially began sifting through the interiors, and then worked around the outside of the walls. I was amazed by the number of interesting items being found at depths well beyond the 2' level. Not only was I recovering numbers of buttons and coins, but non-metallic artifacts such as complete clay pipes and much larger fragments of Colonial pottery. I also found evidence of an Indian settlement on the site, far predating the period of fort construction. Hundreds of fragments of coarse Native American pottery surfaced, along with a wide variety of incised rim shards.

At every turn in my exploration of the site, I was finding intriguing elements of its former occupation. What I thought would be a relic hunt of a few weeks' duration wound up lasting the better part of seven years. It was a period of learning, passion, and ultimately an understanding of our nation's past.

Never did a child go to school with more enthusiasm than I did hitting those fields at dawn... never did an ardent admirer fall in love so quickly as I did with those Colonial fort sites... and never did a man feel so humbled and thankful for being able to learn at least a portion of our country's history, using the working end of a shovel...

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