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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (09/2001) Relic Hunter (08/2001) Relic Hunter (10/2001)   Vol. 35 September 2001 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the September 2001 edition of W&ET Magazine

Deep In Tim's Country

By: Ed Fedory

"This country has been made by Timothy Murphys, the men in the ranks. Conditions here called for the qualities of the heart and head that Timothy Murphy had in abundance. Our histories should tell us more of the men in the ranks, for it was to them, more than to the generals, that we were indebted for our military victories."

So spoke Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the ceremonies commemorating the Timothy Murphy monument on the Saratoga Battlefield in 1929. We've all heard of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett... some have heard of Simon Kenton, or Daniel Morgan... but so few have heard of Timothy Murphy.

He was born of Irish immigrant parents in 1751, near the Delaware Water Gap, and his later life would read like a gazetteer of Revolutionary War sites, for his name can be found among the ranks who served at such notable places as the Siege of Boston, the Battle of Long Island, Trenton, Princeton, and the Battle of Saratoga. He suffered during the frosty winter at Valley Forge, and was with Sullivan on his expedition against the Iroquois in western New York during the Revolution.

Murphy began his military career when he and his brother, John, enlisted in Captain John Lowdon's Company of Northumblerland County Riflemen, and later became a sergeant in the 12th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line. Being an excellent shot with his longrifle, Murphy qualified to join the elite Morgan's Rifle Corps in 1777, and later that year he was sent to reinforce the Continentals facing Burgoyne's invasion from Canada. It was on those bloodied fields of Saratoga, amid the whistling of musketballs and the turkey calls of the riflemen, that the legendary stories of Timothy Murphy would begin to emerge.

On October 7th, 1777, during the Battle of Bemis Heights (the Second Battle of Saratoga), Murphy was reputed to have shot Sir Francis Clerke and General Simon Fraser, an event which was one of the major turning points of the battle.

In 1778, Murphy was among three companies of riflemen ordered to reinforce and garrison the forts of the Scholharie Valley. When his time of service was over, he re-enlisted in Colonel Peter Vrooman's 15th Regiment of the Albany County Militia and continued to help safeguard the small valley settlements- and the tales of his courage and heroism would begin to take on monumental proportions!

Each spring when we unload our detectors from the truck and trek out into those expansive fields, we can't help but sense that Timothy Murphy's presence is still there, guarding the valley he was to call his home. During the last quarter-century of relic hunting up and down the valley, there was always the felling that I was walking in those giant footprints he left on the valley floor over two centuries ago.

One of the valley forts we search has a direct connection with Timothy Murphy. It was built around the stone farmhouse of Johannes Feeck, and Tim would visit the fort often on his patrols. Within a short period of time, farmer Feeck realized that the frequency of the visits had more to do with the charms of his lovely daughter, Peggy, rather than the diligence of the patrolling rifleman. Ordered not to return, the ardent and determined suitor secured leave... and eloped with the farmer's daughter!

Twenty-five years ago, the frequency of recoveries made on the stockaded fort, which once surrounded the Feeck dwelling, were numerous. At times the targets were large and abundant, but over years of continual searching, the number of buttons, musketballs, buckle fragments, and other Colonial relics began to dwindle. Today, a half-dozen fired balls from the site would be considered a great day; but every so often, Lady Luck smiles on us, and another hotspot is stumbled upon, yielding a number of interesting relics.

The spring "search window" on the site is very limited at best. We arrive just as the frost leaves the upper surfaces of the soil, and hunt until the fields have been planted and seeded. Usually, this window of opportunity lasts only a couple of weeks, but it is the "kickoff point" for the relic hunting season. The fall window is generally of longer duration, beginning in mid-October and lasting until the ground freezes once again, usually around mid-December.

During the last relic hunting season, and plainly within view of where Timothy Murphy's home once stood, we were able to recover several Colonial coins, along with dozens of musket and rifle balls, a brass mouth harp, several USA buttons, and a large variety of Colonial civilian buttons.

When searching such a heavily hunted site, our detectors are usually running at full sensitivity and with very little discrimination. Large coils and tight patterns are the general order if you're hoping to have a successful day in the field.

Another interesting fact about exploring the valley floor is the number of Native American artifacts that can be recovered along with metallic targets. A number of Indian "castles" were located in the area, and the valley has always been a haven for surface hunters. Keeping our eyes peeled, and knowing what to look for, resulted in several nice arrowheads, spear points, and drills being added to our collecting bags during the last season, along with a large Indian pestle used for grinding corn.

Several miles away from the former Feeck dwelling is the site of the only valley fort which was given a name, Fort Defiance, and it was through the actions of Timothy Murphy that the fort was to bear that unique distinction.

In October 1780, with a force of nearly 1,000 British Regulars, Indians and Tories, Sir John Johnson stood before the gates of the Middle Fort. After some ineffectual cannon and mortar fire, Johnson sent a small force, under a flag of truce, to give his surrender terms to the fort. Sensing that allowing the small enemy party within the fort's walls would allow them to note the impoverished state of the defenders and perhaps the quickly dwindling supply of powder, Timothy Murphy fired upon the advancing party. The British retreated, only to return a short while later, once more under a flag of truce. Murphy was ordered not to fire. Disobeying the order issued by Major Woolsey, Murphy sent the party scurrying for cover. A third attempt was made, and again it was repulsed by the roar of Tim's double-barreled rifle!

Infuriated, Woolsey ordered that the fort raise its white flag. Murphy replied that he would shoot anyone attempting to raise the flag. Obviously, the flag never was raised, and shortly afterward Woolsey relinquished his command of the fort to the commander of the local militia. Later in the afternoon, the British siege of the fort was withdrawn as the enemy troops headed out to burn more valley farms and crops. From that time on, the Middle Fort was also known as Fort Defiance!

Searching the site of Fort Defiance has always been a thrill. I well remember the days when it was possible to pick up literally hundreds of clay pipe stems in a single morning while conducting a very successful hunt on the site. My first USA button was recovered over 20 years ago within the area once enclosed by the fort walls, along with buttons of the 3rd and 5th Pennsylvania Regiments, and buttons from the Pennsylvania militia. Even though the site is hunted hard, I can still manage to pull another USA button from the soil each year.

It's a site to which I enjoy bringing newcomers to the passion of relic hunting. Those historic areas are a "test zone" for future relic hunters. If you can swing a detector all day and be thrilled with a couple of flattened musketballs... if you can suffer the heat and the swarms of gnats buzzing around your head, and yet be thrilled by that sorely worn coin and fragmentary pewter button... well, then you just might have the makings of a relic hunter.

... and always, the hunt is accompanied by the tales of Timothy Murphy... of his victories... his courage... his defiance.

... and more often than not, on the way out of town following a hunt, we'll climb that wind-swept hill between the marble stones, far above the valley floor, and bid a fond farewell to Tim, thankful in the thought that such men once existed!

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