There's a large section of sandy-loam cornfield that I will never forget. It sits on the banks of the Hudson River, about 70 miles north of where we build our campfires on the shore. It is a magical place... and my times on that site, and the finds and adventures I had there, are the fabric from which dreams are woven.
Each time I would begin a hunt, and my boots would first hit that plowed soil, I felt like a pilgrim visiting some ancient and mystical shrine. From a quick glance you couldn't tell what those acres of stubbled corn concealed, but with closer scrutiny and a more careful examination you could pick out the centuries-old pottery shards and the chalky white pipe stems littering the surface.
On foggy fall mornings it was an eerie place. You could feel the aura of history and conflict. You knew that men had lost their lives within yards of where you stood. You were right on the spot where all of those past tragedies had taken place... only the time had changed. Research had given us the fact that those who died in combat had been laid to rest below the current plowline, and on those fog-enshrouded mornings you could almost hear the barked commands and the rattle of musket fire... the shrieks of the Indians... the cries of the wounded... the silence of the fallen. It was that kind of place.
I wish I could go back!
To the farmer who rented the land, the numerous stones were threats to his plow. To me, each concentration of stones was a clue to the location of a blockhouse. In the areas skirted by the plow during the growing season, I dug, revealing the laid stone foundations of six individual blockhouses that had once been connected by stockade walls and ramparts.
Once the foundations were laid bare, I searched for the remains of the walls, and found them at a depth of 4'. There wasn't much left to them, a few lengths of rotted pine that had once been huge logs from the surrounding forests, but it gave me a unique understanding of how the fort had been constructed. From the backfill along those walls I learned something of the dietary habits and the common practices of the soldiers stationed at that frontier outpost. There were a lot of mid-18th century pipe bowls turning up, pork formed a fair amount of their diet, and a lot of wine and rum had been consumed, either to wash down their food, or to combat the boredom accompanying the isolation of the post. Each shovelful of soil was like turning a page of history. Each structure unearthed was like a new chapter about how life was lived in the past. I learned so much! There was so much to learn!
Yes, I wish I could go back...
Evidence revealed in the bottom of my sifter told me that the Colonial troops quartered at the fort and defending the frontier from the advance of the French to the north were "Johnny-come-latelies" to the site. Indian pottery shards and flint tools indicated that the site had been occupied during the Middle Woodland period, roughly 1,200 years prior to the fort being built. Suddenly, the search on the site shifted from the historic to the prehistoric periods of New York State history. My research and attempts to accurately identify what I was recovering began dragging my boots down avenues of study I'd never dreamed of taking.
Several thin copper arrowheads were found while surface hunting, an indicator of the meeting of two cultures, and of some form of trade existing between them. It would have been a very short transitional period for their use, as flintlocks would quickly surpass the bow and arrow for putting meat on the table in Native American villages. This trade, and the subsequent alliance with the French, would soon result in mass migrations and near annihilation for many of the tribes on the New York frontier following the French & Indian War. The site was proving to be a textbook on Colonial empire building and the destruction of a culture.
And yes... I wish I could go back!
Losing a fantastic and artifact-laden site has got to be one of the great fears and potential nightmares any relic hunter can face. I have heard the sad stories told many times and on numerous occasions. It doesn't seem to matter what part of the country you happen to be in, either- permission once given is often denied and revoked.
Liability issues seem to be the easiest way for a landowner to revoke his permission. In a time when it seems that every other commercial on TV is from a lawyer trying to represent someone seeking damages, landowner concerns seem almost understandable. That's why the excuse works so well. The conversation with the landowner usually begins with, "I was talking with my lawyer the other day, and..." Most of you can fill in the rest of the conversation, probably having heard it a number of times. There are variations to the theme, some of which bring in the landowner's insurance company. Wives often get a big part of the excuse burden, as well. Often it just comes down to the simple fact that the landowner doesn't want you on his property anymore. After all, you could be digging up gold ingots... silver bullion... the old stagecoach strongbox... the Crown Jewels. The human imagination is a wonderful thing! The site loss I mentioned earlier is a classic example of how things often work in the realm of relic hunting.
I had been surface hunting and sifting on the fort site for years. I would see the landowner on a regular basis and show him the type of relics I was finding. The contents of my collecting bag usually contained a lot of rusty artifacts, broken pieces of pottery, musketballs, gunflints, cooking pot fragments, and the occasional King George copper. He expressed very little interest in what I was recovering from his property, and rather openly asked me why I spent so much time digging up broken pieces of things. He just couldn't read the writing on the page of history he owned.
As I was surface hunting one day, I saw his truck approaching down the farm road. I stopped detecting and went over to chat with him. It was at that time I was informed that the farmer to whom he was renting the fields, didn't want anyone digging on them. I asked if it would be all right for me to hunt before he put in the crops, or after he harvested the corn. The was clear: "He rents the property for the entire year and doesn't want anyone on it." I packed up my gear and headed down the road. There was no arguing the point... all avenues toward compromise were closed.
That would probably have been the end of the story had it not been for the fact that several months later I was canoeing down the river, and I heard a tractor harvesting the crops. I abandoned my search for another site and headed toward shore. Beaching my canoe, I scrambled up the embankment and headed cross the field in the direction of the tractor. Obviously, I was also practicing my best smile as I walked.
The farmer shut down the tractor, and I explained the situation to him. I left the landowner out of the conversation, figuring that the farmer who rented the field was the only problem with which I had to deal. With a handshake and a smile he gave me permission to hunt the area he had already harvested, and further extended himself by telling me to pick a dozen ears of his sweet corn to take home. "Sweetest corn in the valley," he said. The man didn't lie.
Truthfully, I don't think my boots touched the ground once as I high-stepped it back to the canoe for my metal detector and digging tool. I was once again on my favorite site... permission once again granted... all problems solved! Ha! I don't think there was enough evidence to convict me of felony stupidity... misdemeanor naivete, perhaps.
As the loaded wagon of the farmer made its way up the farm road, I waved him an eager and thankful goodbye, and continued running my search patterns. It wasn't a half-hour later when I heard a commotion on the hill where the landowner's house stood. He was yelling something to me from his front lawn. His hands and arms were waving around like a windmill in a strong wind... perhaps a hurricane. I waved back.
Scant seconds later, in a cloud of swirling dust, with all eight cylinders of his farm truck roaring, I witnessed the approach of the landowner. I didn't imagine anyone would ever be that glad to see me! I guess this is the part of the story where that "felony stupidity" stuff might just apply.
The truck came to a screeching, skidding halt, the trailing cloud of dust finally caught up with the vehicle, and the driver who quickly emerged and slammed the door shut behind him. Now, most people when they are glad to see you, usually have a smile on their face. Well, the face I saw approaching was beet red and there wasn't a single tooth showing. I thought I saw steam coming out of his ears, but I figured it was just a part of that dust cloud still tagging along behind him. I started to get this sinking feeling that something might just be wrong. That notion was confirmed by the first sentence out of his mouth. "What the ____ are you doing in my field using that ____ detector thing!"
You can probably fill in the blanks yourself and get the gist of how this conversation was rapidly degenerating and heading downhill. I explained how I had talked with the farmer who was renting the fields, and how he had given me permission to continue my searches on the property. I figured that would solve the problem very quickly, since the landowner had told me that his renter was the major problem with my relic hunting on the fort site. Ah, felony stupidity again, eh, Ed?
"Well, he don't own this property, do he?" was the landowner's clipped response. I didn't think it was the proper time for a mini-course in the proper use of the English language.
I guess I was guilty of believing what the landowner had originally told me. I often take men at their word, just like I believe that a handshake can seal a deal... jus' Ed. I don't look behind the words a man speaks to me for lies or ulterior motives. But at that moment it was as if I'd been hit in the forehead with a crystal bullet, and the entire situation became clear: the landowner wanted me off his property, and the renter was the easiest excuse. Duh!
As I was escorted back to my beached canoe, I asked the landowner to explain why, after all these years, he had decided he wouldn't allow me to relic hunt his fields anymore. His answer dumbfounded me as it came from the darker side of human nature. "I don't think you were showing me everything you were digging up in these fields. You wouldn't spend all that time and energy digging broken pipes and mothballs (his words, not mine), now would you?"
You know, you get to a point in some conversations when you know that anything you're going to say by way of explanation will just be falling on deaf ears. I was at that point.
He watched until I had paddled around the next bend in the river. I didn't have to turn around to confirm it... I could feel his eyes boring into my back like a pair of hot pokers!
That incident took place nearly two decades ago. Since that time I've lost a good number of other, though less productive sites. The reasons vary. Some sites became too popular, and the farmers decided it was easiest to shut down their property to all relic hunters. Some sites were left with holes unfilled by fellow relic hunters... permission revoked. Other sites had crops trampled and seeds unearthed by fellow relic hunters... permission revoked. In other cases, the sites were sold and developed. It would be a long and sad list to run through on an individual basis.
New sites are getting harder to find, but often it's just a case of hitting the books hard and fine-tuning your research and skills. Getting permission to relic hunt is becoming a little more difficult, too, but the extra efforts are well worth the knowledge of our past that can be gleaned from the ground. I may never be able to go back to some of the sites I once relic hunted, but I know there are more in the future.
Recently, I met another farmer, and again it was one of those mid-field tractor pullovers. I asked if I could hunt his field. As he looked down from his perch on the big tractor, a sparkle came to his eye. He brought liability and personal injury into the conversation. I told him that he had no reason to worry on that account. "Yeah," he said as he reached down to shake my hand, "didn't think so. You get hurt out there, we just wrap a chain around your leg... hook it to the hitch, and just drag you off into the woods!"
Relic hunters love farmers who have a sense of humor!