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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (11/2005) Relic Hunter (10/2005) Relic Hunter (12/2005)   Vol. 39 November 2005 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the November 2005 edition of W&ET Magazine

Nature's Relic Hunting Clues

By: Ed Fedory

It would seem that there exists a great and quite apparent shortage of maps bearing that distinctive "X". It sure would make good relic and treasure sites a lot easier to locate. However, by the same token, everyone would know where the site was, and that would certainly take a lot of the fun out of the process of searching, wouldn't it?

While the proverbial "X" might be lacking on your map, a combination of Mother Nature and human nature, and a little knowledge of both, can provide us with any number of clues as to where to seek those relics of the past.

Printable copies of old maps are readily available on the Internet today, so a major trek to your state's capitol to check out the archives is unnecessary. You can quite simply do a lot of the once arduous intellectual legwork in the comfort of your own home. Using copies of old military and community maps is the key to getting started, but the real key is knowing just what to look for, and old maps will provide us with many clues.

The only guarantee I've ever seen in metal detecting and relic hunting is the one which the manufacturer packs in the box with your metal detector, but I'll go out on a limb here and offer a guarantee of my own- of sorts. I've come up with a short list of things to look for on your old map, and if you find any of these features, the chances are very good that you'll soon be digging up some interesting relics. These relic hunting/natural features have been tested and proven in the past. Most relic hunters with decades of experience will recognize many of them, but perhaps I'll provide one or two that they may have overlooked. For those with less experience, this list may become your "Relic Hunters Shortcut to Success."

Fountains and Natural Springs

Fountains and natural springs, from earliest times, were gathering places for both animals and humans. Flowing year-round in most cases, they provided clean and cold water. Many game trails, later to become footpaths for Native Americans, linked these cool springs on a course of travel. Often the first primitive dirt roads followed along these same footpaths, and in times before roadside taverns and inns, the site of a natural spring provided a site for the ideal camp.

At one particular "fountain" we were able to find evidence that the 5th and 6th British regiments had used the site, and we dug a number of large-caliber musketballs, King George coppers, numerically marked buttons, and a pair of shoe buckles. Another nearby natural spring also yielded evidence of temporary Colonial occupation.

Overlooks and Rocky Summits

Areas with panoramic views of surrounding land and water were essential to the military mind during times of war. Being able to witness the possible approach of the enemy provided a certain amount of security for small camps and major entrenched encampments. Such lofty areas should be carefully searched, especially if they are overlooking a body of water, old military road, or open field where a military encampment might once have existed. Conversely, if you have found the site of an early camp, look around for the high areas where sentries might have been posted. The climb might take a little time, but the chances are very good that your efforts will be rewarded!


Travelers before the existence of bridges used these shallow areas in streams, creeks, and rivers. In times of war, small forts or blockhouses usually guarded both sides of a ford. Literally, they were a "bottleneck" through which all had to travel... military and domestic... the soldier and the farmer.

I'll never forget my amazement when a relic hunting buddy showed me a dozen cannonballs that he had recovered from the site of a ford located on a nearby creek. Apparently, a supply wagon had gotten bogged down in the creek, and the cannonballs had been removed to lighten the load. One of the boxes of cannonballs was never reloaded, making for a most memorable relic hunting experience!

Protected Coves and Inlets

These lakeside features provided a certain amount of protection for water travel during inclement weather, or a secure area in which to build a small cooking fire out of sight of enemy boats that might be on patrol. Often scouting parties or small bands of rangers would lay up for the day in secluded inlets and travel, unobserved, at night.

Areas where small boat or canoes could be dragged ashore should be carefully searched, especially if there is a rise of flat land where a small and easily defended day camp might have been set up.

The image of one particular lake shore site immediately springs to mind. We were able to recover a number of musketballs, along with some melted lead waste from a casting site, several French & Indian War era buttons, a Colonial clasp knife, and a small belt axe.

Caves and Rock Shelters

Well known to woodsmen, scouts, and rangers of the past, these natural rock features provided a place for a good drying fire during rainstorms. At one particular rock shelter, evidence of early fires could be seen on the back wall and rocky overhang. What was of greater interest was the number of fired musketballs that were found in the surrounding area. All I could imagine was two opposing forces seeking out the same shelter during a storm. A far greater number of flattened musketballs were found at a distance from the rock shelter than near it- a good indication of the advantage of being able to "keep your powder dry"!

Rapids, Waterfalls, and Portages

Often called "carries" due to the fact that the boat had to be literally carried around the obstacle in the watercourse, portages were often heavily guarded during times of war. Small forts often guarded these areas to ensure the safe and unbroken line of supply to outlying major posts. Such natural obstacles always provided excellent ambush sites, and it didn't take long for those in command to realize the necessity for protecting such areas.

Relic hunting one such carry on the Hudson River, we located the remains of a small stockaded fort. We could tell that it had once had four blockhouses from the stonework remains that littered the field in certain areas. Numerous relics of a wide variety, dating from the French & Indian War, were found within the area surrounded by the blockhouse remains. Such areas should be carefully searched.

In the times before the appearance of those first wilderness roads, rivers provided the only means of travel into the interior, and with the portage or carry we are once again talking about that early "bottleneck" situation through which all had to travel. Many primitive camps can also be found in areas surrounding a carry. Speaking for myself, after a long day's paddle, I think I'd prefer a warm meal and a good night's sleep before I started doing any heavy lifting of boats and supplies... wouldn't you?


The areas where rivers and creeks meet, or where rivers join each other, were excellent places to locate forts, blockhouses, and later, settlements. By effectively protecting or limiting the type of traffic over the course of two waterways, you were "killing two birds with one stone." Many major U.S. cities are located on the confluence of major rivers, but many smaller, more remote confluences can be found in the deep woods. In pre-Colonial times many of these areas were the sites of native villages. I know of one particular site that yielded a number of pieces of trade silver, musket parts, and over a dozen Jesuit rings. I certainly wish I had been the first relic hunter to find that one!

Small Ponds and Swamps

In nature's cycle, small ponds fill in with vegetation, cattails appear, and the once-clear waters become clogged with rotting debris. Eventually, the pond bed rises, dries out, and becomes an almost unrecognizable part of the surrounding landscape. Thankfully, this cycle does not take place overnight, and any areas where you can find a swamp or low area filled with cattails, along military roads or areas through which troops have marched, should be checked carefully. The water might not seem potable today, but a couple of centuries ago such an area would have provided drinking and cooking water for troops either on the march or in camp.

There are two instances of relic recoveries under such conditions that I clearly remember. The first was a small area of swampy water. We knew that troops had been camped nearby, and it seemed that this area would have been the closest spot to provide water for the troops. We searched along the sides of the swamp and found a beautiful 47th British regiment button, along with a pewter spoon that looked as if it had been dropped only yesterday. The muck we had to dig through had a terrible smell, but the oxygen-deprived soil tended to keep the artifacts perfectly preserved. I've often wondered what other relics could have been found, had we ventured farther out into the center of that swampy pool.

In the other instance, we were following the line of march for British troops. At the end of one field was an area of very dense cattails. Feeling that 200 years earlier this site might have provided drinking water for passing troops, we decided to check the area carefully. In addition to a number of dropped musketballs, a Spanish coin button and a 29th Regiment button were found. There were several other small swampy areas along the miles-long length of the march, and with varying degrees of success, each provided us with at least a few relics for our collections. * * *

Perhaps the next time you drag out that old map you'll examine it with a different eye. Look for those "bottlenecks" that saw so much foot traffic in past centuries. Think about what might have been an important feature to the 18th century military mind... in short, think like a Colonial.

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