By: Peter Gallacchi
Ten years ago, after listening to local landowners all telling the same story of hidden treasures on their property, I began marking the locations on maps and soon realized that the areas in question all lay in a pattern. However, gaining permission to follow up on this information proved more challenging and time-consuming than the actual fieldwork. The search, with the owner's permission, would encompass over 1,000 acres of private property. Although many of the details are omitted here due to the owner's concerns, I am at liberty to divulge that the land is in upstate New York, along the Mohawk Valley.
Many different buddies helped me to search the vast area, yet countless hours of hard hunting seemed to bring us no closer to our goal. Anyone else might have felt defeated or discouraged as time passed without finding the riches long rumored in folklore. Still, we pressed on, and in fact our efforts weren't entirely wasted. Along the way we dug our share of British and Colonial coppers, military buttons, and an array of artifacts and relics. Then finally, at the end of March, we uncovered the first cache- and what was to be just the tip of the treasure.
I was just about to pocket a flat, worn copper when my friend Len Dancause waved to me. After I signed back "copper," he ran over, grabbed my shoulder, and began pulling me along, saying, "I've just found silver!" For the moment my interest remained with the copper I'd just found- that is, until I saw that Len had removed rocks from the hole, and lying next to it were a half dozen pieces of silver. "I think it's a pile of reales!" he said, but the coin that he handed me would need to be cleaned to make that determination. I rinsed it in a small stream nearby, and as the soil washed away and the coin shone, my heart fairly pounded!
I came running back, saying excitedly, "It's an American half!" Len, in his calm demeanor, simply replied, "Good... I got five more." Then he pointed in a circular motion and suggested, "Look around here." So, I did just that, stepping about 6' away to avoid any crosstalk between our detectors. As Len continued using his Fisher, I turned on my Minelab Sovereign and lowered the coil... right on top of four 2 reales, five half dollars, and two quarters!
We found nothing else in the immediate area, however, and at last started ranging farther out, hoping to find a pattern or some other indication of where another cache might be located. Originally, we thought that the layout of the "spills" might be due to a horseman's riding next to loose limestone, because of the way in which the coins were found scattered in the ground under the rocks. At the end of the first day, between the two of us, we had located 19 pieces of silver.
The next day we resumed the search. As I stood on the same spot from the day before, I looked across a dried-up streambed and noticed an obsolete cut through a hill. "That looks like the easiest way to pass through this area," I thought, and within 20 minutes of swinging my detector along the edge of the trail I got an overload signal. Eagerly brushing away the leaves, I saw the apparent source of that robust reading... a rusty, knotted-up bicycle chain. That had to be it, but out of habit I rechecked the spot anyway. Again the Sovereign gave out an overload signal. What was it, the rest of the bike? Prying out rocks and digging the loose dirt with my hands, suddenly I struck silver!
By then Len was looking over my shoulder, and what we saw next is the stuff that dreams are made of. About 2" deep were the outlines of coins- large silver coins with their lettered edges showing, stacked like poker chips! Once I lifted out the top layers, the hole gleamed with silver! It took us more than an hour to carefully lift out all the stacks of coins, and the thrill of it was 'way beyond what I can describe. I carry oil containers with me to put good coins in, but there were far too many. I did my best to protect them in cloth, then tried to continue to detect, but I just couldn't. Weighed down with silver and still shaking with excitement, I heard Len saying, "Come on, let's hunt! I didn't get a cache today." But we were done for the day.
Once we got home we photographed the pile of coins on the cloth, dirt and all! Not long after that, my wife came in from work to find Len and me standing at the kitchen counter, downing some cold drinks; and on a picture-perfect day with plenty of hunting time left, she knew right away something was wrong. After coyly responding to several questions as to why we were home early, we stepped aside to show her the silver. "Those can't be real," she said.
"Well," I told her, "if I'm dreaming, both of you are, too!"
The pile turned out to be 163 American halves, plus one 8 reales dated 1807, all from a single spot. It was a dream come true, all right- and it wasn't over.
Every day for the next ten days, more caches came to light. On Easter morning we set out with instructions from my wife to be home in time for dinner with friends and family. Most of the day was slow, with very little results. Although hesitant to leave, I knew I had to. I'd been home for about a half hour when Len called me on his cell phone from the woods, telling me I had better get back there as soon as possible. My wife understood why I had to go, but I couldn't tell my guests. I just filled several baggies with food, ran out of the house, and didn't stop until I found Len at what we would later call "The Quarter Tree."
While we had our Easter dinner/picnic, Len told me of the caches he'd just found. Afterward, we resumed the hunt well into the night. I'm still not sure of the exact number of silver coins we recovered that night- maybe 100- but most of them were American quarters; hence, the name of "The Quarter Tree." Celebrating with a second dinner, we toasted our success several times that evening.
Throughout the summer and fall we still managed to find small pockets of stray coins. The caches had been hidden by hollowing out holes in loose rocks and under very old trees which were now mostly fallen and rotted away. That scenario was exactly what happened with the "Spanish Pile." At one time the benefactors of our good fortune had stashed a cache of approximately fifty 2 reales at the edge of a rise, under a tree that was about 4' in diameter. The tree had fallen over, and some of the silver within its roots got pulled up and dragged down the hillside. The coins remaining in the resulting depression were quite deep.
The stories of these recoveries could go on and on... memories that we will never forget. So far, the caches have totaled more than 500 silver coins- none smaller than 2 reales- dating from 1773 to 1838. These include 288 American half dollars, 112 American quarters, and more than 100 Spanish silver pieces. Among these were a 1794 half dollar, three 1795's, twenty 1807's, and twenty-five 1809's.
The American coins are in XF to AU condition due to being buried in hardwood forests with good drainage and no fertilizers. Unfortunately, the downside is that nearly all of them are marked with either a punch or a chisel strike in very uniform placements. Some bear initials or graffiti, and one, an 1823 half dollar, has the current landowner's first name scratched on it. When I gave it to him, the first thing he said was, "What can I buy with it?" Then he asked, "Why'd you put my name on it? Doesn't that ruin the value?"
Putting my nodding head in my hands, I told him, "Yes, it does... but I didn't do it. It was done about 180 years ago. It's just a coincidence."
The marks on the coins have led to various speculations as to why and by whom it was done: possibly a river pirate group, part of a larger stolen cache, settlers traveling the Erie Canal, a wealthy landowner, businessmen, etc. Such speculations are always intriguing, but I still have more questions than answers, and a lot more research to verify before coming to a conclusion.
Last spring Len traveled to Keene, New Hampshire, to attend George Streeter's BONE 9 club hunt and trade show. He had brought only a small sample of our finds to enter the Best O' North East "Find of the Year" contest. It won first place, but some people asked, "If you found so much, why did you only bring some of them to the show?" and rumors regarding the true size of the cache started circulating. This article should help to dispel those comments and misconceptions.
Common sense should explain why no one would carry around an entire treasure of that magnitude. Also, we had hunted most of the year to be sure we had found the majority of the caches, before we got all the coins in one place at one time to do the full-scale photo layout. Where are they now? We have retained a professional numismatist to broker our finds. He can clean and grade them, assess their values and determine the proper venues in which to gain maximum interest in the cache. For that reason, and for safety and security, we do not hold the coins in our possession.
The care necessary to handle pieces of such value has taken a great deal of time and expense. These coins have waited patiently for over 160 years to be recovered, and we're not about to rush ahead with them now. Eventually, when the conditions merit their movement, I believe we'll be ready. Meanwhile, I'll just say this: Be careful what you wish for, because it might come true- and then comes the real test of deciding what to do next.
Len and I are not newcomers to this hobby. I have been detecting for over 30 years. I am currently the vice-president of the Empire State Metal Detecting Association, and have been for over ten years. Len Dancause, to my knowledge, has been detecting for more than 20 years, and also served as president of our club for many years. Unfortunately, I have had to compose this article with very little input from Len, due to his treasure hunting schedule of following the seasons and the sun.
I might add that in the past our club has had many winners in W&ET's annual "Best Finds" competition. Some have also received metal detector manufacturers' sponsorships and been featured in national news stories. From the finds brought in to our meetings each month, it's clear that we are truly blessed to live in one of America's most historically rich areas- and I know we will always treasure this.