Relics Abound At Creekfront Colonial Site
By: Bill Dancy
This story has its roots many years ago, nearly 20 if that seems possible, when I was just starting out with my newfound hobby of metal detecting. It’s probably one of the first older sites that I encountered, and to this day I still can’t recall how I even stumbled across it, other than the fact it was fairly close to home. But I do remember how exciting it was to have an opportunity to recover pre-1900 coins and relics after having hunted only schoolyards, parks, and mid-century house yards, looking for silver dimes and Wheat cents. Little did I know how early and diverse this site would turn out to be until years later, and that was made possible through an unexpected visit from a feisty gal named Isabel.
Situated on a marshy saltwater creek not far from the Chesapeake Bay, the site was rumored to be the location of a long-gone, turn-of-the-century home, which is probably what originally garnered my attention. After speaking with the owner and securing his permission to search the property, I was excited to make my first visit. To reach the house site overlooking the tidal creek, I needed to navigate my old truck down a narrow dirt lane surrounded by tall vegetation and overhanging trees. However, eventually it opened up to a beautiful grassy area where the house had once stood, as evidenced by two brick columns that marked the entrance to this gorgeous waterfront property. The house site was also protected by a thick canopy of shade, courtesy of several huge oak and pecan trees. I also noticed a couple of very old live oaks gracefully hanging over the pristine shoreline, which meant this site had a distinct possibility of being even older than first thought.
I started out the day hunting the grassy area and was surprised when a Barber dime and a couple of Indian Head cents surfaced from the sandy soil. Actually, these were banner finds for me, as the dime was my oldest silver coin to date. I was also amazed when a Civil War period Minie ball turned up in what used to be the front yard of the old house. I later walked down to the shoreline, and as luck would have it, I hit the low tide just right and was able to eyeball a few more interesting finds between the water’s edge and the adjacent marsh grass. These included several pieces of Native American pottery and a large arrowhead, along with shards of china and glass from the early 1900s. I also picked up what appeared to be stoneware and black glass fragments from an earlier period, and although they were unfamiliar to me at that early point in my detecting career, my curiosity was definitely aroused.
This stirred my detective instincts, and I decided to do some after-the-fact research in an attempt to see if I could uncover some of the secrets this site might be holding. I was quite excited when I came across two late 1700s maps showing what appeared to be a mill and a dwelling occupying this exact spot. From another source I was also able to determine that this area had been part of a large Union camp during the Civil War, which explained my bullet find. So, with this site being continuously occupied from pre-Jamestown times on into the 20th century, I was chomping at the bit to get back out there and do some serious exploring.
During subsequent visits to the site I recovered a few more buttons, bullets, and other random artifacts from the 17th through the 19th centuries, especially in a small area along the shoreline that contained a huge amount of small iron. Even so, the finds weren’t plentiful, and I began to get discouraged at my lack of success. It was beginning to look as if all the anticipation that had been building for this place was turning into a major disappointment. At that point I decided to discontinue my search there, except to check back once or twice a year in case some nice button or coin had washed out of the eroding bank. I also knew that one of the locals walked that small stretch of beach daily, and I figured she would pick up any obvious finds that might be revealed at any time.
Now fast forward several years to late September 2003. It had been decades since southeast Virginia had been hit hard by a tropical storm, but a massive Category 5 hurricane named Isabel was off the Atlantic coast and making a beeline for our area. Fortunately, the storm weakened to a Cat 2 prior to landfall on the North Carolina coast on September 18th; but as a result of the storm surge hitting the Hampton Roads area at the time of an astronomical high tide, there was unprecedented flooding with levels of 9' above mean low water, resulting in over $1 billion damage to the area. This surge was accompanied by large, pounding waves that devastated coastal areas as well as inland estuaries, including the creek where my site was located. I was anxious to get back there as soon as possible, to see if the storm had stirred things up a bit; but with the power out and storm damage to clean up, it was a couple of weeks before I could schedule a return visit.
When I finally arrived at the house site, I was stunned by the extent of damage done to the landscape. Nearly every one of the huge trees in the yard area had been blown down, creating a dense jungle of large branches and huge root balls that made it nearly impossible to get to the shoreline. Massive amounts of debris that had floated in with the storm surge also littered the area. Down on the beach it looked like another world, with a significant amount of erosion that had scoured the bank and swept away considerable amounts of sand. Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize that there was a silver lining to all this mess, and it came in the form of another opportunity to uncover some of the history I was originally seeking.
On the beach that day I was able to eyeball an unbelievable number of early artifacts, including numerous spouts and bases of mid-to-late 18th century black glass mallet bottles. Large shards of stoneware pots dating to around 1740 were also lying around on the beach, as were pieces of 17th century delftware. I also eyeballed a 6 lb. cannonball at the edge of the marsh grass. A few Civil War bullets, tombac buttons, pewter spoon parts, and other interesting items were recovered as well. Not only was I excited about these finds, but I was quite pleased that my research on this site had been verified in a big way.
At that point I began making regular visits to the site once more, feeling certain that an amazing number of fascinating finds still awaited my discovery. I began by digging some random test holes along the shoreline in the area of heaviest artifact concentration, which continued to reveal a wide variety of pottery and glass, apparently from an early trash pit. In addition to many large pieces of Colonial black glass, I continued to recover more of the blue and gray shards, and was eventually able to partially reconstruct several chamberpots. Based on this and the very large quantity of mallet bottle fragments, I came to the conclusion this had also been the location of a Colonial tavern or inn.
Unfortunately, the owner of the adjacent property had been giving me the evil eye each time I showed up, and I was concerned by some of his comments. But slowly, over a period of several months, I was able to develop a relationship with him and eventually worked up the courage to ask if I could hunt his small yard. Surprisingly, I got the green light, and in return I promised to present him with a nice display including some of the finds I was hoping to make. Although I dug very few Colonial artifacts there, it was obvious that the Civil War camp had extended across his property, as proven by my very first keeper target- a gorgeous “SNY” belt plate! I also recovered several eagle buttons, including a beautiful gilt Artillery, along with a few bullets and a nice 1853 dime.
Buttons and coins weren’t as plentiful back on the shoreline, although a few early ones occasionally appeared. In addition to a Coronet large cent, I was able to dig three cut pieces of Spanish silver from the beach over a span of about 18 months. Unfortunately, over 250 years had taken a heavy toll on their condition, and each displayed that sandblasted look typical of silver coins found in a saltwater environment.
The most unusual and historical button recovered from the site is one likely worn by a loyalist serving in the Queen’s Rangers 1st American Regiment during the Revolutionary War. This unit was encamped with British troops just across the river from Yorktown during the last days of the war, and some of the soldiers must have paid a visit to the tavern, only a short boat ride from their camp. A War of 1812 light artillery button in superb shape, also dug within a few feet of the Queen’s Ranger button, was obviously lost about 50 years later. Its unusually good condition can likely be attributed to being washed out of the eroding bank a very short time before my detector coil passed over it.
One of the more interesting finds, and one that I could not immediately identify, turned out to be a heavy, brass butt cap to a flintlock pistol. Pirates supposedly roamed this area in the 17th century, but this find is probably from a damaged gun discarded by a visitor to the tavern. Tavern cutlery was also among the items lost by the occupants of the site, and I was fortunate to recover two complete 18th century rat tail pewter spoons, along with most of a pewter strainer. Only a few inches deep on the beach, these were heavily masked by an enormous amount of small iron, and I was fortunate to find them. I also dug part of a pewter spoon with a very detailed geometric design etched into the bowl. I’m not sure what that was all about, but someone must have had a lot of time on his hands.
This site was also heavily occupied by the Kecoughtan Indians (late Woodland Period, c. A.D. 900-1650), who had friendly contact with some of the first settlers in the area, including Captain John Smith. As a result over the years, I’ve picked up a tremendous amount of Native American pottery shards, which now exceed well over a thousand in number. Many of these pieces were cord- or fabric-impressed with various designs, and were also shell-impregnated for added strength. Most are only about an inch or two in size, but a few years ago I spotted a huge 8'' x 10'' piece from a large pot exposed at the edge of an eroding bank. It was amazing that something so fragile could still be in one piece, and it wouldn’t have stayed that way for long if I hadn’t seen it that day. In addition to vast amounts of pottery, I’ve eyeballed a few arrowheads and what I believe is a hammerstone used to make points and other stone tools.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed returning to the site, especially after a nor’easter or tropical storm, but with the passing of time both my finds and visits have become less frequent. Nevertheless, on my last trip I was able to recover an additional 50 pieces of Indian pottery, along with other assorted artifacts. And when I walked farther down to a section of beach usually barren of finds, I stumbled across two Civil War era umbrella inkwells sitting side by side, half buried in the sand. That amazing and strange coincidence set me to thinking that maybe the site extends farther than I’ve thought for all these years, especially the Civil War camp.
Regardless of the diminishing returns, I remain motivated to revisit the site, as there’s always the possibility of making a few interesting or even unique recoveries. Although the detecting finds have all but disappeared, it’s still exciting to walk the shoreline in search of unknown treasures. You just never know what might turn up next at this very early and historic spot. And so as long as Mother Nature continues to do her thing, and I maintain my perseverance, there’s always hope that the find of a lifetime may yet appear in the midst of this extraordinary site.