How long had it been since the French marines had occupied the barracks of the ruined fort? How long since the cadenced march of British soldiers had vibrated through the soil? How long had the air been still, save for the sounds of songbirds and the lake borne breezes? The answers to these questions could only be measured in centuries.
On the Colonial chessboard of the French & Indian War, where European powers planned their strategies for the wilderness empire of North America, the gaming pieces were neither wood nor ivory, but flesh; and it is the story of these men, both heroes and knaves, that we seek in the depths of the soil. Far from their homes in Lyon or London, they had come... across a wild sea... their heads filled with tales of strange animals and strangely painted men, to fulfill their solitary mission- to fight for king and country.
For many years I had followed their trail through dusty books on Colonial history and across dustier fields. Where they had marched, I had the privilege to stand... where they had died; I had the privilege to delve. Standing on a broad field at the break of dawn, with the hunt before you- feeling the wind in your hair and the history underfoot- well, for a relic hunter, it just doesn't get much better than that!
It was probably the same type of feeling that Gene Salvino and novice relic hunter Ed Pebler felt that late September morning as they wheeled off the main highway and headed down the dirt farm road adjoining the freshly harvested field.
The entire point of land of which they would be detecting had seen the footprints of French, British, and Provincial troops for decades during the Colonial Wars; and during those times, whether the times of war or the short periods of peace, small villages and isolated frontier dwellings had occupied the lands beyond the fort walls. It was one of those rare areas which are an answer to every relic hunter's prayers.
Gene and I had worked many of those fields in past years, and I can't remember a single trip when we left the field without a smile on our faces... nor would Ed's first relic hunt be the exception.
Permission to search fields had been granted several weeks before the hay was cut, but as the truck pulled to the side of the farm road, it was a clear vista of close-cropped grass that greeted them.
"We didn't waste any time getting our gear and detectors out of the truck," said Gene. "We had been driving for two and a half hours, and we wanted to get as much relic hunting in as possible before that long drive home."
According to a copy of an original map dating from the late 1750s, the field had been bisected by a couple of roads, and was in close proximity to several of the fort's forward positions which had been permanently manned.
"Since our time would be limited, we decided to put ourselves in the best position for a success hunt by hiking as close to the shore of the lake as we could get, and as close to the former site of the observation post, as possible," Gene related.
As Gene's fireside story unfolded, it wasn't long before the first large caliber musketball surfaced after two and a half centuries underground. "I was pretty excited, as I always am, when the first relic is found on a new field," he recalled, "but it was nothing compared to how excited Ed felt when he recovered his first relic!"
"I had only gotten my detector the week before, and I couldn't believe it when that first coin came out of the ground!" remarked Ed, passing the find to me. I had to marvel at Ed's first relic recovery, an early King George copper. Yes, there certainly is a lot to be said for beginner's luck!
When a couple of iron tent peg ferrules came to light, Gene knew from past experiences that they were hunting in the area of a small encampment. "After those recoveries, we really tightened up our patterns and started listening a little deeper. Since we were on such an historic site, we dug even the faintest signals- and boy, some of them were deep!"
Within the next couple of hours of searching and digging, a handful of dropped and fired musketballs, along with a couple of Colonial clasp knife blades, were placed in their collecting bags. In addition, Ed was able to target two more early coins, another King George copper and a large cent. Obviously, the latter had been dropped by a farmer during the last century.
After such immediate successes, Gene and Ed suddenly found themselves in an area of relatively "dead air."
"It seemed we had worked our way out of the productive area in the field, and it was time to split up and find another hotspot," Gene said. "Ed decided to stick with the fields and run some loose patterns, while I opted to search the section of woods bordering the lake."
As Gene was searching along a deer trail in the woods, a loud signal ran through his headset. Hitting his detector's pinpoint button in an attempt to determine just how large the target was, Gene discovered that his coil was hovering over a target that read as big as a garbage can lid!"
"I felt for sure it was a piece of old farm equipment, and when I dug down and saw the rusty soil exposed in the bottom of the hole, I was almost certain. It was only after I levered the rusted object out of the ground that I saw it was a hand-forged Colonial camp axe!"
As Gene examined his most recent find, he noticed that the entire back of the axe had been crushed and caved in, as though it had been forcefully hammered with a great weight. Before filling in the hole, Gene passed his coil above it once again... and once again his detector sounded off with the same insistence it had before he removed the axe.
"I thought I had found a cache of axe heads, but I certainly wasn't disappointed when I pulled a couple of wood splitting wedges from the depths of the same hole."
After having recovered all that the hole contained, Gene filled it in and began to walk away. He didn't get more than a couple of yards before another blasting signal stopped him in his tracks.
"At that point, I didn't know what would be coming out of the ground next, but I wasn't really ready for the relic I was about to uncover! I dug and began turning up rusty soil at a depth of about a foot. My digging tool struck something hard, and I really had to put a lot of weight behind my shovel to loosen it up. When it finally broke free and I was able to heft it from the bottom of the hole, I thought I had recovered a large iron brick!"
Giving the find a quick field cleaning, Gene noticed that there was a large hole in the center of his "iron brick," and suddenly all of the pieces of this Colonial puzzle seemed to fall into place. The iron brick was actually a hand-wrought sledgehammer, and evidence of its use, in centuries past, was readily seen on the sorely flattened wedges and camp axe.
With the late afternoon sun slowly descending, and the lack of any more large iron targets in the immediate area, Gene made his way through the woods and back to the open fields.
Arriving at the truck, Gene found Ed working his way across the field. Ed had made a few more isolated recoveries, but certainly wasn't as weighed down as Gene had been with his numerous iron artifacts.
With one section of this historical puzzle in place, the rest was easy to figure out. The nearby camp had undoubtedly been used by a crew of soldiers whose job it had been to split wood to heat the barracks of the nearby fort during the extreme winters on the northern frontier... and while the call of battle and the glory of serving in His Majesty's army might have lured young men across the seas, the mundane tasks of felling trees and splitting firewood were not to be excluded from their soldierly duties.
To this day, you can almost hear the griping and grumbling when the orders for such a detail were issued!