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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (03/2003) Relic Hunter (02/2003) Relic Hunter (04/2003)   Vol. 37 March 2003 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the March 2003 edition of W&ET Magazine

The Quest For Colonial Silver

By: Ed Fedory

I knew from the outset that this was going to be a love affair that would never end. I sat beside the small hole I had just dug and looked at the piece of silver in my hand. It was slightly blackened by the periodic flooding of the field I was in, but still sparkled to raise my pulse.

I had been working the site of the King George's era fort for a couple of weeks, and while I had found quite a number and variety of relics, this particular one just had me stunned. It was my first piece of Colonial silver, and it was love at first sight.

I took a short break after that initial recovery and examined the coin. It was a one real dated 1740, and I could easily see that it had been lost without having been in circulation for a long period of time. The pillars and banners stood out clearly, as did the boldness of the date and crown. Since then, I have found quite a number of early Colonial silver coins, some bigger, some in amazingly better condition, but that first one was a benchmark of sorts, and will always hold a special place in my memories.

I may not be able to remember the exact date of the recovery, as 25 years seems to diminish the importance of such things, but I could put you within 3' of where it was dug, and that is the important part... I just might want to go back there again one of these days and see what I missed!

Part of the fascination with that 1740 piece of Spanish silver was the fact that it was unblemished. Seldom, as relic hunters, do we find things in such a state. Our finds are often discards that have outlived their usefulness or function. In many cases they are broken, fragmentary, and corroded. Fertilizers and other field chemicals have done their best to destroy the metallic history contained within the ground, and often it's only an educated eye and an overly extended imagination which enables us to make any kind of identification possible. Ahh, but field silver is immutable... tarnished, perhaps, but the attractiveness remains just below the surface... just another beauty queen with a little mud on her face!

And yet the fact that it is silver does not explain the true depth of this love affair. I don't remember my first silver Roosevelt dime, or my first Walking Liberty half. Gone are the memories of that first Washington quarter and my first Barber of any kind. The older the silver coin- the more distant from my time of reference- the greater the memory... the greater the thrill. I guess that's just history, and the reason why we dig!

For relic hunters, coins are rarely the primary goal of the search. We're looking for other things, and coins of any kind are just the bonus... most of the time. Context has a great deal to do with our recovery of field silver. One slightly humorous and irritating example should suffice for illustration.

It was a beautiful day to be in the field. Art had just recovered a Spanish half real from the 1750s. Gene had followed with a two reales piece from about the same period. I was able to rack up about $2,000 damage to my car with the help of some kid who didn't know the proper way to wear a ball cap. Yes, such days do occur, thankfully with great infrequency. My mind was more on insurance adjusters and auto body collision experts than one relic hunting, when Gene called me over to check out his latest recovery. Handing me a large clump of soil, he was excited and smiling. Looking at the mass of earth in my hand, I could see why. Just the very edge of a large silver coin was sticking from the side... a real teaser!

"I can't look at it! Break it open! Tell me what I found! Another one! I can't believe it!" cackled, chortled, laughed Gene.

I know this is a terrible use of the English language, but bear with me. That's pretty much the way it came out of his mouth. Be glad I left out the flapping arms and the pigeon dance he was doing!

I slowly broke open the clump of earth and wondered if they still killed the messenger when he brought bad news. Gene had recovered a worn Barber half, and I could pretty much guess what his reaction would be. All I could picture was a little kid with a big balloon... Eddie wearing a maniacal grin and wielding a long pin. We later recovered the Barber half sitting on a tangle of corn leaves in the adjacent field.

In that particular field we expected, anticipated, finding only old coins mixed with the Colonial artifacts we were recovering. We had forgotten about the farmer from the 1890s with a hole in his pocket who lost his spare change while walking behind the plow. His irritation over losing his Saturday-night-in-town funding could never have matched Gene's irritation at finding it 100 years later!

So, where do we find these Colonial beauties of the past? Well, if you're relic hunting, they will turn up on most of the sites you are searching. We don't really know when the hand of Providence will tap us on the shoulder, we're just happy when it does... remember, we're relic hunting and coins are not our primary mission, nor in our primary directive, right? However, if you happen to be primarily a coinshooter, there are a couple of places you might want to check out with your coil.

I think the first place I would search if attempting to find old and Colonial silver would be cellar holes. Often they appear as just holes in the forest floor, or stone-lined pits, but they can be a source of many of your finer coins; and depending on how long the homes were inhabited, the variety of coin types can sometimes be amazing!

Don't confine your search to merely the edges of the hole- range out. There were gardens and flower beds... orchards and outbuildings... wells and outhouses... all places where coins and other interesting pieces of the past can be found. Above all, the first rule is to be sure to take only the coins. Leave any musketballs, buttons, buckles, two-tined forks, and gun parts on the nearest stone walls for us relic hunters!

Finding these cellar holes is not too difficult a task. Ask any deer hunter, and he'll probably be able to put you on at least a dozen sites he has run across in the woods. Another way to find these sites is by comparing old maps with current maps of your area. What you will be looking for are early roads that are no longer in use. Not every old dirt road was paved over or made into a two-lane highway. Some backroads stayed that way, slowly cycling into mere trails as they were bypassed. Many of the old dwellings that lined such roads were eventually abandoned, destined to become relic hunting paradises.

Most early villages and towns had an assortment of mills. Found near streams and creeks, they were abandoned when steam and electrical power became commonplace, allowing mills to be constructed anywhere. Eventually, with the advent of "store bought" food, the one-time thriving local mills ceased to exist. Check out that old map once again. Pay attention to the waterways and search for ponds and areas where waterfalls might be found. There is a good chance that you will run across the site of an old mill. Carefully examine new maps... road maps. Look for such unmistakable names as Mill Road (or, even more intriguing, Old Mill Road), Mill Pond Road... just to name a couple of examples found in my own town.

Fords are good sites. Well, you might find a couple in your local junkyard. In that variety, your best bet is to check the backseat for loose change. Watch the wasp nests when you lift the seat. Experience is a great teacher.

No, the type of fords I am talking about are the ones used for crossing rivers and creeks. The sites of old wooden bridges are equally as good. Anywhere that masses of people were funneled through could yield an abundance of old coins. Many times when troops were on the move, a ford was a good place to camp. In times of war, they were strategic places to fortify. On sites occupied by military forces, you'll be digging a lot of relics as well as old coins and silver. (Author's note: If relics are recovered, see Rule #1 under "Cellar Holes.")

Military camps and skirmish sites are another place where old silver can be found. Some of the best and earliest silver I have found has come from such sites. The longer troops were encamped, the greater the possibility for finding a large amount of discarded and lost items. The largest Spanish cob in my collection was found on the site of a Revolutionary War encampment where troops lingered for weeks.

Skirmish and battle sites often yield multiple coin recoveries. Let's face the facts... when there's a lot of lead flying in the air, who is going to worry about a change purse that has been dropped or torn from your waist as you were running through the brush, seeking cover? Not many mothers raised such fools! Often the coins will be sitting just below the surface, their leather purse having rotted away long ago.

Certainly, we don't offer a guarantee that you'll find your next piece of Colonial silver within a couple of days, or even a couple of months; but putting yourself on the proper location for such a recovery just might result in having one of these silvery disks winking at you from a shovelful of turned soil in the near future!

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