Interview With Bill Marshall, Metal Detectorist

Recently, while checking out one of my favorite FB groups “Dug Fur Trade and Contact Period Relics” I came across a post from Bill Marshall. Fascinated with the finds he posted I reached out to him to do this interview. I learned a lot about the ancient copper culture and the fur trade and contact period artifacts in his area.

Bill was absolutely fascinating to talk to and the passion he has for history, his artifacts and metal detecting really showed through.

Below is Dirt Digests interview with Bill Marshall, we hope you enjoy!

DDM – How long have you been metal detecting and how did you get into the hobby?

I started metal detecting in about 2015 after getting into coin collecting a couple years prior to that. I amassed a fairly large collection of US silver coins and naturally wanted to see if I could find any “for free.” I did fairly well for Northern Minnesota– one of my silver halfs, just a walking liberty, turned out to be a key date– 1921 P in “fine” condition (dug alongside an older Barber half worth about 40 times less than the 1921. Interestingly, I discovered the site with the two halves by recognizing the shoreline of lake on an old 1895 postcard I purchased on eBay. The site is currently wilderness, and even the old-timers don’t recall any structures or ruins on the site, but the postcard depicted a decent-sized cabin. I went looking for coins and dug about 6 silvers, a few V nickels, and a couple IHP’s. The coolest thing I found was totally unrelated to the cabin, though– I dug my first Old Copper Culture artifact– a 3″ conical spear point– approximately 3,000-7,000 years old. 40 yards away I dug a 6″ copper needle, coincidentally only 10′ from where I had dug a 6″ silver hat pin from the 1890’s. Two similar items separated by 10′ and thousands of years. 

DDM- I have to assume by your collection you focus a lot of energy on fur trade sites. When did your passion for that begin?

The accidental discovery of the Old Copper Culture (OCC) spearpoint and needle led to an immediate passion for OCC artifacts, which in turn, led to the accidental discovery of fur trade artifacts. I had dug two huge copper spearpoints (one 6.25″ and the other 7.25″) in a rare (for the area) plowed field on the Mississippi River (only about 30 yards accross this far north), and while hunting for more dug a good number of tilled-up fur trade relics, including part of a Robert Cruickshank silver brooch (Cruickshank was the most prolific silversmith out of Montreal), a couple hand-forged muskrat spears (a common trade item), and a very unexpected British 47th Regiment of Foot Revolutionary War pewter button in unusually good condition, likely traded west after the war by an employee of the Northwest Company or an unaffiliated trader. The site was a major multicomponent Native American habitation site, and in those days, military buttons were sought after by the local Ojibwe. 

DDM- What state are you in and what other states are you aware of that have a rich history in fur trade?

I was born and raised, and currently reside in Northern Minnesota. Fur trade relics can be found in probably half of the United States, but the richer areas that I am familiar with are the Great Lakes area (the further east you go, the older). There are many areas with a much richer history than my region, but those areas have been in the spotlight for years and are more difficult to access. Even in my own area, I stay away from known sites and try to identify areas that are very likely to have fur trade artifacts just by looking at maps, waterways, LIDAR topography, etc. Later in 19th Century, the fur trade made its way out west, and I know it extended down south along the Mississippi as well, but I don’t know that history very well.

DDM- You also have a lot of copper culture artifacts; can you tell us about those and for those who don’t know can you tell us about the copper culture?

Believe it or not, the Old Copper Culture (OCC) artifacts are easier to find in my area than the fur trade relics, which is great because I have a slight preference for the

much older OCC pieces. The OCC may be the oldest use of metal for toolmaking in the entire world, but that is not well known at all. The archaic peoples did not smelt the copper– they did not need to as it was 99% pure– they simply heated it in hot fires, pounded it, quenched it, reheated/annealed it, pounded it again, over and over again (10-30 cycles or so). Preserved organics (cordage, wooden shaft remnants, charcoal) have been carbon-dated to over 7000 YBP (years before present) in some instances– the typical range is 3000-7000 YBP. Hundreds of thousands of TONS of copper were mined over the millenia in Michigan’s UP and Lake Superior’s Isle Royale. Comparatively, the fur trade in my area only lasted about 200 years.

DDM- Can you tell us about a few of your favorite finds and why they are your favorite?

I have 2 favorite Old Copper Culture Finds: In October 2019 I was searching for a mid-1800’s market-hunter’s shack site when I dug an extremely rare OCC bridge-tang crescent knife (like an ulu knife, if you know what that is). There are only 3-4 of this type known. Then in April of 2020 I discovered that a nearby lake was a major OCC locality– I dug about 75 pieces on 8 sites I discovered around the lake. The best one was an immaculate 8.75″ triangulate style socketed spear point with expertly beveled edges on both sides, complete with a rectangular rivet hole. To the layman it looks 200 years old, not the ~5000 it actually is! (I found it 20 yards from a well-used duck blind on a friend’s private land, only 2″ deep). Honorable mention is a cache of 7 copper spear points I found in early April, between 1.5″ and 5.5″ in length.

My favorite fur trade finds include: an Ojibwe-made thunderbird effigy cut out of trade silver; an immaculately carved love token made out of an 1858 (first year) Canadian dime; a brass trade kettle, from the French era, circa 1700-1750, complete with iron handle and dog-eared lugs; a mystery forged trade axe with a very sharp and clear “SB” mark with the image of an anchor (no one has been able to identify its origin, or even if it is French or British); an iron trade spear point with 6″ tang, of the type handed-out by the Jesuits to the Native Americans as gifts in the mid-1600’s (my earliest fur trade site, confirmed by several other period finds); and a hand-forged iron lance (spear) for killing hibernating bear or snared deer.

DDM- Share your favorite metal detecting story with us.

I think I already told my favorite story (how I discovered an 1800’s cabin site on a postcard and serendipitously discovered OCC artifacts while looking for coins there, which in turn led to fur trade finds; but here is another good one:

After kayaking to a very remote spot on a river near the Canadian border, I noticed a very large and hollow downed white pine on a point covered in dense (dark) coniferous forest at the junction of two rivers. Naturally, I had to look inside the 4′ diameter pine, which had been laying on its side there for decades. As I approached, a stray sunbeam illuminated a bright white object at the base of the hollow tree that I immediately knew was a skull of some sort. I walked up to discover a 100% complete grey wolf skeleton from the winter before– everything was there from the teeth to the ribs, to the claws. I imagined this elderly wolf (age determined later by a biologist who examined the teeth), struggling to find enough to eat in the harsh winter and deciding that tree was a good place to call it quits. I wonder how many days he/she rested there. 

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