Metal Detecting When You Can’t Find It Look Where It Isn’t

I have been hunting Civil War relics since 1976.  My relic hunting ventures… and Adventures… of which there have been a goodly number…  have taken me across 22 states involved in the Civil War directly and have seen me swing my detector on over 140 different Civil War camps and battlefields.  My relic finds currently total over 14,000 and I hope to break 15 before old age makes me hang up my detectors for good. By the time I started Civil War relic hunting, the “Golden Age” of plenteous relic finds was already pretty much over.  Thousands more relic hunters were being created every month and it already took good research to come up with sites not yet hunted or at least not hunted very much or very well.  

The “benchmark of success” in Civil War relic hunting was back then… and still is to a great degree… the finding of a Confederate soldier’s belt buckle, or belt plate, as they are called by those in the “know.”  Even way back then, a relic hunter might find 10 U.S. belt plates worn by Union soldiers before he ever found a C.S. or C.S.A. Confederate belt plate.

After my first 3 years of relic hunting, I had found 3 U.S. belt or cartridge box plates but none that had belonged to a Confederate soldier. I was at that time working for Garrett Metal Detectors as their Marketing Manager in charge of our dealer program.  One of my good dealers was a man who is now rather famous in the relic hunting community and lives on a major Civil War battlefield in Tennessee.   It seems that he and his relic hunting buddies had located a Confederate cavalry camp occupied by some Alabama rebels who had gotten themselves captured in a surprise raid by Union Cavalry.  In the Union officer’s report in charge of the raid and capture. He states that they piled up the rebels equipment belts (that had stamped brass belt buckles with the letters CS stamped into them.) and burned them. My dealer and his friends had hunted this camp site pretty hard, even gridding it off so they could cover every square foot of it with their detectors… so they thought!    In the process, they had found 21 of the rebels stamped brass belt buckles with CS on them with each one being worth about $2000 at the time.

They had one last section to cover in the camp area and I received an invitation to come and hunt it with them… which I accepted immediately.   When we got to the site, it was woods with big flat slabs of rock sticking out of the ground just about everywhere.  There was not much underbrush and I thought this would be an easy place to hunt.   But, alas, that was not to be… my host explained that all that ground had been searched carefully and that there were NO CS belt buckles to be found there… they had already found them all.    He took us to the one place they had not hunted in the camp site area and I could see why they had saved it for last… It was a HUGE, THICK, TALL wild raspberry BRIAR PATCH!  Bowing to my host’s wishes that all four of us hunt this ground, we literally crawled around on hands and knees trying to stay underneath the worst of the briars… and failing miserably!  After 3 solid hours of this ordeal without ANY significant CW finds, I had had all of that I could take.  Bleeding and near exhausted from the ordeal, I crawled out of the patch and stood up straight again with pure pleasure in spite of the cuts and thorns still sticking in my flesh. 

I pulled out the raspberry thorns still sticking in me and wandered back into the open area of the camp with my detector.  My host called after me, “You are wasting your time hunting over there… I already told you… we hunted every square foot of that area and you are not going to find any buckles in it!”  Well, I told him that I had to have a break from the briar patch and that he was probably right.   So… he and his buddies went back to their detecting on hands and knees among the briars and I began to detect the “worked out” area.  I mean… hey… I had NOT found any buckles in the briar patch for all the blood I had shed so I could not do any worse in the open area… and… I would not have to shed any more of my own blood to do it!

I had been detecting about 10 minutes in the open area of the camp and came up next to a huge rock slab with about 8” sticking out of the ground. It was flat and about 6’X8’ in area.  Near one corner of the big rock was a little bush about 18” in diameter and about that high.   I wondered if any of the guys there had ever stuck a detector back under it and decided that I would.  Immediately my Garrett Groundhog detector screamed at me that I had a big non-ferrous target under that bush.  So…the bush got dug up and about a foot down was “THE PRIZE” I had come to that party for… MY FIRST CS BELT PLATE.  The brass was reddish-brown, instead of the common green color which told me that it had been in a fire and sure enough the hooks had melted off the back.  That took away none of the thrill and very little of the value, however.

I left the buckle lying at the bottom of the hole and called to my host to come see what I found.  He came right away and he had a VERY worried look on his face. When he saw the buckle I had found, that worried look turned to one of emotional pain.  He could not believe that he and his buddies had left any buckles in that area!   As for the briar patch that my host and his two buddies hunted all day… not a single belt buckle was found… I got the only one that day.  Needless to say, I did not get any more invitations to hunt with these guys.  But the fact remains,  to this very day, I got my first CS buckle by hunting where there were not supposed to be any.

One of the most common examples of the need to “hunt where it isn’t” is the information contained about historical sites on metal sign historical markers put up by every state that I have every been in… and that’s 42 of them.  The information on the location of the sites talked about on these markers is notorious for NOT being accurate.  It is not uncommon for them to be off as much as 2 miles as to the location of the site talked about on the marker. All too often, if you try to use that info on these signs to locate the site, you will find nothing where they say it is… because it is not there and never was there.  You will have to depend on your own research on many of those sites to actually locate them exactly where they are.

When researching the diaries and journals of soldiers and historical figures you must take into account as to whether or not they were familiar with the geography of the area they were traveling and camping in.  Often if they were not, as with the Union soldiers who invaded the southern states, they would get the names of landmarks like creeks, roads and mountains wrong. So… if a civil war soldier tells you that his unit camped at the base of Mt. Baldy for 60 days and you go there and search and find nothing, you will have to “look where it isn’t.” Try hunting the mountain across the creek from Mt. Baldy or the next mountain on down the road… one of them WILL be the correct location for the missing camp and you will have found it by “looking where it isn’t.”

When research tells you that the old 1800’s fairgrounds were located at the intersection of Bates Mill Rd and the Turtlesville Turnpike and you go there with your detector and find nothing, you will need to check older maps to locate where those two roads were back in the 1800’s when the fairgrounds were in use because one or both of them have been moved and no longer intersect at the old fairgrounds site.

A few years ago I got a call from a distraught woman whose teenage daughter had lost an heirloom family ring with opals and diamonds set in gold while wearing it and playing volleyball on a sand court in a public park in Cincinnati.  She asked me to help her find it and we agreed on a time to meet at the park.  Well, I got there 30 minutes early, deliberately, and quickly checked the sand volleyball court without finding the ring… as I suspected would be the case.  I then went over to some old-fashioned swings with bare dirt under each swing from the scuffing of children’s feet. In the dirt under the second swing… actually right on top of the dirt… I found the ring!  It was a full 75 feet from where the woman thought it had been lost.  She arrived and began telling me where she thought her daughter had lost it. I just smiled and held up my little finger with the ring on the end of it.   Got a spontaneous hug and a kiss from the lady… glad my wife didn’t see THAT!  All in a day’s work for a dedicated detectorist and… another case of finding something valuable where it WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE!

Not long after I found my CS buckle I was making a trip up through Virginia to visit some Garrett Dealers and detect some famous Civil War sites.  Near Chancellorsville Battlefield, 3 brothers with the last name of Catlett had a combination Civil War Relics, metal detectors and convenience grocery store. They were my Garrett Dealer for that area so I stopped off to visit and talk Civil War with them.  They shared a story about a fellow completely new to metal detecting who had recently bought a detector from them and asked them to take him relic hunting.  They said they would and set it up for the following Saturday.  Before the hunt day, however, they went out to a place they knew about that had a giant 4’ diameter Oak tree on it and they buried a replica of a CS oval belt buckle up next to the tree between some big roots. They had previously hunted around the tree and the surrounding area and had found nothing significant to indicate any civil war activity had taken place there.  It was going to be a great joke the way they looked at it.   Saturday came and the 3 Catlett brothers and the newbie headed out with their detectors.  When they got to the site, the oldest brother said to the newbie… “John, why don’t you go over there and hunt around that big Oak… you just might find yourself a Confederate belt buckle!”  Suspecting nothing, John eagerly headed for the tree and the 3 brothers started chuckling in anticipation of what John would find… the replica buckle.   About 15 minutes later, they heard John shouting, “YAHOO, YAHOO… I FOUND A CONFEDERATE BELT BUCKLE.  He came rushing over to them as they gave each other knowing looks and tried to keep the smiles off their faces.   When he showed them his just found buckle… their smiles changed to looks of SHOCK!  John had in his hand a just dug GENUINE 2-piece CS Cavalry belt buckle worth several thousand dollars that he found next to the big tree!  The older brother told me that they would have bet the house that there was not a genuine CS buckle within 5 miles of that place!  He said that John never did find the replica buckle they planted.  Another case of a treasure found where those who had hunted the site were sure that there was not any to be found there.

A Dallas, Texas treasure hunter I knew back in the day got on to a story about an older man living in a rural area north of Dallas who built a brick outhouse behind his home and painted it black.  He then, as the story went, was supposed to have hidden a cache of gold coins in that outhouse.  He died suddenly and unexpectedly and the family searched for the gold with no success.  Several treasure hunters also searched for his gold but could not find it hidden in the outhouse or buried around it.  This hunter I knew decided that he would also have a try at finding the gold and was having no more success than all the others when he decided to check the brick walls of the outhouse with his detector.  When he got to the left front corner, his detector screamed at him that metal was present in the wall. He could not see any removable bricks… all were firmly mortared in place.

He finally determined that the signal was coming from one of the bricks, itself.  It was mortared into the left front corner of the outhouse about 3 feet off the ground.  He took out his pocket knife and scraped the black paint covering the brick and saw the glint of gold. He had found the hidden treasure… the old man had melted his gold coins down and cast them into the exact shape and size of a brick and then mortared it into the outhouse wall!  He then had painted the outhouse black to conceal the gold brick.

The most important part of finding something where it is NOT is to verify that what you are looking for actually existed during the time it is supposed to have been there.  Make sure the site was not destroyed by people removing top soil to be used at other places.  Sites occupied by soldiers or people had to have a water source… either a nearby creek, river or… a good well.

Lost fort sites had dumps bigger than the fort in area… if you can’t find the fort… look for the dump… signs of broken glass from bottles or jars, or pieces of pottery or rusty tin cans that held rations for the soldiers at one time.  These may be the first indications of the lost site you may see or find before the coins and relics start appearing. If the trading post was supposed to be at the confluence of Indian Creek and the Ohio River and you find no evidence that it was… check the next creek upstream and the next creek downstream and you just might find it when no one else has been able to.

If a site did exist and was not destroyed by the activities of humans who came later, like making it part of city expansion, it IS still there… so… once you have looked where it is SUPPOSED TO BE…. look WHERE IT ISN’T!

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