Long, snowy winters mean cabin fever for most treasure hunters in my native New England, yet the frozen soil drives me to seek out new sites and permission to search them at the earliest opportunity. The new year brought visions of another productive digging season, but on the evening of January 9, 2001, those hopes were suddenly dashed.
A routine drive home turned into a near tragedy on the highway during rush hour. When one driver swerved, avoiding an object in the road, I took the brunt of a high speed, head-on car wreck. I awoke in an ambulance with neck, hip, back, and shoulder pain. Those pains would persist in the entire right side of my body, although x-rays showed no broken bones. Still, I felt lucky to be alive… it could have been much worse.
I saw several doctors and was out of work for four months. I did rehabilitation three times a week with four different physical therapists. I was determined to detect again soon, but being right handed I had no range of motion in my “swinging” shoulder. The road back began with short hikes, but lingering back and neck pains prevented any digging.
The March sun stirred urges to detect again, and so did a tempting invitation to search a Colonial stone castle site. Legend said that it had survived King Philip’s War because it would not burn, and the opportunity led me to think maybe I could “cheat” for an hour with my left arm. Steeling myself for the test, I started searching, and all the pain was forgotten five minutes later when I uncovered a powder flask nearly a foot deep. Although non-military, picturing an animal in front of a tree, it was still a thrill to find, especially as it was my first.
Glass shards littering the area also intrigued me, but a closer look revealed the pieces to be Victorian. I saw no Colonial black glass, and wondered whether I was in the right spot. By noon I’d also picked up a flat button, a silver thimble, and a sore back. I was about to leave when my hunting companion came up with an Indian Head cent and a Mercury dime. So, I figured I’d stay a bit longer, and skip around trying to get a coin or two myself.
Finally, my Fisher 1266-X sang out with the best signal I’d heard all day; the type that generally indicated a coin. Sure enough, the wet soil revealed a round disk, and I thought, “Finally, a large cent!” But wiping off the mud revealed something more. I saw 13 joined rings and read clearly, “We Are One” in the center! I knew I had a rare one and began waving my arms. Seeing the Ben Franklin-designed 1787 Fugio cent in books, I’d always assumed they were so rare that I’d never find one. Wrong!
Thrilled, yet also very sore, the next day I decided to forego detecting in favor of a much-needed breather. Besides, I figured my luck was unlikely to get any better and my “comeback” was complete. So, I ended up taking more than a week off to deal with soreness, rain, and my return to the working world.
In April I received another generous invitation to search a new site after work. Supposedly, it had already surrendered several Colonial coppers and relics to local hunters, and what could be better than that? Skeptical, I arrived at the field first and picked a spot at random, eager to keep my lucky streak going. Spying bits of Colonial black glass and china got my adrenaline up, and I quickly put my “lucky left arm” in motion.
Well, by the time others arrived, I had already found three flat buttons, a 1740 George II halfpenny and 1749 farthing, several musketballs, and what I figured was an encrusted large cent. Hunting until dark, I continued my comeback with another small copper and two early large cents. It wasn’t until I returned home and began to wash off my finds that I saw the words “Mind Your Business” staring at me again. I had to keep looking at it under the light to make sure it wasn’t a flashback, but no- the encrusted black disk was clearly a second Fugio cent! Amazingly, it was found exactly two weeks after the first one, several towns apart on consecutive hunts.
Further cleaning revealed even more good news, as the small coin was actually a rare, Bust Left 1786 Vermont State copper! Also, what I thought was only half of a button proved to be interesting as well. It was an 1812-1815 Russian 2 kopek piece that had been cut in half and spent as a half cent.
This hotspot had begun attracting more detectorists, and we longed to get back there for our share of finds. With a Colonial site of this magnitude, I was confident that I could continue my comeback streak. The tally the next night was again strong: a few more large cents, including an 1803, a colonial shoe buckle, and at dusk my oldest coin to date, a silver 1726 real!
With the weekend approaching, I asked my dad if he was up for an early Saturday start and a full day of detecting. We had not hunted together in over 15 years, but after seeing my finds so far, how could he say no! The field showed signs of filled holes from heavy hunting, and the coin recovery rate dropped accordingly. I knew we had to dig everything, and got the ball rolling with a smallish, chewed musketball. Nearby, in an area with more lead, out popped a nice little button with LA 1 surrounded by 13 stars- a War of 1812 U.S. Light Artillery button! I knew there were more coins there, too, and was eager to prove it.
My next signal sent me running over to show dad an 1802 Large Cent with good details. As I was approaching to show off, he said he’d just had his best signal and claimed he was about to unearth a large cent of his own. As he carefully probed and dug, we were both astonished to see the back of a square belt plate exposed! He grabbed it and turned it over to reveal the eagle of a perfect 1851 officer’s sword belt plate that the other hunters had somehow missed.
We continued working this apparently unsearched area, and soon I answered with back-to-back silver. A beautiful 1808 real’ and an 1854 half dime were added to my “comeback collection.” Thus far, the latest coin recovered here was dated 1853, and we began to think it was possibly a pre-Civil War training ground. My next signal confirmed those thoughts as I dug deep for an object that I immediately recognized as an 1810-1820s Belgian black powder pocket pistol! I had found a smaller ELG-stamped version as a boy in South Carolina, on a Saturday hunt with my dad 19 years earlier.
My father left for lunch, satisfied that he had made the find of the day; however, I continued, knowing that we now had a real competition underway. Persistence produced two more small silver coins previously missed, an 1845 Seated Liberty dime and a nice 1797 1/2 real. Again, all this was being accomplished with my “lucky left arm,” which by this time was now my strong side.
Later, I put together a nice “comeback display case,” chronicling the date each item was dug during the period of less than three weeks. Many treasure hunters would be satisfied with those results for a whole year, and we take for granted the age of the Colonial artifacts available here. I recovered 22 coins, which doesn’t sound tremendous, but 19 were dated earlier than 1853, and five were silver. Large cents totaled 11, including the Fugios, and I’d guess around 40 more were found by others there in 2001. These finds attested to how far back I had come, and reminded me of how much farther I’d like to go.
They still do.
BILL LADD is best known for his appearance on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow with found slave tags appraised at $15,000. This “15 minutes of fame” has led to seminars and school presentations allowing others to share his love of history. Bill continues to hunt his native New England Colonial relics and coins.