Just when I think I’ve heard everything about Westport history, I learn something new. The other day, it was about a Confederate presence here in the Civil War.
“06880” reader David Ader is an avid metal detectorist. We’ve all seen them around. Who are they, and what do they do? David writes:
You may have seen us around old foundations, in fields or on the beach. We swing contraptions that look like small vacuum cleaners and scrape the ground with small trowels, then diligently replace the digging to hide our work.
We’re the handful of metal detectorists looking for history, mystery and very occasional bits of treasure. We also help people hunt for lost jewelry.
The other day, my friend Michael Yormark and I had an interesting find in the Old Hill area. We were detecting around a house from the 1730s, digging the usual sort of rust and debris that cause frustration and back pains, when we came across a Confederate States of America button.
At first we assumed it was a fake, something bought at a gift shop near a Civil War battlefield. But we did a bit more digging (so to speak). The back says it was made by S. Buckely & Co., Birmingham, which makes it the real deal. Fake ones were made in Waterbury, Connecticut, and bear that mark.
How did this get to Westport? Our fantasy is that a veteran took it off a Confederate soldier’s uniform for a souvenir — a not uncommon practice — and brought it home.
Perhaps he gave it to his kids, who lost it on the lawn 150 years ago. We’ll never know, but it’s finds like this that make metal detecting a fascinating hobby.
I got started in this more than 50 years ago, with a cheap detector from an ad in the back of a Boy’s Life magazine. Rules on detecting were lax to non-existent then, which is why I could find bullets, belt buckles, and the remains of a Union soldier’s cartridge box on a Civil War battlefield.
I also found an iron tomahawk that was likely a relic from the Revolution or French & Indian War near our home in Westchester.
Or it may have simply been a farmer’s tool. Finding relics teases your imagination: How did it get there? Who touched it? Did the owner look for the lost goods? Did he or she miss them? History as viewed through these lost objects brings people to life.
Another Westport detectorist found a tooth with a massive gold filling in it. The gold alone is worth several hundred dollars, but the pondering of how anyone lost such a thing is invaluable.
He also found a Hessian soldier’s button. Hessians accompanied British General William Tryon on his 1779 raid on Fairfield and Norwalk.
Those old artifacts are still with me, as is the urge to uncover more bits of the past. To be sure, it’s illegal to hunt in many spots — especially historic sites — and permission is needed to hunt most anywhere else.
The property that held that Confederate button belongs to a friend of mine. We assured him we would carefully fill any holes we dig, and offered to share anything we found. Most people are as excited as we are over the finds. We’re often called back when they buy detectors for themselves, or ask us to teach their kids about the hobby.
Finding a place to hunt isn’t difficult. Finding a good spot, however, is. Open parks, the beach, fields and old schools are obvious, as people drop all sorts of things, from coins and rings to a Rolex Daytona (not found by me!).
I had the chance to take my son on a “Back to the Front” trip to visit battlefields in Europe. In a foxhole near Bastogne, we found the dog tag of a US paratrooper. After some research we returned it to his family.
The areas around old homes or foundations are prime. People drop things, lose buttons and have holes in their pockets.
My little entourage has found coins going back to the 1600s. It takes some old-fashioned chutzpah, but if you see the homeowner just ask, and promise you won’t leave a mess and will share finds.
We sometimes leave a letter in mailboxes asking permission. We emphasize our goal; I add a long list of archaeology courses to indicate intellectual interest.
Old maps show foundations of lost homes deep in the woods. LiDAR is a remote sensing method that shows different contours in the landscape. A rectangle is manmade (like a foundation).
Finds are random. We’ve been out for hours and collected little more than ticks and poison ivy. The CSA button was found in the first few minutes of hunting. I’ve found arrowheads on the surface (not with the detector) and 1990 pennies down 12 inches.
The surprise is part of the allure. In fact, that discovery might be the whole thing.
We’ll do more research on the house in question to find out who lived there and might have served in the Civil War. Note that about 100 Westporters made up Company E of the 17th Connecticut Regiment and fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
We find a lot of children’s things: toy cars, Boy and Girl Scout buckles, medals and odd tokens. Kids will be kids.
We appreciate people letting us hunt their property. We take care to fill any holes so the landscape remains as it was. We offered the owners of the Old Hill property the Confederate button. Our joy comes from the find, not the keep.
The property owners said no — but did keep the four quarters we dug up.
Every step we take in Westport is a step in and on history. What lies below are so many links to people who went before.