It’s pretty much inevitable… very few of us who research the location of new coin, relic, and treasure cache sites will escape having to deal with this problem. Sooner or later… and probably sooner… we are going to grab our metal detectors and head for a well-researched site that has the promise of great finds… all we have to do is find it. Shouldn’t be a problem… the researched info pretty well nailed down the location of the site to near “X marks the spot” parameters… or did it?
I can’t count the times over the past 50 years that I have gone looking for sites that I had found good info on where they were located… I thought… only to spend days of frustrating detecting proving to myself that the site I was looking for was NOT where it was “supposed to be.” As it turns out, proving these special sites holding much promise of great finds actually existed… is the easy part. Following up on your research and nailing down the exact location of them with your metal detector can many times result in unexpected failure.
Having hunted many types of metal treasures across ¾ of the United States and in parts of six other countries, as well, for over 50 years, I have learned a lot I would like to share with you about how to find those potentially productive… but exceptionally hard-to-find sites you KNOW have to be there… somewhere.
I want to start by relating a true story of my search of a Florida beach area famous for finds of Spanish gold and silver shipwreck coins… not long after a major hurricane had hit this area and cut a lot of sand out of the beach. My treasure hunting buddy at the time, Don Painter, accompanied me on this hunt and acting on a tip from another good friend, “Indian John” Durham of Ft. Pierce, FL, we arrived at the spot where just two days after the hurricane had passed through, John had found 275 Spanish Silver Reales coins in one hole on this beach with his metal detector.
Two weeks had passed since John had made his great find by the time we got to this small swimming beach located south of Cape Canaveral at what is called Sebastian Inlet. The swimming beach near the inlet was a small one… about an acre in size… or maybe two. Beginning on either side of this beach which was a couple of hundred feet wide, the sand dunes narrowed the beach down to a strip only about 20 feet wide as far as the eye could see. It appeared that the little wide area beach would be where all the action had taken place and presented the most likely place to search. We pounded it hard with our metal detectors but only came up with a couple of Lincoln Memorial copper pennies. We then moved to that narrow strip of beach to the right of the swimming beach (as you faced the ocean). The tide was low and we worked from the dunes down to the water’s edge without making any finds at all for at least the length of a football field.
Suddenly… in a strip of sand between the dunes and the water about 80 feet long and 6 feet wide, we began to find old U.S. silver coins from the early 1900’s in abundance. We harvested over 300 from this strip of sand, including two Spanish Silver Cobb Coins of 4-Reales each from the 1700’s treasure shipwreck out on the reef there. We searched a lot more of the beach but found no other places that had coins to be found that day. The hurricane driven ocean had somehow both uncovered and concentrated all these coins in that one little area of beach where we really did not expect to find anything, judging from the appearance of it. The moral of the story is here is that if you don’t find what you are looking for in the most likely place… search the LESS LIKELY places nearby and you may well be successful.
Next, I want to relate the story of a mid-west coin hunting detectorist who went looking for a lost horse racetrack that had existed back in the 1800’s adjacent to the intersection of two old roads. With that kind of info, he was sure that success would be his right away. Arriving on the scene, he found that the terrain was flat, plowed farmland. Suspecting, correctly, that the existing paved roads did not follow the routes of the old roads, he soon found what he was sure was the site of the intersection of the two old roads about 100 yards out into the plowed fields there. His searching with his metal detector that day, however, turned up nothing to prove he was correct and quite a few more searches after that proved fruitless also in locating the old racetrack site. His historical research had clearly documented the existence of the racetrack and so it had to be there… or did it?
By this time he was getting desperate to find where the old horse track had been and so he rented a small plane and had the pilot fly him over the area at low altitude (This was before the days of Google Earth and drones.) During one of several passes over the area as he clicked away with his camera, he noticed a big patch of “discoloration” in a field off in the distance. The soil in that spot was a different color from all the other soil around it. He had the pilot take him closer to this anomaly and then… he saw it… the faint outline of an old road cutting across the field and intersecting another road. The discolored area of soil adjacent to one corner of where the two roads met was indeed where the racetrack had set! The flaw in his research proved to be that one of the old roads had been moved not once, but twice. The actual racetrack site proved to be a full half a mile from where he thought it ought to be. The reward for his NOT GIVING UP and persevering until success was achieved in locating the racetrack site was several very valuable U.S. gold coins and hundreds of other silver and copper coins dated in the 1800’s and… a whole lot of great metal detecting days filled with the kinds of discoveries we all dream about.
An even more dramatic example of how a good site can hide from us right under our feet is the true story of Memphis, TN resident, John Marks who was an avid Civil War relic hunter back in the 70’s and 80’s. John had discovered an incident in little known Civil War records where a Confederate officer had reported the capture of 500 Union soldiers who were wearing brand new equipment belts from which hung gear like bayonets, pistols in holsters and other items. The Rebs decided to replace their own wore out ones with these captured “spoils of war” but since this was early in the war, they did not want to wear the belts with their brand new brass and lead-backed U.S. belt buckles on them. So, according to the Reb officer’s report, they stripped all the buckles off the equipment belts and replaced them with their own Confederate belt buckles. They just left these U.S. buckles… all 500 of them lying on the ground there in the woods and moved on with their prisoners. John realized that if he could find the site where this happened, he could harvest up to 500 U.S. belt buckles worth an average of $300 apiece… that was a potential relic find worth over $150,000 at the time!
The clues the Reb officer gave as to where this “buckle stripping” took place were pretty good and they led John down a miles long dirt and rutted logging road to where it ended in a cul-de-sac in the deep woods. The cul-de-sac was obviously also a gathering place for older teenagers to come and drink and party and there was modern trash and beer cans, many crushed, all around the site and out into the woods for about a hundred feet. Bullet holes in a lot of the beer cans indicated a lot of guns had been fired there also. So… John unlimbered his detector out of his pickup and walked out into the woods past the visible beer cans lying everywhere and turned on his detector and started to hunt. He ranged out far and wide in those woods but never got anything but fired shotgun shells and no indications of ANY Civil War activity in the considerably large part of the forest he searched that day. Disappointed, at the results of this first hunt, he turned off his detector as got back to trashy area around where he had parked his truck and went home to decide what to do on the next trip out there.
Following the same routine on the second trip, he parked in the same spot, walked out of the circle in a different direction past all the trash and began searching a different part of those woods. Once again, for an all day’s hunt, he had zero positive results to indicate that he was any closer to success in finding the “buckle bonanza” he hoped was still there where it had come into existence so long ago. After the second hunt, John was a little less sure he was on the right track but decided to have another go at it and work another section of the woods not yet covered by him. And… once again… for the third time now… he had no positive results and was starting to get discouraged. As he made his way back to the cul-de-sac where his truck was parked, he still had his metal detector turned on as he approached the trashy area around where he parked. He had already walked past several beer cans when he got a loud signal from his metal detector indicating a big target like a crushed beer can but one that was not visible on the surface of he forest floor. Being tired and down a little, he concluded it was just a crushed can and started to walk on…. but something… he could never explain what… made him go back and re-locate that signal. It was so loud he knew it was just under the 2 or 3 inches of leaves and kicked at the spot with his food. In doing so, he exposed a U.S. Civil War belt buckle in perfect condition! With this discovery, it suddenly became clear why his searches up to then had been unsuccessful… he had been PARKING RIGHT ON THE EXACT SPOT he was looking for and then walking away from it before he started to metal detect because of all the metal trash. The many teenagers who came to party there and throw their trash all over never had a clue that they were trashing an extremely historical site of great value.
John had to spend a lot of time removing all the visible trash and then also the crushed cans under the leaves from that site but when all was said and done… he had his coveted “belt buckle bonanza” in his possession. I had the privilege of being invited to his home in Memphis where I was shown all 500 U. S. Civil War belt buckles he found there in the woods. The lesson here is obvious… LOOK WHERE YOU… DO NOT… THINK IT IS if you do not find it where you think it ought to be.
Inaccuracies on old maps… especially hand drawn ones… are a big reason why Sites are not found where indicated on those maps. A big problem with both maps and reports about locations of Civil War related battlefields and camps is that many Union officers had never been south before the war and when they found themselves there during the war they made a lot of mistakes about locations in their reports they filed because they were totally unfamiliar with the territory. Example: A Yankee officer might write in a report, “We hotly engaged with the enemy with artillery and infantry for two hours along Banklick Creek about one half mile from the mouth of where it flows into the Elk River.” Because the officer was not familiar with the territory, he never knew that he had the name of the creek wrong and that the fight occurred on Wildcat Creek about two miles further south of Banklick Creek. So… any detectorist relic hunters wanting to find that battlefield could spend many an hour hunting along Banklick Creek when the site they were looking for was actually 2 miles away. The smart detectorist will note that the officer said they fought along a creek which considerably narrows down where the battle site actually was located. That detectorist would then scout along the closest creeks to Banklick Creek until he found the correct one with the battle site along it that was being sought. When seeking sites like these, ask yourself if the person who reported the location was in a position to know what he was talking about and where he actually was. Yankees knew the northern states and Rebs knew the southern ones as a general rule. When they got into each other’s territory and reported the locations where they saw action, they FREQUENTLY got the locations and landmarks wrong.
I experienced a classic example of having to deal with an inaccurate hand-drawn map when trying to locate the Union and Confederate battle lines on the Mansfield, LA battlefield. The Confederates won that battle and a Reb Lt. Thigpen drew a map of the Confederate battle line which was shaped like an “L” with about equal length sides. He showed the battle line have a 90 degree turn in it about at the middle. I trace battlelines on Civil War battlefields by the kinds of bullets I find… where the Rebs made a stand, you will find dropped Reb bullets and fired Yankee bullets. Where the Yanks made a stand you will find the opposite… dropped Yankee bullets and fired Reb bullets by following the “bullet trail” you can determine precisely where the battlelines were on any battlefield. At Mansfield, by following the bullet trail that I dug, I learned that contrary to Lt. Thigpen’s diagram showing the Reb battle line as L-shaped, it was NOT. Where the battleline turned, it did NOT make a 90 degree turn but only a 45 degree turn which was half of that indicated on the map. This meant the battleline went off to the right of the first part of the line which was accurate on the map. The bullet trail did not lie and resulted in me finding over 600 artifacts that I would have missed if I had followed the battleline map instead of the trail of bullets that I dug.
An additional source of commonly used historical info by detectorists that so very often has proved notoriously inaccurate for locating sites of interest are State Historical Markers. Here are a few examples: A Confederate soldier’s camp site in Texas was found by one of my friends over a mile and a half of where the Texas State Marker said it was. Another, in Arkansas, located a ghost town site on the wrong side of the river it had sat on. Another Texas Marker giving the location of an old fort site was off by more than three miles!
Turtles made out of individual stones that could be easily lifted and placed to form a circular body several feet in diameter with triangular rocks for head, and feet and several lined up to form the tail were often used by the Spanish as markers pointing to caches of gold or silver bars in the American Southwest. Most people follow the direction the head is pointing in on the stone turtle, believing that will lead them to the treasure cache site. It was not always that simple with the Spanish soldiers that made these markers. Sometimes they were deliberately designed to lead people away from the cache site. It would be the tail or one of the legs that actually pointed in the correct direction to follow.
For those of you familiar with the story of the Knights of the Golden Circle treasure caches, many of the stone markers and rock carvings they left to point the way to where a cache was hidden was designed to DECEIVE treasure seekers also and lead them away from the cache site rather than to it. When following treasure signs, you must be prepared to consider other meanings to the markers besides the ones that seem obvious.
The positive side to discovering that a site is not where the written documents and/or maps indicate it should be is that because of the errors in location, the site is much more likely to still be untouched by other detectorists than it would be if the reports and maps were spot on accurate.
Right now, as I write this, I am in the process of trying to locate where 10,000 Union soldiers camped all winter at a spot in a huge valley that has not yet been found by anyone. I have followed several leads from long-time local residents about where the camp was in that valley but so far all have proved to be inaccurate. Now, I will start to look at places NOT indicated by the local residents as the place where they camped. I know from the historical records that the camp did exist and that it is in that valley somewhere. My knowledge of Civil War camp locating has already helped me eliminate a number of unlikely areas such as fields by the big creek in the valley that would quickly flood after a heavy rain. I am going to “Look Where It Isn’t” and by doing that, I am determined that I WILL find that camp!
I hope you will take this advice to heart and that it will result in you finding some great sites to metal detect that turn out to be where they are NOT supposed to be.
Dorian Cook is a native of Huntington, West Virginia, and spent the greater part of his childhood growing up in the Appalachian Foothills near the small town of St. Albans. From age 10 to 17 much of his time was spent exploring those foothills and the old cabin ruins they contained, as well as fishing and trapping along the Coal River.
After graduation from St. Alban’s High School in 1965 he moved to Dallas, Texas, acquired landscape design and construction skills and started his own business which he maintained for 44 years. During the eighteen years spent in Texas he became involved in Civil War artifact rescue activities in which he discovered Civil War campsites and battlegrounds previously lost to history. To date, he has found and recovered over fourteen thousand Civil War artifacts from over 140 sites in 22 states… the majority of which now reside in museums from Texas to Cincinnati. He also spent nearly four years as the marketing and advertising manager for Garrett Metal Detectors. In addition, his responsibilities included field testing new metal detection equipment as it was developed by the company.
His travels in pursuit of nearly every aspect of treasure hunting, prospecting, and metal detecting have taken him to historical locations in 42 of the United States and six foreign countries, as well. He has participated in official archaeological excavations for the state of Texas Antiquities Commission and the nation of Israel’s Israeli Antiquities Authority. Recently, he located the actual battle site of the Kentucky Militia’s defeat at the famous Battle of Blue Licks (which the historians had marked in the wrong place in the Blue Licks State Park) in what is often called “The last battle of the Revolutionary War.”
He is the author of five books on Kentucky’s pioneer and Civil War history, as well as over 200 articles published in various metal detecting related magazines.
His love of discovering “the lost and the hidden” and his extensive field experience in searching for the same for the past forty-four years has led him into Bible-related archaeological explorations in Israel and Egypt and similar American history-related projects all across the United States, as well. These numerous experiences have helped hone his “History Detective” skills to a “sharp edge.” One of the main goals in all his journalistic efforts and public presentations is to pass on as many of those skills as possible to his readers.
He currently resides with his wife, on a small farm in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Northeastern Kentucky and remains active in metal detecting historical sites and sponsoring a Civil War history and relic hunting group on social media.