A Metal Detectorists Guide to Finding History in Places that Lack It

The key to success in metal detecting is the research you put into picking the spots you choose to detect. The majority of intermediate to advanced detectorists already know and use Topo Maps and Historical Aerials. However, we are going to discuss taking the research beyond the common ways most detectorists use and discovering the history that isn’t well documented. I am also going to discuss finding history in newer developments and cities. Truth be told, history is everywhere; we just have to uncover it through deep research.

Even if we don’t believe it, historic sites slip through our fingers and get left behind because of a lack of documentation or interest. They are still visually there as remnants, but not known by locals. Whether it is political reasons, locations’ names changing or getting decommissioned as historical landmarks, or it could be as simple that no one saw it as a historic location and little was noticed or documented about it as it decayed or changed hands and was updated. With deep detective work and putting on our historian research hat, it is amazing what we can uncover, even in cities and suburbs that are newly established.

Before you proceed to read.
Please remember to follow your local metal detecting laws and be respectful where you metal detect.
Do not trespass.

Below, we will discuss how to uncover historic areas. Even in cities and towns where people feel it is impossible to be a relic hunter because nothing is old.

For a lot of the world, finding an old square nail or silver coin is easy. The challenge is when you live in the United States in cities and towns established in the 80s and 90s and even the 2000s.

A Small Sample of Relic Items
I Found in Cities that Incorporated in the Late 80s and Early 90s

Finding parks and other locations where you can uncover old relics and coins past 1964 seems almost impossible, but it isn’t, and let me give you some tips that I learned and learned from others.

Become Visual Curious

With history comes changes, and keeping a visual curiosity can lead you to unexpected historical discoveries. For example, have you ever wondered why that bend in the road is actually there when there was no need for it to be there in the present day? Did you see that bend in the road as a clue to possibly more history to be uncovered? Is a patch of grass oddly placed? With some deep research, you could discover that odd small patch of grass is actually part of what was once a big park that’s no longer there? Where those rocks are, were they once part of a wall or the foundation of a bridge? Or are those trees not native to the area? Visual curiosity to the level needed is not natural, but retraining your brain to do it will pay off. If you do it right, it can find you some amazing metal detecting spots. It is time to question your surrounding and to uncover history not even the local historians know. 

Examples of Historic Locations
Hidden In Modern Suburban Development

Take into Consideration Geographical Landmark Renaming

With your visual curiosity, you find the geographic location, now dive into Historical Aerials and Topo Maps. Go back in time, looking at older maps and older aerials, then doing so, take notes of the names on the maps in close proximity. Especially the ones that are not familiar to you. Landmarks could have had different names and got renamed over time. Don’t just look for the big names, look for labels such as spring, a well, a railroad crossing, basically look into detail on all the names of anything listed. Make sure you google these names and current names to learn the history of those spots. Remember when googling use Boolean Search techniques. Once you have googled it and thought you found everything, you can then go to the Library of Congress and see what you can find by searching their database. The vast amount of info in the archives online of the Library of Congress can give you valuable history, and clues for places to metal detect.

YouTube Nostalgia Videos Have Great Clues

Nostalgia videos on YouTube can give you ideas of where people used to congregate if that was a drive-in, skate rink, fairground, and so on. When watching the nostalgia videos see how the landscape changed, if you are looking at nostalgic videos focusing on a park you frequent, see if there were fountains or paths or picnic areas that are not there anymore or not as popular as they are in the current day. Find the videos of people traveling to your location or through it. Take note of the mountain ranges in the videos, or major landmarks, trees, walls, etc. Now go to the park and you can line up where people used to congregate versus where they are congregating in the present day. Maybe there was more entertainment in the past, such as a zoo, a rose garden, a stage, and so on. Parks evolve, even in modern developments. If you do your research right, it can be lucrative, because before it was an established park, it could have been a forest where hunters roamed or ranch fields.

An example of a YouTube channel with historical videos is SoCalOutdoorExplorer. They show historical relevant spots in and around Los Angeles

Instagram and TikTok Historical Videos Also Have Great Clues

Look for local TikTok and Instagram videos that share historical facts and locations in areas you are considering metal detecting or want to metal detect. Even if the locations of the Instagram or TikTok videos are forbidden areas to detect, consider just understanding the history and looking for locations nearby that you can gain permission to detect. Often these videos point out old historic buildings, ranches, mines, railway stops, churches, camps, etc. With these, you can simply think how would people travel to these locations and use that thought to detect places they might have stepped foot on. 

Get Offline and Walk Into Your Local Library

Physically go to the local library and specifically look in their local history and genealogy sections. There are research materials you will find there which will not have been scanned and cataloged in the Library of Congress and elsewhere online. Also, talk to the librarian to see if they have additional material behind the desk or in a special room or know of any local historians who are open to talking to you.

Books Metal Detecting
Here is an example of books I got from my library pertaining to local history and reading this week.

Read Local Environmental Impact Reports & Environmental Impact Statements

Not all metal detectorists realize what assets Environmental Impact Reports and Environmental Impact Statements can be.

For those who don’t know what they are, Environmental Impact Statements & Environmental Impact Reports, an EIS or EIR contain an overview of a construction project, in-depth studies of potential impacts, measures to reduce or avoid those impacts, maps, and technical details of the project area, and an analysis of alternatives to the project. Under the United States, environmental law it is a document that is required by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act for certain actions. The reports or statements are made to inform the public and public agency decision makers of the significant environmental effects of the proposal.

Environmental Impact Reports and Environmental Impact Statements are public, often found on the internet, and usually have a section on historic locations and how they will be impacted. Simply find EIS or EIR and search for the word “historic”. This is how I find historic locations that are not known by the general public but are commissioned by government agencies as historic land.

Start Understanding Survey Markers and NGS Data Sheets

Survey Markers, also known as survey marks, survey monuments, or geodetic marks, can give valuable data to metal detectorists. If the markers meet specific standards, they are recorded in government databases that are public. Also, if a survey marker is there, and recorded by the government, it is a high probability at some point, something important was there or is still there, such as railways, bridges, stagecoach stops, monuments, etc. For instance, one recent survey marker a friend and I located, seemingly looked like an area, nothing was special, just a grassy, overgrown area, however when we looked at the governments data, we learned of a historic bridge that was there at one point and this was the specific survey market from when the bridge. Yes, an old bridge, in a modern development, an ideal palace to metal detect.

The easiest way to see your local survey markers in the United States is by using the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, website, specifically the National Geodetic Survey section. They have an easy-to-use interactive map https://geodesy.noaa.gov/NGSDataExplorer/, where you can search a location for all the survey markers. Click on each survey marker, and on the right-hand side or a pop-up, it will say “Datasheet” in red. Click on that, and another page will open up called “The NGS Data Sheet“ which can be a wealth of data, from seeing when that specific survey marker was installed and what it was installed in originally. Note that “The NGS Data Sheet“ takes a bit of time to open up; it will be a blank page but then load. You have to be patient.

Don’t Believe The Documentation, Always Cross Reference. 

Recently a friend and I were exploring places to metal detect and found a survey marker that, in the government paperwork, stated it was lost, gone in 2006. Guess what? We found it. In government records, it stated in 1968, the survey mark was set. Then, in 2006, the survey marker was noted it wasn’t found by officials. Well, we found it and that survey marker confirmed there was a historical area we were trying to locate that had a documented stagecoach stop, even though we only saw some tiny remnants of cement footings. One piece had the survey marker on it. It confirmed everything and my friend’s research was accurate.

Be organized, build folders on your computer or in the cloud, and keep adding data cross-referencing historical locations. Those folders should be filled with historical photos, old-timer accounts from old newspaper clippings, clips of historical books and documents from the Library of Congress, Topo Maps, and Historical Aerials. My personal metal detecting buddies know I actually make Google PowerPoints with all the data. That way I can print it out, take it with me and share it with whoever detects the spot with me. I make sure all of us can edit it and add notes or more data so that when we get to a location; we have a good game plan.

Get Chatty, Even If You Are an Introvert

I admit I am not fond of people coming up to me when I detect but the benefits out way the distraction, especially if you are detecting in parks. For instance, once a man came up to me to ask me about detecting, thinking he would get into doing it, and I quickly learned he was once the Major and Police Chief of the town. As a Police Chief, he was recognized for cleaning up the homeless problem or as the media says these days, the unhoused. Knowing the majority of homeless encampments are often in older areas, I asked him if he could guide me to other older areas with historical significance. We had a good conversation about locations. Another time, a woman was staring at me detecting, knowing she might not like what I was doing, she was a hard read I waved and said “hi” with a nice smile. She came over and we discussed the history of the park, and she told me about a fountain that was once in the park but gone now. Nowhere in any historical documentation did I read or hear about this fountain? But guess what? With that small tip, a friend went back to all the aerials and found this impressive fountain in historical aerials. The fountain, for some reason, was only there for a couple of years, and on aerials, at a quick glance no one would realize it was a fountain, but with that small conversation, I got a good lead. That same lady gave me many other spots to detect because she was one of the original residents, and her father used to own the cattle ranches that were local before the developments went in.

Get to Know the Demographics Who Have a Need to Explore

Some of my best tips for my area, Southern California, come from skateboarders, especially older-generation skateboarders and young folks who like to 4×4. Both demographics enjoy exploring and know of paths and sites open to the public, but not well known by the general public. It could be everything from abandoned bridges, pools, to the tunnels that the skateboarders know, but the local public forgot even existed. It could be remnants of a ranch, hunting cabins, or mines that the 4×4 folks know, but the local public wasn’t even aware it was there. These two are just examples of a demographic that has a need to uncover the paths that are lesser known and are great for leads to where to metal detect.

I hope the tips above help you find some good locations to metal detect. If you have other tips that you think our readers would enjoy about finding historic spots to metal detect please share them in the comments below. Or if you learned something new, also leave a comment. It is always helpful to hear if our readers find the content valuable.

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One Comment

  1. Great article. I want to add just a couple of quick additions. Here in Texas, we have 254 counties. I believe in redundancy and though I do keep things cached online, there are times that I don’t have a signal to see relevant information when I am in the field. So, in my case, I actually have a 3 tab folder for each county in the state. When I am going to a particular area, I carry that folder with me. Inside each folder is all of the information I have on a particular site or person that is something I am interested in. I do add new info via my phone or laptop but I also print it out and even take notes. Further, I use pencil notes as well. All information will be both electronic and physical.

    Secondly, and especially in small communities, someone, sometime in the past is likely to have written about local history. It will be in the library of that town or county. When at the library, ask if they have any historical maps or documents that aren’t in the main area. Many times, there are storage areas that will contain ancient documentation that would be of interest to the researcher.

    ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS ask people who the local historian is in a small town. Those are the gatekeepers that can open doors for you that would otherwise remain closed. Happy researching y’all!

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