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Discovering Your History With a Metal Detector

Updated on May 31, 2017

Searching For Family Treasures Making The Past Come Alive

Searching your Family Tree can be the most wonderful, incredibly rewarding and frustrating experience you will ever undertake. Depending on the information you start with you will either, quickly, add new "branches" of information to your research or you will follow a path of clues that lead to a dead end. The available records are extensive, but incomplete, and can be costly to access if you use one of the many commercial websites catering to people interested in their genealogy. If you choose to search, the old fashion way, by physically searching records at government archives, church records, or other various sources like school records etc you might save money but the search time required will be substantial.

Most people use a combination of all these sources. Often they have a starting point such as letters, family documents, photos or a living grandparent who can often send them off on the right path. The search can and will be frustrating but there will be moments of pure and genuine euphoria when you make a new connection to your past. When you discover that old dusty photo, you found in the attic, is actually a picture of your GGG Grandparent and another door to your past has been opened. It is a great and emotional undertaking that will, quite probably, never completely end. Your search will go on until you hit that proverbial "brick wall" where the information dries up and you can no longer glimpse at what is behind the wall. You may find yourself wanting to quit the search.....but then another sliver of information will surface sending you off on the hunt again. Knowing where we came from is such an important part of finding out who we are and where we are going. It is a search many of us have to undertake. The connection with the distant past take on a whole new meaning when that distant past is.....yours! Such was the case in my wife's quest to find her past and I will share with you our own personal treasure hunt.

This part of her family's story begins in 1888 when two brothers leave Newcastle Upon Tyne in Northern England and sail across the Atlantic to a new life and expectations of new adventures. Their ship arrives in New York City in the early spring of 1888 and they first step foot in America at "Castle Garden Immigration Depot", also know as the Battery, which was the main receiving area for immigrants before Ellis Island would takeover as the immigant receiving center 4 years later.

After a short stay in New York they made their way to Boston and connected with extended family there .Arrangements had been made, before they left England, for the two young men to be "taken in" and assisted by their "cousins" who had imigrated to Boston 20 years earlier. The "cousins" in Boston turned out to be the Robertson family who, a few years earlier had started "Chelsea Pottery" which, in time, would become "Dedham Pottery".

We are not sure how long they stayed with their "cousins" in Boston, perhaps, six months at most. They had no intentions of becoming potters, however, and in an old chest full of family papers we discovered what their ultimate destination was. We found a land grant bestowed ,by the English Crown, to each of the brothers. This document granted each of them 100 acres of land in a place called Cloverdale. This area was located in the wilderness of New Brunswick one of the maritime provinces of Canada. The place was about 25 miles from the US/Canada border crossing at Houlton Maine just south of Woodstock, New Brunswick.

These men came from a family of industrialists, merchants and professionals. They both had industrial trades and were very highly thought of in their professions. We can find no reference to their having any experience or even a working knowledge about farming and yet these two brothers were setting off into the wilds of Eastern Canada to start a farm in the wilderness. There wasn't even a local community. The name Cloverdale referred to an area of about two dozen 100 acre lots of land that had been set aside for immigrants by the Crown and the Canadian Government. The nearest community would have been the village of Hartland about 15 miles away. They had no idea about what lie in their future. They set off with hope and a sense of adventure that is all but lost in our time.

Had they known the hardships and heartache that awaited them, in the wilderness ,perhaps they would have stayed in Boston but I really don't think so. I believe that even if they had known they would have pushed forward and met their future head on. Such were the qualities of these men and many more like them, our ancestors, who persevered and overcame untold hardships that paved the way for our modern world and our home.

If I can bring you forward about 115 years to a time ,a few years ago, when we put together an expedition to find the old homestead and to discover any artifacts that might have survived. We had been shown the homestead site of one of the brothers, who was my wife's grandfather, by an elderly gentleman a few years earlier. There were several family members on the expedition and I brought with us my two metal detectors and was determined to do a proper grid search. Although I was still learning how to properly use a metal detector I was confident we would find something.

One of the problems we faced is the the farm was sold in the 1920's and after that a succession of owners would have lived on the property. We would be hard pressed to identify anything from the original house but we arrived on site undaunted. We had permission from the current owners to spend as long as we wanted on site and our search began.

When we arrived we found the physical characteristics of the site had been changed. This change would prove to be invaluable to our success. The owners had "prepared" the site to receive a small travel trailer. They had bought in a small bulldozer and had levelled the site off with the dirt pushed to the side. The home site was level and all the large rocks had been removed. This proved to be critical to our search. The dozer had removed about 4 inches of top soil and pushed that soil into a pile at the edges of the site. what remained was an area that would have approxmated the soil level as it had been in about 1890. What a stroke of luck!

The detectors began "beeping" immediately.Almost all "hits" were registering within 2 inches of the surface. We started recovering countess items. Irons, tools, lots of scrap metal, square nails, everything you would expect to find from a site from the 1890's. The dozer had done most of the work for us.

We recovered so many artifacts that we soon had enough items to divide up amongst the family members. We spend several hours searching and digging and while we did not find "valuables" we did make three finds, in particular, that transcended any monetary values. They were personal items and will always have a cherished place in the family history.

The first item was found midway though the day's search. I swept the detector slowly over an already searched area and was rewarded with a strong signal. The indicator showed the find to be a coin, perhaps, a quarter or 50 cent piece. I slowly pinpointed the target and began digging carefully. About two inches below the surface I found a piece of silver colored metal stuck in a ball of soil. Cleaning the soil away revealed the piece of metal to be... a Victorian era hallmarked silver thimble in excellent condition. We all examined the object and agreed that with such a personal find the search would have been a success if nothing else had been found....but of course we did find other "treasures"

The second find of note was a pair of leather boot soles. The detector picked up the hobnails, that the cobbler would have used to attach the soles to the boots. What made this find so poignant is that the boot soles were from an adult and a small child. We know that 4 children were born in the house with one of them being my wife's father. There is no way to definitively identify the child's bootsole found as belonging to her father,who was born in the house in 1910, but it's close enough that the soles are a cherished part of her collection.

The third and most puzzling find was discovered with the detector indirectly. A very strong signal revealed the presence of a large iron object. After digging we found the remains of an iron. The handle was missing but all the metal parts including the body of the iron were present. It was another great addition to our growing collection but another object in the "hole" the iron was removed from proved even more incredible.

In the bottom of the hole we discovered a "pipe stem" from an old clay pipe. This piece was the most confusing of all. We knew ,through the family letters, that the family were very devout Christians and smoking in the family would have been very unusual. The pipe stem certainly added a sense of mystery to our finds and we had no explanation for it and realized more research would be needed.

When we had finished our day we had a box of artifacts and several rolls of film from the area. No longer would the past, of the old homestead, be shrouded in mystery and remain hidden. The family members would share the artifacts and the photos and that chapter, of their past, would become known and shared by all. It was a great day and thanks to the metal detectors another family's history came out of the shadows and into the light.......what a great hobby. A special thanks goes out from our family to Bounty Hunter Detectors and to Garrett Detectors. They helped bring the past to life even in a beginner's hands.

As a post script I would like to pass on the mystery of the "pipe stem". Missed in all the family papers was a small notebook. Within the notebook my wife's "grandfather" recorded all the supplies needed for his home and the other neighbors. According to the notebook he was the one who went to town for supplies for many of the families in the area. We know that his mother in law came to live with them in her last years. The notebook recorded the purchase of "tobacco" for Mrs Stewart who turns out to be the mother in law. The pipe was smoked by my wife's great grandmother Stewart who lived in the house. What a neat revelation.She was originally from Brooklyn, NY where pipe smoking women, I don't believe, were that common however her mother was a "Clay" from Kentucky where I am told women smoking pipes were NOT that unusual so perhaps she learned this activity from her mother. Obviously the pipe stem holds a very special place in the collection. Monetary value...there is none but sentimental value......priceless!


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    • point2make profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      I appreciate your comments alocsin. Thanks. A metal detector can be a great tool in many unusual ways.

    • alocsin profile image


      6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I have never considered using a metal detector as part of genealogy research, but your hub certainly adds that option. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • point2make profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thank-you for your comments hoteltravel I do appreciate them although I am not quite sure what you mean. I almost always pack the metal detector in the car whenever I go any distance. Opportunities almost always present themselves when you least expect it and having the detector with me has paid off several times.

      As to the old homestead we knew the location and had always planned on doing a proper search of the property. The fact that the "dozer" had done most of the work for us was just luck.

      Metal detecting is a very popular hobby and there are many "professionals" who do very well financially detecting. Personally I enjoy the "hunt" almost as much as the "find". I don't ever expect to strike it rich but most people who use metal detectors regularly can, reasonably, expect to make enough off their "finds" to pay for their detector over time.

    • hoteltravel profile image


      6 years ago from Thailand

      Metal detectors are often featured in cartoons for children in a humorous way. This comes very close to that, but serving a worthwhile purpose. How did you stumble upon the idea of using metal detectors to find buried remains. Usually people dig the area.

    • point2make profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks for the comments Gus...I appreciate them. I love detecting and would be quite excited to happen upon a large pile of Indian Head Pennies these days. The most gratifying thing for me is that the "searching" is almost as much fun as the "finding". Recently, while detecting on an Atlantic ocean beach, I found a part of the hull planking from an 17th -18th century sailing ship. We were able to date the piece because of the copper spike that was still embedded in the wood. The spike was in mint condition and while not hugely valuable it looks real nice displayed on my office desk. That is why I love metal detecting.

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 

      7 years ago from USA

      p2m - Useful and fun to read. Nicely done article, this one. Sometimes folks stumble onto "buried treasure" like once in my early childhood when I found a large pile of Indian Head Pennies buried in our backyard garden. That was accidental. A metal detector would be fun to follow.

      Gus :-)))

    • point2make profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thank-you for your comments JustJan I am glad you enjoyed the hub. It was a emotional day for my wife as she got to hold in her hands everyday items that her ancestors used. It bought so much meaning to the things we unearthed.

      We still go metal detecting quite often and have a good time, together, finding "treasures" but I doubt we will ever be able to top that day when we searched the old homestead.

    • JustJan profile image


      7 years ago from Nebraska

      Reading your hub was very enjoyable. I have a fondness for relics of the past and I cant help but think how rewarding it must have been for your wife to unearth hidden objects that her ancestors once used.

    • point2make profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks for the comments Stephanie. I do appreciate them. It is always fun, for me, to go metal detecting. Finding anything is rewarding and fun but finding artifacts from an ancestor is indescribable. I can't wait to get out again soon. I have a surfing beach all picked out. Who knows what treasures surfers leave behind.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      7 years ago from USA

      How wonderful to find artifacts from your family history in your metal detecting! Years ago we used a metal detector on an old farm we had recently purchased. Our finds included some sleigh bells and a cow bell which I still have. How much more meaningful it would have been if they had been part of my own family's heritage!

    • point2make profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks for your comments grayghost they are very much appreciated. I have been metal detecting for many years off and on. I love the hunt. Recently I discovered a portion of a ships planking with the old copper chisel spikes still embedded. Probably dates to the late 18th century. The value is nominal, mainly for the copper spikes, but the way it looks displayed in my den.....priceless!. Sometimes you find that special item that transcends value but still gets you excited. What a great hobby.

    • grayghost profile image


      7 years ago

      Enjoyed your hub, I've been relic hunting for 20 years but never had the opportunity to hunt on an ancestor's property. Thanks for sharing an interesting twist to a great hobby!

    • point2make profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks workingmomwm...I appreciate the thoughts and comments. A metal detector can be invaluable especially if you are searching a known area like an ancestors property. It is a great feeling when you discover something with the detector and realize that there is a very good possibility the object is directly connected to your ancestors and you!. I'm sure the Clays of Virginia and the Clays of Kentucky are related somewhere in the distant past so......thanks for the comment....cuz!!

    • workingmomwm profile image

      Mishael Austin Witty 

      7 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      What a neat story! I've never tried using a metal detector, and I'm not entirely certain where all my ancestors lived, but I have an idea where some of them were.

      And it's not difficult to believe that your wife's great-grandmother would have smoked a pipe. I'm from Kentucky, and at that time I imagine most everyone smoked in some form. A lot of Kentuckians still do. Tobacco's still one of our big earners. I'm also kin to the Clays (from Virginia, but there might be some connection).

    • point2make profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks for the comments Peggy. I love metal detecting and researching history. To me they are a perfect fit. Everything I find with a detector is someone's piece of history. Usually there is not a monetary value attached but the hunt, for me, is the reward.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      What great and meaningful discoveries for your family. I would never have given a thought as to metal detectors being valuable in geneology research...but you have given evidence to the contrary. Interesting!

    • point2make profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks Harvey-----appreciate the thought.

    • Harvey Stelman profile image

      Harvey Stelman 

      8 years ago from Illinois

      point, These stories are usually good. H


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