Dec 08, 2007, 04:21 PM
Gypsyheart~ Queen of Rust
Livin’ Magazine Treasure Hunting Article
Vermont’s Buried Treasure
Do gold and silver await those who know where to look?
As the sun rises any summer morning you can bet one of Vermont’s modern-day treasure hunters is already at work scanning the local public beach with a metal detector. He knows his chance for success lies with being the first to arrive. As the day progresses he will keep to himself and move briskly, listening for a distinctive “ping” that indicates a lost ring, necklace, or other reward.
Later in the afternoon he will change his methods. He recently heard about an old lumber baron who died unexpectedly and supposedly hid a pile of gold in a stonewall around a now abandoned farmhouse. Having obtained permission, he is excited for the search, despite knowing that these adventures rarely translate into a financial gain. Still there is a chance…if not the gold then maybe a Revolutionary War button, silver spoon, old coin, or maybe, if faith is on his side, a clue that will lead him to one of the mother loads which according to legend, are hidden and forgotten about in the rough Vermont terrain.
According to Art Cohen, the director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, “The real treasure on the bottom of the lake is the ship wrecks.” While this may be true, it doesn’t stop treasure seekers from dreaming of the Horatio Gates and its $50,000 in lost gold. Photo: Courtesy of Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
Rumors of buried treasure, plundered British gold, and lost caches of coins or silver have entertained the starry eyed around campfires in Vermont for centuries, often being passed down from one generation to the next. Many have a basis firmly planted in reality, but time has served to embellish the details to the point where the original story is unrecognizable. In other situations, the rewards could be much more realistic.
Modern Day Treasure Hunting
George Streeter, owner of Streeter’s Electric which specializes in treasure hunting supplies on Route 101 in Marlbogough, NH has been at it longer then most. He offers several state-of-the-art metal detectors, and over the years he has heard almost every conceivable treasure related story. He is quick to point out that today’s treasure hunters track their treasure in two ways.
Some, like those that he equips, use metal detectors or other devices to comb public land in hopes of stumbling across a lost piece of jewelry. In fact, a few years ago Streeter sold four pounds of gold wedding bands he had unearthed in this manner. On another occasion, he found a diamond ring worth over $5,000, and he regularly takes trips to the Caribbean where he and a group of friends have a playful competition to see who can unearth the most in a week-long endeavor.
There are also some modern day hunters who make themselves available to help locate lost items. These can range from a ring to a hunting rifle lost when a canoe tipped over, or even a prosthetic limb. Often the charge for a successful recovery is a portion (between 20 and 40 percent) of what the item was originally worth. Other treasure hunters let history help them choose the terrain they scan. They are searching either for a large horde of lost British gold, buried silver, or other plunder of various types. Some will study maps of early travels and try to locate encampments which are not federally protected. Once these are found and permission is given, a diversity of artifacts can be uncovered.
Which is more effective? Streeter can’t say. While he believes there is something to the rumored treasure hoards, “The people who have found them have a way of not saying anything about it. But where so many have hunted, you would almost think that any treasure had been found by now.”
Instead, he feels that the treasures worth seeking are the ones where coins were rumored to be hidden in a cache in a field or stonewall, or cellar holes which have long since been abandoned. Unfortunately, these are few and far between.
Streeter also emphasizes that if it is a monetary return somebody is looking for, the end result of a summer’s hunting with a metal detector on a beach will almost always exceed what would have been found if a hunter had spent his time following rumors.
Separating Fact From Fiction
For years in Vermont, treasure hunting enthusiasts have flocked to Malletts Bay. They came in pursuit of the Horatio Gates, a ship which reportedly sank in the area during the early 19th century carrying $50,000 worth of British gold.
Art Cohen is more than familiar with the many stories of lost treasure on Lake Champlain. As the Director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, he is considered the guru of everything ship-related above and below the waterline. When asked specifically about the Horatio Gates, he is skeptical. Other than research that indicates the ship was a vessel which sailed on Lake Champlain in the early 19th century, he “has no personal or historic information” about the craft.
“Typically, rumors start that are not well grounded in fact,” he said. “The real treasure on the bottom of the lake is the shipwrecks which are a tremendous cultural treasure that enrich all of us,” he said.
Kevin Graffanino, the energetic director of the Vermont Historical Society, isn’t quite as dismissive, and after talking to him, one gets the feeling that he appreciates the part of folklore these stories have become, rather than holding out much hope to their validity. Despite this, he is able to look at Vermont’s history and make reasonable connections to these rumors. One of which took place in Middlebury in 1778.
The story goes that in that year, settlers were forced to evacuate their homes before an Indian raiding party attacked. The residents buried all their money and fled. Many never returned.
Graffanino points out that like many of the lost treasure stories, the roots may be buried in a true historic event, but have been distorted along the way. “I would question the year,” said Graffanino of the Middlebury story. “In 1777 Burgoine did lead his troops through the area on his way to the Battle of Bennington and people did evacuate. They probably would have buried their valuables or put them down a well, and many of them may have not made it back,” he said.
This march does also provide an answer to those who question the common tales of large quantities of British gold in the area. Skeptics wonder why the British would be in the region with chests of treasure to begin with, but as Graffanino points out, it is logical that Burgoine would have marched with gold, both to pay his army and bribe people along the way. Still, there is no evidence to suggest any was lost, buried, stolen by Indians, or any one of the other rumors that feed treasure hunters.
Now Is The Time
One of the best known Vermont treasure mysteries involves the 1864 St. Albans Raid. For those not familiar, 20 Confederate soldiers snuck into St. Albans and robbed the city’s three banks in a daring daytime heist. All told, they made off with $208,000 in paper currency, gold, and silver. Only $80,000 was ever recovered. According to Vermont Civil War expert and author Howard Coffin, “What happened to the rest of it is unclear.”
For years legends have circulated that the money was buried somewhere along the escape route which led up into Enosburgh Falls and across the Canadian border. Coffin seriously doubts any of the money was buried, for the simple reason that they wouldn’t have risked taking the time to do it.
“They were fleeing a posse that was assembled 20 minutes after they left. They would have known they were being followed and would have been very fearful. If they had been caught they would have been hanged,” he said.
“This is the age of treasure hunting in Vermont,” said Coffin, “and not always with the best of results.”
What Coffin is referring to is the loss of archeological evidence that often accompanies treasure hunting. As a Civil War historian, he is well aware of the battle sites and encampments that were raped by treasure seekers prior to the establishment of historic preservation laws.
Cohen is particularly grateful for a 1987 law which establishes that all shipwrecks on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain and anything on those ships are considered a public resource, and thus all belongs to the people of the state of Vermont. “That makes the question of ‘value’ a cultural question instead of monetary,” he said. Likewise, Graffanino points out that theoretically, any treasure found on state property would belong to the state of Vermont.
For this reason, George Streeter emphasizes that any treasure hunter with scruples will get land-owner permission before going on private property. He also points out that in many situations, when treasures have been found, one of the reasons the public may never hear of them is that the hunter did not want it to be known out of fear of losing their prize to the government.
Luck or Work
Sometimes, it may also just boil down to pure luck. Two years ago, a woman was walking in a field near her Vergennes area home. It was spring and the ground had recently been overturned. Something shiny caught her eye from over 50 yards away, and when she went to examine it she discovered it was a rare Revolutionary War button. The condition was remarkable (a factor that very often is limiting in recovered items) and it later sold for $3000.
These stories appeal to the romantic in all of us, but the truth of the matter is that even working with a good metal detector is hard. An inexperienced operator can spend significant amounts of time digging up soda caps and copper pennies. It is also competitive. While rising early to beat the crowds is a necessity, so isn’t being able to cover several miles at a relatively quick pace.
Still, once someone experiences some success treasure hunting, it is easy to become addicted. Streeter points out that part of it is the thrill that comes with finding something. Everyday is a new adventure and every cellar hole holds new potential and dreams.
Then, there is also the money.
“There is something to be said for having $50,000 worth of gold in a safety deposit box,” he said. “I know some guys have a lot more than that.”
Kyle Scanlon is the editor of Livin’ Magazine.
I go a great distance,while some are considering whether they will start today or tomorrow
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