My 2022 detecting season is off to an incredible start with a truly remarkable artifact unearthed last week! Researching what it has opened up some fascinating chapters of history and confirmed that it is absolutely a one-of-a-kind piece with origins across the ocean!
The site I recovered it at was surprisingly mundane. Only a small number of other relics were recovered and I believe it was likely a tenant farmhouse where workers on the landowner's farm were allowed to live. I had recovered a number of 1820's and 1830's buttons as well as a few spoon fragments and thimbles; all fairly common finds for that sort of site. I was working my way further out from the foundation when I noticed an eroded path that had been cut into the hillside leading to the fields. Just below the lip of the embankment I got a strong signal which I extracted from the dirt with my bare hands; thankfully sparing it from even the smallest shovel scratch.
I knew immediately what it was and I could hardly contain my excitement as I've wanted to dig one of these for quite awhile! The two studs and hook (as well as the oval shape) are characteristic of a cross-belt plate. These are perhaps most associated with the uniforms of British soldiers like the Redcoats, but were used by other nations and civilians as well. They are from the time period when soldiers had to carry cartridge boxes for their muskets and, in the case of officers, a sword which would be hung on a belt that looped over the opposite shoulder. Having both created a cross over the chest. The belt plate allowed the length of the strap to be adjusted and since it sat right on the chest it was a highly visible piece of hardware. In the context of finding one in the United States, they most likely fall between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 in age so I knew it had to be at least 200 years old.
Being such visible piece they were often engraved with the regimental number and sometimes associated imagery like crowns or lions. They can be quite elaborate, however there are also numerous civilian and military examples that are plain so I didn't want to get my hopes up. I carefully rubbed a little dirt off an edge and to an even greater degree of excitement I could see lettering!
This was now a tremendous find as a marked plate is extraordinarily rare to dig. The one word I could see was "Royal" so I was certain that it was a British military of some kind. I didn't mess with it any further in the field as I'm always wary of the patina being unstable and flaking off. I packed it in a bag with dirt and headed home to start the restoration process.
It's nerve-wracking working on a piece like this. The excitement is tempered by the knowledge that one false step and you can loose detail forever, potentially making it impossible to identify. I first worked on the back since I could be sure that I wouldn't be risking any identifying marks and to my relief the patina was very thin and well bonded to the underlying brass. This created a stable layer that could be allowed to dry out without cracking, but I still did the initial work on the front with the soil moist. The copper compounds that make up the patina layer are mostly hydrates and thus much hardier before they dry. I carefully wiped off the dirt with a moist paper towel a bit at a time until I had removed all of the loose dirt. All that was left was dirt that had bonded to the patina and a few sections with more significant corrosion. At this point I could let it dry and see the substance of the engravings for the first time.
Already I could see this was going to be a stunning piece, all I had left was the final hurdle. The best way to remove the last of the dirt is extremely careful work with an Andre's brush. It's a pencil made with very fine steel wool and with it I can abrade off the dirt that's bonded to the patina as well as the corroded spots. It's easy to apply too much pressure and scrape off the patina too, so this step took almost an hour of carefully working in sections with just the right amount of pressure. After that, some light polishing was all it took to finalize what is now a museum quality artifact:
Virtually every single cut the original engraver made 200 years ago is still perfectly preserved! I very intentionally left the dirt in the lines so that they contrast with the patina and allow the design to pop at any angle. It was engraved by hand which is always good to see since it indicates that it was both old and made in limited numbers. Even without the lettering, the crown and thistle is the classic symbol of Scotland so it was time to do some research.
Kilmarnock is a town in Southern Scotland not quite on the Western coast, but not too far inland and South West of Glasgow. I first searched for the Royal Kilmarnock Volunteers and I did find a few references from around 1798 and 1800, but very little of substance. The "volunteers" aspect was interesting though and as it turns out, was the key to unraveling the mystery.
In 1794 the Volunteers Act was passed in Britain in response to the threat of French invasion during the War of the First Coalition between 1792-1797. Volunteers units were assembled in numerous towns to act as home defense militias and were composed primarily of landed gentlemen and officers drawn from the local gentry. The groups weren't funded by the Crown, but instead by wealthy individuals.
They also served to maintain public order as well as plugging holes left by regular troops that were stationed overseas. I found a specific instance in the 'History of Kilmarnock' that detailed the collapse of a church in 1801 and states they were called in to assist in the rescue efforts as well as to manage the gathered crowd. The Royal Kilmarnock Volunteers were also the very first group organized in Ayrshire, having been formed September 1794, just six months after the act was passed.
I was only able to find two other surviving pieces associated with the Royal Kilmarnock Volunteers. The first is a ceremonial sword that is engraved: “Presented by the Royal Kilmarnock Volunteers to their Captain Commandant William Parker Esquire as a mark of their respect for his Character and a Testimony of their high sense of his services to the Corps. Year 1800.”
The other pieces is an officer's gorget, engraved with a very similar design as the cross-belt plate I found:
Both of these pieces are in museums and I can't find any mention of other cross-belt plates having been found from this unit, so my example may well be unique! It appears that the Royal Kilmarnock Volunteers were eventually incorporated into the Fourth Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers and this may have happened prior to 1806 when the Volunteer Act was allowed to lapse. All of the volunteer units were formally disbanded in 1813. This gives the piece a fairly narrow date range between 1794 and 1806, although I suspect it dates between 1794 and 1800.
As to how it ended up in New York though... The volunteer units weren't meant to be deployed overseas, although some were called up to fill in the ranks during the Napoleonic Wars. In any case, there would have been no cause to officially send someone from this unit to New York so it seems more likely that it was an individual who emigrated from Scotland to the United States and brought this along as an heirloom.
Unfortunately, the site being a tenant farmer's house, means that there's likely no record of who lived there over the years. I'm doing some genealogical research to at least see if any of the named officer's from the unit are documented to have emigrated to the United States, but the list I have is only five names so it's a bit of a long shot. Even if I can't pin down the exact person this belonged to, I've still been able to conclusively identify it's origin and the fascinating history behind the volunteer units. The fact that it's a unique piece of an exceptionally rare type makes it all the more special.
Truly, this is exactly the sort of artifact that I search for and hope to find!
Max Cane is an avid detectorist and historian specializing in 18th century sites, but exploring all sorts of historical structures. At both ruins and existing homesteads he recovers, preserves, and researches the artifacts that settlers lost long ago.
Lost homesteads and structures are all around us and virtually every section of woodland I investigate has at least one hidden amongst the trees. I'm continually amazed by just how many there are waiting to be found and the history that they represent.
If you would like to read more, I have many previous articles in my archive! Click the below link to browse through them: