Throughout my research and hiking, I'm always on the lookout for any trace of structures that predate the 1850's county maps. Most, if not all, of the towns I detect in have history that dates back 75 to 100 years before those maps were drawn up. If a house or mill were to be abandoned even a few years before the cartographers passed through I would have no record of it, and earlier maps are rare and often generalized to major roads and certain points of interest. As a result many sites are entirely absent from historical records which is sad because often these early sites give the most tantalizing insight into everyday life while the country was young and still forming itself.
While there's no substitute for a well-drawn map, my most successful strategy in finding these sites is simply hiking through the woods and watching for tell-tale indications that I'm near an old structure. If a homestead has been abandoned for 170+ years, erosion can eliminate much of the cellar hole leaving a gentle rounded depression instead of a distinct square pit. And if it was a log cabin there may not have even been a cellar hole to begin with! Following rock walls is a good start, and if I find a suspiciously flat area next to a stream or creek that's usually cause to pause and look closer.
There's no guarantee of finding a site like this and many days I come up empty handed, but when I do stumble on a spot it's tremendously satisfying. Just a few weeks ago I had success deep in the woods along the Massachusetts and Vermont border.
It may look like nothing, but the above picture is a foundation after 170 years have passed. It's only about 3 feet deep in the center and the rocks that used to line the cellar have all toppled in creating a rounded, but still somewhat rectangular shape. To better illustrate this, below is a digital rendering of the foundation and surrounding area.
It's been tilted slightly to give it better definition, but the hole can be distinctly seen in the center of the image along with a partial rock wall leading up to it. Just like I look for, the landscape is fairly flat and there's a seasonal stream 30 feet away. However there are occasionally natural formations that will look like this, so the real test is are there period relics buried in the ground. And that's where the detector comes in!
Within seconds of turning on the detector I was pulling relics out of the ground! The first few targets were iron, but very quickly I stumbled on an early United States one cent coin. This particular style was only made from 1796 to 1807 and are colloquially knows as "Draped Bust Cents." They were minted using nearly pure copper so the coins are often heavily corroded by ground action, but after some work I was able to determine the date was 1800 and the bust is still distinct so not a total loss. That was the only coin (so far), but in terms of preservation and quantity I did much better with the buttons!
They were spread about everywhere and I'm certain there are plenty more still in the ground! The largest ones in the center are dandy buttons and likely date from the 1770's to the early 1790's. The silvery gray ones are known as tombac buttons, which refers to the material they were made from. Tombac is a brass alloy with a high zinc content making them cheaper than brass or pure copper. The material is also softer allowing them to be worked easier and they were typically cast around the shanks. In general tombacs were made from the 1760's to the 1780's, but could have easily been worn for years afterwards.
Many of the buttons have well preserved back marks like "warranted" or "double gilt" referring to the quality of the gold plating. A few are marked "London" meaning they were British-made imports. While the quantity and variety is quite impressive, these are fairly plain buttons which suggests someone without affluence.
The above relics also seem to support this. Iron and pewter spoons were popular at the time, but these are particularly plain in their construction. There were also comparatively few associated period relics. A few musket balls and some melted lead are shown above. The piece in the center is a fragment of a stamped furniture plate c. 1720-1750 which is not uncommon to see at old sites. One relic of note was a piece of decorated horse tack:
These little brass shields are not uncommon finds at old foundations, but there is some controversy among detectorists regarding their exact purpose. The above example is particularly nice with a layer of silver wash and the engraving features the Prince of Wales's feathers. It may seem odd, but it was a very popular design in the United States even after the Revolutionary War. I've found examples of buttons and cufflinks that also feature the three ostrich feathers and crown. There were contemporary military units that used this design as part of the regimental badges and some swear that these shields come from military horse tack, but their distribution around non-military sites doesn't seem to support the idea. Instead it's likely it was just a decorative piece from a horse's harness. A few examples have survived which show them mounted alongside other decorations like below:
Above is an example of a hame plate showing multiple shield shaped decorative fixtures, however the shields may have also been mounted to other parts of the harness or perhaps even riding saddles.
While the shield is civilian, one recovered relic does have a military association, although not of an official nature.
This is an exceptionally well-preserved New York State militia button. This particular style was manufactured between 1812 and 1829 for general use. During and after the War of 1812, militia units were formed in local towns and individual members would often purchase buttons, buckles, or other accessories for their uniform. They weren't federal soldiers and so buttons like the above example weren't provided and in general the units weren't particularly well trainer or organized. It's odd that a New York button was recovered at a site in Massachusetts though and given that the site was abandoned prior to the 1830's it doesn't seem likely that the occupant brought it with them when they moved there so perhaps a visitor lost it or it was simply kept as a souvenir.
The iron relics above round out the finds. The two pieces on the left are part of a set of sheep sheers and the large piece on the right is a fragment of a cast iron cooking pot. The heart shaped relic is actually a very early padlock and next to it a well-used hammer.
While this site didn't produce many flashy finds, it's still a fascinating look at a settler's life. Based on the relics it seems likely that the site was occupied from the 1780's to about 1830. An average farmer, who cleared the land for the first time and built a homestead out of rocks pulled from the soil and wood cut from the local trees. The fact that the site was abandoned in the 1830's means that the farm wasn't very successful and the land was bought out by larger farms. This was was a well-documented occurrence in this town and much of the population relocated out of the hills and mountains during the 1830's. These larger farms focused on livestock grazing and in some cases let the woods grow back. Years later this fueled a charcoal production boom and there are known charcoal mounds near this homestead, but 30-40 years more recent.
I will continue searching these woods for more homesteads and if I'm lucky some even older sites could still be waiting. For now I'm happy to have rediscovered even one spot that is no longer lost.
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: