The Home of Peter J. Harder
This old homestead is one of those rare sites that never seems to be finished. For years now I've returned to it like clockwork, always thinking that I've finally tapped it out. However just when I think that I've searched every thicket and around each log, I'll go back and find something amazing right under my nose. It helps that the site sprawls across several acres and in addition to the house foundation there are the ruins of numerous outbuildings scattered around. It was clearly a stately home and it sat right above the most direct road between a local hamlet and the nearest railroad center. It must have seen constant traffic until the late 1800s when the road was gradually bypassed by other routes. Today it's still a popular equestrian trail used by many, and well-constructed rock walls borders each side.
The catalyst for this post was a recent return trip where I uncovered an extremely rare George Washington Inaugural button. The fact that this is now the third from this site is only part of what makes this such and amazing spot!
Initially the site produced much of the usual relics associated with an early to mid 19th century site. Most of the buttons seen in the above photo were recovered in that first year as well as numerous iron relics and a surprising number of large copper pennies dating between 1810 and 1843. With the exception of the two Chippendale style furniture escutcheons in the center of the above picture (and the odd tombac button) there was little to suggest 18th century occupation.
In fact, all of those Georgian style buckles at the top of the case are from the last year of searching. Part of why this site has been such a slow-burn is the fact that it has taken me years just to reach the foundation itself!
During the Spring and Summer months the foundation itself is buried. The main issue is that the house sits on a shallow rock shelf of slate and they planted an orchard all around it back in the 19th century. The progeny of that orchard exists to this day, but as soon as the apple and cherry trees reach a certain height, they inevitably topple due to their shallow root structures. Since fruit wood is seemingly invulnerable to any kind of decay, decades of ridiculously tough trees are then bound together with bittersweet vines and brambles creating the worst thickets I've ever had the pleasure of hacking through!
Every now and then I'll get ambitious and clear another small section, but just a few dozen square yards is pretty much a day's worth of work. What keeps me going is that I uncover something amazing almost every time I do so. The first great discovery made in this fashion was about 50 feet away from the foundation. After clearing some ground, I found nearly a dozen intact brass kerosene lamp assemblies right under the leaf litter. There were also glass bottle fragments and a number of shells right at the surface too which strongly suggested that I had found a trash pit.
This was significant because the fragments on the surface would be the most recent and those appeared to be 1860s to 1880s. The vast majority of bottle dumps and trash pits I come across are 20th century, or at least capped with 20th century waste, but this pit could conceivably be entirely 19th century and perhaps older as I got towards the bottom.
Trash pits are too dense with metal to detect through, but if the ground is dry enough sifting can be relatively easy. As a bonus your finds are also not exclusive to conductive materials. I built a sifting table, enlisted the help of a few like minded individuals, and we proceeded to sift through several yards of dirt one bucket at a time!
The table has two different gauges of mesh, the first being 1/2" to catch the larger relics, rocks, and roots. The second is 1/4" which catches all but the smallest shards of glass and pottery while letting through all of the loam.
Virtually every bucket was loaded with hundreds of glass and porcelain fragments and we must have set aside 20lbs of quahog shells. I've partially reconstructed a few pieces, but there are literally thousands of glass fragments and apart from the sections with lettering or unusual patterns, there's not much to differentiate one glass bottle from another.
Still, it's hard to describe how exciting it is pouring out each bucket of dirt and slowly seeing the finds emerge from the soil. Spotting a button between pieces of shell, or an iron buckle surrounded by rock feels like an accomplishment every time. And from a historical perspective, the sifting paints a much more complete picture of those that lived there through a staggering array of artifacts.
The above relics were all found during the sifting process and would have been unlikely to turn up had I just detected through there. The aquamarine bottle at the top middle is an "igloo" inkwell bottle. These were very popular after the Civil War, likely because the unique shape made spilling the expensive ink inside more difficult.. The piece to the right of that is an adorable china bowl with turtle in the center. We looked for more fragments in vain, hoping to reassemble it, but just this piece is charming. Below that are fragments of a glass thermometer which would have originally been wired to a plate marking the degrees Surprisingly a delicate little glass pill bottle survived in the ground intact while hundreds of other larger glass bottles shattered when they were dumped or chucked into the pit.
The most incredible find made during the sifting project was the above delegate badge. The badge is gold-plated pewter and the acronym, FANYS, stands for Firemen's Association of the State of New York. The occupant of this house during the 1880s must have been a local fireman who was selected to be the delegate to the 1888 annual convention in Cortland New York. This was only the 15th convention in the organization's history, but these conventions continue to this day.
Sifting the trash pit produced more artifacts than could be described in a dozen posts and I've only just scratched the surface with these few photos. The most important conclusion from the sifting though is that the vast majority of the relics produced were from between 1860 and 1880. I had expected to find stratification of apparent ages, but instead the dates were fairly homogeneous throughout and the pit only extended about a foot into the soil. Based on that, I think that this pit was created over a relatively short time period and potentially as the result of a single clean-out at the end of the 1880s. I know for certain that the house was occupied from at least 1800 so it's very possible that an older trash pit remains to be found.
Back to more traditional detecting methods, I've slowly worked my way around the foundation into what was once their front yard. This is coincidentally also where the brush is the thickest and naturally where most of the coins have turned up.
On one of these expeditions I uncovered a large, clear signal and pulled a copper coin up from not even an inch below the surface. It wasn't a US large cent like the others and at first glance it appeared to be a King George III copper, but even under the caked-on dirt it appeared strange and a little too bulky. It's risky to try cleaning off copper in the field so I put it aside and It wasn't until later that evening, when I carefully cleaned it off, did I realize how incredible a find it was.
I will admit that at first glance I thought it was a cool find, but hardly earth shattering. After all, I find Spanish, Irish, French, and British coins with regularity so a British coin from Bermuda must just be another of those odd colonial coins that circulated in the 18th century. I was, of course, mistaken. After some light and then quickly in-depth research I discovered a tangled and dramatic history...
First conceived to celebrate the chartering of the new capital city of Hamilton, the government of Bermuda contracted the Soho mint in Birmingham England, run by Matthew Boulton, to design and mint the coins. Initially he refused as they did not have explicit permission to use the likeness of King George III, but after more than a year of lobbying they eventually received permission from the King to strike not less than £200 sterling of the coins.
This was to be a single run, with only the date of 1793 produced. There’s no specific record of the number minted, but from correspondence between John Brickwood, the Agent for the Government of Bermuda, and Boulton it can be inferred that between 72,000 and 83,000 were minted which was a small mint run even by the standards of the day.
To add to the scarcity, it seems that a large portion of the coins were seized in route to Bermuda by privateers and instead carried to France. The official report of the seizure states that $600 worth were still received in Bermuda which at the contemporary exchange rate would have been around 48,000 coins. This was deemed sufficient so no new coins were ordered and the existing coins started to enter circulation.
Unfortunately it seems the coins were heavier in copper than their face value which made them attractive for export. Large numbers were shipped to the West Indies and presumably melted down for the copper content. By 1823 the treasurer of Bermuda reported that no coppers remained on the island.
In recent years only two others of these coins have been unearthed by detectorists. One in Nova Scotia, and the other in Southwest Pennsylvania. Eastern New York is a far cry from Bermuda, but it seems likely that it landed at Hudson, NY which at the time was an active port city. I can only speculate as to how it ended up in the ground outside this house, but shipment from England, an almost loss to piracy, dispersal in Bermuda, and somehow reaching New York all in the 18th century is quite the story in of itself!
After the delegate badge and the Bermuda Penny it would be easy to assume that the best finds from the site have already been recovered, but incredibly there seem to be surprises buried everywhere. Between the well and the foundation I came upon a shallow tone that sounded closer to a shotgun headstamp than anything desirable. It was quite shallow which caused me to misjudge the depth of the target and I'm fortunate that I didn't hit it with the shovel. Had I done that I'm not sure I could have forgiven myself because that target was a virtually flawless George Washington Inaugural button!
At the time this was only my second GWI button recovered and there were some terrifying moments during the cleaning process because that attractive green patina often flakes off once it dries. The resulting surface isn't nearly as detailed, so I was hoping that I could stabilize it and to my relief it proved solid enough to be sealed with renaissance wax and the resulting button shows almost as much detail as the day it was made.
George Washington Inaugural buttons are among the earliest and perhaps the most sought after political buttons from American history. There are nearly two dozen known varieties of all different designs and materials. A few were advertised in contemporary newspapers and it seems that they were produced by local artisans starting in early 1789 to be sold as part of the inaugural celebrations. Crowds gathered in the towns to greet George Washington as he traveled from Virginia to New York City and it seems likely that some were sold at these events, but not exclusively since many are found in areas far removed from his journey. It's also probable that they were still available for some time after the inauguration had taken place.
Despite their apparent popularity, these were not a commonly purchased item. They were quite expensive in their day and may have been equal to 6 weeks or more of an average farmer’s wages. This was a highly fashionable status piece and they were sold in sets of 4 to be worn on the person’s coat. The set came with felt loops so they could be attached for an occasion and then removed for storage afterwards much like jewelry.
This specific button is known as the Heraldic Eagle with Estoile variety. It was likely modeled after the Great Seal of the United States which was introduced only a few years prior in 1782. The edge punches were made by hand and different varieties have between 37 and 72 per button. This particular style seems to have been favored by American veterans of the Revolutionary War and some early United States militia members took to wearing these on their uniforms.
As these buttons were sold in sets of 4, it was possible that more than just this one was lost by Peter Harder and sure enough I stumbled on a second almost 6 months later. The third turned up not two weeks ago!
I can't overstate how rare finding even one of these buttons is. The loss of just one would have been devastating to the owner and I'm sure they would have taken pains to prevent the loss of another. Which makes the fact that I've reunited three of the buttons after over 200 years apart even more incredible. You can be sure that I will be diligently looking for the fourth even though the odds are very much stacked against me.
Probably the most amazing thing about this site is how little I know for sure about the occupant. Many of the finds would seem to blur the normal boundaries for date inferences. After all these years I've turned up dozens of 18th century relics, but I doubt that the site is older than 1790 and potentially it could have been built around 1800. This is due to the fact that the majority of the 18th century relics have turned up in trash areas and not as an organic spread around the site which would instead suggest early occupation.
I know that Peter J Harder passed away in 1868 based on the local probate records, and through the county maps that the property was then owned by a John Daley. It's likely that John Daley was the fireman and thus the delegate in 1888, but I've been able to find nothing of his story prior to the 1873 map.
The array of finds, the size of the house footprint, and the number of outbuildings suggest that Peter Harder was a successful farmer, but he doesn't seem to have taken an active role in the town and didn't occupy any governance positions. It's safe to say he was a patriot, but otherwise a quiet, competent farmer throughout his life. In a way it's fascinating to see what the ordinary citizen leaves behind since so much of history is dedicated to an extraordinary few.
That's not to suggest that he was boring; quite the contrary. The finds from this site are anything but boring and it's proof that no site of any age should be overlooked. After all, incredible history can often turn up in the most unexpected of places.
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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:
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