History comes knocking
When a stranger comes walking down your driveway during hunting season, experience suggests they’re about to request permission to hunt on your property. But this stranger wasn’t wearing Hunter Orange camouflage or toting a shotgun.
He turned out to be a hunter, but of a different variety. He identified himself as Max Cane, a local historian, and produced a strange looking map on his phone that’s able to distinguish man-made formations from natural ones. Max explained that the information is produced by low-flying aircraft with special laser instrumentation that can see through the tree canopy and detect topographical details down to a few feet in size.
Based upon his map, Max believed there might be the remnants of an 18th century home site on our property and he asked permission to investigate. I told him to go ahead and went back to wrapping our yews with deer fencing. “Good news,” he messaged me a couple of hours later. “It’s definitely the site of an old homestead! I found numerous iron pieces as well as some ceramic pieces and clothing buttons.”
Max’s expertise suggested the site was abandoned prior to 1840 and perhaps even earlier. He offered to return the next day, share his finds, and escort me to the location. “Buttons are best for dating a site,” he explained when he arrived and embarked on a brief lecture about one of them It was of British origin stamped, ever so faintly, “Imperial Standard.” That suggested the site dated to the late 1700’s or very early 1800’s. “We boycotted British goods after the War of 1812,” Max said.
He also produced a long unremarkable looking rusty nail that he described as a “rose head” and described it as 100% blacksmith made. After 1800 they were at least partially machine made, he said.
The historian entered a learned disquisition on shoe buckles, their high styles, and their value both in dating a site and gaining insights about the relative prosperity of the homestead’s long-vanished denizens. The Marquis de Lafayette was mentioned in passing. “Everyone wanted to emulate his style,” Max noted. Even though I had trouble following him – he speaks very quickly, a product of his palpable enthusiasm for his project and the amount of history at his soil-darkened fingertips – I could understand his excitement.
As a teenager I’d excavated an old dump behind our house and found beautiful oxidized medicine bottles dating to the late 1800’s. Nothing makes history come alive like digging it up, brushing it off, and clutching it in your hand. Max employs a metal detector but he said it still requires know-how and is largely ineffective for objects buried more than six inches underground. He offered to escort me to the site.
I like to think I’ve traveled almost every square foot of our densely forested property but I’d missed this one. Or rather it was so daunting to reach, a peninsula of land between two wetlands and covered in bushes and thorny brambles that I was never tempted to try. When Max, my son-in-law Malcolm, and I finally bushwhacked our way to the location it was still almost impossible to detect any remnants of human presence, except perhaps a squarish depression that Max said denoted the footprint of a foundation.
As inauspicious as the location appeared, the historian said the most desired feature of a piece of real estate in those days was water within easy digging. It also wasn’t far off the road. Among the artifacts he’d unearthed were horseshoes, suggesting the inhabitant or inhabitants might have had some means. “Horses are expensive,” he explained. “People tended to have oxen.”
Max returned to the site the next day and found more buried treasure, including a counterfeit 1825 matron head large cent. “Large cents were copper,” he explained via email, “but this is pewter so it’s unlikely that it was intended to pass as authentic.”
More likely it was a game token, common in England at the time. He’s found several at other sites.
The question arose, at least it did to me, whether Max, who runs an electronics recycling company during the week, owed me a share of the spoils since he’d found them on my property. But I didn’t broach the subject because he explained that the accumulated knowledge gleaned from clusters of specific buttons, or shoe buckles, or tableware patterns – he even found a musket ball -- allows him more accurately to date a site and gain a better understanding of what life and living conditions were like back then. He also shares his finds with local historical societies.
Based on his reconnaissance he determined that the site on our property was probably occupied for a relatively short period from the 1790’s through the 1820’s. Since no farm tools or sign of a barn were found he doubted it had been used as a farm. “Rather he may have been a farm worker on one of the large Dutch farms in the area,” Max speculated, “or even a seasonal worker at a mill.”
For me the most interesting aspect of the adventure weren’t the artifacts but the humbling knowledge that someone once inhabited our woods and left so little trace that it took an expert consulting state-of-the-art maps to discover that fact. We’re even more ephemeral than we think.
Max is constantly on the hunt for ancient building foundations and 18th and 19th century home sites to investigate. If you suspect you have one or know of one he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a website where he shares his adventures and discoveries. It’s fieldguidetohistory.com.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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