Rio History: Where to Dig

Rio History: Where to Dig

By Steve Hathcock

Photo courtesy of Steve Hathcock.

Spike Reality series American Digger, starring former pro wrestler Ric Savage and the History Channel’s Swamp People, (a group of characters who make their living salvaging old logs, wrestling alligators and treasure hunting in the wilds of Louisiana swamps) have inspired a lot of interest in metal detecting. The following are some basic tips to help the novice improve their chances of a successful hunt.

Visit your local book dealers and antique stores. Let them know you are interested in books about the area’s history. Condition is not as important as content. Let me give you an example: I happened across a tattered, old book one time that contained a map showing the location of Bagdad, Mexico. This little port was a wide open town during the Civil War. The presence of British, French and Dutch warships lying at anchor just off the mouth of the river ensured European merchants of a steady source of Southern cotton. 

Great fortunes were amassed during the war and much of it was buried in privies as the citizens fled the great hurricane of 1867. This storm not only wiped out Bagdad, but also totally destroyed the depot at Brazos Santiago. Using the antique map I walked across vast mudflats strewn with old clay pipe fragments, bricks, broken glass and pottery, cut or “dressed” foundation stones and cisterns. I gave special attention to any elevated areas in the field. By studying surface debris, I greatly enhance my chances of finding any foundations that may remain. In this way, it may be possible to someday locate the town dump which would prove to be a treasure chest of old bottles and other cast offs that could be quite valuable in today’s collectibles market.

In the case of a fort, such as many of the smaller outposts that dotted the Texas countryside during the middle of the 19th century, we are talking about a small area that was occupied by soldiers, their wives and families and any others who would have sought shelter during a time of hostilities. Within these walls the litter of daily life accumulated, leaving very noticeable signs for the observant relic hunter. This would not necessarily be the case with a battle, which may have taken place during a few hours and may, at times, have been a “running battle” such as the last battle of the Civil War that covered quite an extensive tract of land. In a case like this, you will need a certain amount of luck on your side, and more than a little patience. Again, take the time to study the lay of the land. Look for natural routes and game trails. The path of least resistance is often traveled the heaviest. 

An open field is best worked in a patchwork style. By this I mean, work one long search line across the field and then, if nothing is detected, skip a distance. Depending on the size of the area you find yourself working, you may want to skip anywhere from 25 feet to 25 yards between your parallel search lines. Continue “leap-frogging” in this fashion until you begin recovering artifacts from the battle. Now is the time to lay out your grids and get down to some serious detecting. 

One man I know tells how he digs his initial hole and then “feathers” outward, continually filling in the worked spot until he has dug around the perimeter several feet from where his original find may have lain. In this way he has located personal effects such as an old ivory comb, bone buttons, and other nonmetallic mementos fallen from a soldier’s pocket in the heat of battle.

One final note: It is very important to have permission of property owners before hunting on privately owned land. Most state and federal parks prohibit treasure hunting. If in doubt, ask the local park ranger or game warden. Good luck and remember, always fill in your hole and leave the area looking as it did before you arrived.

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