by Pat Middleton © All rights reserved
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Mention treasure hunting at the River Road Cafe in Stoddard, Wis., and eyes light up all around the room.
Kathy knows of a sheltered cave with many initials dating from the 1800s. Dean’s friend found a scrimshaw whale’s tooth inscribed with the word “Dakota.” Randy knows of a ring valued at $1,500 found with a metal detector.
Perhaps it is a case where “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” but for the last 2500-3000 years the Mississippi River Valley has supported intense human activity. This makes it a particularly historic area, rich in Indian relics. Additionally, relics from the French, English, Spanish and American adventurers who have explored the area since the 1600s are still being found today. Antiques from the first settlers, dating back to the 1760s, are sought by dealers from throughout the country. All of this adds up to great prospecting for the treasure-hunting hobbyists using metal detectors who are active in the area.
Roger Toner (not his real name) owns a snowmobile/cycle shop in the La Crosse area, but his real love for the last 15 years has been treasure hunting. Roger suggests that most hobbyists go “shooting” with metal detectors much as another individual goes fishing – for relaxation.
A good find is an old coin, a bit of jewelry, an iron relic or an Indian artifact. The success of a hunter will likely depend less on luck than on the amount of time spent researching his sites and how well he can use the metal detector.
The big questions for the would-be searcher might be: where to start looking? what equipment will I need? what sort of treasures can I realistically expect to find?
For Roger, the hunt usually starts while snow is covering the ground.
“I find it much easier to visualize how soldiers or hunters might have used the land when all I have to study is the smooth snow-covered earth,” he says. “I think to myself that a particular hump looks out of place or especially convenient. Or that this high flat bench might have made a good camp ground. Then I come back to search in the spring when the frost has forced new artifacts to the surface.”
Some of Roger’s best finds have come while “puddling” in the mud of a river bend. “Again, I work in the spring. The water and mud are very cold, but I’ve found perfectly preserved tomahawks, still wrapped in
leather. A green stone figure I found has been certified as a Mayan carving in jade.”
The United States Treasure Atlas by Tom Terry provides an introduction to the places treasures are most likely to be found and makes available the data from his years of treasure-hunting research. Reputed treasure sites and ghost towns are listed on a county-by-county basis for each state. A quick glance at any river valley county listings is likely to be enough to whet the appetite of the most cynical.
Old state and county maps are also available in our Shopping Cart which will indicate old roadways, railroad beds and ghost towns. Terry suggests these historic roadways as preferable to modern roads as it is far more likely that valuable coins and relics may be found. Modern parks and roadsides often contain more trash than treasures.
The library and reference librarians are also helpful in tracking down local histories and out-of-print books that might provide the serious seeker with leads. Old newspaper stories provide leads on some of the earliest caches. An article from 1909, for example, details a search of bluffs and s
horelines for a money cache dating from the 1700s thought to be buried near present-day Osceola, Wisconsin, after English adventurer William Snow was attacked by French soldiers. The cache was not
Native artifacts are abundant along the Mississippi River shores of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.Government forts were established in the early 1800s along the entire length of the Upper Mississippi River. Riverboat captains, soldiers, pioneers, adventurers and traders traveling between the forts often carried large sums of gold or silver coins for payroll or trading purposes, as well as supplies.
The Upper Mississippi River valley is rumored to be heavy with the unrecovered treasure caches of river pirates, gypsies and horse thieves. Indian hostility was rampant until the Battle of Bad Axe north of Prairie du Chien ended the Black Hawk War in 1832. Upon attack (whether from Indian, outlaw or river pirate) valuables were hidden to avoid theft. Often, the transporter was killed and there remained no one who knew just where the treasure had been buried. Victims might be left too short-handed to retrieve the valuables, or natural disasters occurred, such as flood, earth slide or memory lapse.
According to the United States Treasure Atlas, rumors persist that $80,000 was buried in 1832 “on the highest bluff across from Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in four piles of $20,000 each” during an Indian attack. The soldiers who buried the treasure were ambushed before returning. The treasure was never recovered.
Treasure hunting along the MN, IA, WI shores.
Buried money, jewelry and other treasures are likely to be found wherever people lived; banks were often far away and distrusted. An old home foundation might conceal a “private” bank in the floorboards, or savings might be stashed in a nearby fence posthole or a tin can beside the silo. Dollar bills have been sewn into and under carpets, into linen, drapery, stuffed behind wall-boards and under floorboards and in false air ducts.
The steamboat era has left many relics along the Wisconsin and Illinois shores of the Mississippi River. The great wooden boats that changed the course of commercial history along the Mississippi had a life expectancy of only five years and usually met with an untimely end in sudden fires or sinkings.
Steamboat wrecks have provided authorized divers with a steady stream of antiques, relics and personal belongings. The prized safes from many wrecks remain unrecoverable, including the War Eagle safe off the riverfront in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Coins found with metal detector.According to Roger Toner a typical treasure
hunt (say in a small cave) would involve the following steps: 1) Take photos of the site before doing any searching. Often things can be seen in the photo which are not apparent to the eye. 2) Use a metal detector to pinpoint any possible coins, jewelry, iron relics. A fork or other very small tool might be used to find the item. A whiskbroom and sifter might be used to search for other relics. If anything of interest is located, make detailed notes of where it was found, as one good find usually means more to come.
Tools other than metal detectors are inexpensive: a fork for making small holes, a sifter, a whisk broom and a probe that looks similar to a giant hatpin. Note that a shovel is not standard equipment. Too often a shovel will simply damage the fragile relic.
The cardinal rule among treasure hunters is get permission before searching on any private or public land. State parks and monuments, national parks and sites and some local parks and monuments are off limits to seekers with metal detectors, as are state-and federally-owned property under the protection of the conservation departments, the Army Corps of Engineers, wildlife refuges, etc. Written permission must be obtained from authorities before removing any relics.
Today’s treasure hunter is made from the same mold as the prospector of old. He or she is a dreamer, an optimist, full of curiosity and appreciation for things past. The thrill is in the search, the chance that the next find will be the big one. Like the gambler, he develops an “itch” to try out the next hot spot.
Roger would rather talk about his hobby than anything else. Terry has been sharing his knowledge with others for the past 10 years. Our farm was settled in 1858 – and I can’t wait for the ground to thaw!
Our brand new Upper Mississippi River travel guidebook, Discover! America’s Great River Road, Volumes 1-4 by Mississippi River author and lecturer, Pat Middleton.
“Orma Remembers Nelson, Wisconsin”
(excerpted from Volume 1 of DISCOVER! America’s Great River Road
“The bluffs were full of caves and I remember wiggling through some of them on my stomach, they were that small. I know people spoke of rattlesnakes, but I never saw one. There was a rumor of treasure buried by soldiers in the bluffs. Often, people just went up and dug around in their spare time hoping to find it. I never heard that any treasure was ever found.”
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