Colonial Period Finds by James Bailey
My second year of detecting with my XP Deus was in 2014, which I now look back on as the big year for historical button recoveries. I focus my searching on colonial-period sites in southern New England. My first year of detecting with my XP Deus was wonderfully productive, and I was hopeful of continued success in 2014. Hope can be a powerful driving force, but hope alone is not enough. Guideby thorough research and striving with persistence, I recovered several noteworthy finds in 2014, including two historical buttons. Up to this time, I had recovered my full share of exciting finds from the Colonial Period, but I had never found any button that deeply stirred my passion for discovering lost history. After the recovery of two late 18th century buttons at two different sites two months apart, I had a whole different experience in finding mere buttons!
The first button was recovered in a wide-open expanse of grass where a colonial-period house once stood. The lay of the land offered no indication as to what might be found beneath the surface; you needed to pay your dues in research to have any assurances of finding something worthwhile. I certainly needed those assurances because the finds I recovered on my first day were all deeply buried and thus scarce in quantity. I was rewarded with one outstanding find (perhaps a story for another time), and the payout for my efforts along with my knowledge of the site’s history prompted me to make a return visit. My second hunt also yielded only a few old flat buttons, yet the quality of what I recovered easily trumped the low yield of finds. At this site, it was all about quality – not quantity. Upon the recovery of one of the buttons, I noticed an apparent design. I lightly cleaned it with a soft bristle tooth brush, which I carry with me while hunting. A light brushing revealed a cluster of stars decorating the face of the button. With a bit of optimism, I carefully counted a total of 13 stars. Thinking of the 13 original colonies, I thought that perhaps this button was something special. I held off on any further examination of the button while at the site.
Upon returning home, I checked for the button’s identity in the standard reference on the subject matter, Record of American Uniform and Historical Buttons, by Alphaeus Albert. I found no matches in Albert’s comprehensive guide, but later that night I took a second look at the button before placing it in a container of mineral oil for preservation purposes. After further brushing, I noticed an odd, uneven rim around the button, and then I saw it! A rattlesnake in the shape of a circle bordered the button’s edge with a clutch of 13 eggs. I went back to Albert’s book and found the exact design in the section on early patriotic buttons. The design was popular in the late 18th century and was likely produced in France for sale to proud Americans of the fledging United States of America. The earliest known use of a snake symbol to represent the American colonies dates back to the first appearance of a political cartoon in the colonies. Credited to Benjamin Franklin, the snake symbolized unity for the colonies at the start of the French and Indian War in 1754. The image of a snake, particularly a rattlesnake, would be used again years later during the Revolutionary War, as various militia units and the Continental Navy adopted the symbol for their flags. Snake and stars buttons are now coveted finds for any detectorist looking to recover some real history. Several varieties of these buttons exist, and all are highly prized by collectors.
In the category of buttons, my new recovery of snake and stars specimen was my best such find to date, but it would be a short-lived distinction. I knew of one other possibility – a grand Americana button recovery that I had been hoping to recover for years without success, yet I would soon have my XP Deus within striking distance of this impressive historical find as well.
Two months later, I was on my third search of a cellar hole that dated back to the late 17th century. I had been hammering this site over the past week, as the entire site had been recently leveled with a bulldozer. I was determined to take full advantage of the exciting after-effect. The heavy excavating resulted in ideal site conditions, as I recovered 10 early coppers – King George halfpence coins, early state-issued coppers, and early U.S. large cents on my first two trips to the site, along with an assortment of early buttons, buckle fragments, and other promising finds.
My third visit got off to a slow start with the recovery of a single flat button and little else. I continued my search undeterred and soon recovered a worn silver Spanish half real coin about two hours into the hunt. It’s my standard practice to follow up with a few circular sweeps around a noteworthy recovery, and on my first turn, I came upon a strong, solid, high-tone target. A few shovel scoops of dirt failed to produce the target, but upon stirring up the soil by hand, a huge copper coin came into view, or so it seemed. I was puzzled by the large size of the coin but only briefly. A coin’s planchets would have been thicker and heavier. What I had was much lighter. It was a huge flat coat button measuring 34 mm is size (a golf ball in comparison measures in a bit larger at 42 mm). An exciting thought flashed through my mind as I considered a possibility. I closely examined the face of the button and noticed a design, a realization of my highest hopes for a find of a lifetime. At the center of the button, the initials GW were clearly visible, and in smaller type, the motto – LONG LIVE THE PRESIDENT – was faintly visible behind a centuries-old encrustation of dirt and patina. I had just recovered a long-awaited dream find, a George Washington Inaugural (GWI) button from 1789. Corrosion to the button was likely minimal, as the design appeared to be sharp and clear. I checked the backside of the button and found the shank intact and well-shaped as the day it was made. I continued my search of the property, recovering one more copper and nothing else of note.
The button was soaked in mineral oil and periodically cleaned with a soft-bristle toothbrush for several days to remove the build-up of bonded dirt and slight corrosion. My careful, patient cleaning helped reclaim a stunning piece of early American history. For a dug button well over two centuries old, it had plenty of eye appeal – an even patina, little wear, minimal corrosion, and even traces of gold gilt.
My 1789 GWI button, a GW-11 Variety as detailed in Record of American Uniform and Historical Buttons, is from the first inauguration of President George Washington. GWI buttons from the first and second inauguration amount to at least 20 known varieties. These buttons were likely made available to Washington’s supporters and dignitaries for the inauguration, but most were purchased from vendors by an adoring public eager to have a memento of the historic event. While my snake and stars button in dug condition is valued at several hundred dollars, my GWI button is considerably more valuable.
There is great demand for these buttons among collectors of early Americana, political memorabilia, buttons, and coins. The variety of button that I recovered is quite popular with collectors, and individual buttons of this variety in similar condition have sold in the past for $2000 – $3000. There appears to be a growing demand for these buttons, as another GW-11 Variety button in less than perfect condition recently sold at auction for the substantial and surprising sum of $6000.
The recovery of the snake and stars button and the George Washington Inaugural button from two different sites in a two month time span was fantastic. Certainly, the excitement of these discoveries do fade over time, but what thrilling finds are yet to come? Equipped with my XP Deus, supported by research, and driven by a bit or perseverance, I hope to be only a few swings away from another big discovery.