The most valuable item treasure hunter Bill Chapman ever found was a diamond platinum ring worth in the neighborhood of $5000. It belonged to a young woman who was,of course, desperate to get it back. Chapman returned it with his compliments.
"There are those in the hobby who say 'finders keepers,'" he said. "I'm not one of them. It's a double reward for me if I can find a lost item and return it. I get a story out of it plus the joy of the hunt without expectation of reward. It just makes me feel good."
Ironically enough, it was finding his own lost ring that launched Chapman's treasure hunting career. In 1964 he was serving as a junior assistant scout master at a Boy Scout camporee in Jefferson City, Missouri. When he got home, he realized he'd lost his Eagle Scout ring, most likely in a field somewhere back at the camp grounds.
His dad had a friend in the National Guard with access to a clunky old World War 2 era mine sweeper. The following weekend, out in the field with the device, his dad asked him where he'd spent most of his time. They went to the spot, drove a stake into the ground, and began sweeping around it in widening circles.
"On the third pass we found the ring," Chapman said. "But by then we were having so much fun we kept on looking. In addition to the ring, we found coins, a pocket knife, some Boy Scout emblems and a neckerchief slide."
More important, Chapman had unearthed what was to become a lifelong passion.
"When I got out of the military in 1971, before I even bought bedroom furniture, I bought a metal detector. It was a Heathkit from a magazine ad. I had to build it myself. I'd take it to the local parks and sweep. I started finding jewelry and old silver coins, usually just enough to go to Radio Shack to buy more batteries."
Eventually he upgraded to a more sophisticated model with a "discriminator" on it that allowed the instrument to eliminate the sound of unwanted target types like nails, bottle caps, and foil.
"As a general rule," he said, "something that's been on the ground 50 years will be buried 3 to 4 inches below the surface. 100 years, 6 to 8 inches." There are exceptions, though. Chapman said he's found 150 year old coins just lying in the grass. "Whenever they re-sod the parks, that's when you'll see metal guys out there. We call this 'park hunting.' That's how most people get started."
But there's another dimension to the hobby, called 'relic hunting,' that in recent years has been consuming much of Chapman's attention. Relic hunters research areas where historic events took place and then sweep them for coins, brass buttons, insignia, weapons, spoons, bullets, pottery, glassware, horse shoes, railroad spikes, and C-ration cans from the old cavalry units. Walking the Santa Fe Trail, he once found a complete brass bed.
Chapman, who hated history class in school, said he now devours history books in search of locations where relics might be found.
"Sometimes it's a chance to rewrite history. Metal detectors changed our understanding of what happened at Little Big Horn, for example. The best relic find is one we can associate with a specific individual. I have something I think belonged to Tom Custer, George A Custer's brother."
The item in question is a love token, a seated Liberty quarter that was given to Tom by Custer's wife, Libby, with whom he was reputed to be having an affair.
"In those days, when a loved one went away," Chapman said, "a family member would scrape the back of a coin off, inscribe it with their initials and turn it into a pin. There's an 'L.C.' on the back of Tom Custer's pin. (Libby Custer?) I can't prove it was Tom Custer's, but it makes for a great story."
For more info:
Eureka Treasure Hunter's Club www.eurekathc.com
Bill Chapman's Store www.goldendetectors.com
Click on "Subscribe" at top of page for free email notification whenever a new article is published.
Coming soon: Cowboys, Yogis, and One-Legged Ski Bums, A collection of the best of Don Morreale's Examiner stories.