by H.Charles Beil
Using historical maps, aerial photographs, field examinations, title searches, and archived and published documents, treasure hunters and historians trace the background of important sites. These include public and private lands, stagecoach trails, roadways, Indian reservations, water sources, and historic travel corridors.
Online databases have become one of the keys to retrieving information provided by others, who maintain personal databases to organize the information they have collected during their research.
One evening quite late, one of my team from the American Ghost Town Hunters called on the phone to inform me that he had found an undocumented ghost town. The excitement was evident in his voice as he exclaimed “and I did it using those old maps from that website you told me about on the internet”; Thanks. Which old maps website? Now, I was curious. I use a lot of historical map websites in my background research before I actually enter the field to try to locate a town, historic site or treasure cache. I wanted to know which ones. What kind of maps did you use? I queried. He explained how he’d used the digital Sanborn and Beers map database on a Public Library’s website to identify a location in the mountains in Northern Pennsylvania where a village once existed.
The village was now on State land, remote, and probably had never been hunted by a metal detectorist. He printed out a copy of the Beers map from the late 1800s and measured the distance from the village to a stream. Then he measured the distance from the village boundary to the edge of a road; triangulating the village coordinates. Using this information, I organized a trip into the mountains in search of the site. Within a few hours of hiking; success! There among the trees were the foundations of homes that may not have been seen for 150 years. I went on to supervise the documentation, photography and artifact recovery at this site later that year. The finds were significant enough to make it into a magazine.
Any of us interested in heritage conservation, historic preservation or treasure hunting need to be aware of the myriad ways the internet can be used to collect information on the sites that we are seeking. Every day, thousands of historical documents, maps, files, and photographs are uploaded to the internet. These references are making it easier to conduct background research and learn more about our project areas. The problem is, we often want to hit the field before we have fully explored our resources. Putting boots on the ground before conducting thorough research is the bane of all amateur treasure hunters. This generally leads to a wild goose chase for a site that is just no longer there; maybe it was strip mined or to getting caught up in a treasure hoax for something that was never there to begin with.
The difficulty of this process is that these internet sources are often times victims of their own success. As digital information proliferates, a huge pile of data is created that is even more difficult to sift through. In order to make our online historical research more successful, we’ve got to prioritize and establish a process for ourselves; picking the most fruitful yields first and, later, following up with the less necessary sources as time permits. However, it must be noted that nothing that I have found online replaces the quality of the information that is archived in the local historical societies and libraries. It is best to join a large library such as the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, University libraries and local historical societies in your area of interest. What online resources can do is to provide quick access to information and expedite the discovery of new places to hunt. This archive is always open for those nights when you just cannot sleep. Here are eight resources I use for efficient online historical research.
Sometimes you will need a valid library card and a reciprocal agreement between your local library and these online libraries.
These eight resources are by no means the only historical data sources available on the internet. Whenever I’m the one doing this research, I start with Google Earth (with the township and range plugin), go to the BLM-GLO records, and then move on to Google Books. I also check out the digital Sanborns, Beers and Railroad Maps. If I have a whole day for online archival work, I’ll also check out the county assessor’s records and see what the local library has in special collections. Maybe there’ll be something worth going down to the library to look at. If you’re willing to spend money, there are even more resources and a bunch of apps. You can also pay someone else to do the research if the site that you are looking for appears to be really worthwhile.
The internet brings a wealth of information to our finger tips. All we have to do is point, click and grab it. I would really love to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, please post them below or send me an email; and do me a favor, if this article was helpful please share it on facebook or twitter that way I’ll be able to keep bringing you useful information to make more and better metal detecting finds.
The Treasureman Site is about the fabulous hidden treasures of H.Charles Beil.