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Silver Madonna Sends Detectors on Decadeslong Search

  • Seven-year-old Reese Tetreault holds a handful of valuables that he and his father, Josh, have uncovered in the ground using their metal detectors. His father believes that finding treasures means thinking about what people may have been doing at that exact place at some point in history. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Josh Tetreault and his son, Reese, uncover an old coin in the sand at Sunapee State Beach on Sunday, October 2, 2016. Tetreault is using the beach to help teach his son to use a metal detector. Soon he will start taking him out to search for valuables in fields and near old foundations.(Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Reese Tetreault, of Newport, N.H., digs down to uncover an old coin buried in the sand at Sunapee State Beach in Sunapee, N.H. on Sunday, October 2, 2016. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Josh Tetreault, of Newport, N.H., looks for readings on his metal detector as he searches Sunapee State Beach with his son on Sunday, October 2, 2016. "They say there's more treasure buried in the ground than there is money circulating in the world," he said. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Josh Tetreault, of Newport, N.H., roams the Sunapee State Beach in search of valuables with his 7-year-old son Reese. In the summer months, the two visit the beach to search with their metal detectors every other week. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, October 08, 2016

Every metal detector owner in the Northeast has heard about the Silver Madonna, a lost artifact some think could be buried in the Upper Valley, says George Streeter.

Streeter is 75, the kind of guy whose proud Yankee accent comes on strong when he refers to himself as an old fart, and who still remembers with perfect clarity each heart-pounding moment that a metal detector’s digital readout told him he might be just inches from a sizable piece of gold or silver. 

He also remembers the time when he thought he might be getting close to the Silver Madonna himself. It was around 1980, when a man came into his shop, Streeters Treasure Hunting Supply in Marlborough, N.H., and said he had a good idea of the treasure’s location. 

“This fella did a lot of research,” said Streeter during a recent phone interview.

The man said he had narrowed it down to a single piece of land, but that it was too large a property for a person to search alone. It would take years. And so he asked Streeter to spread the word to fellow treasure hunters — “detectorists,” as they call themselves — in the hopes that, as a group, they could unearth the buried treasure.

Before long, he had a small army of 50 hunters ready to gather up their detectors, spades and screwdrivers, hop into their cars and drive north to whatever location the man named. But the exciting lead — and the man himself — evaporated into thin air.

“He never came back again,” Streeter said.

And because the man had never shared the location that he intended to lead them to, the great treasure hunt never happened, leaving Streeter to wonder whether the man had been playing a prank — or if, perhaps, he had found the artifact by himself after all.

A historical account of the Silver Madonna describes it as a 10-pound piece of silver in the shape of a rosette-crowned Virgin Mary, with an infant Jesus on her knees holding up a tiny globe. It’s cash value is about $15,000.

“More money than what it’s worth has been spent looking for it,” Streeter said.

It’s part of a larger plundered trove that may also have included a pair of golden candlesticks, an enormous ruby ring, a golden calf, silver-plated copper chandeliers, a gold case, gold coins and 1,700 guineas, depending on which account one believes.

The treasure, stolen from a Jesuit mission in an Abenaki village in Quebec, was carried by British soldiers in bits and pieces along various paths to the Fort at No. 4 in what is today Charlestown, N.H.

“One theory is that it is buried somewhere on the banks of Lake Memphremagog,” wrote a member of an online treasure-seeking forum. “Another theory is that the Madonna was buried ... in a cave somewhere near the junction of the Israel and Connecticut rivers.”

Others have hunted the north slope of Mount Washington; the confluence of the Connecticut and Ammonoosuc rivers in Woodsville; beneath the Moore Reservoir in Waterford; Littleton; Granby; and various Canadian locations. Some reports say a pair of gold candlesticks was found in a farmer’s field in Newport Vt., in 1816.

Because the possibilities are so varied, detectorists looking to get the most buck for their bang are far better off scavenging the shallow waters of sandy resorts, where wealthy beachgoers regularly lose tens of thousands of dollars in gold and silver jewelry and watches.

There’s also the chance that it’s been found and melted down or stashed away in a private collection. Some detectorists, Streeter said, would keep such a discovery from the world, lest it be caught up in a legal battle.

“We all know if you find it, you don’t always tell anybody,” he said. “If you find something that can be returned, you should return it. If it can’t, and it’s worth a whole lot of money, you might be better off being quiet about it.”

Rogers Rangers

The 1759 military campaign that gave rise to the legend of the Silver Madonna is well-documented. In an effort to strike back against French and Native American raids on British settlements in the Upper Valley and beyond, Robert Rogers led his force on a lengthy overland trek from Albany, N.Y., to what is today Odanak near the banks of the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec.

“We came in sight of the Indian town of St. Francis, which we discovered by climbing a tree at three miles distance,” Robert Rogers wrote to his superiors. “Here my party, consisting of 142, officers included, were ordered to refresh themselves.”

That evening, Rogers and a few men scouted their target, which included a Jesuit church, and watched “Indians engaged in a high frolic, and saw them execute several dances with the greatest spirit.”

In the predawn hours Rogers and his force attacked, killing everyone they found and burning most of the village to the ground. They plundered the church, and made for the Upper Valley, planning to ride the Connecticut River down to the Fort at No. 4.

The raid went much more smoothly than the return. With food scarce and a superior military force of French soldiers in hot pursuit, the Rangers split into smaller parties of 10 to 20 men that could more easily hunt and forage while traveling.

Some men were caught by the French, while others reportedly turned to cannibalism to stay alive.

“One of the Rangers, instead of more important plunder, placed in his knapsack a large lump of tallow, which enabled him to fare comfortably on his return, while many of his comrades who had secured more valuable articles perished with hunger,” wrote Rogers.

He made it to the upper reaches of the Connecticut, built a raft and floated with three or four men down the river, eventually making it to the fort and sending a force back to help the rest of his party.

As other St. Francis raiders straggled into the fort, it soon became apparent that much more treasure had been lost than captured. Contemporary records from officials of the plundered church, and from the British raiders mention the Silver Madonna and several other valuables, much of which have never come to light.

A Hunt for History

In the chill of a late September morning, Josh Tetreault paced the otherwise deserted Hasevlat Park near the Newport, N.H., airport, sweeping a metal detector over the grass while listening through his headphones to the sort of beeps and boops one might expect to hear in an original 1970s Atari videogame.

Tetreault has spent thousands of hours trying to separate the silver coins from garbage like “canslaw,” the unwelcome result of a meeting between a beer can and a lawnmower.

The machine, a $2,500 CTX 3030 Minelab he bought from Streeter, feeds him tones and a digital readout that helps him to guess the size, depth and metal type of what is buried just out of sight.

At one point, he froze, waving the detector back and forth over the same bit of ground. Using a specialized digging trowel with a serrated edge, he cut out a plug of grass, then used a handheld unit to pinpoint the piece of metal — a 1963 silver quarter, which he pocketed before returning the plug, tamping it down until it was almost invisible. From tone to tamping, the whole operation took about three minutes.

The trowels are designed to last a while, but Tetreault said that, at the peak of his detector-fever, he wore through three of them in two years, putting in as many as 35 hours a week after coming home from his full-time job as a machinist.

The effort has paid off. Tetreault has plenty of finds that he’s proud of — an 11-stone diamond ring, a wedding band that a stranger asked him to look for on a beach, a 28-inch gold chain with a cross that he sold for about $450, antique buttons, a token from the Cold Water Army (the country’s first temperance movement of the 1820s), and rings of gold and silver.

Then there are the coins.

“They say there’s more money buried in the ground at this point in history than there is in the surface,” he said.

His prize find is a King George copper from 1743, but he also treasures wafer-thin half-dimes from the 1800s, a half-cent just slightly smaller than a quarter, and Roosevelt dimes that he allowed to build up before selling a roll of them for about $125.

But Tetreault said he isn’t doing it for the money. It’s the history.

“I’d rather hunt fields, old homesteads and out in the woods, like cellar holes,” he said. “I want to find something that had something to do with somebody’s life.”

He likes the mental challenge of finding an old homestead, and trying to visualize what it must have looked like when it was inhabited, making educated guesses about where, exactly, settlers might have dropped coins or set down their farming implements hundreds of years ago.

He’s heard of the Silver Madonna and thinks it’s up north, in the White Mountains. He doesn’t like the idea of taking his detector up that way.

“God no,” he said. “The bears are too big in those woods.”

Archaeology

Tetreault and other serious detectorists pride themselves on upholding a code of ethics.

“I don’t do cemeteries. I think it’s disrespectful to the families,” Tetreault said. “If you find, say you find a ring or a coin. Somebody could have left that for their loved one.”

If they find something that can be reunited with its owner, like a class ring, they make every effort to return it, and they follow state and federal laws, which typically restrict detectoring on state and federal land.

Many detectorists focus on places where private landowners have given them permission, said Ken Burke, a Claremont resident and a member of the Upper Valley Diggers.

Three weeks ago, he said, he and a couple of friends were at the Cornish homestead of a Captain Ripley, a veteran of the War of 1812 who died in 1842 at the age of 72.

“I found a complete Colonial shoe buckle,” Burke said.

One of the others made an even more exciting find — a silver spoon handle.

“It had a hand-carved monogrammed R on it. I said, ‘You just found a spoon that was probably used by his family,’ ” he said.

Though they have a shared love of history, the cheerfully inclusive and blue-collar culture of the detectorists doesn’t always mix well with the academic world of archaeology, which oversees a site dig with a much more rigorous regard for historical preservation.

“I’ve never had an experience with an archaeologist, but my readings say they consider us nuisance makers and trouble makers,” Burke said. “We don’t sit there with a little toothbrush cleaning away the ground.”

Vermont State Archaeologist Jess Robinson said legions of detectorists working through the state’s homesteads can be a threat to historic preservation.

“Some of them do very good, conscientious work, but some people become a little bit overzealous and ignore the overall archaeological site in favor of just pulling metal out of the ground,” Robinson said.

Robinson said the culture gap between the two groups has shrunk over the years, as more metal detectorists with a care for history take up the hobby, and more archaeologists make efforts to build bridges with local history buffs.

“I do not want to be part of that, in previous generations, of archaeologists in the ’50s and ’60s, it was this sort of ivory tower mentality, that if you’re not one of us and an expert at interpreting the past, you should just leave it to us,” he said.

Robinson said his first advice to detectorists is to report, rather than pocket, their finds, so the sites can be surveyed and documented by academics. It’s like the difference between a hunter and a wildlife photographer.

But because few detectorists are willing to leave behind a found item, his second position is asking them to document their finds with photographs and GPS coordinates that will help future researchers put together a more complete picture of what life was like for Vermont’s early settlers.

Robinson said the state is racing to document such sites, as with an ongoing effort to survey homesteads in the Green Mountain National Forest.

He urged metal detectorists to reach out to him personally, so that he could help them to enter information about their finds into the state records. Otherwise, he said, in most cases, as buttons and coins are eventually transferred from the finder to their heirs or willing buyers, any sense of where they came from is eventually forgotten.

“Then it’s really lost to history,” said Robinson.

Artifact Found

Though the Silver Madonna may never materialize as anything more than a fever dream for detectorists, another archaeologist, Vermont Agency of Transportation worker Brennan Gauthier, has recently made an exciting find related to the Rogers Rangers raid on St. Francis.

Gauthier reviewed a series of historical documents and keyed in on another artifact that was stolen from the Jesuit mission — a chainmail armored shirt dating back to the 1200s. Gauthier said the chainmail was likely a family heirloom that made its way to the mission from Europe before being stolen by the Rangers.

While working on a transportation project in Irasburg, Vt., Gauthier read a town history that said a chainmail shirt was found by a farmer in the hollow of a rotted birch tree around 1828.

“It was rusted, but when they unfurled it, you could still put it on,” he said.

Gauthier was the first person to link that item to the Rogers Rangers.

He tracked the chainmail shirt through six different owners, including a topographic engineer, a prospector and a museum owner whose collection, including the chainmail shirt, was purchased by the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Eventually, the trail went cold.

Until, during a casual conversation earlier this year, Gauthier mentioned the chainmail shirt to Robinson, who recalled that a listing of Vermont artifacts in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City included an item that sounded like it might be the same thing.

“The only thing I saw there was labeled as an iron shirt from Vermont,” said Robinson.

Gauthier has spoken to museum staff, who said documents that accompany the chainmail shirt link it back to Irasburg.

Whether the Silver Madonna will be found by a detectorist, or an archaeologist, or no one at all, remains to be seen.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.