'Saving history': Local relic hunters find Civil War artifacts across the River Valley

Ty Thompson
Press Argus-Courier
To find buried treasures like Civil War artifacts, David Bernard still uses the first metal detector he bought when he was a teenager.

History in the River Valley covers the Civil War, the days of cowboys and outlaws, and beyond. Artifacts from these eras can be left behind and forgotten by time, but metal detectorists like to seek out items to preserve their history. 

Jonathon Hopper and David Bernard have spent many years searching the areas around Crawford and Sebastian counties with their metal detectors to uncover those relics left behind. 

Both David and Jonathon have extensive collections that span over a hundred years of history. 

Discussions:The product of a cultural war

Bernard has been metal detecting since 1986 when he was 17, following his father's interest in the hobby.  Prompting that interest in metal detection was a story about Bernard's grandfather burying mason jars filled with silver dollars in the backyard. Bernard's father searched for them, but unfortunately, those jars were never found.

Bernard still uses the first metal detector he purchased for $300 when he was a teenager, a Garret GTA 500.

"I have a few fancier ones, but when you learn one you stick with it," Bernard said. 

A large display by Jonathon Hopper shows hundreds of bullets, multiple belt buckles, buttons, and a bayonet from the Civil War.

One area Bernard has had particular success is a valley near Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, the site of a Civil War battle in 1862. 

Explore Arkansas:Fort Smith Museum of History hosting events during Steel Horse Rally

According to the park's website, this battlefield is one of the most well preserved in the country. The park covers about 900 acres of the battlefield, and while the area is off-limits to relic hunters, artifacts litter the surrounded properties.

This is where Bernard finds his treasures.

 "I found so many Civil War bullets and artillery shrapnel in one hour my pockets were so full I could barely hold my jeans up," Bernard said. 

Along with bullets, belt buckles are also some of his common finds. 

This antique belt buckle was found in Van Buren by metal detectorist David Bernard.

"A lot of it is about doing your own research," said Bernard. "I found an 1849 dime at the sight of the 1912 Arkansas and Oklahoma State Fair."

Bernard looks through historical books, the internet, and visits libraries to gather any information he can to discover the significance of his finds. 

While some detectorists spend their time looking for jewelry or modern change in public parks or on the beach, Bernard and Hopper prefer focusing on places with historical relevance. 

"I typically go after Civil War sites and older home sites on private property with the landowner's permission," Hopper said.

Hopper lives in Springdale, but Fort Smith and Van Buren are common places for him to search, a hobby also passed down by his father.. 

In a case labeled "Civil War relics 1861-1864," Hopper displays hundreds of bullets, multiple belt buckles, buttons from soldiers' jackets, and a bayonet.

A good read:Paris group wants to put new life into antique coal train

Hopper and Bernard are able to identify Civil War bullets by the material they are made from and the distinct shape and markings that were common of that era.

Civil War bullets are made of soft lead and have a round-conical shape, with small rings around the bottom of the bullet, common for musket-style guns used at the time, They are also able to measure the width and height to determine the caliber of the bullet.

This style of bullet, known as "mini balls," was used exclusively during the Civil War.

Three coins found by David Bernard date back to the mid-1800s.

Coins are also a popular find amongst detectorists.

In Van Buren, Bernard has found coins from 1913 and 1840 as well as a 1-cent piece from 1846 in downtown Fort Smith.

These pieces can be worth hundreds of dollars depending on their condition. 

"All our finds are memorable just cause we're saving history but we do have a few each that are at the top of our list," Hopper said.

Metal detecting is an easy hobby to get into, the detectorists said. All it requires is a metal detector and a shovel. The metal detectors can vary in price from $50 to $500 and beyond.

Most public places are open to being metal detected, like public parks, beaches, or your own backyard. Places like private property and state parks will require permission. Most state parks have their own sets of rules when it comes to metal detecting, so it's best to contact the park before digging.

There are also many resources online to help beginners and life-long collectors alike to discuss their finds and share information. Metal Detecting for Arkansas Diggers is a Facebook group with over 2,000 members where local detectorists can share their finds.

A small display made by Jonathon Hopper shows off some of his Civil War finds. Bullets, a buckle, a coin, and more all date back to the 1860s.