They often find interesting things, and sometimes uncover an object of historical value.
Recently, artifact hunter Axel Macon and two of his friends fired up their metal detectors at a site near Spring Street in Charleston and aimed their electromagnetic bursts at a promising area in the backyard of the property.
After a while the two friends called it quits, but Macon was persistent. He had a hunch something was there — something interesting, something valuable.
As soon as he was alone, his Minelab Equinox 800 metal detector beeped confidently. With his hands, he dug down 2 or 3 inches and pulled out a badge shaped like a shield and made of coin silver. On its face was inscribed:
This was significant. The Niagara Fire Company was a brigade of black volunteers, one of many active in the city at the time of the Civil War. The year 1861 is notable not only because the war got underway that April, but because the Great Fire had demolished an enormous swath of the city that December.
The black fire brigades, increasingly important over the course of the war, joined the effort to battle the spreading flames.
The initials W.P.P. refer to William P. Perry, a free black man and member of the Niagara brigade. Various documents, including a list of “free negroes” — members of Engine No. 8, news reports and a death certificate, verify this.
Perry died at 169 Spring St. on Sept. 26, 1892, at 47 years of age. He would have been 31 at the time of the Great Fire.
Though the contributions of African Americans, enslaved and free, to the city’s firefighting efforts have been known for a long time, the freeman’s fire badge Macon uncovered likely is the first item of its kind ever found.
‘These guys were proud’
Grant Mishoe, a historian affiliated with the Gullah Society, said firefighters in Charleston during the mid- and late-19th century generally were divided into two categories: volunteer white companies that had city oversight and perhaps 100 men, and volunteer black companies, or ward engines, with 20-30 on the roster, which provided backup to the white groups.
The engines they used had to be pulled through the streets manually and pumped by hand. Crews often were large to allow for crew rotations, because one man could manage the pumping of water only for five or 10 minutes, Mishoe said.
As the Civil War ramped up, many whites joined the Confederate Army, leaving the black-operated ward engine companies to do most of the city’s firefighting, Mishoe said.
After dark on Dec. 11, 1861, flames appeared at the Russell and Co. Sash and Blind Factory, located on Hasell Street by East Bay Street. A strong northeast wind enlarged them and pushed them deep into the old city. The firefighters dashed to the scene, hauling their equipment, taking turns at the pump.
The fire carved a wide gash through the city as it raced south and west, but it could have been even worse, Mishoe said. “If it wasn’t for the ward engines, a lot more of the city would have been burned down.”
It would take decades to rebuild.
After the war’s end in 1865, and the full emancipation of African Americans, the ward engines became independent black-run organizations, Mishoe said. They included the Ashley, Niagara, Prudence, Union Star, United and other fire companies. In 1869, the city incorporated them.
“These guys were proud,” Mishoe said. They wore their badges with dignity. And Perry’s Niagara Fire Co. badge is an especially important find. “I’d love for this thing to stay in Charleston. ... It’s a significant part of the history.”
Macon said he arranged to split proceeds from the sale of anything found on the Spring Street site with the property owner, but that he, too, hopes it will end up in a local archive or display.
The likelihood of uncovering objects of significance in Charleston is high. He has found all kinds of artifacts, from slave tags and medicine bottles dating to the late 19th century to old graves, he said.
A member of the Lowcountry Metal Detecting Club, Macon and his colleagues have assisted the Gullah Society by helping to identify burial grounds and other historic sites, and by providing metal-detecting equipment.
He generally doesn’t profit from what he finds, Macon said.
“It’s all about the fun, and being outdoors, and saving history.”