Mysterious Haitian ‘Phoenix Button’ found along Puget Sound

Jun 24, 2020, 10:28 AM
Phoenix Button...
A mysterious "Phoenix Button" found along Puget Sound by Phil Massie was likely brought to the Pacific Northwest in the 1830s by Nathanial Wyeth. (Phil Massie)
(Phil Massie)

Even in these disturbingly historic times, there are people whose hobbies involve seeking out tiny buried objects from the past.

Phil Massie does a lot of searching around here with his metal detector. He’s in his forties, and works on a tugboat. He’s found all kinds of old coins, jewelry and other bits of metal over the years that he’s been actively treasure hunting.

But until recently, he’d never found a Phoenix Button.

“And I’m swinging the metal detector on our way out, because we’re like, ‘There’s nothing here, let’s call it a day, just try another spot,’” Massie said, describing the denouement of what began as a typical outing with a group of his metal-detecting friends to a public beach along Puget Sound.

“[Then, on] my last like five feet before the dirt walking off of a beach area, I got a really good signal,” Massie said. “And I pulled it out. And I told the guys, ‘Hey, come here and take a look this, I found a button and I’ve never seen anything like this before.’”

What Massie had found buried about six inches down was made of brass, and was less than an inch in diameter.

Rubbing away the dirt clinging to the object revealed an intricate design of a bird, and what turned out to be a phrase written in French. Within a few days, Phil Massie figured out that other examples of this tiny object have been found around the West for more than a hundred years.

And he also figured out that their origins were a mystery for decades.

Massie shared a photo of the button with KIRO Radio, and a copy was forwarded to Doug Wilson. Wilson is an archaeologist with the National Park Service at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.  In his work and studies of the Pacific Northwest, he’s seen several of these “Phoenix Buttons” over the years.

“They usually have the phoenix on the front, the phoenix bird, and a motto in French, which would have been appropriate for Haiti at the time, and that motto is ‘I am reborn from my ashes,’ which is, of course, perfect for a phoenix,” said Wilson. “And then there’s always a number. And the button [in the photograph] has a number one underneath it, and that was probably the regimental number. So [that means] it would be for the First Regiment of the Haitian military of King Christophe.”

Estimates by academics and other researchers indicated that somewhere around a thousand Phoenix Buttons have turned up in the West over the past 150 years or so, especially along the Columbia River.

In earlier times, it was not uncommon — and it wasn’t yet illegal – for treasure hunters to plunder Native American graves. There are documented instances of such plundering describing Phoenix Buttons found by the dozen, with the brass sometimes still shiny, even after decades underground.

But how did buttons intended for King Christophe of Haiti get to the Pacific Northwest? And who was King Christophe of Haiti?

A handful of treasure hunters and authors in the Pacific Northwest were focused on the origins of the buttons as long as a hundred years ago, as theories swirled about possible connections to Napoleon. Books published in Portland in the 1940s and 1950s, and occasional newspaper stories, first brought their existence to the attention of the general public.

Emory Strong and, later, Roderick Sprague are credited with compiling the most information about individual finds and with clarifying theories about the origins of the button and how they came to what’s now Oregon and Washington.

Doug Wilson says the buttons are believed to have been made in London by a company called Bushby, and that they were originally meant to be used on uniforms worn by soldiers in the army of King Christophe of Haiti.

Christophe was a former enslaved person who led a revolt against the French, who had colonized the island nation, in the early 1800s. After taking power, Christophe served first as president and then later declared himself king.

Fearing a coup, he ultimately died by his own hand in 1820. At least one source – Encyclopedia Britannica – says that Christophe spent time in the United States in the late 18th century, and in 1780 “may have fought in a French unit at Savannah, Georgia, either as an enlistee or as the property of a French naval officer.”

In the 1940s or 1950s, a theory developed that after King Christophe died, somehow or other, some quantity of the buttons that had been made for his army were instead sold to an American named Nathaniel Wyeth.

Doug Wilson says that Nathaniel Wyeth came to the Old Oregon Country nearly 190 years ago, looking to trade the buttons and other items with indigenous people in exchange for furs.

“He came up to the Columbia River and was actively trying to trade against the Hudson’s Bay Company … [which] … virtually controlled all the trade on the Columbia River and throughout most of the Pacific Northwest,” Wilson said.

“Wyeth came out in 1832 and then came back in 1834 and he actually set up a little fort across the river from Fort Vancouver, but he was woefully unprepared to compete against this massive British trading firm,” Wilson said. “And so he very rapidly went out of business.”

“But we think that one of his legacies was these Phoenix Buttons,” Wilson said.

Based on Wyeth’s attempts to trade near Fort Vancouver, it makes sense that so many Phoenix Buttons have been found along the Columbia River. They’ve also been found in California, and in other parts of the United States. But it’s unusual that Phil Massie found one near Puget Sound. As far as anyone can tell, that hasn’t been documented before.

Massie wasn’t searching for a Phoenix Button, but he wasn’t just randomly wandering around, either. He says it’s all about the research.

“There’s a lot of information online,” Massie said. “Your local libraries have a lot of information. I’m always looking for where history was. Where did people walk? Where did they live? So, when I see those types of places, I’ll spend hours reading and researching and looking at maps. I just got lucky. I went to the spot and decided to check it out.”

Like many metal detectorists, Massie says he loves the thrill of discovery, of finding an object of historical significance that’s been lost or discarded and become hidden away.

“It’s about what people are walking over and they have no idea what’s below their feet, you know?” Massie said. “It could be in your yard. It could be in a what’s a modern-day park that was once a farm field.”

“But the history that’s there is just incredible,” he added.

Rules and regulations vary in different jurisdictions around Washington state, and some public agencies forbid metal detecting or require purchase of metal detector permits before searching, and ask to be notified of any potentially significant finds. Phil Massie says he always gets permits when he searches on public land, or gets permission from private landowners.

Doug Wilson of the National Park Service says that in ideal circumstances, an object like the Phoenix Button found by Massie would be left in place for professional archaeologists to study and recover. An official with the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) said by email Tuesday that DAHP staff “only record sites that have been identified by a professional archaeologist.”

Given that countless amateurs are routinely searching public and private lands, it seems that it would be ideal if there was some way for the potential historic significance of artifacts like Phil Massie’s Phoenix Button to make its way to the right academic or other researcher. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how that would happen.

With their similar interests in hidden history but their very different operational realities, it’s perhaps understandable that there seems to be tension between professional archaeologists who work for tribes, universities and public agencies and the amateur metal detectorists – sometimes pejoratively called “treasure hunters” – like Phil Massie.

A search for online information about rules and regulations found no easy to understand statewide policy for Washington, and no single place for Massie or anyone like him to report a similar find.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Mysterious Haitian ‘Phoenix Button’ found along Puget Sound