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Throughout American history, tens of thousands of ships have been lost at sea with sunken treasure, some of these ships reported having a significant quantity of U.S. Coins aboard. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, numismatists were ecstatic, as several old shipwrecks where discovered with new technology and explored, where rare U.S. Coins were discovered. These Sunken Treasures paid off for investors, as the ocean floor preserved many of these rare U.S. Coins that were recovered over the recent years. The following are just a few major shipwrecks that were discovered with historic sunken treasure.
The SS New York was a side-wheel steamship that set sail on September 5th 1846, on a regular trip from Galveston to New Orleans, carrying 53 passengers and crew, along with an estimated $40,000 face value in gold and silver coins (a numismatic value in the millions today.)
The ship’s captain unknowingly set sail directly into a hurricane, and after dropping anchor, trying to wait the storm out. The ship tragically turned the wrong way and was unable to recover from the fury of the storm. Wind intensity increased to a fearful strength, the waves mounted, and the rigging and parts of the ship were torn apart. Passengers and crew grabbed anything that could float.
On September 7, 1846, a single note rang out from the ship's bell as the ship rolled one last time and sank in 60 feet of water in the Gulf. Seventeen people perished including five children, as forty thousand dollars’ worth of U.S. gold and silver coins sank to the bottom of the Gulf. The next day, 36 of the 53 passengers and crew aboard were rescued by another ship.
In the mid-1990s, a group of treasure seekers found the ship's bell confirming the wreck as that of the SS New York, and by 2007 they recovered more than 2,000 silver coins and several hundred gold coins from the wreck. The discovery revealed an incredible hoard of little-known U.S. Southern mint gold and silver coins, some of which are the finest known Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans coins. Certain $2.50 and $5 coins from these mints were in high grades and caused a sensation when auctioned in 2008 and 2009 to the delight of collectors.
SS Yankee Blade (Lost 1854)
On October 1, 1854, the SS Yankee Blade, A 274 foot paddle wheel steamer, was on a run from San Francisco, south to Panama, carrying about 900 passengers and crew, and $153,000 in gold from Page, Bacon & Company, and an additional $60,000 belonging to Fretz & Ralston.
In heavy fog Captain Henry T. Randall, believing he was in deep water far at sea, proceeded at full speed ahead, racing another ship, trying to establish a speed record, which was certain to be beneficial in advertising. The captain was wrong, and was amid the rockbound Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara, California… The ship smashed onto a rock at 3 pm with no warning, and was stranded at a tipsy angle.
The Captain tried to reverse engines and back off the reef, but water was rushing in through a gash, one foot wide, and thirty feet long. In time, the ship sank, but not before most people escaped. In the ensuing confusion and shipwreck panic, an estimated 30 to 50 people lost their lives.
As to what happened to the gold coins aboard, some were seemingly recovered soon after the disaster, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. Perhaps other coins were found later, over a long period of time. In any event, in 1948 the hull was found again, and afterwards various divers visited the wreck. In 1977, extensive high tech recoveries were made, when an estimated 250, 1854-S double eagles came on the market.
SS Central America (Lost 1857)
In the 1850s, passengers and gold, in the form of coins, ingots, and nuggets, regularly traveled from California to New York, not over land, but by sea. Typically the route consisted of a side-wheel steamer from San Francisco to Panama, then across the cape via railroad, and then reloaded on a different side-wheel steamer from Panama to New York. The SS Central America, was a 280 foot side-wheel steamer that operated between Central America and the eastern coast of the U.S. at that time.
On September 3, 1857, 477 passengers and 101 crew members left a Panamanian port, with a one night stopover in Havana, Cuba, and then sailing for New York City, under the command of William Lewis Herndon. The ship was heavily laden with 10 to 15 tons of gold that was prospected during the California Gold Rush, which is how this ship picked-up the nickname, “Ship of Gold.” The $2.6 million dollars’ worth of gold onboard later would prove to have a numismatic value estimated at well over $100 million.
On September 9th, the ship was caught up in a Category 2 hurricane, while off the coast of the Carolinas. By September 11th, there were 105 mph winds and heavy surf, which shredded the sails, and swamped the ship, shutting down the boilers, about 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina. Only 153 survivors, primarily women and children, managed to make it in lifeboats. On September 12, 1857, the Central America sunk in the hurricane two hundred miles off the Carolina Coast in 8,000 feet below the Atlantic, taking the lives of 425 men and over 4,700 pounds of California gold. This enormous loss shook public confidence in the economy, and contributed to the “Panic of 1857.” The sinking of the SS Central America, known as “The Ship of Gold,” was one of the worst peacetime tragedies of men, ship, and gold lost at sea. It contributed to the deepest depression of the 19th Century both economically and emotionally.
Exactly 130 years later, on September 11, 1987, the ship was finally located in eight thousand feet of water off the coast of North Carolina, by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operated by the Columbus-America Discovery Group of Ohio. The ship’s bell forged by the Morgan Iron Works would provide positive identification that the SS Central America had indeed been found. Using a robotic submersible built for the recovery, named Nemo, they eventually hauled over 7,000 coins and several hundred gold ingots to the surface. Many of the coins and ingots were in such a well preserved state that they looked as though they had just been struck at the mint.
After the shipwreck was discovered in 1987, about 95% of recovered coins were found to be 1857-S Liberty Head $20 gold pieces, most of the San Francisco Mint's production of $20 gold coins for the year 1857! The first public offering of SS Central America treasure occurred in June, 2000 by Sotheby’s in New York, and a second public auction occurred in December, 2000 by Christie’s in New York. The total value of the recovered gold was estimated upwards of $150 million. Life Magazine’s cover in March 1992 touted it as “The Greatest Treasure Ever Found.”
In 2014, Odyssey Marine Exploration was selected to salvage the remaining gold from the SS Central America.
Odyssey digitally documented over 12,500 high-resolution images of the site prior to any recovery efforts, and a 161,000-square-meter, high-resolution video survey of the shipwreck and surrounding seabed was also completed. The recovery was conducted over 129 days and included 83 ROV dives recording over 2,000 hours of dive time. The recovery resulted in 3,100 gold coins, 100 pounds of gold dust, more than 10,000 silver coins, 45 gold ingot bars, and hundreds of other historical artifacts from the SS Central America shipwreck site.
SS Brother Jonathan (Lost 1865)
The Brother Jonathan was a paddle steamer, carrying 244 passengers and crew, who left San Francisco harbor and steamed north on July 29, 1865, with a large treasure of gold mined during the California Gold Rush Days. For its final voyage of the SS Brother Jonathan, crates of gold coins had been loaded on the vessel, including the annual treaty payments in gold for Indian tribes, Wells Fargo shipments consigned for Portland and Vancouver, and gold carried on board by the passengers… The gold alone was valued at $50 million dollars in today’s money.
The ship ran into a heavy gale within hours after leaving the port, making the passengers sea sick. The next morning, Sunday, July 30, the steamer anchored in Crescent City harbor on the first leg of its trip to Portland and Victoria, B.C. After leaving the safety of the bay that Sunday afternoon, the ship ran headfirst into more stormy conditions… The seas were so bad near the California-Oregon border that the captain ordered the ship turned around for the safety of Crescent City.
Forty-five minutes later on that return, and close to port, the ship struck a rock reef, tearing a large hole in its hull… The impact was so jarring that both passengers and crew were tossed overboard. Within five minutes, the captain realized the ship was going to sink, and ordered the passengers and crew to abandon ship immediately. Despite having enough lifeboats for all of the people on board, only three were able to be deployed. The rough waves capsized the first one lowered, and smashed the second against the vessel’s sides.
Only a single surfboat, holding eleven crew members, five women and three children managed to escape the wreck and make it safely to Crescent City. Only 19 survived the wreck, making it the deadliest shipwreck up to that time on the Pacific Coast of the United States. The numerous acts of courage and desperation, fear and self-sacrifice, were reported by the 19 who survived their 225 fellow passengers… and their stories were horrific.
Divers and ships began searching for the sunken treasure two weeks after the disaster in 1865, but despite the attempts of numerous treasure hunters, for almost 130 years, the ship’s sunken treasure of gold and artifacts remained one of the Pacific’s great secrets.
Until October 1st 1993, when Deep Sea Research (DSR) changed its search theory on the very last day of its expedition, resulting in a mini-sub discovering SS Brother Jonathan at the very last minute, before shutting down. Over time, the team began to bring artifacts back from a depth of 275 feet. No human remains were ever found.
The DSR team recovered 1,207 gold coins, primarily $20 Double Eagles, in addition to numerous historical artifacts. In the first legally-recognized sale of all the salvor’s gold discovered from the sunken treasure, more than 500 bidders crowded into an auction on May 29, 1999. The resulting sale of its 1,006 coins fetched a total of $5.3 million.
SS Republic (Lost 1865)
The SS Republic was a side-wheel steamer that served in both the Confederate and Union navies during the Civil War. Just months after the war's end, the SS Republic, was loaded with much-needed cargo of $400,000 in coins in gold $10 and $20 pieces, intended for use as hard currency after the Civil War to aid post-Civil War Reconstruction, and to aid in the rebuilding of the war ravaged city of New Orleans to its prewar glory.
Only six months after the end of the Civil War, the SS Republic left New York bound for New Orleans on October 18th, 1865… On the fifth day of her voyage, a hurricane off the coast of Georgia, proved too strong for the ship. At 4 pm on October 25th 1865, the SS Republic sank, and came to rest 1,700 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 100 miles off the Georgia coast.
The passengers and crew escaped in four lifeboats and a make-shift raft, but 40-foot seas made keeping afloat a serious challenge. Two days later on October 27th, the desperate survivors were found by a nearby sailing ship. Although several lives were lost on the raft before they could be rescued. All the $400,000 in coins was sent to the bottom of the sea for the next 138 years, when they were finally discovered and rescued.
In August 2003, the wreck of the SS Republic was discovered by Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., based in Tampa, Florida. The ship’s remains were located about 100 miles southeast of Savannah Georgia, in about 1,700 feet of water. Strewn on the sea floor was an array of gold and silver coins, along with about 14,000 other historical artifacts.
Recovery began in November 2003 and was concluded in early 2005, by which time 262 dives had been logged. The recovery included more than 51,000 coins, among them more than 1,400 gold eagles, dating from 1838 to 1858. Several thousand double eagles of all date and mintmark issues from 1850 to 1865. Conditions ranged from worn, for earlier years, up to choice and Gem Mint State for certain of the later issues. At the time of the Republic's discovery, estimates made from historical records and comparable coin sales, placed the sunken treasure value between $120 million to $180 million.
Lost Sunken Treasures
There are many more sunken ships carrying valuable cargo that remain undiscovered under the sea, than the ones that have been found. Today, treasure hunters try to locate these shipwrecks and their associated sunken treasures… sometimes with great success, but more often, with great disappointment.
It has been estimated with today’s sophisticated equipment, it would take over 400 years to excavate all of the wrecked ships currently known, yet unclaimed on the oceans floors. Harsh weather, rocks, and war have sent many ships to the bottom of the sea, just waiting discovery.
San Miguel Treasure Fleet (1715)
The San Miguel Treasure Fleet was lost in 1715 off the coast of Florida. Spain was desperately in need of funds due to the War of Succession in which Philip V took the throne… To solve this problem the Spanish assembled one of the richest treasure fleets.
The fleet consisted of five ships from Mexico, six ships from Spain, and a French ship... which all carried significant quantities of gold, silver, pearls, emeralds, jewels, and other precious items. As a defense against pirates and privateers, the fleet waited until just before the hurricane season before setting off from Havana in July 1715. This was a mistake and a bad storm destroyed the fleet just seven days after leaving Cuba… taking the vast treasure hoard and thousands of sailors to the bottom of the ocean.
The Spanish salvaged some of the treasure, and items of treasure still occasionally wash up on nearby shores after large storms, but the treasure still lies at the ocean bottom just waiting to be discovered. Today, seven of the 12 ships have been located… but only a small percentage of the treasure has been recovered… making the San Miguel Fleet one of the richest treasure hoards yet to be found, valued at over $2 billion.
Revolutionary War Sunken Treasure (1775)
Benedict Arnold is best known as a U.S. Traitor, however, he was also a brilliant, victorious leader during the early years of the Revolutionary War for America. As a once trusted General in George Washington’s army, he was entrusted with a wooden chest filled with $54,000 in gold coins that was lost deep in Maine in 1775.
Arnold was traveling on the Dead River in Maine, which was a difficult river… He had rafts built for the trip to carry soldiers, heavy cannons, and supplies for his men, including the chest of gold coins. As he navigated through rapids and waterfalls, some of the supplies and cannons toppled into the surging river, when the leather straps securing them to the raft separated and loosened.
The raft with the chest of gold was caught in a series of tricky rapids, which loosened the strapping, causing several logs to separate, plunging the chest of gold into the ice cold torrents. No attempts were made to return to the location to recover the gold coins, where they remain today, awaiting discovery… those coins worth $54K in 1775, would be worth many millions today.
Lafayette’s Sunken Riches (1778)
The Marquis de Lafayette became an important figure during the American Revolution, and George Washington forged a strong bond with the idealistic Frenchman. Lafayette was elevated to the rank of Major General, and served with Washington at Valley Forge during the terrible winter of 1777.
By 1778, the Colonials were running short of arms, ammunition, and supplies, and funding was desperately needed… a sum of $50,000 in gold coins and bullion was raised secretly by the French. In July of 1778, the gold, along with a significant amount of supplies and ammunition was loaded on the French Frigate, “Dupre” bound for Smith Island, off the coast of Virginia. Lafayette hand-picked 12 men, who set off in longboats to Smith Island to meet the Dupre in Mid-August, 1778, when they arrived the 13 men hid in a thick grove of trees awaiting their arrival.
As the Dupre arrived from the south, a British flotilla consisting of six warships rounded the northern end of the Island, bearing down upon the Dupre, who didn’t see them, because they were preoccupied with dropping anchor, and lowering the sails. In horror, the 13 men watched helplessly, as the Dupre was brutally attacked, with no chance of escape. The ship was hit multiple time from British cannon fire, and sunk to the bottom of the sea within minutes of the attack, taking the gold and the crew to the ocean floor when it was forgotten. Interest was rekindled in 1991, when a beachcomber found a 1777 French gold coin washed up on the western shore of the island following a big storm… But no more coins were ever found.
HMS Hussar (1780)
During the American Revolution, the 28 gun HMS Hussar sailed as a dispatch boat for the British in the New York area. By mid-1779, the British position in New York was precarious, as the French army had joined forces with General George Washington's troops just north of the city. The British Admiral took his twenty ships of the line south in November, but it was decided that the army's payroll be moved to eastern Long Island for safe keeping.
On November 24, 1779, against his pilot's better judgment, Hussar's Captain decided to sail from the East River through the treacherous waters of Hell's Gate between Manhattan Island and Long Island. Just before reaching the Long Island Sound, Hussar was swept onto Pot Rock and began sinking. The Captain, crew, and cargo swiftly sailed to the bottom of the sea. The HMS Hussar went down at the mouth of the New York's East River, carrying $4 million of British Redcoat pay in silver and gold coins, worth tens of millions of dollars today, just waiting to be discovered.
||Karl Newman has had a passion for collecting coins ever since his Father helped him build small coin collections when he was a child. His interest in history and economics lead him to becoming a numismatic researcher and curriculum developer. In 2010, he developed the first and only online Numismatic University in the industry, used by the PNG (Professional Numismatist Guild) for Certificates in Numismatics, and is working towards the development of ANA Numismatic University for the American Numismatic Association.|