Thursday, May 3, 2012

The U.S. Mint's Communist Dime

Communists infiltrate U.S. Mint!

Sounds pretty ridiculous right?

But that's exactly what much of the country thought when the U.S. Mint first introduced the Roosevelt dime in 1946.

Although the coin clearly honored President Roosevelt, they also felt that it secretly paid tribute to communist leader Joseph Stalin.

The End of an Era

Roosevelt had just begun serving his 4th term as President when he died in Warm Springs, Georgia in 1945. He had served as President through most of the Great Depression and World War II. Younger Americans had known no other President.

So it was no surprise when the decision was made to honor President Roosevelt on a coin. The fact that the dime was chosen was also no surprise as Roosevelt had been a victim of polio and was a founder of the charity March of Dimes.

So what made the public think that a coin honoring President Roosevelt was really a secret tribute to communist leader Joseph Stalin?

The March of Communism

During the war Roosevelt, along with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, met with Joseph Stalin at a conference in Yalta. The purpose of the conference was to come to some agreement on the reestablishment of the war torn countries of Poland and Germany. But just a few weeks before his death, Roosevelt sent Stalin a tersely worded message accusing him of breaking his Yalta commitments.

Anti-communism was already strong in this country, but Stalin's treacherous actions only caused it to grow stronger. Many Americans, including the powerful elite, didn't trust communists and felt that communists were infiltrating every aspect of American society, including government.

The New Joseph Stalin Dime

Released on what would have been Roosevelt's 64th birthday, people quickly noticed a set of initials on the obverse of the new coin just below Roosevelt's portrait. The initials were "JS."

A rumor quickly spread that the initials stood for Joseph Stalin and that our government had been infiltrated by communists. The U.S. Mint took this rumor seriously enough that it had to respond that the initials were in fact those of the coin's designer John Sinnock, and not those of communist dictator Joseph Stalin.

Communism Spreads to the Half Dollar

Although newspapers widely reported the true story, the rumor did not die immediately as the release of the Benjamin Franklin half dollar in 1948 gave the rumor new life. Also designed by John Sinnock, it too bore his intials "JS" at the bottom of the portrait on the obverse of the coin.

It wouldn't surprised me a bit if there were still a few conspiracy theorists out there today that believe the "JS" stands for Joseph Stalin.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Shipwreck and Treasure of the S.S. Republic

1852-O $20 Obverse
from the SS Republic
She has been called the “Forest Gump” of Civil War steamships. She survived multiple hurricanes, participated in attempts to overthrow Central American governments, and served on both sides in the U.S. Civil War.

The SS Republic had quite a storied history before fate finally caught up with her off the coast of North Carolina in October 1865. A treasure of gold and silver coins worth an estimated $75 million today went down with her and would remain there for the next 140 years.

The SS Tennessee

Built in 1853, the SS Republic was a side-wheel steamship originally named the SS Tennessee. For the next 2 years she was a packet ship between Baltimore and Charleston.

By 1856 the SS Tennessee had became the first steamship to regularly sail to South America when she started a route between New York and Venezuela.

William Walker
Walker’s Filibusters

For over half a decade, the California Gold Rush had drawn adventurers seeking their fortunes out west. One of the more popular routes to California included a short land trip across the isthmus of Central America.

The value of these land routes soon became evident and in 1855 an American named William Walker decided to overthrow the Nicaraguan government with the idea of adding it to the United States. He led a band of mercenaries known at Walker’s Filibusters.

During this time, the SS Tennessee was refitted as a troop ship and soon began ferrying these Filibusters to Nicaragua. Eventually Walker’s Filibusters were defeated and in 1857 the ship was used to ferry the decimated army back to the U.S.

The Civil War

After war broke out between the states, the Confederate Navy acquired the SS Tennessee and planned to use her as a blockade runner. But before those plans could be implemented, New Orleans fell to Union forces and the SS Tennessee with her. The United States Navy soon rechristened her the USS Mobile.

When the war ended in 1865, the USS Mobile was rechristened as the SS Republic and she began service on the New York to New Orleans route as a passenger ship.

The Hurricane

The SS Republic left New York’s Staten Island for the last time on October 19, 1865. She was headed to New Orleans with a cargo of commercial goods that included bolts of silk, ingots of tin, liquor, and various glass and porcelain religious items such as candlesticks and figurines of angels and saints. She also reportedly carried a fortune in gold and silver coins.

New Orleans
Library of Congress Image
Four days into the trip she sailed into a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina. For two days passengers and crew fought the storm by bailing water and tossing cargo overboard. Finally the Captain ordered the ship abandoned and lifeboats and a makeshift raft were launched.

At around 4pm on October 25, 1865, the SS Republic disappeared beneath the waves.

The Passengers

“The ship had 300 tons of coal, and as she lurched from side to side, the roar of the coal and water sounded like Niagra,” wrote passenger William Nichols to his wife in a letter quoted in Priit Vesilind’s book Lost Gold of the Republic.

Colonel William Nichols was a veteran of the Civil War. He was among the Union soldiers who fought off Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg and was now traveling to New Orleans with his brother Henry.

Shipwreck Survivors on Raft
 Although it is not known exactly how many passengers and crew were onboard the SS Republic, but more than a few are known to have perished.

There weren’t enough lifeboats to hold everyone on the ship so the Captain ordered a makeshift raft to be built. Up to 18 men clung for their lives to the raft over the next 8 days. When the raft was finally discovered by a passing ship, only 2 men remained on the raft. The others had all perished.

According to an account of the events in Vesilind’s Lost Gold of the Republic, two men perished when they became entangled in the debris field after the ship went down. Described as an “elderly sea captain” and “a German sailor,” the lifeboats and raft were never able to reach them.

However, Colonel Nichols and his brother Henry were two of at least 80 passengers and crew to survive the wreck and be rescued. Much of what is known about the events of the SS Republic’s final voyage came from letters that Colonel Nichols wrote to his wife. He would eventually go on to become a successful Chicago businessman and the founder of a town named Maywood after his daughter May who had died.

The Discovery

On July 7, 2003, Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered what would later be identified as the SS Republic. It would be another two months before the discovery of the ship’s bell confirmed the identity of the shipwreck as that of the SS Republic. The ship’s bell had never been changed and the original name from 1853 was still upon it – SS Tennessee.

Odyssey Marine Exploration Underwater Robot

In January 2006, the ship’s bell still lie submerged, but this time not at the bottom of the ocean. The bell was being stored at Odyssey’s conservation lab in Tampa. After having been featured l in the National Geographic Magazine and having the moments of its discovery played out on television, it seemed a little strange to find such an important artifact lying in a very non-descript warehouse, shoved against a wall, and submerged in a Rubbermaid garbage can.

Just a couple of feet away cannon from another shipwreck lay submerged in an open pool of water, a couple of wires coming from the cannon and attached to what looked like a large battery. This was clearly the unglamorous side of archaeology.

The Treasure

By the time Odyssey Marine Exploration had finished excavating the site of the SS Republic shipwreck, over 47,000 silver coins, mostly of the seated liberty design, had been recovered. In addition, some 1,460 $10 gold eagles dating from 1838, and 2,675 $20 gold double eagles dating from 1850 were recovered. The entire shipwreck treasure was estimated to be worth over $75 million.

1852-O $20 Reverse
from the SS Republic
Although the shipwreck of the SS Central America had about twice as many $20 gold double eagles recovered as did the SS Republic, the double eagles from the latter were remarkable in the fact that every date and mint mark up to that time were represented with the exception of one – the ultra rare 1856-O. In the case of the SS Central America, the overwhelming majority were 1856-S and 1857-S coins. For the first time, it was possible to put together a complete set of Type-1 (1850-1866) No Motto $20 gold double eagles, with the exception of the 1856-O, from a single shipwreck.

In addition to the seated liberty half dollars, eagles, and double eagles, there were also a few other coins recovered from the shipwreck. Among the lesser known coins recovered were a number of capped bust half dollars, two silver 25-cent pieces, and four silver British florins (i.e. one-tenth of a pound).

There were between 10-15 examples of the capped busted lettered edge and capped bust reeded edge half dollars with the dates ranging from 1831 to 1839.

The two silver 25-cent pieces were an 1857 Philadelphia coin and an 1859 New Orleans coin. Both were of the seated liberty design. The four silver British florins dated 1859 were of the Gothic type

The British florins were sold early on, but as of a few years ago, Odyssey was apparently still holding on to the bust half dollars based on a private conversation with officers of the company at the ANA show in Milwaukee in August 2007.

1861-O Half Dollar
from the SS Republic
Selling a Piece of History

Many of the over 47,000 Seated Liberty half dollars recovered were distributed widely by a network of coin dealers, collectible companies, and home shopping networks. Some were sold to collectors, but many others were sold to non-collectors who just wanted to own a piece of history. The quantity of these coins is so huge that the vast majority of the coins are still in possession of Odyssey several years after their recovery. You can still find examples for sale in the inventory of many dealers or direct from Odyssey.

The Auction

The first public auction appearance of SS Republic gold coins occurred on April 8, 2005. A Bower’s and Merena auction at the ANA’s National Money Show in Kansas City offered a small sampling of $10 gold eagles and $20 gold double eagles that were recovered from the shipwreck. Surprisingly, few of the top graded coins by date and mint mark made it into the auction, and even then, only one out of multiple coins in the top grade.

Private Treaty Sales

Odyssey apparently learned the lesson on how to release rare gold coins into the numismatic marketplace without depressing coin values too much. They were able to learn from the mistakes of previous shipwrecks such as the SS Central America and the SS Brother Jonathan. The SS Republic gold coins were released in multiple groups over time. The market would absorb each group before the next one would be released.

The vast majority of the top graded coins from the SS Republic were distributed to dealers such as Monaco Rare Coins and Blanchard. These dealers in turn sold the coins via private treaty sales to collectors. However, it was not only collectors that purchased these coins, but investors as well. As a result, many of the same coins have been bought and sold multiple times in private treaty sales.

It was through these private treaty sales that A.C. Dwyer was able to secure 18 of the top graded $20 gold double eagles for The Arlington Collection. These included the only examples of the 1860-O and 1861-O double eagles recovered with the 1860-O being the only example of any source being graded mint state.

Hurricane Katrina

Ironically, another hurricane 140 years later would strike the SS Republic as well. In August 2005 Odyssey Marine Exploration opened a museum in New Orleans to showcase the treasure of the SS Republic, as well as the technology to recover it. Literally within hours of the opening of SHIPWRECK! Pirates & Treasure, the infamous Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans causing the permanent closing of the museum in New Orleans. The museum would eventually reemerge as a traveling exhibit making appearances at various locations around the country such as Tampa, Oklahoma City, Detroit, and Baltimore.


Bowers and Merena (Firm). Treasures of the S.S. Republic: auction sale, April 7-8, 2005, at Kansas City, Missouri. Irvine, California: Bowers and Merena, 2005.

Bowers, Q. David, “The SS Republic Shipwreck Excavation Project: the Coin Collection,” Odyssey Marine Exploration Papers 7. Tampa, Florida: Odyssey Marine Exploration (2009)

Vesilind, Priit J., “Lost Gold: Bounty from a Civil War Ship,” National Geographic (September 2004)

Vesilind, Priit J., Lost Gold of the Republic: The Remarkable Quest for the Greatest Shipwreck Treasure of the Civil War Era. Las Vegas, Nevada: Shipwreck Heritage Press (2005)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York: The World's Gold Vault

Federal Reserve Bank of NY Image
It is the largest accumulation of gold anywhere in the world, and it is not Fort Knox

Gold has captivated the human race for most of our recorded history. Kings and queens have fought wars over it, European explorers searched new worlds for it, and 49ers left family and friends for a chance to get their share of it.

The Power of Gold

The World Gold Council estimated that by the end of 2009, about 5.3 billion troy ounces of gold had been mined throughout human history. In spite of the famous gold rushes of the 19th century, over half of that gold was mined since 1950. A significant portion of that gold is currently stored within the United States, but it’s not where most people think it is.

When we Americans think of gold, the first place that comes to mind is the United States Bullion Depository known as Fort Knox. It is here that the largest portion of our official gold reserves is stored. But there is one place in the U.S. that stores even more gold than Fort Knox. That place is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Federal Reserve Bank of NY Image
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York holds only a small fraction of the United States gold reserves, but it does hold the largest amount of gold stored anywhere in the world. Over 200 million troy ounces of gold, much of it belonging to foreign countries, are currently being held at the bank.

When the main vault at the bank first opened, the Secret Service used 45 armored cars to move the initial deposits of gold through the streets of New York. 150 policemen lined the streets and stood guard at strategic points as the armored cars drove by. Secret Service agents were everywhere and riflemen watched from the rooftops above. They hauled over 700 tons of gold, silver, and paper currency to the bank.

The Main Vault

Opened in 1924, there is no other vault in the world quite like it, and it’s located right in the center of busy lower Manhattan. The main gold vault lies some 80 feet below the surrounding streets. The vault was actually excavated before the building was built around it. It is situated on the island’s bedrock which was considered stable enough to support the weight of all the gold that was to be stored inside.

Federal Reserve Bank of NY ImageAnd the main vault has no doors.

The only way into the vault is through a 10-foot long tunnel that is cut into a 90-ton steel cylinder that revolves in a 140-ton steel and concrete frame. In order to gain access into the vault, the cylinder has to be rotated 90 degrees after first unlocking a series of time and combination locks.

You can view an artist’s rendering of how the vault works in the March 1931 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine (page 459).

The Gold

The gold at the New York Fed is stored in the vault in the form of bars, each weighing 400 troy ounces or just over 27 pounds apiece. The value of each bar at recent prices would be approximately $480,000.

However, each bar is not the same. Gold bars cast more than 20 years ago tend to be in the shape of bricks, while more recent bars are trapezoidal.

In addition to the large bars, there are smaller bars that are also stored in the vault. These bars vary in size and are created using the gold that’s left over from the casting process, but is not enough to create a normal bar. These bars are sometimes referred to as “Hershey Bars.”

The color of the gold also tells a story. Impurities in the gold can cause each bar to exhibit a different colored hue. A greenish hue indicates iron in the gold, while red indicates copper. A whitish look to the gold can be caused by a silver or platinum alloy. Black gold results when the bar contains traces of bismuth, a basic metal used in magnets and alloys.

Numismatic ExhibitsFederal Reserve Bank of NY Image

One of the great things about visiting the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is the extraordinary exhibit on the history of money. The exhibit features some 800 coins and currency from the American Numismatic Society’s famous collection. What makes this exhibit special is the variety of items in the display from ancient coins to hard times tokens to some of today’s great numismatic rarities. One of my favorite items is the only “legal to own” 1933 St. Gaudens $20 gold double eagle that sold in 2002 for a then record of $7.5 million.

A Mindboggling Amount of Money

With over 200 million troy ounces of gold being stored at the New York Fed, the market value of all that gold today would lie in the vicinity of a quarter of a trillion dollars.

And that’s not all.

There is also a 3 story high vault for storing cash. Manned by robots and the size of a football field, the cash vault has the capacity to hold $350 billion dollars worth of U.S. currency. That’s more than the total market value of the gold.

So the next time you are in New York, make sure you stop by 33 Liberty Street for a visit and allow yourself to be taken in by the power of gold. Just don’t expect someone to offer you a “Hershey Bar” if you get hungry while you’re there.


Cannon, Gwen, ed. The Green Guide: New York City. New York: Michelin Apa Publications, 2007.

Carmichael, P. A. “Forts on Wheels Defy Bandits,” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 112, No. 6 (June 1928).

“How Uncle Sam Guards His Millions in Vaults of Federal Reserve Banks,” Popular Mechanics, Vol. 55, No. 3 (March 1931).

The Key to the Gold Vault. New York: The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Reprinted 2008.

World Gold Council. "Frequently Asked Questions." (accessed July 29, 2010).

Image Sources

All images are Federal Reserve Bank images (see Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the United States Code).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Shipwreck and Treasure of the S.S. Brother Jonathan

Brother Jonathan was the Uncle Sam of the 19th Century. When Edward Mill put the name on his newly launched sidewheel steamship in November 1850, many people throughout the world had come to know the United States as Brother Jonathan.
On an April 1868 visit by the U.S. Navy's Admiral Farragut to a Royal Navy garrison at Malta, copies of a song were distributed by the British to the visiting American sailors that contained the following verse:

And we, oh, hate us if you can,
For we are proud of you
We like you Brother Jonathan
And "Yankee Doodle" too!

SS Yankee Blade Shipwreck

Four years after her launch in October 1854, the SS Brother Jonathan found herself transporting survivors from the ill fated SS Yankee Blade back to San Francisco. The SS Yankee Blade, with over 900 passengers and crew aboard, had sank after hitting a submerged reef while it recklessly raced another steamship, the SS Sonora, at full speed in a thick fog.

The Gold

During the Civil War years, gold was discovered in eastern Oregon and parts nearby. The gold was shipped overland to Portland and then by sea to San Francisco. The gold would then be minted into gold coins at San Francisco, and many would be shipped back north.

On Sunday July 30, 1865, the Brother Jonathan was on one such trip to the north carrying over 240 passengers and crew, and millions of dollars worth of newly minted gold bars and $20 Double Eagle gold coins. Some of the gold was to be used for Indian Treaty payments. The ship also carried a U.S. Army payroll of $200,000 in newly printed paper currency.

The Storm

After 34 hours of sailing through stormy seas from San Francisco and a short port call to Crescent City, Captain Samuel J. DeWolfe left Crescent City's harbor under nearly clear blue skies headed for Portland only about a day away. Within 30 minutes of leaving Crescent City, the SS Brother Jonathan ran into a severe storm with mountainous waves cresting at up to 30 feet high. A couple of hours later, terrified passengers begged the Captain to return to the safety of the harbor at Crescent City. The Captain ordered the ship to turn around.

About 20 minutes after turning the ship around, the SS Brother Jonathan was again under blue skies but the waves continued to crest at close to 30 feet. As the ship picked up speed with the wind at its back, the ship struck an uncharted reef.
The impact sent the nine-story mast through the bottom of the ship and the ship began to break apart as it lay impaled upon the reef. Huge waves washed screaming passengers off the decks of the ship.

There were six lifeboats onboard the ship capable of carrying 250 passengers. Technically, there were enough lifeboats to save all the passengers and crew. However, as each lifeboat was launched, huge waves would engulf the small crafts tossing everyone into the sea. In the end, only one lifeboat with 19 people made it to shore. The rest of the passengers and crew perished. For the next few weeks, bodies would wash up on shore.

The Passengers

Among the passengers that day was Daniel and Polina Rowell and their four children. They left their farm in Iowa to join Polina's parents in Oregon. Upon learning of the shipwreck and the deaths of his daughter's family, Polina's father went searching for her body along the coast. He eventually found both his daughter's and son-in-law's bodies. Although he had never met his grandchildren, he claimed the bodies of four children by saying they were his grandchildren and buried them all together.

Another passenger to perish was the recently appointed Superintendent of the U.S. Mint in The Dalles, Oregon, William Logan. Logan was to oversee the construction of the new mint. Possibly due to his death, the new mint was never completed. Had the SS Brother Jonathan completed its trip to Portland, perhaps collectors today would be as passionate about coins minted at The Dalles mint as they are today regarding the Carson City mint.

One other notable passenger was James Nisbet, editor of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. While other passengers and crew scranbled to save themselves, James Nisbet sat down in the ship's lounge and began to calmly write out his last will and testament. When his body was discovered a few days later, the will was discovered inside a breast pocket wrapped in oil cloth.

The Treasure

On October 1, 1993, a company founded by Don Knight called Deep Sea Research located the wreck of the SS Brother Jonathan using a small mini-submarine. But it would not be until August 30, 1996 that divers would find the first gold coins. 564 gold $20 double eagles were recovered that first day. In all, a total of 1,207 coins were recovered in 1996 and 1997. Nearly all the coins were struck at the San Francisco mint.

Many of the coins were discovered still wrapped in oil paper, twenty-five coins in a stack. Other coins found not wrapped were surrounded by large marine encrustations. The oil-paper wrapping and marine encrustations protected the coins and is probably the main reason so many coins were recovered in mint state condition.

In 2000, Dwight Manley and Bob Evans (both of SS Central America fame) went back to the site and recovered 58 more coins that were scattered individually about the site; 38 were double eagles eventually graded by NGC.

The Fight for the Treasure

Finding treasure is supposed to be a happy occasion with everyone getting rich. But in reality, it usually winds up with a lot of claimants clamoring for a piece of the pie. In the case of the SS Brother Jonathan, the salvors, descendants of passengers, shippers, and the State of California all got greedy and began legal battles to claim a share of the treasure.

Ironically, the man who started the entire venture, Don Knight, was to get into a fight with others from Deep Sea Research and he eventually left the venture before any gold was recovered.

In 1999, the State of California finally settled for 200 of the $20 gold double eagles estimated at $5,000 per coin or $1 million dollars. Under the settlement, California agreed not to sell the coins on the open market for at least 15 years. The earliest we will see any of these coins is in 2014. With the current state of California's finances, its probably safe to say that California will probably sell the coins as soon as they can.

The Auctions

The first public offering of SS Brother Jonathan coins occurred on May 29, 1999. A Bowers and Merena auction offered 842 lots of gold coins to collectors. Bowers and Merena estimated the auction would bring between six and eight million dollars. In the end, the sale actually brought in only $6.3 million.

While not a total bust, it certainly had to be a disappointment to the Deep Sea Research folks. After Bowers and Merena took their share, Deep Sea Research wound up with only about $4.6 million. When the all the costs and legal expenses were added up, the members of Deep Sea Research wound up with very small return on their money. Unlike the SS Central America treasure, the SS Brother Jonathan did not bring vast wealth to its finders.

Bowers and Merena (Firm). The S.S. Brother Jonathan Treasure Coins: auction sale May 29, 1999 at Los Angeles, California. Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena, 1999.

Bowers, Q. David. A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins: A Complete History and Price Guide. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing LLC, 2004.

Bowers, Q. David. The Treasure Ship S. S. Brother Jonathan: Her Life and Loss, 1850-1865. Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena, 1999.

Farragut, Loyall. David Glasgow Farragut: First Admiral of the United States Navy Embodying his Journal and Letters. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879.

Powers, Dennis M. Treasure Ship: The Legend and Legacy of the S.S. Brother Jonathan. New York: Citadel Press, 2006.

Rogers, Thos. H. "Captain Tugg and the Wreck of the Brother Jonathan." The Overland Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine of the West vol. XXXVI, 2nd series (July---December, 1900).

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Millions for Defense, but Not One Cent for Tribute

(Hard Times token collectors may enjoy this 1837 song!)

“No, no, not a sixpence, sir!” replied Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to France’s demand for tribute. Pinckney, along with Elbridge Gerry and John Marshall, was sent to France in 1797 by President John Adams to try to negotiate an end to French attacks on American ships. As news of the French demand spread throughout America, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” eventually became the public rallying cry as anti-French feelings grew. But, contrary to what some Hard Times token and historical references say, it was not Charles Pinckney who first spoke the famous phrase.

Hard Times Tokens

Hard Times token collectors are familiar with this slogan because it appears on many different varieties of satirical tokens dated 1837 and 1841. Although the spelling of "defence" may look strange to today's Americans, this was the proper spelling at the time. The history surrounding the “Not One Cent” tokens makes them very desirable to collectors, yet the rarity of each variety ranges from very common to the extremely rare (i.e. 2 to 3 examples known). Thus, the “Not One Cent” group of tokens has something for everyone.

Lyman Low Catalog

In 1899, Lyman Low cataloged the Hard Times tokens known to him at that time, numbering them from 1 to 183. Some collectors still only collect the initial 183 tokens cataloged by Low. Later the Low numbers were expanded to include additional tokens. Today, Hard Times tokens are generally cataloged under an HT number system devised by Russell Rulau in his book Hard Times Tokens 1832-1844.

Many varieties of the “Not One Cent” tokens have both obverses and reverses that are similar to those found on the large cent of the time. Others have obverses that reflect the great political issues of the day. It is said that in order to avoid charges of counterfeiting, the phrase “NOT ONE CENT” was emphasized on the reverse of these tokens.

America’s First Undeclared War

Although most people know that France was our ally towards the end of the Revolutionary War, what they don’t know is that just a few years later, France also became oure enemy in our first undeclared war against another country. France suffered its own revolution in 1789 that overthrew the monarchy.

In 1797, France was run by a group of five men known as The Directory. The Directory wanted the United States to be an ally of theirs in a war against Great Britain. George Washington, on the other hand, wanted the United States to stay neutral. In 1794, the United States signed Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain which angered France. The French, in turn, unleashed their navy and privateers on American shipping.

Demand for Tribute

It was these events that led Pinckney and the others to travel to France to try to address the French grievances. When they got to France they were kept waiting by the French Foreign Minister Talleyrand. During this time, they were approached by three individuals, later identified as X, Y, and Z in documents. Messengers X, Y, and Z informed the American party that before any negotiations could begin, the United States would have to pay the five members of The Directory $50,000 each and pay tribute to France in the form of a $10,000,000 loan. These demands are what prompted Pinckney’s “not a sixpence” response.

Pinckney’s Not the Man!

The history regarding the origin of the “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” phrase has been somewhat controversial over the years. From shortly after Pinckney’s trip to France, until fairly recently, Pinckney was given credit for giving this “not one cent” reply to the French. Pinckney himself is said to have denied ever uttering the phrase in place of his “not a sixpence” response. In an October 1797 letter from Pinckney to Timothy Pickering, Pinckney wrote that he had replied to the French with the “not a sixpence” phrase.

So where did the phrase “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” come from?

Harper's the Man!

Shortly after returning from France, John Marshall, who would eventually become the 4th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was honored at a dinner in Philadelphia on the night of June 18, 1798. Representative Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, was one of those present at the dinner. Charles Pinckney was also present.

The next day a newspaper recorded the toasts that were given to John Marshall at the dinner the night before. The toast from Robert Goodloe Harper was stated as “Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute!” It wasn’t long before people, and later historians, had taken these words and placed them in the mouth of Charles Pinckney for his reply to the French.

Barbary Pirates

Just a few years later, President Thomas Jefferson again took up the cry “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” in regard to the Barbary States of Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis. These Barbary “pirates” demanded tribute from the United States in order to keep them from attacking American shipping. The capture and enslavement of the crew of the USS Philadelphia by Tripoli appalled most Americans. A newspaper known to be a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson ran an article with the headline “Millions for Defense, but not a Cent for Tribute” thus picking up the rallying cry once again.

This Barbary hostage crisis was the equivalent in its day to the Iran hostage crisis at the end of the Carter Administration some 175 years later. The resulting military action, specifically the battle of Derne, led to the Tripoli portion of the phrase “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli” in The Marine Corps’ Hymn.

Hard Times
By 1837, there were still many Americans that remembered the cry “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute”. So it is not surprising that this would end up on many Hard Times tokens. These “hard times” came about as a result of President Andrew Jackson’s economic policies. These policies, which included the President’s stand against the Second Bank of the United States, certainly led to the Panic of 1837 and a resulting shortage of coinage due to hoarding. The production of Hard Times tokens was a direct response to help solve this nation's coin shortage during this time.

Appleby, Joyce. Thomas Jefferson. Macmillan, 2003.
Brown, Everit and Albert Strauss. A Dictionary of American Politics: Comprising Accounts of Political Parties, Measures and Men . . .etc. A.L. Burt, 1907.

Editor. “Letters to the Editor,” Time Magazine (April 12, 1937).

Keyes, Ralph. The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When. St. Martin's Griffin, 2006.
Marrota, Michael E. "Hard Times Tokens." (May 31, 1994) (accessed June 4, 2009). Originally appeared in Topic 43 of the Well Collectibles Conference.

Meriwether, Colyer. Publications of the Southern History Association, v. 4. Southern History Association, 1900.

Rulau, Russell. Hard Times Tokens: 1832-1844, 6th Ed. Krause Publications, 1996.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Shipwreck and Treasure of the S.S. Central America

Originally named the SS George Law until shortly before it sank in a hurricane, the SS Central America was a sidewheel steamship that by September 1857 was regularly shuttling passengers and cargo between Panama and New York City. The California Gold Rush had been going on for almost a decade. Both passengers and gold, in the form of coins, ingots, and nuggets, regularly traveled from California to New York. Typically the route consisted of a sidewheel steamer from San Francisco to Panama, across the isthmus via railroad, and then sidewheel steamer from Panama to New York.

On September 3, 1857, the SS Central America set out from Aspinwall, Panama to New York City with a one night stopover in Havana, Cuba. The ship was carrying over 400 passengers and crew, and about $2.6 million dollars worth of gold onboard. Later, that treasure would prove to have a numismatic value estimated at over $100 million.

The Storm

On September 12, 1857, the ship sank about 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina during a hurricane. Of the over 400 passengers and crew, it is believed that only 153 survived which included all of the women and all but one of the children. The only child to die was a boy who refused to get into a lifeboat without his older brother being allowed to join him.

Among the survivors were Ansel and Addie Easton. They were newlyweds having recently been married in California on August 20 and headed to New York on their honeymoon. A hundred and forty years later, the Easton’s leather-bound trunk would be recovered intact. In it were clothing, pistols, jewelry, and other items. Some of Mr. Easton’s shirts were custom-made with his name marked on them which identified Mr. Easton as the owner of the trunk.

The Discovery

During the 1980s, Tommy Thompson, Bob Evans, and others from the Columbia-America Discovery Group located the wreck of the SS Central America. It was located in eight thousand feet of water off the coast of North Carolina. The ship’s bell forged by the Morgan Iron Works would provide positive identification that the SS Central America had indeed been found.

The Treasure

Using a robotic submersible named Nemo, the Columbia-America Discovery Group 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. Over 5,000 $20 gold double eagles dated 1857 from the San Francisco Mint were recovered. The large number of gem 1857-S $20 double eagles made a gem Type 1 (1850-1866 with no motto) double eagle a possibility for many collectors that previously could not have afforded one. The numismatic value of the treasure was estimated to exceed $100 million.

The Auctions

The first public offering of SS Central America treasure occurred on June 20-21, 2000 by Sotheby’s in New York having been rescheduled from December 1999 due to legal issues. The gold offered in that first sale represented the portion of the treasure that was awarded to a consortium of underwriters of the SS Central America or their successors. It consisted of a combination of gold coins, ingots, and placer gold nuggets.

A second public auction of SS Central America treasure occurred on December 14, 2000 by Christie’s in New York. The gold offered in this auction was from among the gold awarded to the Columbus-America Discovery Group and later sold to The California Gold Marketing Group led by Dwight Manley. The sale included coins, ingots, and many curious and interesting pieces that were either fused together, or still encrusted as they were found in the shipwreck.


Bowers, Q. David. A California Gold Rush History featuring the treasure from the S.S. Central America. Newport Beach: The California Gold Marketing Group, 2002.

Christie's (Firm). Gold Rush Treasures from the SS Central America in Association with Spink: auction sale December 14, 2000 at New York, New York. New York: Christie’s, 2000.

Kinder, Gary. Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.

Song, Paul and Dan Trout. Sotheby’s letter to clients, 20 May 2000.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tennessee Hoard of 19th Century U.S. Gold Coins

Everyone likes a good mystery and the Tennessee Hoard certainly fits the bill.

The Discovery!

In 1985, city workmen in Jackson, Tennessee were busy working on a downtown municipal parking lot when a bulldozer apparently unearthed a container-pot or glass jar filled with hundreds of gold coins. The gold coins were said to have been quarter eagles ($2 1/2), half eagles ($5), eagles ($10), and double eagles ($20) dated as early as the 1830s and as late as 1858. Supposedly the Philadelphia, New Orleans, Charlotte, and Dahlonega mints were all represented.

However, the exact quantities by denomination and mint mark is unknown because as soon as the coins were unearthed, the workmen made off with most of them before police could cordon off the area. Eventually, the city was able to account for some of the coins, but most had been quickly sold to gold dealers with the finders keeping everything confidential.

In the end, it has been estimated that about $4,500 face value in gold coins was recovered with a possible numismatic value in excess of $1 million. Gold dealers that evidently examined and purchased some of the hoard, reported among the hoard approximately one hundred 1853-P quarter eagles, dozens of 1854-O and 1858-O eagles, and a rare 1856-D quarter eagle. The 2007 Redbook lists an 1856-D quarter eagle in MS-60 at over $67,000 alone.

While many of the recovered coins handled by dealers were said to be high grade, others were said to have deep gouges and heavy scratches due to damage from being excavated. Others were apparently damaged from careless cleaning afterwards which left major hairlines on their surfaces.

The Mystery!

The real mystery surrounding this hoard comes from trying to determine just how the coins came to be buried in Jackson in the first place.

An early theory was that the coins may have been buried by someone trying to hide them from advancing Union troops during the Civil War.

Later, a theory that seems to have gained broad acceptance, although with no real evidence, is that the coins are the loot from a bank robbery in 1858. The story is told that a bank in Jackson was robbed and a cashier killed. The robbers made off with $8,000 of which $4,500 was said to be in gold coins. The bank robbery was never solved.

The interesting tidbit that seems to tie these coins to those of the robbery comes from the belief that the municipal parking lot was on the site of the former home of the bank's president in the 1850s. If true, the estimated amount of gold coins recovered appears to match that of the coins stolen in the robbery. This would seem to implicate that the bank president may have used the robbery as a cover to steal the gold himself and later report the missing coins as part of the robbery.

Wait! . . . Maybe the original theory was right!

I believe there is a possibility that the original theory was right. The hoard may have been hidden in order to keep it safe from advancing Union troops. There is just such a story about a woman in Jackson, Tennessee who did just that. The story appears to have been written in the late 19th or early 20th century. As far as I know, I am the only one to ever consider the following story as being associated with the Tennessee Hoard.

The story concerns the family of a Jackson plantation owner by the name of John Woolfolk (also seen as Woolfork). Apparently John died shortly before the Civil War started and left his fortune to his widow. In June 1864, as Union raiders were approaching her home, John's widow took her fortune of gold coins from her home and buried them. Later, she showed her young daughter where she buried the coins but died before she could retrieve them herself.

Some years following the war, after the daughter had become an adult, the daughter attempted to retrieve the hoard but she could not remember the location they were buried. She and her family were never able to recover the coins.

Could the Tennessee Hoard be the widow Woolfolk's gold?

While I haven't had time to investigate fully, I have checked to see that the Woolfolk theory is at least plausible.

The Woolfolks of Jackson, Tennessee

There was a large Jackson, TN, landowner named John Woolfolk and his wife Almira who were in their thirties in 1850. Living with them were probably their children and an older John Woolfolk and his wife Mildred, probably the grandparents to the children. By 1860, John and Almira have disappeared (possibly dead), while their children are living with their probable grandparents John and Mildred. John is in his 80s with Mildred at least 10 years younger.

I believe that if the story is true, Mildred is the widow in the story and the young daughter to which she shows the location of the gold is actually one of her granddaughters, possibly Elizabeth Woolfolk.

Unsolved Mysteries

How much gold was actually recovered in 1985 and who took it? Did the bank president actually steal the gold from his bank and bury it on his property? Or was the hoard the same gold buried by the widow Woolfolk to keep it out the Union raiders hands? If not, where is the Woolfolk gold today?

The Tennessee Hoard remains one of those mysteries that will probably never be solved. However, if I was a current owner of land that used to be part of the Woolfolk plantation, I guarantee I'd be out scouring that land with a metal detector.


Winter, Douglas, and Greg Lambousy, and David Ginsburg. Gold coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909. Irvine: Zyrus Press, 2006.

Bowers, Q. David. "Tennessee Treasure Mystery." (May 1, 1998). (accessed January 27, 2009).

Yore Treasures Inc., "Little Cache Sites," (accessed January 27, 2009). Originally published in Duffy, Howard, "Ten Little-Known Cache Sites," Treasure Magazine vol. 16, no. 4 (April 4, 1985).

Kellyco Metal Detector Superstore. "City Workers Find Pot of Gold." (accessed January 27, 2009).

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