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). http://www.pcgs.com/articles/article292.chtml (accessed January 27, 2009).

Yore Treasures Inc., "Little Cache Sites," http://www.yoretreasures.com/yore.htm (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." http://www.kellycodetectors.com/Finds/misc/pot_of_gold.htm (accessed January 27, 2009).

Labels: , ,