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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).