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) http://www.limunltd.com/numismatica/articles/hard-times-tokens.html (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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