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)


Blogger AAAChihuahuaJoy said...

The ship went down in 1865 so why does the newspaper showing the raft have a date of 1857?

March 19, 2011 at 7:53 PM  
Blogger AAAChihuahuaJoy said...

This is great fun to see this discovery as it unfolds. I hope to see a follow up search for the rest of the gold.

March 19, 2011 at 7:56 PM  
Blogger A.C. Dwyer said...

Good catch on the image date.

It originally was part of an article reporting on the shipwreck of the S.S. Central America in 1857. The image seemed a good fit and generic enough to illustrate the S.S. Republic story where some survivors also clung to a raft.

I'll remove the image source to avoid confusion and I'll replace the image if I can find a better one specific to the S.S Republic shipwreck.

March 21, 2011 at 8:08 AM  

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