The siren song of gold called from California to every corner of the country. Across the nation, men (and a much smaller number of women) sold their possessions, borrowed money, and spent their savings to get themselves to the Promised Land. The journey, however, was perilous. Prospective gold miners, called ’49ers for the year (1849) that the Gold Rush started, traveled overland across mountain ranges, sailed to Panama, and sailed around Cape Horn – all to reach California.
Just as dangerous in some ways was the trip from California to the East Coast. One ship that regularly made that journey was the SS Central America, a 280-foot, wooden-hulled steamer. Launched in 1853, the steamer operated continuously on the Atlantic leg of the San Francisco–New York Panama route.
In September 1857, the SS Central America, laden with passengers and two tons of gold and coins from San Francisco, sank in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. 425 people perished, and the loss of the wealth contributed to the Panic of 1857, a depression felt around the world.
The Maritime Bounty is Discovered
For 131 years, the precious cargo lay nestled at the bottom of the sea, presumed lost forever. In 1988, a team using a remotely operated vehicle discovered the ship 160 miles off the coast at a depth of 7,200 feet. Gold estimated to be worth $100–150 million was recovered. Recovery lasted four years and covered about 5% of the shipwreck site.
The excitement didn’t stop there: The founder of the discovery company became embroiled in legal battles related to the shipwreck, and he and his assistant went on the lam in 2012. The fugitives were found by U.S. Marshals and extradited to Ohio in 2015.
In 2014, a deep-ocean exploration firm began archaeological recovery of the ship. They discovered gold coins, nuggets, ingots, and dust. The coins included foreign gold and territorials as well as $20 Double Eagles, $10, $5, $2.50, and $1 gold coins. The coins date 1823–1857, with one scientist calling the hoard a “time capsule” of all coins in use in 1857.
Some standout coins from the SS Central America include $20 Liberty Double Eagle gold coins. The Liberty Double Eagle was authorized by Congress in response to the California Gold Rush, and was then minted for over 50 years. The obverse features a classic Greek Lady Liberty in profile wearing a crown bearing the word LIBERTY. The reverse shows a heraldic eagle holding a shield, an olive branch and arrows clutched in his talons.
In the first year (1850) that the Liberty Double Eagle was minted, 1.1 million coins were produced. After that, far fewer were minted, and the Civil War also dramatically impacted their production. These coins are less frequently found than the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles that replaced them in 1907.
Coins recovered from shipwrecks are renowned for several qualities.
Firstly, they are rare. Of the thousands of ships that have sunk, few are recovered, and far fewer still have viable coins aboard.
Secondly, shipwreck coins are rare historical artifacts, a glimpse into America’s past.
And finally, many shipwreck coins have retained their details, luster, and full strikes, making them prized by collectors.
If you have a chance to get your hands on an SS Central America Liberty Double Eagle, consider it the opportunity of a lifetime. Life Magazine called the shipwreck’s bounty “…the greatest treasure ever found”.
1857 Historical Events Timeline
February – Congress outlaws foreign currency as legal tender
Before this, foreign coins like the Spanish dollar have been widely used in the US. In 1830, for example, about 25% of all coins in circulation were of Spanish colonial origin. Currency in the US has been a freewheeling enterprise for much of our history, and includes many kinds of privately issued currency. The Coinage Act of 1857 limits the money supply and gives the federal government greater control over it.
March – The Dred Scott decision
In March, the United States Supreme Court rules that anyone whose ancestors were imported from Africa as slaves, whether now enslaved or free, is not an American citizen. The decision is lauded by Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America. Opponents of the decision call it an offense to liberty and a victory of the slave states over the free states.
August – The Panic of 1857 starts
In August, the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company fails. Across the country, other banks start to collapse. The panic leads to a depression that lasts three years. This period ends the prosperity that followed the Mexican–American War and the California Gold Rush.
September – The Mountain Meadows massacre
From September 7–11, 1857, during the Utah War, a militia attacks the Baker–Fancher emigrant wagon train in southern Utah. The wagon train has been traveling to California through the Utah territory, and has stopped to camp at a meadow when the militia attack. The militia tries to give their attack party the appearance of Native Americans to disguise their identity, but, fearing that the militia’s true identity has been recognized, the militia commander orders a massacre. The massacre makes the papers, including one headline that reads “More Outrages on the Plains!!”