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HomeNumismatic TermsSS Brother Jonathan - A Ship Connected to Recovered Gold Coins

SS Brother Jonathan – A Ship Connected to Recovered Gold Coins

SS Brother Jonathan
SS Brother Jonathan

Named for an early symbol of the United States of America (think Uncle Sam meets Daniel Boone), SS Brother Jonathan was a paddle steamer that sank off the coast of California. The Brother Jonathan shipwreck site was found almost 130 years later and hundreds of gold coins were recovered.

It began service in 1851 after being built in Brooklyn, New York. Railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt bought Brother Jonathan in 1852 and changed its New York to Panama route to sail around Cape Horn and head up to California during the Gold Rush. He sold it in 1856, and the steamer was renamed Commodore. It languished for a time, and was bought as a fixer-upper in 1861; it also regained the name Brother Jonathan.

On a voyage from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, on July 30, 1865, the ship had to deal with stormy weather the entire trip. By the time they got to the Oregon coast, the captain made the decision to turn around and return to port in Crescent City, California. Less than an hour later, the ship ran into an uncharted reef (part of the Dragon Rocks formation) in heavy seas and sank off the coast. 219 to 225 people on board died, including several notables: General George Wright, Governor Anson Henry of the Washington Territory and a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln), and James Nisbet.

Deep Sea Research, Inc. located the wreck of Brother Jonathan in the 1990s and carried out a series of recovery dives, recovering 1,207 coins. Most of the coins were 1865-S $20 double eagles. No 1864-S $5 half eagles on board, despite several 1864-S coins being present during recovery. The recovered coins were sold by Stack’s Bowers Galleries precursor Bowers and Merena in 1999. Numismatist Q. David Bowers wrote the book The Treasure Ship S.S. Brother Jonathan, first published that same year.

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of

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