Ahoy! Cal Fractionals Lost at Sea

by Fred N. Holabird


Cal Fractional coins were a bit of an unknown for decades. They have been known to a few collectors since their first issue. Specimens were collected and offered in many of the pre-1900 numismatic auctions. They were a bit of a nuisance, because collectors did not know how to classify them since they were not officially a US produced coin, and little information about them was available. Still, they showed up in early auction catalogs and were collected as heavily as other general or private issue gold coins. Robert Leonard published a fine article in the Brasher Bulletin “Collectors of Small California Gold”, revised for this catalog.

Show illus of early auction listing from toth collCollectors began assembling collections, not knowing positively if they were actually used in circulation until full proof came from their discovery among the salvage of sunken ships. Alas! Treasure! California collectors gladly would trade their pieces of eight for these tiny California coin morsels.

Three of the greatest wrecks of the Gold Rush period are known to have recovered Cal fractional gold coins.

First Hand Glimpse of the Market

When I was a toddler attending Humboldt State University (then “Humboldt State College”), I quickly found out that half the guys were outdoor freaks, just like me. The guys in the dorms were all active athletes who loved being outside. Every weekend, guys were either out fishing (oceans and rivers: steelhead, salmon, trout, halibut, you name it), sluicing for gold, running, or diving. The guys diving on the wrecks were continually coming up with stuff. I drooled over the old coral and shell encrusted bottles, often seen in a little shop in Trinidad. The gold coins went to a coin shop on H Street in Eureka, where I started going in 1971. Never able to afford such luxuries, I regularly stopped by to look and dream. Divers found coins in the Gold Rush wrecks off Trinidad and Crescent City, including the Brother Jonathan. I was hooked.

Back then nobody kept track of what was found. As a recreational hobby, the divers weren’t hard-core coin collectors. I can’t recall anyone ever listing what they found or when, nor publishing any of the data. Who knew that over time, the “treasure” aspect of coin collecting would take off into what it is today.

Here are some notes on famous Gold Rush wrecks that produced gold coins:

SS Tennessee, sank March 6, 1853

The wreck of the Tennessee sits on the headlands outside of San Francisco Bay near the entrance. It was salvaged when it sank, with no loss of life. While passengers, crew, and cargo were all “recovered”, for many years after, salvage efforts were made to get coins and artifacts left behind during the hustle to get off the ship before it forever perished in the sea. The site is now known as “Tennessee Cove”. There is no known list of recovered goods.

Yankee Blade, sank October 1, 1854

This steamer sank off the California coast near Santa Barbara. Long the target of treasure-hunting divers, hundreds of gold coins were recovered over the century after her sinking, and still more with the technological advance of SCUBA. No records were kept of the finds, but many of the coins sold into the numismatic market include “clumps” of 1854-S US $20 coins, still in the hands of collectors today. It has long been rumored that Cal fractional gold coins were recovered, but because recovery efforts were long before the “treasure” craze, there is nothing recorded. Dave Bowers reported in American Coin Treasures and Hoards (1997), that “about 300 specimens” of 1854-S $20s were found, but stated that there was no clear evidence that they came from this wreck other than the “shipwreck effect” appearance of the coins.

Golden Fleece, sank April 22, 1854

The Golden Fleece sank on the rocks at Fort Point on the edge of San Francisco Bay. Like the Tennessee, there was no loss of life. The ship was ultimately sold for salvage, but over the years, divers searched the wreck site for coins and artifacts left behind after salvage efforts finally dismantled the ship on site. While rumors abound about discoveries from 30-40 years ago, there is nothing concrete.

SS Winfield Scott, sank December 2, 1853

This ship wrecked off the coast of Santa Barbara, hitting rocks off Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Islands. There was no loss of life, but the ship ultimately sank in shallow water. Recovery efforts were made immediately, and most of the treasure was recovered within a few weeks. In 1894 a second major salvage operation recovered as much of the metal parts of the ship as possible, possibly including the ship’s bell, in a private collection today. No mention was made of any gold or gold coin, as it was generally thought that the gold was recovered on the initial recovery effort of 1853. But divers in modern times using modern equipment went at it again in the 1950s—1970s, recovering even more gold coins, probably from abandoned passenger belongings.

The first formal record of a fractional Cal gold coin from the Winfield Scott came in 1957. That coin now rests in the Smithsonian, discovered (and traced) in modern times by Totheroh, Bob Lande, and Ken Glickman. In 1967, a suction dredge was used on part of the site, recovering at least two gold nuggets, and an unknown number of coins. Skin Diver Magazine published an article about treasure hunting on the Winfield Scott by Dick Anderson in September, 1969. It enthralled Totheroh and many others. Later that year, it was reported that divers found and recorded other Cal fractional pieces, and the rush was on for more gold coin, which had worked its way deep into rocky crevices through gravity over time. Eventually, many US gold coins, private or territorial California gold coins, and fractional gold pieces were found. The site became a park in 1979, off-limits to treasure hunters.

Jack Totheroh authored a book on the subject published by the Ventura County Historical Society, entitled Small Change; California Small Denomination Gold and the Wreck of the Winfield Scott (2003). Totheroh’s article discusses the wreck in detail, as well as the subsequent salvage efforts over the next century and more. He reported that numerous authors have claimed that more than 200 Cal gold pieces were recovered from the Winfield Scott, though only 57 were eventually specifically inventoried as known today. Undoubtedly, Totheroh tried to run down the many divers who searched the Winfield Scott, hoping to obtain their caches of Cal gold coins. According to his son, he never found any.

Rumors of up to 200 additional California fractional pieces found by the early divers abound in the Santa Barbara area. For more than twenty years (1970s—1990s), these rumors were traced and investigated by many collectors, but to no avail. If they ever existed, they have probably now been disbursed into coin collections.

After the “embargo” on the Winfield Scott site in 1979, treasure hunters were still at it. Anxious to put a “halt” to the illegal treasure salvage operations, a sting operation took place in 1984, as stated in Small Change. One of the early collectors related to me recently that treasure hunters regularly ignored the law. This gentleman (we’ll call him “Mr. Smith”) related to me a story about one of the more famous of the local Santa Barbara treasure hunters (I’ll leave his name out as well). Mr. Smith had met the guys, who had said they were out fishing, and needed some help getting something ashore, and asked Smith if he could take a dingy out and meet them at the boat. Smith, an avid fisherman as are many residents of this coastal community, pestered them with questions about what they had caught. None of the answers made sense, so he dropped the subject. It wasn’t until years later that he learned that the ship was anchored over part of the Winfield Scott site, and he was being used as a mule to get treasure on land and away from the ship.

A summary of the published 57 Cal gold coins from the Winfield Scott follows. None are holdered (certified by a grading service) with a special label:

Quarters: Octagonal: 5 found, all BG 101.

Round: 18 found. These are BG 204 (1), 205 (1), 206 (1), 209 (2), 217 (1), 222 (2), 223 (10).

Half Dollars: Octagonal: 3 found, BG 303 (3). It should be noted that the coin illustrated by Totheroh in “Small Change” is a BG 302, not 303, a much more common coin. This inconsistency is currently an unsolvable problem. The data was supplied to Totheroh by others.

Round: 7 found. BG 401 (1), 414 (1), 421 (1), 428 (1), 430 (3).

Dollars: Octagonal: 23 found. BG 514 (1), 519 (2), 525 (1), 526 (2), 530 (15), 531 (2).

Round: None recorded.

SS Central America, sank September 12, 1857

The SS Central America was and is the greatest treasure ship of the California Gold Rush to be salvaged. More than 500 gold ingots and 10,000 gold coins were recovered from an 8,000 foot deep grave in the Atlantic Ocean. The treasure was nearly home to New York on a lengthy voyage from San Francisco after a steamer trip from San Francisco to Panama, then transferred to a train across the isthmus, and loaded once again on a ship for New York from the Atlantic side, only to sink in a violent storm a couple of days from the intended destination. Salvaged in modern times by state-of-the-art technology, the treasure has now sold several times for an amount estimated at about $210 million in aggregate. Wow!

The bulk of the treasure that included the main bullion storage areas has been brought to the surface. An untold millions of dollars in undiscovered treasure remains, partially in passenger coin and gold, according to Bob Evans, chief scientist for the project.

A small part of the recovered treasure was passenger change. Four California fractional gold pieces were recovered. All four are BG 111’s. Evans told me recently that three of the coins came up in the same dredge bucket, and possibly the fourth. They came up with placer gold, a possible indication that they were in a leather “poke” of gold, usually held by passengers. The tiny fractional gold coins had been unseen by the cameras scanning the ocean floor. The recovery process involved vacuuming specific areas that were known to carry gold, as seen by the cameras. The vacuum placed the sludge of mud, sand, placer gold, coins, timber fragments, shells, and other items into one of two “dredge buckets”. The contents of these buckets were carefully and tenderly hand separated, then the remaining material panned, leaving behind the heavy metal objects, mostly placer gold. Three of the four fractional gold coins came up in the same dredge bucket, though panned in separate pans, indicating they were together on the ocean floor. The fourth coin was possibly from the same or the adjacent dredge bucket. The three were encrusted with iron oxide, though not part of a conglomerate cemented by calcium carbonate or iron, as were many other gold coins. The fourth was heavily encrusted. The size of the coins presented great difficulty in the curation and removal of the iron oxide.

Evans reported that each of the pieces was from a later die state, because the bridge of the nose on the obverse was reworked. Bob Leonard stated that the SSCA BG 111’s included two in die state 4. It is unknown what die state the other two are at this time. All four are gold labeled PCGS holdered pieces. At least two of the four are MS 66, and a third MS65. These four are among the most prized Cal fractional gold pieces in existence today.

Abandon Ship!

Aside from the known wrecks of active ships, there were hundreds of ships abandoned in the California gold rush harbors of San Francisco, Humboldt Bay, Trinidad and Crescent City. Other receiving harbors on the American east coast or Hawaii may also have wrecks with California Gold Rush coins. While most of these were truly abandoned prior to sinking, a few “pokes” might have been lost. Got treasure?

Land Treasure – Historic Cornerstones

As this article was being written, a new kind of treasure surfaced—treasure on land! The Nye County Assistant Manager (Joni Eastley, Tonopah, Nevada) called about a discovery in the cornerstone of the Nye County Courthouse. Among a group of items found inside the cornerstone, entombed since June, 1905, is a Cal fractional gold token! This is an exceptionally exciting discovery, since it underlines the importance and significance of these gold coins and tokens through time. The coin was discovered in a metal box, along with various newspapers, documents, fraternal items, booklets about Tonopah, high grade silver ore samples, a Tonopah City Bakery brass token, 1893 Columbian Expo commemorative half dollar, and a small group of foreign coins, perhaps emblematic of the many foreign miners who migrated to the mines of central Nevada.

The Tonopah Court House Cal gold token in the cornerstone was made by Herman Brand in San Francisco about 1890. The token is in great company, with the same coin having been in two other important collections: California gold rush US Assay Office, San Francisco, assayer Augustus Humbert, whose collection sold in 1902, had one to go along with his many private California gold coins, arguably the most important collection of its kind at the time; the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) had one in his collection when it was sold in 1923, according to Mike Locke, Cal gold researcher.

Interestingly, there is a Cal gold token from Tonopah, also dated 1905. There are three or four pieces known, though none were in the cornerstone. Little is known of the source of this rare piece, and one wonders if it was perhaps a gold piece made especially for the celebration of the new court house. It does not resemble the die work of the Hart set coins, and is thus probably not made by Meyer & Co., according to Bill Hyder.

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This is the rare Tonopah Gold Coin of 1905.

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This is the Cal gold token found in the cornerstone of the Tonopah Court House (1905).


Click here to view the California Fractional Gold coins for sale in our upcoming 2013 April Auction

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