Party Like It’s 1857

Small coins with huge historical significance

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(Photo courtesy Professional Coin Grading Service.)

By Donn Pearlman

Donn Pearlman

My numismatic clock has been turned back 161 years as I repeatedly think about life – and pocket change – during the California Gold Rush in 1857.

The reason for this reverie is recently seeing in person amazing California fractional gold coins recovered during the last mission to the fabled “Ship of Gold,” the SS Central America, that sank in 1857 on a voyage from Panama to New York City. Many of these privately minted coins are now the finest known, with 54 of them designated as proof-like.

Small gold coins in denominations of 25 cents, 50 cents, and $1 were struck in the San Francisco area in the 1850s to meet the demand for circulating money. There were 112 California fractionals among more than 3,000 gold coins recovered in 2014 from the SS Central America in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Carolinas. They recently were examined in detail, cataloged, and certified by Professional Coin Grading Service.

“This is the finest known group of its kind in history,” declared Dwight Manley, managing partner of the California Gold Marketing Group that acquired all of the available SS Central America sunken treasure. “It’s a true time capsule!”

When you look at these historic gold pieces, you are mentally back in the Ol’ West. 

David Hall, PCGS co-founder, recalled. “At one point as I looked at all of the fractional gold coins together it was almost a startling out of body experience for me. I imaged myself in a restaurant or a bar in 1857 as I wondered what a steak and beer would cost back then? Would I have to give them a 50-cent gold piece or a $1 gold piece? It was like being there in 1857!”

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The mental time machine also went into gear for Bob Evans, the chief scientist on the 1980s missions that first located and recovered a portion of the fabulous SS Central America treasure and then assisted with the last recovery from the ship.

“When we first saw these coins lying in the shipwreck’s debris field, I realized how it illustrated the importance of California fractional gold in the day-to-day commerce of 1857 California. For instance, 11 of these delightful little coins were mingled within one remarkable jumble of 264 pieces of gold currency: 236 U.S. gold coins of every denomination and 17 foreign gold coins,” Evans explained.

In all, 82 world gold coins representing 10 different countries were retrieved from about 7,000 feet under the ocean’s surface during the last expedition. Why were there dozens of world coins on the ship? Esteemed numismatic researcher Q. David Bowers explained: “In San Francisco in 1857 all sorts of foreign gold coins were legal tender. Back then, these coins were not of any particular notice or importance, but today they are numismatic treasures!”

So, that’s why I want to party like it’s 1857.

Former award-winning Chicago journalist and broadcaster, Donn Pearlman, has been a consultant to the California Gold Marketing Group since 2000.

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