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The E-Sylum (6/2/2013)

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Researcher Dan Owens submitted this great original article on the Lost Gold of the S.S. Central America. Thanks! While Bob Evans established how all the treasure recovered from the wreck was meticulously accounted for, not all of it was able to be brought up from the ocean floor. As noted, a good deal of gold may still be awaiting recovery. Dan has dug into U.S. Mint and other records to paint a more complete picture of what the ship may have be carrying when it sunk in 1857. -Editor

In the year that the S.S. Central America lost her battle in a full blown hurricane, embattled San Francisco Branch Mint Melter and Refiner, Agoston Haraszthy was facing down a storm of his own. More and more questions were beginning to swirl around him regarding the shortfall of gold unaccounted for in the official Mint ledgers. Suspecting the worse, cynics thought Haraszthy was stuffing his pockets with the precious metal. In reality the missing gold was literally being blown up through the Mint's chimney in smoke and soot. Thus changes in personnel and procedure, and Mint improvements were afloat after Haraszthy submitted his resignation early in the year.

In April of 1857, the Branch Mint's policy for receiving all forms of gold including unrefined dust to be coined into double eagles and smaller denominated gold coins was suspended with one notable exception. Refined gold bars of a quality suitable for coinage were accepted.

This temporary change in policy was apparently the equivalent of winning the lottery for gold refineries like the magnificent Eureka Gold & Silver Refinery and the California Metallurgical Works run by Haraszthy's business associate Charles Uznay and the firm of Justh & Hunter or Justh, Hunter & Uznay. The San Francisco Branch Mint's records revealed that from mid to late April through July 28th, 1857, these firms were the dominant depositors of refined gold bars being received at the Mint for coinage. They were supplying the Mint with parted gold bars ranging from 900 to 993 1/2 fine. Three of their bars that assayed out at only 876, 877 and 886 fine were rejected by the Mint.

Just prior to the Branch Mint's re-opening, Justh, Hunter & Uznay submitted a 14.01 oz. gold bar that was 998 1/2 fine. Perhaps they were just showing off their refining capabilities.

The Mint's re-opening for general deposits of gold bullion for coinage sputtered to a start in early August. The opening was subsequently postponed until August 10th. The S.S. Sonora left San Francisco just 10 days later on the morning of the 20th carrying over 400 passengers and almost $1.6 million in commercially consigned gold on the first leg of a journey bound for New York.

The second leg of the journey found the S.S. Sonora's passengers landing in Panama and traveling east across the Isthmus by train to Aspinwall where the S.S. Central America waited to pick them up and carry a little over $1.2 million in commercial gold back to New York City. The rest of the gold shipment was bound directly for Europe.

SS Central American treasure1 Recovered by Columbus-America Discovery Group, the commercial shipment of specie by weight was predominately in the form of 532 gold ingots bearing the hallmarks of several assayers including Kellogg & Humbert and Justh & Hunter. The treasure hunters also salvaged over 5,400 1857-S double eagles, most of them freshly struck, along with over 1,100 1856-S double eagles, 338 1855-S double eagles and a number of other gold coins.

According to the Branch Mint's records, in the days preceding the Sonora's departure from San Francisco, the assay clerk for Wells, Fargo & Co. had received over $110,000 in coin for deposited gold, including $73,116.46 on August 13th. The firm was the largest treasure shipper at the time and had a significant amount of gold onboard the S.S. Central America both in bars and coin.

The same held true for bankers Sather & Church. They received coin totaling over $140,000 from August 14th through August 18th. Once again, some of this coin must have ended up on the Central America. Sather & Church reportedly lost $57,000 over the amount covered by insurance when the ship sank and in November suffered a major run on their bank.

Parrott & Co. received coin totaling $42,475.77 and Tallant & Wilde received coin totaling $16,578.70 in the week preceding the Sonora's departure. Both firms lost significant amounts of treasure on the S.S. Central America. No doubt a sizeable amount was in bar form, but some of it must have been in the commercial consignment of the freshly struck 1857-S double eagles recovered by the treasure hunters. Levi Strauss, the clothing manufacturer, also had specie onboard the lost steamer. On August 17th, Strauss received coin for deposited gold adding up to $7,662.80.

What Remains to be Found?

The total dollar amount of treasure that the passengers carried with them onboard the Central America remains a complex mystery. Some passengers did very well in California while others were homeward bound nearly broke. On the other hand, not all of the passengers carried all of their wealth in physical gold aboard the ship. Several passengers including William McNeil and William Falconer were listed as having had bank drafts onboard the doomed vessel.

Of note, shipwreck survivor Captain Thomas W. Badger reportedly lost up to $20,000 in double eagles stored below deck. A search through the Branch Mint's ledgers, revealed the following names of S.S. Central America passengers who had cashed out at the San Francisco Branch Mint before they began their journey home on the S.S. Sonora.

John D. Dement: First Cabin passenger John D. Dement's name appeared in the Assayer's Register Of Gold Bullion. Deposited on the 11th, reported on the 12th, his gold deposits weighed 65.30 ozs. and 28.48 ozs. respectively and were found to be 829 and 911 1/2 fine after they had been melted, weighed and assayed. He signed the Register of Warrants for the Payment of Gold Deposits on August 15th, and received $1,650.18 in coin.

Robert Erdmann: Second Cabin passenger Robert Erdmann's gold deposit weighed 271.93 ozs. and was 894 1/2 fine, after it was melted, weighed and assayed. On August 17th, he obtained $4,997.03 in coin for his deposit. His last name was spelled as both Edmann and Erdman on published passenger lists. He signed his name as Robert Erdmann in the Branch Mint's record books.

R.C. Farnham: On August 14th, Steerage passenger R.C. Farnham signed the Branch Mint's Signature Book Of Gold and Silver Depositors. His gold deposit weighed 54.04 ozs. and was 936 1/2 fine, after it was melted, weighed, and assayed. On August 17th, Farnham and R.H. Horne (see below) re-visited the Mint perhaps looking for their payments. Farnham noted that his California residence was Pine Grove which I think was located in Sierra County. The following day he received $1,036.65 in coin.

John Fell: On August 10th, when the Mint re-opened, First Cabin passenger John Fell was one of the first depositors in line. His gold deposits weighed 270.13 and 181.63 ozs. respectively and were 876 1/2 and 860 1/2 fine after they were weighed, melted and assayed. Fell's name appeared in the Register of Warrants For The Payment of Gold Deposits on August 13th, where he was paid $4,872.68 and $3,219.71 respectively.

H. Frank: Steerage passenger H. Frank may have been the H. Frank or Henry Frank listed in the Branch Mint's record books. Frank wrote down in the Mint's records that he resided at the corner of Montgomery and Pacific in San Francisco. Henry Franks or Frank, cigar manufacturer, last appeared in the 1857 San Francisco City Directory published in January of 1858 at the NW corner of Montgomery and Pacific. On August 18th, he received $214.64 from the Mint for his gold deposit.

J. Fredet: There was a Steerage passenger onboard the S.S. Central America listed as J. Fredet or possibly M. Fredet. According to the Assayer's Register of Gold Bullion, J. Fredet's gold deposit weighed 74.14 ozs. and was 915 1/2 fine after it had been melted, weighed and assayed. On August 15th, he received $1,392.60 in coin.

B.P. Colt R.H. Horne

R.H. Horne-B.P. Colt: On August 12th, gold miners and Steerage passengers R.H. Horne and Benjamin P. Colt visited the Mint. Both men listed their California residence as being Rabbit Creek. I believe that Rabbit Creek was located in Sierra County. For some unknown reason only Horne decided to get his gold turned into coin. Perhaps Colt did not like the fees the Mint charged. Horne's gold weighed 373.34 ozs. after melting and was recorded as being 866 fine after it was assayed. On August 18th, he received $6,656.85 for his gold deposit.

However the Mint employees made a mistake when they mixed up the cornets of two separate deposits. In turn, they entered the fineness of Horne's deposit at 866 fine when it should have been 940 1/2 fine. Thus a new Mint receipt was issued to make up the difference.

One day before the S.S. Sonora left for Panama, R.H. Horne obtained an additional $534.20 from the Mint. Another gentleman with the last name of Horne from Rabbit Creek also visited the Mint during this time period. I don't know if he was related to R.H. Horne or if he was on the S.S. Central America.

J.D. Howe: Possible Steerage passenger J.D. Howe listed as J.D. Howe or Jas. D. Howe in the Mint's record books had deposited 9.75 ozs. of gold at 820 fine after it was melted, weighed and assayed. On August 17th, he was paid $165.23 for his gold.

J. McLellan: On August 17th, Steerage passenger John McLellan from Murphy's Camp, Calaveras County, visited the Mint and deposited his gold. He signed the Register Of Visitors To The Mint, together with a Hugh McLellan from the same location. According to the Assayer's Register of Gold Bullion, his gold deposit weighed 67.15 ozs. and was 905 1/2 fine after it was melted, weighed and assayed. Deposited on the 17th, reported on the 18th, McLellan's gold was processed right after J.L. Week's deposit (see below). I lost track of his deposit after that. Perhaps after he obtained a receipt for his deposited gold, he did not cash it.

Chilion Moore

C. Moore: On August 11th, First Cabin passenger C. Moore or Chilion Moore visited the Mint with his gold for deposit along with John Fell. Both men listed their California residence as being Deadwood. Bower's grand opus on the S.S. Central America noted that Fell had mined at McAdam's Bar in Siskiyou County. I believe this was just a short distance from Deadwood. Moore's gold weighed 283.37 ounces after it was melted and was determined to be 871 1/2 fine after it was assayed. On August 18th, Moore was paid $5,083.13 for his deposit.

E. Spohn: Steerage passenger E. Spohn, listed as E.L. Spohn in the Branch Mint's records received $153.54 for his deposited gold on August 17th, which may have just covered his ticket home. Spohn's gold weighed 8.26 ounces and was 905 1/2 fine after it was melted, weighed and assayed.

J.L. Weeks: Steerage passenger J.L. Weeks received $351.70 from the Mint on August 19th. Bowers noted that in a written letter from a close friend of Weeks, the author stated that Weeks had $3,000 in his gold belt. Deposited on the 17th, reported on the 18th, his gold weighed 18.83 ounces and was found to be 910 fine after it was melted, weighed and assayed.

The preceding gold deposits were all paid in coin. The Branch Mint was not returning gold bars to its depositors, i.e. miners, merchants and bankers during this time period.

They did return gold bars and coin to their depositors from April 1854 through September 1, 1856, from January through April 5th of 1858, and very briefly in June of 1859.

Regarding any future explorations of the shipwreck site, one has to consider the fact that the commercial shipment of specie was locked away in the strong room of the vessel. As the shipwreck degraded over the years and the wooden boxes containing the treasure were almost entirely eaten away, the gold ended up being exposed in a significant mountain of concentrated wealth.

There is no question that the S.S. Central America's passengers had gold with them. The real question is where did it end up. Some may have given it to the purser for safe keeping, while most probably kept it under their own watchful eyes until the end drew near.

Several miners unbuckled their gold belts and flung their treasure upon the deck, while others refused to let go of their earthly gains and sank with it beneath the waves. At least one gentleman was pulled from the sea with a significant amount of gold dust on him. Another man had a package full of gold fall from his pocket into the sea while trying to barrel roll into a lifeboat unannounced.

One of the more surreal scenes involved eyewitness accounts of passengers throwing gold dust to the wind in the ship's final moments, as if to offer the sea a bounty in order to save one's life. Regardless of the number of double eagles or gold dust remaining at the wreck site, perhaps in the end, it is the story of the passengers lives that is more memorable than the gold they left behind.

In closing, I highly recommend Q. David Bowers masterful work detailing the history of the Gold Rush and the sinking of the S.S. Central America and her recovered treasure. It is a must read and reference work for anyone interested in the fascinating story surrounding this lost and found treasure ship.

SS Central American treasure2

I would like to thank Roger Burdette and Dave Ginsburg for answering an e-mail inquiry I had about Branch Mint records.


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