"Extremely Valuable" Gold Coins Resurfacing From 19th-Century Shipwreck

An illustration of the 1838 Steamship Pulaski disaster resulting from a boiler explosion. Charles Ellms/Wikimedia Commons

A recent excavation of a 19th-century shipwreck off the coast of South Carolina is turning up a handful of “extremely valuable” gold coins –  and it could be just the beginning of a much more lucrative discovery. 

Marine archaeologists with Blue Water Ventures International, Inc. (BWVI) have been diving on the wreck site of the Steamship North Carolina since September. The steamship sank on July 25, 1840, after colliding with its sister ship Governor Dudley.

All those aboard the sinking vessel were quickly transferred to the Governor Dudley and no lives were lost. However, baggage and cargo sank, including hard currency on the vessel that could be worth millions in today’s value. Among them were gold coins from US Mint in Dahlonega, Georgia, a newly commissioned outfit that minted in 1838 – just two years before the collection sank. If found, experts say they are sought after in today’s market.

“These wrecks from the early 1800s always have the potential for rare early American minted coins, and other unique items from the day. The United States experienced an early gold rush in the southern states of Georgia and North Carolina in the 1820s and 30s,” Keith Webb, President of BWVI, told IFLScience in an interview.

So far, BWVI tells IFLScience that they have recovered three American $5 gold coins, two of which had been minted in 1838 and another in 1836. All are in good condition and will be conserved, cleaned, and graded by a numismatic conservation company.

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Additionally, BWVI has found marble, dinnerware, and brass spikes that were used in the construction of the ship, all of which provide a window to peek at what life was like nearly two centuries ago.

“Every wreck is unique in its own way. This one happens to be a small time capsule of the early 1800s. To see and understand how mobile society was back then, what they traveled with, what their days were like, there are lots of clues to uncover,” said Webb.

The North Carolina wreck site is located off the coast of South Carolina between depths of 18 and 24 meters (60 and 80 feet). Sea conditions in the area are unpredictable and can be beautifully calm in the morning and blowing 40 knots by lunchtime, said Webb. Divers use magnetometer surveys, a mapping technique used to detect changes in the magnetic field from minerals in the sand. A magnetometer picks up on the magnetic properties of metal or iron items associated with the ship.

“We have to watch the weather conditions carefully for crew safety. The actual wreck lies between five and ten feet of sand, so it’s not an easy recovery,” he added.

Researchers say they will continue their recovery efforts through November, weather permitting.

Their next project includes relocating the American steamer Pulaski. The vessel sank on June 14, 1938, following a boiler explosion that resulted in the loss of two-thirds of those on board. Just 59 people survived. The ship was found in 2018 and nicknamed the “Titanic of its Time,” reported the Charlotte Observer. Last year’s hurricane season shifted sand and debris field.

Blue Water Ventures International, LLC

Underwater Marine Archaeologist James Sinclair examining the SB North Carolina site. BWVI

 

 
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