Untangling the Mystery of the "Seawater Uncs" (Ashley-Gordy Gold)
by John M. Kleeberg (abridged and edited by Daniel Frank Sedwick)
Since at least the 1960s, numismatists have been aware of the importance of shipwrecks as “time capsules” that can tell us what coins were in circulation on the date each ship sank. At first this only applied to Spanish coins, since the early recoveries were from sunken Spanish treasure fleets of 1622, 1715, and 1733. But the past two decades have seen the recovery of the Central America (1857), the Brother Jonathan (1865), the Republic (1865) and the New York (1846), supplying evidence that is important for the study of coinage in the nineteenth century United States as well. This article discusses another group of shipwreck U.S. coins whose shipwreck provenance was uncertain when they hit the market in the early 1970s.
Since the 1970s, texts on U.S. gold coins from Southern branch mints (New Orleans [O], Charlotte [C] and Dahlonega [D]) have included a mysterious group simply called “seawater uncs” or “saltwater uncs.” Walter Breen described these “seawater uncs” in the section on half eagles in his 1988 Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins:
Many survivors from Southern branch mints (notably 1843-O, 1853-55 C, 1852-55-D) show full mint sharpness but dull matte surfaces; these are known as “seawater uncs.” They were retrieved from a wrecked ship, said to be a Confederate transport, sometime before 1974. Details have not yet become available, but the hoard also included double eagles and probably other denominations.
Breen then used the expression “seawater uncs” to refer to 1854-S double eagles that came from the Yankee Blade, thus giving the mistaken impression that Yankee Blade was the name of the Confederate transport
Q. David Bowers began to straighten out this tangled tale in his 1997 book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards. He pointed out that the etching on the 1854-S double eagles was lighter than that seen on the Southern branch-mint coins. Bowers proposed that three shipwrecks were involved: one with the 1854-S double eagles, one with the coins from the Southern branch mints, and a third with double eagles dated 1855-S and 1856-S.
Although Yankee Blade would make a good (albeit somewhat counter-intuitive) name for a Confederate transport, that ship had nothing to do with the Confederacy. The Yankee Blade was a notorious shipwreck, because after it rammed a hidden reef off Point Arguello, California, on October 1, 1854, the crew and the steerage passengers plundered the ship of money and alcohol. Breen cited two appearances of 1854-S coins from the wreck, both in the Superior section of the 1982 Apostrophe Auction, one encrusted and clearly from the sea. Both lots supposedly came from a find by divers off Anacapa Island near the Santa Barbara coast. However, this location is probably incorrect, due to a conflation of the Yankee Blade wreck with another nearby shipwreck, the Winfield Scott, which did sink off Anacapa Island on December 2, 1853. The real origin had to be the Yankee Blade of 1854, but that wreck could not explain the coins from Southern branch mints with heavy etching, nor the 1855 and 1856 coins.
Joining U.S. coin research with treasure-hunting research provided the answers. The 1972 edition of John S. Potter, Jr.’s Treasure Divers Guide mentioned a discovery of gold coins in March 1963 by Albert Ashley and James Gordy of Fort Pierce, Florida. The coins bore the denominations $1, $2.50, $5, $10, $20, and were dated between 1834 and 1856. The story was fleshed out by several references: a May 12, 1968 article by Don Wharton entitled “What actually happened in those Florida treasure hunts” in Empire Magazine (Sunday color supplement of the Denver Post), partially reprinted in Reader’s Digest, June 1968; an article by the State of Florida archeologist Carl Clausen in the July 1968 Florida Historical Quarterly entitled “The Fort Pierce American Gold Find”; and a discussion of silver coins in Alan Craig’s 2000 book Spanish Colonial Silver Coins in the Florida Collection. The Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research and the Florida Master Site File also provided further information. Here is a summary:
During the Third Seminole War, army paymaster Major Jeremiah Yellot Dashiell was traveling to Fort Capron on the Indian River on the east coast of Florida with a leather pouch containing $23,000 in gold that had been withdrawn from the sub-treasury in Charleston, South Carolina. On May 1, 1857, Dashiell’s schooner transport had to anchor outside the Indian River Inlet because sandbars made it too hazardous for the ship to pass through the inlet. Dashiell boarded a small boat for the trip to the fort, but a freak wave swamped the boat. Although the passengers were saved, the leather pouch sank to the bottom of the inlet and was swallowed by “quicksand” (an important point, as we shall see), and could not be recovered. Major Dashiell applied to Congress for relief from responsibility from the loss, which was apparently granted, but a few weeks later in 1857 he suffered a mysterious theft of $13,000 in gold while staying overnight at a hotel in Palatka, Florida. The Federal government concluded that Major Dashiell was either extremely unlucky or extremely crooked, and dismissed him from service on July 10, 1858. Later, during the Civil War, Dashiell held the rank of colonel while he served the State of Texas as adjutant-general and inspector-general. After the war he lived in San Antonio and edited the Herald. His application in 1888 for a pension from the Federal government on the basis of service in the Mexican War was refused because of the circumstances of his discharge from the army in 1858.
In March 1963, while fishing for crawfish, Albert N. Ashley and teenager James R. Gordy found Dashiell’s coins in the Atlantic Ocean. On July 2, 1964, James Gordy’s father, Ken F. Gordy, obtained a lease from the State of Florida to salvage the coins under the standard terms of three quarters to the finders with the remaining quarter to the State. In September 1964 the salvagers and the State divided the 582 gold coins reported to have been found. What the finders did not tell the State was that they had actually recovered more than 2,700 gold coins in 1963, many of which they secretly sold.
By 1967 Ashley and the Gordys had fallen out among themselves and the true story emerged, whereupon Ashley and the Gordys were sued by the State of Florida in 1968. They had complicated the matter by borrowing heavily from the St. Lucie County Bank (which later merged into SunTrust), using the coins as collateral for the loan. When the trouble began in 1967, the St. Lucie County Bank locked up the coins in escrow (while still accruing interest).
On April 17, 1972, the litigants concluded a stipulation under which the coins would be sold to satisfy the indebtedness to the St. Lucie County Bank. Then the remaining coins would be split, with 55% of the appraised value going to the State of Florida, and 45% of the appraised value to the finders, Albert N. Ashley and James R. Gordy, to split evenly among themselves. Ken F. Gordy was to receive no coins.
As of June 6, 1972, the indebtedness to the St. Lucie County Bank amounted to $11,408.28. The litigants wanted to sell as few coins as possible to satisfy the debt, so they chose to sell the more-valuable double eagles. A Mr. Ronald Sibley of Kissimmee, Florida, offered to pay $90 for each double eagle, but the litigants did not accept this offer. Instead they sold 114 double eagles to World-Wide Coin Investments Ltd. in Atlanta, Georgia, at the price of $101 per coin. (A further round of litigation by the State of Florida was dismissed in 1973.)
As Q. David Bowers points out in his book, hundreds of “seawater unc” $20 gold coins suddenly came onto the market in the 1970s, some 1854-S from the Yankee Blade but also some 1855-S and 1856-S that could not have come from that ship. Bowers himself acquired a few dozen of the 1855-S and 1856-S double eagles from World-Wide Coin Investments Ltd. and offered the final group of eighteen 1856-S double eagles in a 1973 Coin World advertisement touting “a rather remarkable purchase” “from a sunken treasure ship off the coast of Florida.” Amazingly, nobody made the connection to the Ashley-Gordy find and the sale of the coins to settle the bank debt just the year prior.
Because of the litigation, we know the total face value of the gold coins found by Ashley and Gordy came to $23,010.50, nearly exactly corresponding to the $23,000 that Dashiell claimed to have lost, which suggests that Ashley and Gordy recovered the entire cache. Their find comprised the following gold coins: $1 (508), $2.50 (787), $5 (929), $10 (490), and $20 (550); as well as the following silver coins: 5˘ (28), 25˘ (83), 50˘ (26). While we do not know the date and mint for every denomination, the number of each date is known for the $1 pieces from Philadelphia: 1849 (5), 1850 (6), 1851 (25), 1852 (20), 1853 (72), 1854 (15), 1855 (5), 1856 (7); in addition to four $1 pieces from New Orleans dated from 1849-O to 1855-O. Another precise list we have is the 195 coins remaining from the find as of June 30, 1972, to be divided among the State of Florida, Albert N. Ashley, and James R. Gordy, consisting of these combinations:
$1 (2): 1850-O; 1855
$2.50 (7): 1843-O; 1851-O; 1852-C; 1854 (2); 1855; 1856
$5 (21): 1834; 1838 (2); 1841 (2); 1843-C; 1844-O; 1846 (2); 1846-D (2); 1850-C (2); 1850-D; 1853-D;
1854-C (2); 1855-D (2); 1856-C; 1856-D
$10 (7): 1839; 1845; 1847 (2); 1849 (2); 1850
$20 (158): 1850 (7); 1850-O (6); 1851 (10); 1851-O (4); 1852 (17); 1852-O (3); 1853 (23); 1853-O (5);
1854 (15); 1854-S (3); 1855 (26); 1855-S (7); 1856 (11); 1856-S (20); 1857-S
Beyond those figures, we must rely on tabulations of “seawater uncs” in the published works by Walter Breen, Douglas Winter (Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint, 1838-1861, 1997, and Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint, 1836-1861, 1998), and David W. Akers (United States Gold Coins: An Analyis of Auction Records, 1975-1982), as well as the Bowers & Merena 1999-2000 auctions of the Harry Bass Collection, summarized as follows:
$2.50: 1846-C; 1846-D; 1846-O; 1856-C
$5: 1834; 1835; 1836; 1840-D; 1840-O; 1842; 1843-C; 1843-O; 1844-O; 1845; 1846; 1846-C; 1846-D;
1847-C; 1848-C; 1848-D; 1850-C; 1852-C: 1852-D; 1853-D; 1854-D; 1855-C; 1855-D; 1856-C; 1856-D; 1856-S
$10: 1842, small date; 1842-O; 1843; 1844-O; 1845-O; 1846/5-O; 1847; 1847-O; 1848
$20: 1855-S; 1856; 1856-S
Note, however, that “seawater uncs” are only mentioned by Akers and Winter if the date and mintmark combination does not occur in high grade; for common dates, “seawater uncs” rank too low to be listed in condition censuses. Thus the above analysis probably omits many common date and mintmark combinations.
One final point is how the Ashley-Gordy coins acquired the dull matte surfaces that Bowers recognized as being more etched than the Yankee Blade coins. Recall that Dashiell said he could not retrieve the leather pouch from the inlet bottom because it sank below the “quicksand.” As leather generally does not survive in salt water, it can be assumed that the coins eventually lost their confinement and were abraded by the loose sand, an effect seen on some Spanish shipwreck gold coins as well and often referred to as “sandwashing.” It is the combination of this abrasion with the dates up through 1856 and the Southern branch mintmarks that make the Dashiell gold recognizable today.
For further reading see John M. Kleeberg’s book, Numismatic Finds of the Americas: An Inventory of American Coin Hoards, Shipwrecks, Single Finds, and Finds in Excavations (New York: American Numismatic Society, 2009).
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