US Coins

Territorial gold from SS Central America plentiful

Among the pioneer gold coins recovered in 2014 from the 1857 wreckage of the SS Central America, one is highly distinctive — an 1852 Wass Molitor & Co., Small Head gold $5 coin that bears a countermark.

“This fabulous coin was part of a large deposit of coins in the debris field,” said the salvage expedition’s chief scientist and historian Bob Evans. “I believe those represent gold carried in a parcel by a passenger, the parcel having long since disintegrated, leaving a ‘coin pile.’

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“There were coins of all U.S.-made denominations in this deposit: from double eagles down to quarter-dollar fractionals, as well as three foreign gold coins. There were 172 gold coins total in this assemblage, with an amazing 70 $5s, this little counterstamped wonder among them. Territorials obviously were still widely accepted in day-to-day commerce."

The 2014 mission recovered 105 pioneer or territorial gold pieces total, Evans said. 

Evans curated all of the coins to remove debris and encrustation before the coins were graded. The counterstamped gold piece was graded and encapsulated Very Fine 30 by Professional Coin Grading Service.

The name W.W. LIGHT is stamped incuse on the reverse of the 1852 coin, within an arc across the center of the eagle, with DENTIST below.

William W. Light, according to Gregory G. Brunk in his reference American and Canadian Countermarked Coins, was a practicing dentist in Sacramento, California.

Light had traveled to California in 1849 from Bethel, Ohio, during the Gold Rush. Upon his arrival, Light went to work for J.S. Ormsby and Company, one of the private issuers of pioneer gold coins.

Winfield J. Davis writes about Light in his History of Sacramento County:

“He found employment almost immediately with the Ormsbys, who had set up a mint and were minting gold. Not knowing how to do the annealing, however, they were making bad work of it and were glad to employ the Dr. at $50 a day, to superintend the work, but he shortly after quit that situation and went mining. Trained in dental surgery and medicine, Light was a contemporary of Sacramento druggist J. L. Pohlhemus, whose counterstamp can also be found on territorial gold coins.”

Q. David Bowers, in A California Gold Rush History, indicates Light counterstamped U.S. gold coins after he returned to his dental practice from working with the Ormsbys at their private mint.

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Of the three known advertising countermarks used on gold coins, according to Brunk, two came from Light and Pohlhemus.

The third was the product of silversmiths Stone and Ball of Syracuse, New York.

An Extremely Fine 40 1852 Assay Office of Gold $10 coin bearing the Light counterstamp on its reverse sold in a Heritage Auctions Jan. 9, 2004, sale for $13,225.


“We have finished carefully examining and cataloging the $5, $10 and $20 gold Territorials we took possession of earlier this year that were retrieved from the SS Central America in 2014,” said Dwight Manley, managing partner of the California Gold Marketing Group, which owns the treasure salvaged by Odyssey Marine Exploration and is marketing the treasure to collectors. “There are an unprecedented 50 Kellogg & Co. $20 coins, including two monumentally rare, Uncirculated coins! Ten of those 50 were found together in a pile with other coins on the Atlantic Ocean seabed off the coast of the Carolinas.”

Among the highlights of the SS Central America pioneer gold coins are:

??1854 Kellogg & Co. $20, graded PCGS Mint State 62+.

? 1855 Kellogg & Co. $20, PCGS MS-61.

??Two rare 1855 Wass Molitor Small Head variety $20 gold coins, one graded PCGS About Uncirculated 58 and the other PCGS AU-55.

??A rare 1853 U.S. Assay Office of Gold, 884 THOUS variety, $20, PCGS AU-55+.

“The very rare 884 THOUS variety, representing a gold content fineness of .884 purity, was struck for only eight days in February and March of 1853 before they switched to the more acceptable ‘900 THOUS’ standard,” explains 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 2014 recovery.

“We also found five 1853 Moffat & Co. $20s. It was really exciting to locate these because we didn’t recover any Moffat $20s during any of the earlier expeditions.” 

Gold breakdown

California Gold Marketing Group reports the following breakdown for the 105 pioneer gold coins salvaged in 2014:

$20 (total of 77 coins)

??1854 Kellogg & Co. (26 coins)

??1855 Kellogg & Co. (24)

??1853 Moffat & Co. (5)

??1853 US Assay Office 884 THOUS (1)

??1853 US Assay Office 900 THOUS (19)

??1855 Wass Molitor & Co. Small Head (2)

$10 (13 coins):

??1849 Moffat & Co. TEN DOL. (1)

??1849 Moffat & Co. TEN D. (2)

??1852/1 Humbert (1)

??1852 Humbert (1)

??1852 US Assay Office (3)

??1853 US Assay Office 900 THOUS (1)

??1852 Wass Molitor & Co. Small Head (1)

??1852 Wass Molitor & Co. Large Head (2)

??1855 Wass Molitor & Co. (1)

$5 denomination (15 coins)

??1849 Moffat & Co. (11)

??1850 Moffat & Co. (2)

??1852 Wass Molitor & Co. Small Head (2)

A complete inventory of U.S. and world coins and assayers’ ingots recovered in 2014 will be listed in an upcoming book, America’s Greatest Treasure Ship: The SS Central America, The Second Journey, by Q. David Bowers and Manley. It will be published by the California Gold Marketing Group later this year.

The California Gold Marketing Group LLC of Brea, California, acquired the 2014 treasure from Ira Owen Kane, receiver for Recovery Limited Partnership and Columbus Exploration LLC in a court-approved transaction in November 2017. In 1999, the group acquired all of the available treasure that was recovered in the 1980s.

The SS Central America was a 280-foot-long, three-masted side-wheel steamship carrying tons of California gold that had been shipped from San Francisco to Panama when it sank in a September 1857 hurricane during a voyage from Aspinwall (now Colón), Panama, to New York City. Loss of the gold cargo was among factors in economically devastating financial Panic of 1857 in the United States. 

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