A Dollar's Worth Of History
By: Glenn F. Harbour
Sandy Hook, New Jersey can be considered a window of American history. In fact, the general area around the Hook is referred to as "The Gateway," and it is indeed a portal of our country's past. It began with a few intrepid English and Dutch colonists who settled in what would become Monmouth County in the late 1640s.
After the county was named and sparsely populated by farmers, the local inhabitants decided to erect a lighthouse on the Hook's point to safeguard ships against the hazards of the treacherous Jersey Shore. Funded by lottery, the beacon was completed in 1764 and is now the oldest continuously functioning lighthouse in America.
During the Revolutionary War the British (who occupied New York City from 1776 until the end of the War) used New York Harbor and Sandy Hook Bay as the main port for their navy. Americans loyal to the Crown set up what was referred to as a refugee camp on the Hook. In return for the protection that the Royal Navy supplied, these Tories provided King and country with services, produce, and military aid.
In 1864, during the height of the Civil War, the federal government attempted to erect a granite fort on the north end of the Peninsula. The structure was to be named after one of the Union's greatest war generals, Winfield Scott Hancock. The site was abandoned before completion, but by the turn of the century Fort Hancock had evolved into the most important proving grounds on the East Coast. During both world wars the fort hosted army inductees, and soldiers who were trained there eventually were shipped overseas for combat.
By the mid 1970s, after a short stint as a Nike limited range missile station, Fort Hancock was officially decommissioned and returned to the public in the form of Gateway National Park. Areas that were once top secret and full of danger are now fished from and full of rest and relaxation. Sandy Hook also happens to be one of my favorite spots to beachcomb for hidden treasures, and since it's only ten minutes from my home in the Highlands, I can often be found studiously hunched over the bleached sands that have been mute witness to all this passage of time.
During Colonial times the Hook was actually an island, particularly during the Revolutionary War when the British built a pontoon bridge over the Shrewsbury River for troop movement. This was the end of the line for Clinton's forced march from Philadelphia to New York City in 1778. Halfway there he was intercepted by General George Washington, and the Battle of Monmouth, the last major action in the North, followed.
Fishing huts, clamming hovels and, later, amusement parks and large Victorian hotels bordered the opposite shore of the Shrewsbury in the Highlands. By 1900 (when the town was established), all these activities were buzzing below the Hook. This is why I always search the riverside instead of the ocean end. Antique bottles, children's toys, arcade tokens, military items, and yes, Colonial treasures drift onto the beach with the tide. In fact, in the early 1970s several Portuguese gold pieces from the 1700s were discovered by two locals on the Highlands side of the river after a storm. For several months thereafter thrill seekers from around the country converged on the Jersey Shore in an effort to uproot more gold. However, no other artifacts were ever recovered in connection with the earlier finds.
During the blazing hot summer of 2003, after a very rainy late spring that kept me from my usual beachcombing haunts, I finally arrived on the shores of Shrewsbury early one Saturday in mid July. I was primed and ready to go; it had been months since I last trekked these beaches, and my "keepers" bag was ready to be filled.
It didn't take me long to locate some decent artifacts. Among the larger chunks of broken quartz and seaweed-covered black basalt were shards of antique glass, pottery fragments, and pieces of patina-covered copper and brass. The sun was ablaze, but the tide was well out, so anything worth finding would be easy to spot. Some discoveries that made it into my collecting bag were a turn-of-the-century glass marble, a 1930s toy lead Indian sporting a Winchester, a spent .30 caliber Springfield rifle cartridge (standard issue between 1908 and 1940), and a white metal shaker. These last two relics were leftovers from the heyday of Fort Hancock.
Then I spied something large, metallic, and circular. The off-colored disk was on edge, halfway pushed into the sand, and so was impossible to identify from a standing position. As I eagerly scooped it up, my eyes and body were frozen in disbelief. There in my hand was an old Spanish silver coin- my first piece of real treasure! My knowledge of coins is limited, but I recognized this as a 1796 Charles IV silver pillar dollar.
I flipped the thick, patina-covered coin between my fingers over and over again. What a magnificent piece of early New World history! After a little research, here is its story...
Charles IV, who reigned in Spain from 1780 to 1808, ruled an empire in decline. Spanish dominance over the North American continent had been loosened for several decades by the advances of the English, French, and Dutch. By 1796, Spain's only land holdings were in northern Mexico, California, and Florida. At the mouth of the commercially critical Mississippi, Spain ceded the port town of New Orleans to France by treaty. The town would eventually pass through French hands into the possession of the fledgling United States after President Jefferson shrewdly made what became known as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Napoleon, to finance his despotic drive east through Europe, dumped the millions of acres of unknown wilderness for a mere $15 million dollars. The way was now open for the U.S. to stretch its long legs as far as the West Coast.
The coin was probably mined by Indian slave labor and minted in Mexico City. In two short centuries of warfare, enslavement, and disease the Spanish had wiped out several Native American cultures. Many of these Indian societies would never rise again.
The Spanish pillar dollar was the international denomination upon which the United States based its own new coinage system. During Colonial times this coin was perhaps the most widely recognized and accepted of all European currencies, in part because Spanish silver was so pure. On the piece's reverse are the famous pillars after which the coin is named, flanking the Spanish royal coat of arms. A very Roman looking Charles IV (replete with Caesar-like armor and laurels) adorns the front of the coin. Everything on the coin is readable, and the overall condition is Fair to Good.
Allowing my imagination to wander, I pictured a local Monmouth County Militia veteran from the Revolution losing his hard-earned pay along the shores of the Shrewsbury over 200 years ago. The fisherman turned citizen - soldier may have stood toe to toe against the red-coated British regulars. These were the storm troopers of their day- the elite of the elite. Or maybe he stumbled onto a coveted patch of shade at the Battle of Monmouth, when Washington caught up with Clinton on June 28, 1778 for the longest and hottest single day of combat during the war.
Either way, he certainly would have missed this big, bold reminder of those kings and despots who desperately clung to power over a people they didn't know and lands they'd never see. Their sun was setting, and it was the struggle of this simple fisherman, along with his countrymen in commonality, who ensured that their kind would never rule over the North American continent again.
My pillar dollar is not very valuable (I believe that one in Good condition books for $40-50), but this new addition to my collection is extremely rich in history. I was holding something that likely hadn't been touched by another human hand in over 20 decades. It had survived ten American wars, over 40 presidential elections, countless upturns and downturns in our always volatile economy, thousands of technological changes, and generations of free American citizens. To me, it's the realization of these things that validates our hobby- and therein lies the treasure!
Author's Note: It is important to point out that no metal detecting is allowed anywhere within the Gateway National Recreation Area (National Park Service), which includes all of Sandy Hook. Beachcombing is permitted, however, and all surface finds are the exclusive property of the finder. There are sections on the Shrewsbury River in the Highlands, Middletown, and Sea Bright where metal detecting might be possible with the permission of the property owner; but again, all of Sandy Hook is off limits.