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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (02/2014) AMP (12/2013) Featured Article (04/2014)   Vol. 48 February 2014 
This Month's Features
As seen in the February 2014 edition of W&ET Magazine

How Did This Gold Coin Get Here?

By: Gary J. Petersen

I have been metal detecting for nearly 30 years, and over that period of time I have found a wide assortment of things- common, unusual, special, valuable- and one item of such historical significance that I donated it to the British Museum. I have also found a truckload of pulltabs and pieces of aluminum cans, knives hidden in school shrubbery, drug-related paraphernalia, and large numbers of clad coins.

From the very beginning of my hobby I found treasures, and I quickly developed a list of items that I would like to discover. My list included a large diamond ring, a silver dollar, a really old coin, an Indian Head cent, a Standing Liberty quarter, and a gold coin minted in the United States. Over the years, I checked off the items on my want list one by one- even the "really old coin," a tiny hammered silver Celtic coin from the reign of the King Cunobelin (c. 20 A.D.) which I found in England. However, the American gold coin continued to elude me... until this year.

I live in southern Oregon, an area of the country that does not have a very lengthy record of European settlement compared to the eastern part of the United States. Before the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805, the only European contact with the area that would eventually become Oregon might have been an occasional shipwrecked Spanish sailor. Then between 1810 and 1830 Peter Skene Ogden, a Canadian fur trapper with the Hudson Bay Company, led several fur trade expeditions into the region.

In the 1840s a combination of economic and political events converged to initiate a large-scale migration west on what was originally known as "The Oregon Road." In 1843 a wagon train consisting of 120 wagons, more than 800 people, and 5,000 cattle made the five-month journey. News of the discovery of gold in California in 1848 sent the first wave of fortune seekers west. With the discovery of gold in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon in 1850, a second wave of fortune seekers headed west, followed almost immediately by a third wave of homesteaders and merchants who established farms, homes, businesses, and towns.

By 1854, farmers were well established in the lowlands and valleys of the Rogue Valley, with local people supporting three flour mills that processed locally grown wheat and corn. And as people continued to explore and settle the area, they lost an assortment of objects, including the occasional coin.

Even when I know something about the history of a place, a unique find causes me to study the object and ask myself, "How did this get here?" Such was the case this spring, when I found my first U.S. gold coin.

One weekend, with only 1-1/2 hours to detect, I decided to hunt the grounds of an old schoolhouse located close to a stream that early fur traders used as a travel route. Gold miners later worked this same stream. In time someone established a farm on the west side of the stream. Subsequent settlers built homes on smaller acreages, and eventually they constructed a schoolhouse that was surrounded by a large playground and sports field. The school, playground, and sports field are all still in use today.

After half an hour of sweeping the sports field, I suspected that another detectorist must have hunted there recently because I had found only a few pennies and dimes. I was tempted to try my luck elsewhere but decided to stick it out because I really didn't have enough time to drive to another location.

Usually I hunt with no discrimination and dig all signals. Even though my White's XLT is older technology, it still continues to reward me with treasures, and this particular day was to be no exception. My allotted time was drawing to a close, and I started hunting my way back to the pickup. About 10' from the end of my hunt, the detector registered a strong but unusual signal. I dug a plug, looked into the hole, and saw the reeded edge of a yellowish coin standing upright. At first I thought I'd found a foreign coin, not unusual in this part of the world. I reached down, retrieved the coin, and rubbed the mud off the front. The top portion of a head appeared. "Oh, it's a lousy vending machine token," I muttered. But as I continued cleaning the coin, the full head appeared. It didn't look like any token I'd ever found, but I still didn't recognize what I was holding in my hand.

When I turned the coin over again and rubbed off more mud, the words States of appeared. I rubbed more vigorously. Suddenly the entire back became legible, and I was able to read the legend. Thirteen stars encircled the profile of Liberty, and the date 1837 was clearly legible at the base. I turned the coin over again and examined the face. United States of America 5 D. It was an 1837 $5 gold piece!

I'd searched for such a treasure for more than three decades, yet I hadn't even recognized it when it lay in my hand. For a few stunned moments I just stared at the coin in disbelief. Then I flipped through some mental gymnastics as I simultaneously turned the coin over and over again to assure myself that I wasn't dreaming. As I slowly moved beyond my state of shock and examined the coin more carefully, I noticed some damage- a scrape to the obverse and several rim nicks, perhaps caused by field machinery during the years it lay buried. After I finally processed my find, I drove home in a state of euphoria.

When I researched the coin the next day, I learned that only 207,000 were struck in 1837, a year in which the country experienced a financial crisis due to rampant land speculation. A financial panic had ensued, and gold coins would have been especially valuable to anyone who possessed them.

That $5 gold piece has lured me down several different speculative paths... How did it end up in this playing field? Who lost it? An early gold miner working the stream for his fortune? Perhaps an early trader packing provisions and equipment up to a gold camp up in the hills? Was it part of a farmer's rainy day savings that escaped from a hole in his worn pocket? Part of a robber's cache? Or might the coin have slipped from the pocket of a student walking to school with something to impress his friends?

My family members and I have each chosen a different scenario as to how the coin ended up in the playing field. The "how" will remain shrouded in mystery. What we do know for certain is where it ended up!

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