The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 18, May 6, 2007, Article 5


This week I take a look at 'Treasure Ship - The Legend and Legacy of
the S. S. Brother Jonathan' by Dennis M. Powers (Citadel, 2006, 416pp.
List Price: $21.95, but now available from the publisher at 30% off
($15.37)).    Powers is an E-Sylum subscriber and was kind enough to
send me a copy of his book earlier this year.  The book is in the form
of an historical nonfiction novel.  Arranged chronologically, the book
opens with the Brother Jonathan leaving San Francisco on its last,
fatal voyage on July 28, 1865, and ends with the last exploration of
the wreck in 2000 and a discussion of the status of the artifacts.

Comparisons are inevitable to two earlier books:  Gary Kinder's 1998
"Ship of Gold" about the recovery of the S.S. Central America, and Dave
Bowers' 1999 book on the S.S. Brother Jonathan itself.  Frankly, although
I was looking forward to the Powers book, I was wary of finding
significantly new content.  For me the Kinder book was a mind-opening
view into the world of deep sea recovery, and with Dave's typical
multilayered coverage of the numismatic and historical aspects of
whatever subject he tackles, I doubted that another author could add
much to my knowledge of the subject.  But I was wrong.  Powers' book
has a lot to offer and E-Sylum readers should be pleased to know that
numismatics plays a central role in key sections of the book.  It's
a keeper, particularly for anyone with an interest in The "Great Debate"
over the authenticity of disputed western assay bars.

E-Sylum subscriber Alison Frankel (author of Double Eagle: The Epic Story
of the World's Most Valuable Coin) had this to say: “In recounting the
disastrous sinking and miraculous recovery of the S.S. Brother Jonathan,
Dennis M. Powers shows his prodigious research abilities. Every time you
think this story couldn't possibly take another strange turn, Powers
proves that it can, and he does so in highly entertaining fashion.”

The following description is from the publisher's web page for the book:

"Caught in tumultuous seas off the coast of northern California in 1865,
the 220-foot sidewheeler S.S. Brother Jonathan skidded down the face of
a massive wave and slammed into an uncharted reef. Her nine-story mast
crashed through the bottom of the ship and within forty-five minutes she
went under, taking with her 225 souls and millions of dollars' worth of
newly minted gold bars and coins. Only 19 people in a battered lifeboat
made it to shore, and over the next several weeks, bodies and pieces of
the ship washed up along a 125-mile stretch of the coast. For more than
a hundred years the ship's treasure would remain one of the Pacific's
great secrets."

"Based on ten years of exhaustive research into previously untapped
sources, Treasure Ship tells the harrowing tale of the last voyage of
the Brother Jonathan and her passengers, which included prospectors,
dignitaries, card sharks, young families and even a notorious madam
with seven of her “soiled doves.” The final moments as the ship went
down were filled with acts of steadfast courage and quiet dignity, and
just weeks later expeditions began to hunt for the ship and her golden

In the numismatic community there will be inevitable comparisons to Q.
David Bowers' 1999 work, "The Treasure Ship S. S. Brother Jonathan: Her
Life and Loss, 1850-1865".  Like most of Dave's books, his work has a 
combined historical-numismatic orientation, with chapters on coins and
currency in America at the time, money in California, coins and coiners
in California and the San Francisco Mint.  An appendix enumerates the
coins recovered in the 1996-97 salvage efforts.

The new book by Dennis Powers focuses much more on the ship's history
and recovery, but also covers a topic of keen interest to numismatists,
the "Great Debate" over the authenticity of many western assay bars,
including those said to be from an earlier salvage of the Brother
Jonathan wreck.

Dennis Powers writes: "Owing to my writing this book later than Dave,
and I have great respect for his works, I could cover in detail the
last exploration of the Brother Jonathan in 2000 when Dwight Manley
invested money in what became the last exploration to date of the sunken

"Thanks to the American Numismatic Association, I was able to review
the complete videotapes of "The Great Debate" that took place between
Michael Hodder and Professor Buttrey on August 12, 1999, at the ANA's
annual convention.  Thus, I could go into detail as to the history and
arguments on both sides as to the validity of the Jonathan's gold bars
that became the focal point of The Great Debate.

"I watched the videotaped Great Debate for hours on end and became totally
fascinated by the players, reactions, and statements.  In the end, I
decided to write a near statement-by-statement synopsis of that time
and delve into the gold bullion issues in greater detail."

"Owing to my being able to interview Don Knight and David Flohr, among
other lead salvors, I could go into the specifics of the issues from
both points of view that ended up in the massive litigation between the
salvagers--and their observations.  Being an attorney and with review
from the salvors' lead counsel, I also set down the specific arguments
and issues that confronted the salvagers and the State of California
in their litigation that eventually was decided by the U.S. Supreme

The fruits of Powers' efforts are in Chapter 17, "The Bars and the
'Great Debate'".  The chapter opens with a recounting of the odyssey
of the infamous bars numbered 2184 and 2186 first sold publicly at NASCA
and Stack's auctions.   It goes on to summarize the papers and lectures
by Buttrey and Hodder leading up to the legendary "Great Debate" between
the two at the 1999 Chicago ANA Convention.  It was a little jarring to
read in the book an E-Sylum quote I'd long forgotten writing just prior
to the debate that "spectators will be asked to check their six-shooters
at the door."

As one of 150 or so numismatists present at the occasion, I can attest
that the chapter fairly accurately recounts the setting, events,
personalities, tensions and undercurrents of the two and a half hour
session.  What Powers adds is the detached viewpoint of an independent
observer with access to additional sources of information, albeit ones
just as sketchy and incomplete as the original numismatic auction 
descriptions of the Brother Jonathan bars.

Powers ends the chapter with an interesting speculation by the salvage
team's researcher and long-time head Don Knight based on (among other
things), statements of a man who claimed to have witnessed the recovery
of an S.S. Jonathan lifeboat following a storm in the 1930s.  This and
other arguments convinced no less a body than the U.S. Supreme Court
that "the only recovery of cargo (prior to 1933) from the shipwreck may
have occurred in the 1930s, when a fisherman found twenty-two pounds of
gold bars minted in 1865 and believed to have come from the Brother
Jonathan.  The fisherman died, however, without revealing the source
of his treasure."  This opinion came down in 1998, prior to the Great
Debate, but I was unaware of it until now.

Lest anyone falsely hope that the book holds a conclusion on the topic,
Powers writes: "The court's statement on the gold bars can be accepted
as being as good as any other explanation given.  However, we may never
know conclusively who was right: John J. Ford, Jr. or Professor Ted
Buttrey.  Or what brought about the discovery of the gold bars.  Yet
this is what legends are made of."

I made another statement in The E-Sylum that I'd long forgotten until
now:  I said that "This may take longer than the Gold Rush itself to
completely play out..." (August 15, 1999).  I was wrong there, too.
It's already been nearly eight years, although proponents of each side
are probably convinced that the matter has been settled already (in
their favor, of course).

Chapter 18 should also be of interest to numismatists.  Titled "The
Super Agent", it recounts the life of Dwight Manley and his involvement
in financing part of the recovery effort and marketing the recovered
items.  "Not only was Manley a multi-millionaire gold-coin dealer and
marketer, he was also a high-profile sports agent.  Born in 1966,
Manley began collecting coins at the age of six...   Manley is also
the most unlikely person to be a player agent.  He isn't a lawyer,
never went to college, and the only sport he ever seriously played
is golf.  Until he agreed to represent his friend, Dennis Rodman, he
never even thought about being an agent."

I will not pretend to have read "Treasure Ship" from cover-to-cover
(yet), although I'm looking forward to doing just that on an upcoming
airline flight.  Neither would I profess that it's without flaws.  One
nit I'll pick is found on page 330, where Buttrey is described as the
former "Keeper of the Department of Coins at the Fitzweiler Museum"
(it's the Fitzwilliam).  Another is that the long Supreme Court opinion
is quoted factually but modified slightly for style and readability
(see p2 of the opinion).

Finally, let me just say that the production quality of this glossy
dust-jacketed hardback edition makes it a true bargain at the $15.37
price - why bother waiting for the softcover?  Included are 16 pages
of color photos on quality paper picturing the ship, its owner and
captain, rescuers, relics, modern treasure hunters and their equipment,
as well as recovered gold bars and coins.  I would recommend that
anyone with the slightest interest in the book order a copy of the

To order the hardcover (paperback available August 28, 2007), see:
Order Info

To read the 1998 Supreme Court opinion on the Brother Jonathan case, see:
1998 Supreme Court opinion

To read T.V. Buttrey's notes on Brother Jonathan gold bars, see:
T.V. Buttrey's notes
T.V. Buttrey's notes







  Wayne Homren, Editor

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