Bounty Off Cape Hatteras in Shipwreck of the Central America

The remains of a wood cargo box that had been filled with freshly minted $20 "Double Eagle” U.S. gold coins that were struck at the San Francisco Mint in the mid-1850s. The remains of the box and the coins, retrieved from the wreck of the SS Central America and housed in a fish tank, were owned at the time of the photograph in 2010 by the California Gold Marketing Group.  Photo courtesy of Donn Pearlman.On September 12, 1857, the S.S. Central America sank 200 miles off Cape Hatteras with great loss of life. The side-wheel steamer was bound for New York from Havana when she encountered a hurricane and sprung a leak.

In addition to about 500 passengers and a crew of 100 aboard, the Central America was carrying mail and more than $1.5 million in gold, including coins minted in San Francisco. Around 145 people aboard the ill-fated ship were rescued by three vessels that were in the vicinity of the wreck at the time of the sinking, but the rest perished.

The great loss of gold was a contributing factor to the Panic of 1857, a short yet severe economic downturn fueled by a loss of confidence in the banking system. The panic was marked by the suspension of gold payments by financial institutions, the failing of businesses, factory closings and a rise in unemployment.

Treasure hunters discovered the wreck of the Central America in 1988, and salvage of the gold began but was halted by a court order in 1991. In April 2014, Odyssey Marine Exploration resumed recovery of the Central America’s lost treasure. To date more than 13,500 coins, bars and ingots have been recovered.

The Central America wreck is well outside the state's jurisdiction, which extends 3 nautical miles off of the coast.  WIthin that 3 mile range, underwater archaeological resources belong to the people of North Carolina and their investigation and recovery are regulated by the North Carolina Department  of Natural and Cultural Resources.

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