Every so often, amateur treasure hunters stumble onto something spectacular: the missing centerpiece of Henry VIII’s crown, a trove of silver and gold Viking Age objects, Bronze Age axes. Now, a Civil War coin hoard that may have been buried to protect its contents from Confederate raiders is joining the ranks of these fascinating finds.
An anonymous man unearthed the 700-plus gold coins in a cornfield in Kentucky earlier this year. (For now, he’s keeping his identity and the exact location of the farmland under wraps.) Per a statement from GovMint.com, the dealer selling the so-called Great Kentucky Hoard, the coins date to between 1840 and 1863. They include $10 gold coins featuring a bust of Lady Liberty, rare $20 gold Liberty double eagles minted in 1863 and $1 coins known as Indian princess dollars.
In a video taken shortly after the discovery, the finder pans the camera over dozens of dirt-encrusted coins. “This is the most insane thing ever,” he says. “Those are all $1 gold coins, $20 gold coins, $10 gold coins. And look. I’m still digging them out.”
To authenticate his finds, the man turned to rare coin dealer Jeff Garrett and the Numismatic Guaranty Company (NGC). A service that removes surface contaminants and stabilizes coins for long-term preservation, stepped in to examine and conserve the cache, identifying rare error coins in the process.
The specifics of the coins’ burial remain unknown. But GovMint.com speculates their owner hid the trove as an “insurance policy” during the chaos of the Civil War. By the time the conflict ended in 1865, the individual may have died or forgotten exactly where the hoard was buried.
Toward the beginning of the war, Kentucky—a Southern state where slavery was legal yet Unionist sentiment prevailed—declared its neutrality. As the American Battlefield Trust points out, “neutrality in principle was much less complicated than neutrality in practice.” Recruiters from both sides enlisted men from the state, and competing homegrown militias cropped up. Then, in September 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk brought his troops into Kentucky, violating the state’s neutrality agreement and pushing the Union-sympathetic state legislature to petition the federal government for help. Kentucky subsequently joined the conflict on the Union side.
Ryan McNutt, a conflict archaeologist at Georgia Southern University, tells Live Science’s Kristina Killgrove that “given the time period and the location in Kentucky, … it is entirely possible this [cache] was buried in advance of Confederate John Hunt Morgan’s June to July 1863 raid.” Morgan first raided Kentucky in July 1862, and he returned to the state the following year as part of a larger campaign known as Morgan’s Raid. The multi-state siege terrorized civilians from Kentucky to Tennessee to Ohio but failed to fulfill its tactical goals.
McNutt points out that the gold coins are federal currency rather than coins minted by the Confederacy. It’s possible the stash’s owner earned the money by working with the federal government—“dealings that it would be wise to conceal from a Confederate raiding party,” he says.
The person who hid the coins was far from the only Kentucky resident who took steps to protect their wealth during the Civil War. William Pettit reportedly buried $80,000 in gold coins somewhere on his Lexington farm but died before he was able to retrieve the cache. The money has never been found.
Andrew Salzberg, executive vice president of the Certified Collectibles Group, tells Sam Knef of Spectrum News 1, a Kentucky-based news outlet, that his organization believes the total value of the Great Kentucky Hoard “exceeds $2 million.” Other estimates that put it closer to $1 million note that 1863 gold Liberty double eagles have previously sold for up to $381,875 at auction. GovMint.com is offering several such coins for more than $100,000 each.
“The importance of this discovery cannot be overstated, as the stunning number of over 700 gold dollars represents a virtual time capsule of Civil War-era coinage, including coins from the elusive Dahlonega Mint,” says coin dealer Garrett in a statement. “Finding one mint condition 1863 double eagle would be an important numismatic event. Finding nearly a roll of superb examples is hard to comprehend.”