Sunken Republic Treasure May Be Most Valuable

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 21, 2003
Underwater explorers may have hit the mother lode with the discovery of the Civil-War era S.S. Republic. The paddlewheel steamship went to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1865 with a cargo of gold coins that may be worth as much as U.S. 180 million dollars.

But that may not be all that's valuable about the wreck. The ship could represent a time capsule of an important part of United States history.

The ill-fated ship was en route from New York to New Orleans when it sunk on October 25, 1865, during a hurricane near Savannah, Georgia. Its cargo included some 20,000 $20 gold pieces, which were to help fund post-war Reconstruction. While the Republic's passengers were able to abandon ship, its precious cargo went to the bottom.

Donald H. Kagin, author of Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States, has estimated that the treasure could be worth U.S. 120 million to 180 million dollars.

"I expect that the coins would fetch an average of between U.S. $6,000 and $9,000 each based on the sale of the coins from the shipwrecks of the Central America and Brother Jonathan, and the enhanced value from the amazing story of this particular ship," Kagin suggested in a statement released by the Republic's discoverers, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., of Tampa, Florida.

"That value would depend on the ultimate quality of the specimens, but if their condition proves to be comparable to other shipwreck coins from the period, it would make this the most valuable documented cargo ever recovered from a shipwreck."

That honor currently belongs to the S.S. Central America, which sunk in a hurricane off North Carolina in 1857. The ship held some U.S. 100 million dollars in gold when it was excavated in 1987.

Twelve-Year Search Yields Success at Last

The wreck was discovered in 1,700 feet (500 meters) of water, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Savannah.

Preliminary explorations of the site did not turn up a piece of definitive identification such as a nameplate. However, the ship's length, boilers, hull type, side-wheels, and copper sheathing present a conglomeration of circumstantial evidence that have convinced Odyssey Marine Exploration that the ship is indeed the Republic.

The discovery appears to be the culmination of a 12-year search effort. Odyssey crews had combed about 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) of ocean in search of the Republic, employing side-scan sonar and magnetometer technology. A total of 24 targets were inspected with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) during 2002 and 2003.

"After all the years of searching for this particular shipwreck, finally finding it with just an incredible team of folks, it's just an indescribable feeling," said Greg Stemm, co-founder, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. Documentation and excavation of the site will begin next month, and is expected to cost several million dollars.

A key player in the work will be ZEUS, Odyssey's seven-ton remotely operated vehicle (ROV). ZEUS is rated to 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) and has two Schilling seven-function Conan Force-Feedback manipulators, which provide for exceptional dexterity and fine control of delicate archaeological procedures.

Republic's Other Treasure is History

The Republic was launched as the S.S. Tennessee in August 1853, according to Odyssey's research. Its colorful history included transporting soldiers of fortune to Nicaragua and work as a Confederate blockade-runner.

While lost gold has driven the search for the ship, its value is more than monetary. The wreck could open a new window on one of the most fascinating times in America's past.

"The archaeological excavation we are planning will focus on bringing the story of this amazing ship back to life," said Greg Stemm, Odyssey co-founder.

Preliminary video and photos of the site show the starboard paddlewheel partially buried in sediment, the ship's rudder sheathed in copper, and a large debris field of personal artifacts and bottles—including preserved bottles of fruit with corks still intact.

Donny Hamilton, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, explained the importance of a systematic, documented approach to any site like the Republic. "You have to examine the site thoroughly, document everything that you do, and recover everything in your designated area— you don't just bring up the gold and silver," he said. "With any ship this deep preservation will probably be pretty good, so it's important that they try to recover a cross section of what's there.

"We're trying to get some clues about the total picture. What else was on the wreck? What was it doing? What was it carrying?"

"There are some good treasure hunters," Hamilton added, "who attempt proper recovery and documentation. Others are just disasters. Some use dynamite and dredges and in the end you know nothing about the wreck. We hope [the Odyssey] people can do a great job."

Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm says that the company is embracing the challenge of archaeological work on the site. They will employ an offshore team of field archaeologists, ROV pilot/technicians, and a conservation and curating group—over 40 people in all.

"It will be a detailed archaeological investigation and excavation of the site," he explained. "We'll conduct a preliminary survey, a comprehensive photo mosaic, and carefully map the site before beginning excavation. Our team will be using a precision, long baseline acoustic navigation system that features five transponders on the bottom to map the precise x, y, and z coordinates of each artifact as it's excavated."

Stemm further noted that the team will rely heavily on the site's many artifacts to help them tell the tale of the Republic's last voyage.

"In addition to what we will learn from the machinery and the hull, we'll uncover an interesting assemblage of artifacts traveling from north to south during post-Civil War reconstruction. What types of goods were being transported to New Orleans during this period? What was in short supply in New Orleans during that time?"

Stemm is also hopeful that the personal effects of passengers might be retrieved. "Some of these people were literally carpetbaggers," he said. "What does a carpetbagger take along in order to set himself up in New Orleans—to find a new life among hostile and suspicious Southerners?"

Fixed and traveling exhibits are planned to display artifacts, and share the story of the Republic's voyage as well as the technological treasure hunt that led to its discovery.

Odyssey is a publicly traded salvage firm headquartered in Tampa, Florida. The company recently entered a much publicized partnership with the British government to excavate the wreck of the HMS Sussex, which sank in 1694 off Gibraltar while leading a British fleet into the Mediterranean Sea for a war against France and its leader, King Louis XIV.

That warship may have been carrying as much as 9 tons of gold, meant to line the pockets of a crucial ally in France. Its cargo could prove many times more valuable than the Republic's.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.