The S.S. Central America
Nuggets & Dust
Gold Nuggets

The shipwreck site of the Central America contains four types of gold: coins, assay ingots, individual nuggets that miners pulled directly from the ground and streams, and - amazingly, gold dust strewn amid the sediment. Each is characterized by the extraordinary variety and texture and offers fascinating insight into the history of the fledgling and somewhat haphazard economy of San Francisco and Sacramento during the gold rush era.

Dust and nuggets, which were among the most intriguing finds of the expedition, were the rawest form of gold coming out of the streams and gold fields in and around the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Gold dust represented the base of San Francisco's earliest monetary system. Sending dust and raw nuggets all the way to the US governments main mint in Philadelphia for assaying and coining was too costly and time consuming. Thus, San Francisco relied on a "dust economy," in which the gold dust, measured by the weight or by the "pinch," served as currency.

This was a poor medium of exchange, however. For one thing, California gold dust varied from only 58 percent to more than 98 percent pure. Measurement was imprecise and prices highly speculative. At one point, the glut of dust in old San Francisco was so great that buyers were paying only $8.00 per ounce, far below the $20.67 US government standard for pure gold and roughly $18.00 per ounce paid by the Philadelphia Mint for gold dust.

Dust is collected when Nemo's sea-vac is used to clean up a specific work site on the ocean floor. It is necessary to sift through the sediment to extract the gold and small artifacts hidden within. After finding the first gleaming fleck, Bob regularly panned for gold dust. It is ironic that this gold is twice-mined, once from California streams and again from 8,000 feet under the ocean surface in the 20th century.

The nuggets are the most diverse gold pieces recovered. They are natural forms, like the dust, but intricate and far more unusual. Each one is unique with the pieces ranging from just bigger than flecks of dust to fist-sized specimens of gold, quartz, and other minerals. Because the wealthy first-cabin passengers and the commercial shippers tended to carry their gold in ingots or coins, many of the nuggets on the Central America were almost certainly the prized possession of frugal miners traveling east in steerage class. For example, the Hearn brothers from Missouri, who took turns guarding their satchel of gold throughout the entire journey by steamship and train from San Francisco, and Joseph Bassford, who dropped his own while leaping into a lifeboat, are thought to have been carrying nuggets with them. Others who reportedly abandoned their wealth in despair just prior to the sinking were also in possession of gold in this form.

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