The S.S. Central America
S.S. CentralAmerica

National treasures—the Crown Jewels of England, King Tut’s Tomb, the Amber Room of Russia—are fascinating not only because they are unique, priceless, and of inestimable value, but also because they are symbolic of the cultures that created them. They are more than just collections of precious metals and gems.

Traditional national treasures often represent extravagance and exploitation uncharacteristic of more democratic societies. They often emerge from a strong caste system: a nation’s homage to a leader, a king’s purposeful accumulation of wealth, an autocrat’s share of the labors of his people.

In a democracy like the United States, created "of the people, by the people, for the people," there is no king or pharaoh, no czar, and hence no crowns, no king’s jewels, no pharaoh’s tombs. Accumulated treasures that do exist in America are either public or private, such as great collections of art or other important cultural relics. However, these tend to lack either the intrinsic monetary value or the national symbolism of traditional national treasures. On rare occasions, a significant treasure may be accumulated accidentally, the result of an act of nature or an act of God.

When the United States Mail Steamship Central America sank in deep water off the coast of the Carolinas during a monstrous 1857 hurricane, it created just such an accidental accumulation of treasure. Bound for New York with 578 passengers and crew, and 38,000 pieces of mail, the Central America also held tons of gold ingots, coins, nuggets, and dust mined from the western gold fields during a defining quarter-century when the country came of age.

Lost for 131 years, the Central America shipwreck is a unique time capsule of information and artifacts of an era in which the very character and spirit of America blossomed.

The treasure symbolizes one of the most significant periods in American history, the quarter-century between Samuel Morse’s 1837 invention of the telegraph, which launched the country’s first electronic information age, and Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, which gave voice to the unspoken question that lingered for decades in the hearts and minds of the American people—whether the United States "or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

In becoming students of this period, we found ourselves part of a movement of people whose interest in American history had increased dramatically. This interest has resulted in a variety of modern perspectives on the quarter-century that included the discovery of western gold, the Central America’s sinking, and the economic panic of 1857.

We concur with the school of thinking of noted scholar Page Smith and others who view the period before and after the sinking of Central America as one of the most defining periods in American history, a time when, as Smith titled his 1981 history of the era, "the nation came of age."

The telegraph— the communication miracle of this electronic information age—caused the nation’s first electronic information explosion. Until its invention Americans shared news the hard way, by walking, riding a horse, or sailing from one place to another and then returning home. The speed of shared information could be no faster than the speed of any particular round trip.

In the 1840’s, as the telegraph became part of the fabric of the nation, Americans east of the Mississippi could share news at the speed of light. News in Savannah reached New York immediately. A presidential address set wires humming throughout the East. Americans began to share their enthusiasms, aspirations, and emotions not only as individuals and regional groups, but also as a nation.

The dramatic increase in the speed of shared information led to a dramatic increase in "emotional connectedness." With the ability to exchange ideas quickly, being an American became a more immediately shared experience. For the first time, many Americans began to believe in their hearts and minds that the democratic experiment was succeeding and prospering. That belief allowed the national character to blossom into a uniquely American spirit and a robust drive toward progress. The American dream was alive.

In 1893, noted scholar Frederick Jackson Turner defined this developing American character as a "coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that the practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism."

Today many nations around the world admire and emulate what it means to be American. Americans, both as individuals and as a nation, are characterized as spirited, optimistic, visionary, forward-thinking, adaptable, and entrepreneurial, traits symbolized by the pioneers, adventurers, and nation-builders aboard the Central America.

With courage and ingenuity, passengers and crew endured the hurricane the hurricane and bailed their sinking ship for more than 40 hours. In a final heroic act, Captain William Lewis Herndon and his crew rescued the women and children by lowering them into lifeboats at the sacrifice of their own lives. The values and beliefs that inspired their industry in life and tenacity in the face of death endure today in a shared American spirit.

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