Sunday, November 12, 2006

Treasure Ship: The Legend and Legacy of the S.S. Brother Jonathan by Dennis Powers (Book Review)

If you like shipwreck stories or collect double eagles, buy this book!

As the owner of The Arlington Collection of Shipwreck Gold and The Arlington Collection of Type 1 Double Eagles, I am always interested in books about shipwrecks where significant quantities of gold $20 Liberty Head Type 1 Double Eagles are found. These shipwrecks include the S.S. Yankee Blade (sank in 1854), S.S. Central America (sank in 1857), S.S. Republic (sank in 1865), and S.S. Brother Jonathan (sank in 1865).

Although Q. David Bowers had already written a book about the S.S. Brother Jonathan titled The Treasure Ship S.S. Brother Jonathan: Her Life and Loss, 1850-1865, there was a need for a new book in a style similar to Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder (S.S. Central America) and Lost Gold of the Republic by Priit Vesilind (S.S. Republic). Mr. Bowers’s book is an excellent compilation of facts and newspaper accounts regarding the loss of the ship, but it is not the type of book you can just sit down and read from beginning to end like a good novel. Dennis Powers’s Treasure Ship definitely reads like an exciting novel.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Treasure Ship is the thorough research that Dennis Powers obviously put into the book. When I initially saw that he was a lawyer turned writer, I was somewhat expecting the book to be a hard read due to “lawyer-speak.” That was certainly not the case. If anything, his lawyer background appears to have helped in making some of the legal arguments during the recovery operations easy to understand and actually interesting to read.

The story of the S.S. Brother Jonathan, is at least as tragic as that of the S.S Central America, and definitely more tragic than that of the S.S. Republic. The passengers of the S.S. Brother Jonathan are a Who’s Who of the time. One of the passengers onboard was the newly appointed superintendent of the U.S. Mint in The Dalles, Oregon, on his way to handle the construction of the facility. From newspaper editors and prostitutes, to a Civil War General and his staff, you couldn’t help but wonder as you were reading, who would be among the very few survivors.

From a numismatic perspective, I’ve often wondered why the recovered coins from the S.S. Brother Jonathan did not have the same saltwater effect that keeps most of the S.S. Yankee Blade coins from being graded by a third party grading service such as Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS graded most of the S.S. Brother Jonathan coins). I explain in an earlier blog entry (Link to blog entry) why coins from the S.S. Central America and S.S. Republic were in locations where the conditions protected the gold, but these conditions were not present at the S.S. Brother Jonathan site. The book does a good job of explaining why the S.S. Brother Jonathan gold coins were
in such good condition. The Arlington Collection contains double eagles grading MS65 from each of the three shipwrecks.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Treasure Ship was the chronology of the text. Ship of Gold and Lost Gold both were written in what I like to think of as the Titanic effect. Like the blockbuster movie of a few years ago, both books jump back and forth between the tragic events surrounding the sinking of the ships, and the present day recovery and legal efforts. Treasure Ship, on the other hand, follows from beginning to end in the chronological sequence of how the events happened. I felt this made for a much easier read than the other two books. That format, and just the great way that Dennis Powers writes, made you feel that you were actually there witnessing the events and not just reading about them.

One disappointment I did have with the book, and this is strictly on a personal note that most people would not care about, is that the book gave some background about the family of the wife of Captain Samuel DeWolfe, but gave no information about the Captain’s own family. The reason this was disappointing to me is that Captain DeWolfe is from Nova Scotia. My great-great-grandmother is also a DeWolfe from Nova Scotia and there is the possibility that the Captain and I could be distant cousins. I have done some of my own research but have yet to find out who his family was. If anyone reading this has any information that can help, just leave a comment on this post (comments can be left anonymously).

This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I read a lot. The story of the tragic events and the cast of real life characters of the S.S. Brother Jonathan would definitely make for a great movie. Plus with much of the gold from the ship still not recovered, maybe the story is not over.

Books Mentioned in this Review
Treasure Ship: The Legend And Legacy of the S.S. Brother Jonathan

Lost Gold of the Republic: The Remarkable Quest for the Greatest Shipwreck Treasure of the Civil War Era

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

The treasure ship S.S. Brother Jonathan: Her life and loss, 1850-1865


At 11:27 AM, Blogger Jon said...

I do not share the admiration for the research of this book, as there are errors. Consider one topic: the US Mint in Oregon. He states that victim Polina (Buell) Rowell had settled with her family around The Dalles, where a new mint was to be built at the northern tip west of Portland on the Columbia River. In fact, her family settled near what became Dallas, in the Willamette valley SW of Portland, while The Dalles is on the Columbia river east of Portland. The Buell family arrived in 1847 and Congress did not authorize a mint at The Dalles until 1864.
Since he did not use footnotes, it is difficult to know his sources. But what I have been able to check has had error. For example, he describes how Polina's father recovered the bodies after the 1865 shipwreck and "died six months later of a broken heart." That phrase does not smack of medical fact, and in fact Elias Buell died in 1871. But saying "died six years later of a broken heart" does not have the same level of pathos.

Jon Ridgeway


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