The Treasure of Delaware Beach by Bob "Frogfoot" Weller

The Tale of the valuable shipwreck the "Faithful Steward" which wrecked off of Delaware Beach and the Gold, Silver and Copper Coins which was up on the Shore. Coins still was up to this day and the wreck is still undiscovered and waiting to be found!

 
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The Treasure of Delaware Beach

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I began Finding treasure on a wind swept sand dune of the Delaware coast. with a friend of mine, Doug Haven, we climbed the backside of a six-foot sand berm that kept the ocean waves from flooding the coastal highway. The tide was high, the wind hustling down the edge of the ocean at forty knots. and as we topped the sand berm the waves were cresting and washing across the sand in front of us. That first wave made cold, sloppy wet tennis shoes and socks out of what was something comfortable a moment before.

But almost as I began to regret the 110 miles we had just driven from Newark, I saw my first treasure, a copper coin. It was bright from being tumbled in the sand, but looked almost as if it had been minted the day before. It was an English copper penny and was dated 1776, the year our Revolutionary War began. The coin had been washed by a wave over the top of the six-foot sand dune, rolling it within a few feet of my now soaking tennis shoes. My first thought, "Finding treasure can't be as easy as this!"

This particular beach was about a quarter mile north of Indian River Inlet, some fifteen miles south of Rehoboth. The northeast winds had cut away the beach as much as five feet, and that day Doug and I found about fifty copper coins, a couple of encrusted keys, and some other odds and ends. The year was 1955, the shipwreck that lay just offshore was the Faithful Steward, an Irish immigrant ship that came ashore September 1, 1785. I have visited the site many times after that, and before leaving the University of Delaware I had a cigar box full of coins, a gold button, and other mementos.

The story of the Faithful Steward is an interesting one because of the treasure that remains today, along the beach and just a few yards to sea. the Faithful Steward was a three masted sailing vessel of 350 tons, that sailed from Londonderry on the ninth of July, 1785. It was referred to as an Irish immigrant ship because on board were 249 passengers from Ireland who had intentions of immigrating to the United States, which they referred to as "the wilds of America". Her destination was Philadelphia, and the crossing was uneventful. As they approached the coast and the entrance to Delaware Bay, in all probability it was the chance of poor navigation that put the vessel south of where Captain McCasland had thought he was. Unknowingly they were four leagues below Cape Henlopen at the entrance to the bay.

It was their last night at sea, and a Mr. Gregg and his wife decided to have a celebration on their first wedding anniversary. With the approval of the captain they had a dinner in which the captain and mates, as well as a number of passengers, attended. Afterwards there was music, dancing, and quite a bit of drinking. It would be a night the captain and his first mate would never forget, as they were being poured into their bunks, the ship was steadily approaching shallow water.

No land was visible, because that part of the coast consisted only of flat sand dunes and the bay beyond. At 10:00 p.m., with most everyone asleep, the bow leadsman shouted, "We are in four fathoms of water!" The second mate, the only officer on duty, had the helm thrown over and the sails shifted to bear off the shallows. It was too late, as the ship ground into the mud and sandy bottom, jarring many out of their bunks and causing the death of two children. During the night a wind had sprung up out of the east, causing the ship to make a faster speed through the water and driving it closer to land than the navigator had considered when he made his evening star sighting to plot the course.

Now, as the ship shuddered to a halt, the winds began to pick up to almost hurricane force. With her bow to the beach, and her stern to seaward, huge waves began washing over the stern castle causing panic aboard ship. the captain, when shaken from his inebriated sleep and told of the ship grounding, shouted, "The man that takes my command, I will hang at Philadelphia!" It never helped the situation that now had become desperate. There was obvious terror among the passengers as well as the crew when it became apparent that the ship was coming apart. Even then, although they were no more than 100 yards from the beach, no land could be seen even though the waves were crashing against the shore close by. As the waves pounded her, the Faithful Steward rolled on her side.

As daylight came they could see how close they were to shore, and four sailors swam the distance to retrieve the ship's longboat that had been carried away during the night. Bringing the boat to the beach opposite the ship, they ran lines out to the ship's bow and the men aboard tried pulling it through the huge waves. Almost as the boat reached the side of the ship the ropes gave way, and the boat was lost. It wasn't long afterwards that a number of the men decided to try swimming ashore to save themselves, but not a single one made it through the booming breakers that sounded like cannon shots.

It wasn't until late that afternoon when the waves began to subside that others attempted the swim through the raging surf, climbing along the masts that now lay half submerged in the water; a few of them made it this time. There were almost 300 people on board the Faithful Steward, including passengers and crew, when she grounded. Only 68 survived making their way to shore, including the captain, his mate, and ten seamen. The passengers were on the short end of any attempt by the crew or their inebriated captain to save them.

Once on the beach, the local Delaware inhabitants took over. In many cases they stripped the bodies of those that had washed up on the beach, piling their clothes and other belongings on wagons and hauling them away. It wasn't something that Delawareans would be proud of in the days to follow. Nor was it an experience that the survivors would ever forget. What promised to be a new beginning in the promised land, had become a tragedy that extended on both sides of the Atlantic.

Within a few days the ship came apart and wreckage was strewn along the beach to the north, almost as far as Cape Henlopen. The passengers' luggage also became flotsam that washed in and out with the waves, until finally sinking to the bottom near the sand dunes or just offshore. But what has become a major coinshooter's paradise was the cargo, carried in barrels, in the Faithful Steward's hold. About 350,000 English and copper pennies and ha'pennies dated 1775 to 1783 were being brought to the United States to relieve the shortage of hard money. At the time we had not established sufficient mints to coin money, so "paper money" was used. The Spanish "milled dollar" was sought after, but not enough of them were available to satisfy this growing young nation

On the other hand, the copper coins were a source of profit to the minters in England. During the reigns of George II and III they considered copper coinage as "tokens" rather than legal tender. As a result counterfeiting was not illegal, and at the same time there was an incentive to mint them considering that a half-penny contained only a farthing of copper. Soon in England a law was passed against counterfeiting copper coins. The result was the shipping of the copper coins to the "colonies" where the English penny had a value of twelve per shilling. In September, 1785, the barrels of copper coins tumbled from the hold of the Faithful Steward as it broke up, scattering coppers along the beach and just offshore.

In 1931 the first coins were found by a Milford, Delaware, resident while surf fishing, Not much was made of the find, sunken treasure didn't gain popularity until many years later. But during W.W.II the Coast Guard had set up a watch there on the coast, manned by sailors on horseback. German U-boats were known to have brazenly approached the coast and sent rubber boats ashore for provisions. There was a nor'easter blow, the wind and waves cutting the beach to a layer of hard clay. A patrolling seaman noticed the scatter of copper coins lying on the beach between the berm line and the waters edge. He scooped up a pocketful and carried them back to the station.

They were copper coins, English and Irish, bearing the dates 1775-1782, some of them in excellent condition, as if they had just been minted. The word got around, and soon the beach became a week-ender's hunting ground for "coppers." Gift shops sold them to tourists for $2.00 each; there seemed to be quite a few available as the Rehobeth locals made the beach their week-end retreat.

John Marsh, a local Rehobeth inhabitant who owned the Indian River Marina had recovered a box full of the coins, as well as a few buttons and buckles. I met John as I chartered dive boats out of his marina for the Delaware Underwater Swim Club, which we had started in 1954. Larry Keene and Alexis DuPont had initiated the Club and put us in touch with the various charter boat captains. As we began diving the wreck sites off the coast of Delaware, John Marsh was our greatest supporter, as well as giving us free rides to a few of the wrecks he knew of.

But the one he had the most interest in lay just offshore, and almost across the road from his marina. He had found an old anchor chain there on the beach after a storm and used it to decorate the motel he built on the south side of the inlet. He often said, "Bob, the coins we pick up on the beach have to come from a ship close by. Let's find it." We tried one week-end, with two boats towing a piano wire sweep between them. We hooked into something on the bottom, and although the visibility was less than a foot, we managed to bring to the surface what was probably part of the rigging. I told John I wanted to find my own copper coins; he said he would call me when the next big wind cut the beach.

It wasn't long after that, while sitting in a class on Strength of Material, conducted by the Chairman of the Civil Engineering Dept. at the University of Delaware, that the phone call came through. Prof. Vohnnie Pearson, a member of the DUSC club and one of my instructors at the University, received the call from John Marsh. "The beaches are cutting away!" I saw him looking through the door to the classroom, rolling his eyes and waving his arms like the wind. I knew what he meant, and when the class was over I said, "Let's go!"

He couldn't; his class schedule kept him nailed to the campus, but I was off and running. Doug Haven, a DuPont salesman, met me at lunch time and we headed for the coast 105 miles away. Neither Doug nor I will ever forget that day, we had a ball. It wasn't long after that when another visitor to the "Coin Road" area, as it was now called, had an even bigger surprise.

"Gold! Gold! Gold! Bright and yellow, hard and cold. My King's ransom in a brigantine hold." Ellsworth boyd wrote the article about Doug Keefe, a visitor from Atlantic City, New Jersey, who traveled to the celebrated Coin Road to search the beaches for coins. He was about to give up the ghost, the beach was never quite cut away enough. to make matters worse, bulldozers had piled sand high along the berm line, to protect the ocean highway that paralleled the beach. He had an underwater metal detector, and it was a hot day, which called for a swim.

It was then that he discovered the underwater trough, or "trench", about six inches deep and about a foot wide, running the entire length of the beach. It was created by the water running off the beach and finding a path between waves. The trench had trapped everything that was being carried along the beach, including dead fish, old shoes, and beer cans. He had an idea that if there were any coins on the beach they would be in the trough as well.

The depth of water was only four feet with poor visibility, and with waves washing him back and forth he made his way along the trench. The coins were there! That first day he found ten of them, enough to bring him back again the next day...and the next. By the end of five days he had over 100 copper coins, but the surprise came when he began finding silver "cob" coins as well. These Spanish Silver coins must have been pocket change of the passengers, as well as his next surprise. About ten yards from the end of the trench he suddenly began finding gold coins, fifteen in all! There were nine 8-escudo pieces--full ounces of gold--and six smaller gold coins, 2-escudos and 4-escudos. What a way to end a vacation!

No serious attempt has ever been made as far as I know to locate and salvage the hull of the Faithful Steward. With all the publicity afforded the DeBraak twelve miles to the north, the real treasure ship has slipped between the pages of archival history. Some day possibly the state of Delaware will fund a project to recover the historical remains of the Faithful Steward, presenting the people with a museum of artifacts from a shipwreck they would rather forget.

Bob "Frogfoot" Weller

This article and more valuable information is available in Treasure Quest Magazine, May - June 1997: Click Here

 

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