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DEBUNKING THE TRUNK: THE GOLD COIN
A DEATHVALLEY.COM EXCLUSIVE!
      by LeRoy Johnson

     Here is the background information on the fabulous and miraculous 1853 gold coin that William Robinson purportedly left on the western flank of Pinto Peak—in today's Death Valley National Park—in January 1850 (no, there is no typo here).

     On November 22, 1998, Jerry Freeman was scouting the escape routes the Jayhawker and Brier parties used as they exited Death Valley in January 1850 when he found an old trunk in a cave. Jerry had read John Southworth's 1978 book Death Valley in 1849 and he had interviewed Southworth shortly before he made this discovery. Southworth's proposed route for the Jayhawkers is nearly due west from the summit of Pinto Peak (map, p. 48 in Death Valley in 1849). During this solo trip, Jerry was scouting the route Southworth outlined in his book.

     Jerry parked near Towne Pass and hiked toward the summit of the peak. Before reaching the peak, Jerry discovered the now notorious trunk that seemed to validate the escape route proposed by Southworth. The cave where the trunk was stashed is on or extremely near the Jayhawker route Southworth shows on his map. Based on a letter and a manifest he found in the trunk, Jerry concluded it was placed in the cave on January 2, 1850, by William Robinson, one of the Jayhawkers.

     The trunk was filled with a bizarre array of antique items: two ceramic bowls with lids, a law book, a small hymnal, a telescope, a worn out pair of infant's shoes, a shawl or table cloth, a doll, a flint lock pistol, a letter, and gold and silver coins. It is beyond the scope of this narrative to give a complete history of the trunk so I refer you to:

Johnson, LeRoy. 1999. "The Trunk Is Bunk: The Latest, Notorious Death Valley Artifacts." In: Proceedings, Fifth Death Valley Conference on History and Prehistory, March 4-7, 1999. Pp. 252-277. Bishop, Calif. : Community Printing and Publishing. (ISBN 0-912494-05-0.)


1853 gold coin from trunk with present day dime for size comparison.

     One of the seven gold coins in the trunk had a damaged date and neither Jerry nor the Park Service could initially determine the date but is appeared to be 1833 or 1843. A coin expert who inventoried and evaluated the coins for the Park Service made the astonishing pronouncement that the well worn dollar gold coin was not minted in 1833 or 1843 but was struck in 1853! All the other coins were 1849 or earlier.


1853 gold coin from trunk. Click here or on the above photo for enlargement — 156K.

     I took the photographs of the coin that accompany this article so you can see how the hoaxter altered it. The coin is a gold Type 1, Liberty Head dollar. This type of coin was minted from 1849 to 1854. The U.S. Congress approved minting these coins on March 3, 1849. William Robinson was well on his way to California by the time these coins were distributed to banks. Aside from the 1853 coin, there was also an 1849 dollar gold coin in the trunk that was well worn. It is inconceivable Robinson could have had an 1849 gold dollar coin in his possession, especially a well worn one.


Detail of altered date on 1853 gold coin from trunk.

     The hoaxter took the 1853 coin and obliterated the "5" and left the "3" so the hapless finder of the treasure would conclude the coin was minted in 1833 or 1843. The hoaxter apparently did not know the history of these coins when he deliberately damaged it. Note how the gouges encircle the "3," which is clearly visible. Had the hoaxter simply eradicated the "5" this would have aroused immediate suspicion by the unfortunate person who found the trunk.

     The marks at the top and bottom of the coin are solder marks. The coin had been soldered into a piece of jewelry. The marks are solder residue, which made the coin worthless as a collectable coin. The only value it had (before the hoax) was was the gold value.

     Because these dollar coins were only minted from 1849 to 1854, the minting date must be 1853. Also clear on the coin but barely discernible on this photograph is the bottom tail of the "5." This tail resembles that of a "3." Possibly the hoaxter was clever enough to leave this vestige of the "5" so the discoverer would think the coin was minted in 1833.

     One person very knowledgeable of Death Valley history wrote me and seriously proposed what he felt was a rational explanation for this anonymous coin being in the trunk. I incorporated his absurd explanation (with several embellishments) into the spoof article I wrote. The article is posted on this web site under the title "The Truth Behind The Robinson Chest."

     Who created the "bunk trunk" hoax and when was it placed in the cave? I do not have sufficient evidence to identify the hoaxter although I have narrowed the field down to two candidates—one dead and one alive. (Jerry Freeman died in March, 2001. He is not the dead candidate.) As to when the trunk was placed in the cave, I conclude it was placed there in the 1970s around the time Southworth's book was published or shortly thereafter.

     The price of gold began its meteoric rise in the mid-1970s and climaxed in 1980 at $594.90. (As clever as the hoaxter was, I doubt he would have been foolish enough to place gold coins in the trunk when gold prices were sky-rocketing.) In the 1970s the total cost of the items in the trunk would have been $200 to $500. The hoaxter possibly had many of the items in his personal collection so he simply cleaned out his closet. Today the gold and silver coins that were in the trunk are valued at $2,000.

     This 1853 anomalous gold coin is only one of several anachronisms found in the trunk. There were two tintype photographs. This photographic process was patented in 1856. One of the bowls has on the bottom "Made in Germany." Germany became a country in 1871 and the law requiring imported items to be marked with country of origin was passed by Congress in 1891. The doll was most likely made during World War I. The metal bowl has an oxidation shadow where the price tag was removed. The size of the "shadow" is the same size as tags used by antique dealers when adding a price to an item. It only took one anachronism to invalidate the treasure trove.

     As a reminder, if you find an artifact in Death Valley National Park, leave it in place and report your find to a ranger. Precisely plot the location on a map and if you have a GPS instrument, record the coordinates. NEVER post the coordinates on the Internet. There are too many treasure hunters who will take great glee in adding your find to their personal collection.

     If you know of a smoking gun, please let me know where it is.

LeRoy Johnson, Bishop, California