“Faithful” Coins Wash Ashore From Delaware Shipwreck
A penny for your thoughts! Perhaps a half-penny would be more like it if you’re searching Delaware shores for long lost coins from the Faithful Steward. Most of them are English half-pennies, a portion of the general cargo aboard an English merchantman that left Londonderry, Ireland, in 1875 bound for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The 270 passengers and crew had an uneventful 53-day voyage until they were caught in a storm that grounded the vessel at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. On captain’s orders, the crew cut down the mainmast and rigging, tossed it overboard and freed the 350-ton vessel. But while heading for deeper waters, it was driven inshore by gale winds and grounded on still another shoal nine miles south of Cape Henlopen, Delaware. It was only 200 to 300 yards from the beach, but there wasn’t a lifesaving service on that part of the coast at the time.
The Faithful Steward and its passengers and crew were at the mercy of a storm that grew worse by the hour. A couple of longboats were launched, but they capsized in heavy seas. Only 68 of those aboard ship survived, most of them drifting ashore while clinging to broken parts of the ship. Dead bodies washed ashore caught up among rigging, wooden planks and passengers’ belongings. Many of the victims were women and children. Good Samaritans helped the survivors, while scavengers looted pockets of the dead and carried off trunks that held personal possessions.
For 135 years, English half-pennies–struck with a bust of King George III– have washed up on the beach about a quarter mile north of Indian River Inlet. Most of the coins were stored in barrels, purportedly 400 of them, below deck. The barrels that didn’t break open eventually rotted and cast millions of coins across the sandy bottom. The wreck, just beyond the surf line, still yields them as they’re swept in by heavy seas and riptides.
Shipping small denominations of British coins—in this case “coppers”—to America was common practice in those days. There was no mint in America and the British frequently over-minted coppers, which they palmed off on the Irish. But if the Irish rejected them, the next destination was America where there always seemed to be a shortage of small denominations.
Storms, particularly the raging, howling kind that dump big waves on the beach and cause washouts, are signals to grab your metal detector and head for the beach. Fittingly named years ago, the area is designated Coin Beach on some of the souvenir maps. Actually, you don’t even need a metal detector. Sometimes coins are exposed in the wet sand sandwiched in between seaweed and seashells. Beachcombers accidentally discover coppers while searching for shells and driftwood.
In 1985, Delaware maritime attorney Peter Hess, then a Deputy Attorney General for the State Department of Natural Resources, drafted a resolution commemorating the loss of the Faithful Steward. It passed in the Delaware General Assembly and a ceremony was held on the beach, September 2, the bicentennial of the disaster. A memorial plaque marks the spot where survivors were rescued, a time-honored reminder of the Scottish, Irish and English immigrants who didn’t make it and never had the opportunity to find a new life in the New World.