…from a Lifelong Outer Banks Treasure Hunt

 In Back In The Day

Graveyard Of The Atlantic coins: Hatteras Island – Huge news was made when the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum announced it intended to make a permanent display of a historic collection of coins found on the Outer Banks. Certainly some rare and antique coins were discovered while beach combing the OBX.

antique coins found outer banksThe Basic Story

It was reported by the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras Village, depending on state funding, plans are being made to exhibit a collection of 55 antique coins found on Hatteras Island. The coins date as far back 221 BC and originated in places as far away as Spain, Egypt, and China.

coin collect graveyard museum

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum’s William E. and Catherine F. Sell Coin Collection. Click to view larger

The late William Sell and his wife, Catherine, of Pennsylvania, collected the coins over decades.

Sell said he had been surf fishing on the Outer Banks since the 1930s. Typically, fishing is largely a waiting game, so, instead of just sitting in his beach chair staring at his fishing pole, Sell would wander and explore the beach. Even the dunes, as many beach visitors do, collecting shells. But Sell was instead collecting and finding old coins. Soon to find out it was quite the beach treasure indeed.

drachm coin ancient outer banks

Drachm, 35 B.C. – A.D. 5

It is mind-boggling to think that a handmade coin from the Middle East which may have been a gift from the Magi to the infant Jesus winds up on the sands of Hatteras Island over 2,000 years later… but it seemingly did! Fantastic fishing, Bill Sell.

Here are the amazing facts that we do know:

The Drachm (pronounced “dram”) is a real coin. It existed during the reign of Azes II, King of Bactria (35 B.C. to 5 A.D) in present-day Afghanistan. He was a descendent of Alexander the Great, who first brought Greek culture to the Far East. Much of Azes’s coinage was issued before the birth of Christ, but some had to have been struck on the day of Christ’s birth, and all were in circulation when Christ lived.

One school of thought has Azes II to be one of the three Magi from the east, commonly referred to today as “The Three Wise Men,” who followed The Star of Bethlehem and were inspired to travel to Jerusalem. There, they meet King Herod of Judea, and asked him, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” This same school of thought says that if Azes II himself were not actually one of the three Magi, then he certainly financed the journey.

Sticking In My Two Cents

Actually, it is the Museum Collection’s two cents. The collection has a penny. It’s a bronze Penny
[fig. 1] from the reign of Queen Victoria, A. D. 1853.

There is also a two pence [fig. 2]  from the reign of George III, “Cartwheel coinage”, A. D. 1797, copper.

outer banks coins found
Figure 1: Penny, Queen Victoria, A.D. 1853
outer banks coin collection
Figure 2: Two Pence, A.D. 1797

More Assorted Coin Tidbits:

  • The Sell Coin Collection at the Graveyard Museum has six Spanish Dollars [fig. 3] and reales.
  • Did you know that America had a twenty-cent piece? The collection has one dated 1875 [fig 4].
  • Did you know the English colony minted a Virginia Halfpence starting in 1773 and remained in circulation to the end of that century?
  • The Collection contains coins from Columbia, France, Mexico, Ecuador, China and Great Britain.
  • It contains coins from the reigns of Napoleon, Maria Theresa [fig. 5], Kuang-Hsu, Ptolemy, Roman Emperors Augustus, Hadrian, Gallienus, Arcadius, Tiberius and Constantine.
  • Other world leaders with their own coinage in this collection include British Kings William III, George I, George II, and George III, one from Queen Victoria and one from Catherine the Great.
outer banks coins found
Figure 3: Spanish Milled Dollar A.D. 1732-1826
us twent cent piece 1875
Figure 4: US Twenty Cent piece. A.D. 1875
us morgan silver dollar
US Morgan Silver Dollar. Minted 1878 to 1904, 1921, and in 2021.
thaler maria theresa coin ancient
Figure 5: Thaler, Maria Theresa, A.D. 1740 - 1780

Five Kopek, A.D. 1767 – 1796

Just Imagine… (Story concept by Linda Molloy). What follows is a plausible explanation about how one of these coins in the Sell Collection might have been found by Bill Sell on Hatteras Island. That coin is the Five Kopek coin, dated 1776, from the reign of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.

five kopek coin ancient
Five Kopek

In the late 1700s, a prosperous and industrious English merchant was traveling and trading all over Europe and Asia, which is how he accumulated his wealth. On one trip, he arrived in the Medieval city of Moscow. This was the “Golden Age of Russia,” and the height of Catherine the Great’s reign. At that time Russia represented everything exotic to the English, who assisted Russia in their victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774.

In his tradings, the English merchant was dealing with Russian currency. One of the coins he received in his change was the 1776 Five Kopek. It immediately fascinated him for several reasons. First, it was a massive copper coin, almost two inches in diameter and weighing as much as two of the later Morgan Silver Dollars. Second, it honored Catherine the Great. What really caught his eye, however, was the picture on the reverse. The Imperial Double Eagle. With its heads looking both left and right (East and West over a vast empire). It had a scepter in the left talon, a royal orb surmounted by a cross in the right talon, and the shield on the breast of the eagle is emblazoned with a depiction of Saint George killing the dragon – the emblem of Moscow.

Saint George was the patron saint of England. His flag, the red cross, centered on a white field later became part of the Union Jack. On top of all that, the businessman’s former servant (Daniel) had moved to Massachusetts in the American colonies and had become a Patriot supporting the Declaration of Independence, signed the very year dated on this coin.

The coin would not be spent since he regarded all the signs as good luck. He would keep it as a talisman, securely with his timepiece in his vest pocket. He smiled as he silently pledged to himself that if he were ever to meet Daniel again, he would gift him this talisman coin.

As it happened, ten years later, the businessman was on a business trip to Boston, and it was there, he met Daniel and kept his pledge. Daniel had become a successful businessman himself and regarded his new gift as a blessing to be treasured.

Later, Daniel was part of a crowd (the British word was “mob”) involved in an altercation with Red Coats in the streets of Boston. In the scuffles, his watch was torn from his vest by its chain, also flipping the Kopek into the street. A young lad witnessed this while hiding, and retrieved the coin once the street was clear. At first, he just thought it was just regular money, which he could certainly use. But its exotic nature mesmerized him, so, he too, decided to keep it for luck.

He lived a long, productive life. In his 80s, he willed his lucky coin to his grandson, Benjamin. But it was now 1860 and the northern states were drafting soldiers for what seemed to be an unavoidable war between the North and the South.

War did come. Benjamin was part of a naval regiment that invaded the North Carolina coast. His ship was sunk off Cape Hatteras by Confederate cannon fire. Benjamin – and the kopek – were lost. The coin lay in the surf for many years. Finally, the constant Cape Hatteras surf washed the coin ashore. On regular beach patrol from the 1882 United States Life-Saving Service Station Cape Hatteras, Surfman Charles Davis James discovered the coin. He, too, regards the lucky find as a keepsake that stays with him on all remaining patrols.

Ten years later, on beach patrol during a cold, dark, stormy night, Davis James was unaware that his worn trousers had a hole in the pocket. When he returned to the station and changed into dry clothes, he discovered the loss of the coin.

The 1776 Five Kopek Russian coin stayed covered by the sands of Hatteras Island for who knows how many years, awaiting the final chapter in its episodic story.

While the above story is totally unsubstantiated, it is a fact the Bill Sell did indeed find that magical kopek in the sands of Hatteras Island while fishing, where it is now a treasured part of the Hatteras Island Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum’s William E. and Catherine F. Sell Coin Collection.

Now, about the story of one Roman coin in the Collection…. How do you imagine it got here?

outer banks treasure hunt

Tribute of thanks to William and Catherine Sell. Sincerely, Outer Banks Coastal Life

Check out the Graveyard Of The Atlantic Museum website

James D. Charlet
Author: James D. Charlet

James D. Charlet has 24 years of experience as a classroom teacher of North Carolina history and 25 years permanent residency on Hatteras Island with expertise in its history, geography and culture. He is the author of two textbooks (NC Studies and Wright Brothers) and numerous magazine articles on Outer Banks subjects

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