The discovery of the “Nephite coin”: a pioneering mystery

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Isaac Chase’s “nephite coin” photographed in the 1800s. This coin was somewhat made from a workshop in East India to the Great Basin in North America between 1817 and 1848 , when it was discovered by Chase. (The History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on the history of Utah and the United States for the History section of KSL.com.

SALT LAKE CITY – In February 1848, Isaac Chase blocked the vigorous movement of his opening pick at the sound of something metallic in a hole near a stream in what is now Liberty Park.

Chase had arrived in the Salt Lake Valley four months earlier with the first wave of pioneer emigrants from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Breaking with the usual paths of emigrants to the west, these pioneers sought the solitude of a new home and the chance to start afresh.

For Chase, the hole he was digging that February morning was actually a reboot. Before joining the Saints, he worked as a miller in Livingston County, New York, a county from which the church was first organized. When he loaded his wagons for the trek west in 1847, he brought his grindstones and other equipment with him with the intention of resuming the trade, according to a biography written by Bill Sanders.

As soon as the winter snow of 1847-1848 melted, Chase began improving a small sawmill he had built in the Salt Lake Valley that fall. While digging the reach of this new mill, he heard the tinkling at the end of his pickaxe.

The 56-year-old man bent down and pulled a small coin out of the mud. Touching the bump his pickaxe had just made in its yellow surface, he was probably amazed at the odd writing covering it on the front and back and how it got there. By all accounts, including her granddaughter, May McLaughlin, the hole had reached a depth of over 10 feet, making it difficult for anyone to drop it there.

Whatever he might have guessed, the room was his now. He went home and gave it to his daughter, Harriet, McLaughlin recorded in a story.

Chase completed his mill, which still stands in Liberty Park, as well as his two-story adobe farmhouse which is now a folk art museum. The Chase Mill became an industrial center in the 1850s, according to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers publication on its mill. He employed almost all able-bodied men at one time. Chase died in 1861.

It is not known whether the Chases or anyone else suspected the coin to have any connection to the Nephites, a people documenting the Book of Mormon. But in the summer of 1897, the Church publication told the story of Chases’ “Well-Worn Copper Coin”, mined from “virgin soil” in 1848 in an article titled “Nephite Coin.”

The article compared the characters in the play to the copy of the Book of Mormon characters presented to New York professor Charles Anthon. By matching the patterns between the letters on the transcript and the coin, the publisher concluded that this was sufficient evidence to prove that the coin was, in fact, a Nephite relic and that, in turn, the coin has verified the veracity of the Book of Mormon.

In 1897, Isaac Chase’s daughter, Harriet, still had the room. In July of the same year, the Salt Lake Herald-Republican spotlighted her as the original pioneer of 1847 and continued the next day with a story about her strange play. Its two-column image captured the wavy characters on the disc. The caption below read: “Supposed Nephite Coin”.

A representation of the "Nephite coin" printed in an 1897 edition of the Salt Lake Herald-Republican.
A depiction of the “Nephite Coin” printed in an 1897 edition of the Salt Lake Herald-Republican. (Photo: Utah Digital Newspapers)

The play wouldn’t stay in the Chase family for long. Harriet passed the piece on to her daughter, May, who then turned the piece over to the care of the office of the Church Historian of Jesus Christ, her daughter, Phoebe, wrote. The church kept the room until Apostle John A. Widtsoe investigated further.

Widtsoe sent the coin to New York to an American Numismatic Society curator for identification. A week later, on January 13, 1925, the answer returned and revealed the play’s true origins.

“The coin you sent us… is a British East India Co. 1 Pai, minted for Bengal; in Persian; and minted in the 37th year of Emperor Shah Alam,” the letter read. “While it is strange that such a coin is collected in this country, they were once very abundant and are found all over the world.”

Isaac Chase’s “Nephite coin” was, in fact, a coin minted in eastern India during the reign of one of India’s last Mughal emperors, Shah Alam II, issued by the British East India Company at the turn. 18th century.

While a Nephite did not drop the coin on the floor of the Salt Lake Valley, some unmissable Bob or Mogul. But who it might have been has remained a mystery.

From the subcontinent to the salt lake: a theory about the origin of the Nephite coin

While Chase’s copper coin may not be ancient Nephite detritus, according to an expert, it may have ties to another mystery.

And the connection depends only on a few millimeters.

With the revelation of the true origin of the “Nephite coin”, public enthusiasm may have died down. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints retained possession of the coin and it is now in the church records, said Brian Passantino, Church library historian. As to the prevalence of real coins of this type, the 1925 letter from the American Numismatic Society seems accurate. Specimens of the ubiquitous copper coin cost around $ 30 at companies like eBay.

Yet these facts did not dampen the enthusiasm of current Numismatic Society curator and editor Oliver Hoover when he heard about Chase’s coin.

“I was really excited when I got the message,” he said.

In a 2016 article for ANS Magazine, Hoover wrote about several one-piece pieces, identical to Chase’s piece, found in New England and Canada. Evidence for these discoveries led Hoover to believe they could be linked to a currency exchange system in Canada in the early 19th century, when foreign coins were legal tender in the colony.

All of the finds that Hoover studied bore the same inscription: “Shah Alam struck in AD 37.” But they also shared another common characteristic. All had the same diameter: 27 mm. The 37th year of Shah Alam’s reign coincides with 1795, but all one-coin issues bore the same markings regardless of the year they were minted, Hoover explained.

With each successive issue, the coins started to shrink, so that each issue could be uniquely identified by its diameter and weight. A diameter of 27 mm corresponds to the year of issue 1817.

In the early 1800s, colonial Canada was literally lacking in change. According to the Royal Canadian Mint’s website, coins were so scarce during this time that all copper coins were accepted as legal tender, regardless of their origin. Even the playing cards have become legal tender, the Royal Canadian Mint said. Hoover suggested that someone might have imported these low-value Indian coins into Canada and made a profit by pumping them into the money supply.

When Hoover first heard of Chase’s coin, he was unsure how such a coin could have gotten to Utah. After learning of not only Chase’s connection but many other Mormon pioneers with New England, he said a connection might be possible but, to be sure, the piece would have to be measured.


Unless you can find some sort of documentation, you mostly end up with theory.

–Oliver Hoover, American Numismatic Society


Passantino arranged for the piece to be taken from the church records and measured. The part was first measured at 1 inch, or 25.4 mm. But that would have put the coin in the 1829 issue, which Hoover said would make it difficult for the coin to arrive in Utah by 1847. A second measurement in millimeters was taken and the diameter increased. turned out to be 27 mm – in accordance with the other coins found in the northeast.

“If this is the problem of 1817 (as opposed to the problem of 1829), it would make sense for him to come from New England with Mormon settlers,” Hoover said, responding to Passantino’s discovery.

But Hoover’s theory for the 1817 coins or the origin of any discovery of undocumented coins is difficult.

“It’s tough,” Hoover said. “Unless you can find some sort of documentation, you mostly end up with theory. “

The pieces Hoover mentioned in his article all came from fields or excavation sites with no substantial connection to an owner. One coin was found on the banks of the Connecticut River in the 1840s and, like the “Nephite coin,” was considered a relic of an ancient civilization.

If the piece comes from a New England pioneer, how it ended up more than 10 feet below ground also remains a mystery. Chase chose the site for his mill just three weeks after arriving in the valley, according to a biography by Sanders on Chase. This is a fact that supports the claim that he found the room in “virgin soil”.

Additionally, the mill site may have been near a ravine, according to a Daughters of the Utah Pioneers post on the Chase Mill. And Miller chose the site for its proximity to Red Butte, Parley’s and Emigration creeks, which he diverted to create the Mill Pond at the southeast corner of Liberty Park, according to Sanders. Maybe the coin could have slipped out of someone’s pants and flung itself into the creek.

However, an outside source could explain the origin of the piece. Mountain men like Peter Skene Ogden and Etienne Provost preceded the Saints and established trails used by overland emigrants, according to Thomas G. Alexander in his book “Utah, the Right Place”. Perhaps the piece came from a lucrative fur trade, or it had been abandoned during the attack on the camp.

Parva ne pereant – “May the little one not perish” – is the motto of the American Numismatic Society. The “Nephite Room” may be small, but its history is vast, spanning cultures, eras and hemispheres.

And this story will remain at least as long as it remains a mystery.

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