Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — In February 1848, Isaac Chase stalled the vigorous swing of his pick at the sound of something metallic in a hole by a creek in what is now Liberty Park.
Chase had arrived in the Salt Lake Valley four months earlier with the first wave of pioneer emigrants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Breaking from the normal emigrant trails west, these pioneers sought the solitude of a new home and the chance to start new.
For Chase, the hole he was digging that February morning actually represented a restart. Before joining the saints, he worked as a miller in Livingston County, New York, one county over from where the church was first organized. When he loaded up his wagons for the trek west in 1847, he brought with him his millstones and other equipment intending to pick up the trade again, according to a biography written by Bill Sanders.
As soon as the 1847-48 winter snow melted, Chase began improving upon a small sawmill he had constructed in the Salt Lake Valley that fall. As he dug this new mill's millrace, he heard the clink at the end of his pick.
The 56-year-old leaned over and dug out of the mud a small coin. Fingering the dent his pick had just made in its yellow surface, he likely puzzled over the strange writing that covered it front and back and how it got there. By all accounts, including his granddaughter, May McLaughlin, the hole had reached a depth of over 10 feet, making it difficult for anyone to have deposited it there.
Whatever he may have surmised, the coin was now his. He returned home and gave it to his daughter, Harriet, McLaughlin recorded in a history.
Chase finished his mill, which still stands in Liberty Park, along with his two-story adobe farmhouse that's now a folk-art museum. The Chase Mill became an industrial center during the 1850s, according to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers publication on his mill. It employed almost all able-bodied men at one point. Chase died in 1861.
Whether or not the Chases or anyone else suspected the coin to have ties to the Nephites, a people documented the Book of Mormon, is unknown. But in the summer of 1897, the Church Publication told the story of Chases' "well-worn copper coin," dug out of "virgin soil" in 1848 in an article titled "Nephite Coin."
The article compared the characters on the coin to the copy of the characters of the Book of Mormon presented to the New York Professor Charles Anthon. Matching patterns between letters on the transcript and the coin, the editor concluded this was enough evidence to prove the coin was, in fact, a Nephite relic and that, in turn, the coin verified the truth of the Book of Mormon.
In 1897, Isaac Chase's daughter, Harriet, still had the coin. In July of that year, The Salt Lake Herald-Republican spotlighted her as an original 1847 pioneer and followed up the next day with a story on her strange coin. Its picture sprawled across two columns captured the squiggly characters on the disk. The caption underneath read, "Supposed Nephite Coin."
The coin would not stay in the Chase family for much longer. Harriet passed the coin on to her daughter, May, who then placed the coin in the care of the Church of Jesus Christ's historian's office, her daughter, Phoebe, wrote. The church held onto the coin until Apostle John A. Widtsoe investigated further.
Widtsoe sent the coin off to New York City to a curator in the American Numismatic Society for identification. One week later, on Jan. 13, 1925, the reply came back and revealed the coin's true origins.
"The coin which you sent to us … is a British East India Co. 1 Pai, struck for Bengal; in Persian; and struck in the 37th year of the Emperor Shah Alam," the letter reads. "Although it is strange that such a piece should be picked up in this country, they were at one time very plentiful and are found all over the world."
Isaac Chase's "Nephite Coin" was, in fact, a coin minted in East India during the reign of one of India's last Mughal Emperor's Shah Alam II, issued by the British East India Company at the turn of the 18th century.
While a Nephite did not drop the coin on the floor of the Salt Lake Valley, some Bob or nabob must-have. But who this might have been remained a mystery.
From the Subcontinent to the Salt Lake: A theory for the Nephite Coin's origin
While Chase's copper coin may not have been ancient Nephite detritus, according to one expert, it could have ties to another mystery.
And the connection depends on only a few millimeters.
With the true origin of the "Nephite Coin" revealed, public excitement may have died down. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints retained possession of the coin and it now sits in the church's archives, said Church Library Historian Brian Passantino. As for the prevalence of the actual coins of its type, the 1925 letter from the American Numismatic Society seems accurate. Specimens of the ubiquitous copper coin run at around $30 at businesses 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-pice coins, identical to Chase's coin, found in New England and Canada. Evidence from these finds led Hoover to believe that they could be tied to a currency exchange scheme in Canada in the early 19th century, when foreign coins passed as legal tender in the colony.
All the finds Hoover studied bore the same marking: "Shah Alam struck in Year 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 issues of one-pice coins bore these same markings regardless of the year they were minted, Hoover explained.
With each successive issue, the coins began to shrink, such that each issue could be uniquely identified by its diameter and also its weight. A diameter of 27 mm corresponds to the issue year 1817.
During the early 1800s, Colonial Canada was short on change, literally. According to the Royal Canadian Mint's website, coins were so scarce at this time that any copper coins were accepted as legal tender no matter their origin. Even playing cards passed as legal tender, the Royal Canadian Mint said. Hoover suggested that someone might have imported these low-value Indian coins into Canada and turned a profit by injecting them into the money supply.
When Hoover first heard about Chase's coin, he was unsure of how such a coin could have made it all the way to Utah. After learning of not only Chase's but many other Mormon pioneers' connection to New England, he said a connection could be possible but, to be sure, the coin would need to be measured.
Unless you can find some kind of documentation, you're mostly left with theory.
–Oliver Hoover, American Numismatic Society
Passantino arranged for the coin to be taken from the church archives and measured. The coin was first measured as 1 inch, or 25.4 mm. But that would have put the coin in the 1829 issue, which Hoover said would make it hard for the coin to arrive in Utah by 1847. A second measurement in millimeters was taken, and the diameter turned out to be 27 mm — consistent with the other coins found in the Northeast.
"If it is the 1817 issue (as opposed to the 1829 issue) then it would make sense that it could have come from New England with Mormon settlers," Hoover said, in response to Passantino's discovery.
But Hoover's theory for the 1817 coins or the origin of any undocumented coin discovery is difficult.
"It's hard," Hoover said. "Unless you can find some kind of documentation, you're mostly left with theory."
The coins Hoover mentioned in his article all came from fields or excavation sites with no substantial links to an owner. One coin was found on the banks of the Connecticut River in the 1840s and, like the "Nephite Coin," was believed to be a relic from an ancient civilization.
If the coin originated from a New England pioneer, how it ended up over 10 feet deep underground also remains a mystery. Chase selected the site for his mill only three weeks after arriving in the valley, according to a Sanders' biography of Chase. That's a fact that supports the claim he found the coin in "virgin soil."
Furthermore, the site of the mill may have been near a ravine, according to a Daughters of the Utah Pioneers publication on the Chase Mill. And the miller chose the site for its proximity to the 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. Perhaps the coin could have slipped out of someone's trousers and into the creek.
Still, an outside source could explain the coin's origin. 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 coin came from a lucrative fur trade or had been left behind while striking camp.
Parva ne pereant – "That the small may not perish" – is the motto of the American Numismatic Society. The "Nephite Coin" may be small, but its story is large, spanning cultures, times and hemispheres.
And this story will remain for at least as long as it is still a mystery.