171 Years Ago James Smithson’s Gold Arrives

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Let us take a moment to remember the very beginning. This week marks the 171-year anniversary of a seemingly inconsequential shipment that arrived in the New York City harbor from Great Britain. Packed in eleven boxes and stowed on the ship "Mediator," was 104,960 British pounds, all in gold sovereigns, as well as some spare change amounting to 8 shillings, 6 pence. This was the legacy of the Smithsonian's founder James Smithson (1765-1829).

Smithson was an English scientist, who devoted his life to research in chemistry, mineralogy and geology. Although he had never visited the United States, Smithson bequeathed his entire estate, $508,318, or about $12 million in today's dollars, to establish in Washington, D.C., an institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."

The money arrived on August 29, 1838 and was deposited on September 1 with the Bank of America and transferred to the Treasurer of the United States Mint in Philadelphia. All but two of the gold sovereigns were melted down and reminted into U.S. coins. The two gold sovereigns are now housed among the collections at the National Museum of American History. Read about them in this 1996 Smithsonian article written by Edwards Park.