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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Chinese Coins

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Archeologists call cultural material found out of historical context “anomalous artifacts.” But when ancient Chinese coins are dug up at an old frontier fort in West Texas, words like “mysterious” or “bizarre” seem more appropriate.

The coins from the Orient turned up in Coke County at the site of Fort Chadbourne, a cavalry post established in October 1852 to help protect the frontier from hostile Indians. Five years later the post became a stopping point on the Overland mail route. Soldiers stayed at the hilltop fort with its commanding view of the surrounding prairie until the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and returned for a short time in 1868.

Less than a decade after the last soldiers marched off, Thomas and Lucinda Odom bought the abandoned fort as well as the property around it and founded a ranch that has been in the same family since then. Now owned by descendant Garland Richards and his wife Lana, the fort is considered one of the most pristine military archeological sites in the West. More than 20,000 military artifacts, from buttons to weapons, have been found there over the years.

Among the thousands of artifacts are four well-worn Chinese coins, each with a square hole punched in their center. Two were minted during the Ching Dynasty, which began in 1644. One of the coins dates from 1736 to 1795 and the other from 1875 to 1908. Very interesting, but Texas isn’t anywhere near Asia.

Though the discovery of the older coins could lead the more imaginative to conjure up the possibility of an unknown Chinese expedition to the New World, an archeological report prepared by Richards and San Angelo avocational archeologist Bill Yeates in 2005 concludes the coins “were probably brought [to Chadbourne] during the ranching period and had nothing to do with the time the fort was active.” Not to mention not being remnants of a Colonial-era visit by Chinese.

Most likely, someone who passed through Fort Chadbourne carried the coins as a curiosity. Who knows? The Butterfield stage went to San Diego, CA. Maybe someone got them there and, on his or her way back east, gave them to a kid who eventually lost them.

Two early Spanish coins also are among the Fort Chadbourne artifact collection. Well-worn, they too probably were lost from someone’s pocket or purse. Turns out that silver Spanish coins were legal tender in the U.S. until 1857.

A final set of anomalous artifacts found at the fort are six Republic of Texas-era military buttons. Soldiers of that area are not known to have been at the future site of the fort, but an early 1840s Indian-fighting expedition under Col. John Henry Moore that traveled up the Colorado River could have stopped there for water.

After federal troops left the fort following Texas’ secession from the Union, state militia and regular Confederate States of America soldiers occupied the fort at various times. Some of them may have been wearing uniforms with Republic of Texas surplus buttons.

A third possibility, which based on a couple of letters found at the Center for American History in Austin seems the most plausible in the opinion of Richards and Yeates, is that a character by the name of LeGrand Capers purchased the “Texas buttons” as he called them for trade with the Indians. Capers, who is known to have spent some time at Chadbourne, traded with the Indians for skins and may have been a collector of Indian attire.

As Richards and Yeates conclude, “Every artifact has a story. None of them are really anomalous; we just do not know their story.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
July 5, 2007 column


Books by Mike Cox
Texas Ranger Tales II
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