Historic coin no longer missing

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George Washington sliced it with sword to pay for breakfast at Lancaster tavern

By Greg Summers

SPARTANBURG – The silver coin that President George Washington used in 1791 to buy his breakfast at a Lancaster County tavern – missing for the past eight years – has been found.
The Spanish real, or “piece of eight,” sliced in half by Washington using his sword, had fallen out of the envelope where it was kept inside a fireproof safe at Wofford College.


College archivist Dr. Phillip Stone found the celebrated coin on Aug. 21. He was accessing the locked safe to retrieve a minister’s ordination certificate signed by English theologian and Methodist church founder John Wesley.
“I moved something and heard something go ‘chink,’ like metal hitting metal. I said, ‘please let it be that coin.’ And it was,” said Stone.
The coin had not been accounted for since November 2011, when a researcher asked to see it in the archives and it was not in the designated place. The coin’s disappearance was a troubling mystery to Stone.
“I was wracking my brain, looking through drawers, everywhere I could think of and checking to see if someone had found it…. It just never turned up until last week. We don’t like losing things that people have entrusted to us,” he said.
Brent Burgin, director of archives at USC Lancaster, completed his practicum under Stone at the Wofford and was relieved to hear that the coin had been found.
“It had to be there,” Burgin said. “When you’re pulling materials for people to examine, things get jostled. It happens when you have thousands of articles and pieces.
“Phillip is very good at what he does, and I can’t imagine how stressful this has been and how relieved he has to be. I’m happy for him that he found it.” 

Presidential tour
The coin is a significant piece of Lancaster County history.
On Friday, May 27, 1791, the hero of the American Revolution, two years into his first term as the nation’s first president, stopped by Nathan Barr’s Tavern to eat breakfast during a tour of the Carolina backcountry.
There is a sign on U.S. 521 in the Twin Pines area that denotes the area as the possible site of Barr’s Tavern, though the exact location remains unknown. 
Historic maps pinpoint the tavern as being about 1.5 miles north of town, roughly at the fork where U.S. 521 and S.C. 200 separate.
Records on file with the S.C. Archives Department show that Barr had served as a lieutenant in Joseph Kershaw’s state militia regiment during the Revolutionary War. Barr’s home was used as the first county courthouse, and Barr Street was named in his honor.
Barr bought the property about 1.5 miles north of town to build the tavern, making it one of the well-known places in the county at the time.  
After his presidential election in 1789, Washington started taking personal trips each spring to become acquainted with the people he was elected to represent.
Warren Bingham notes in the book “George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour” that the first president traveled with eight men and 11 horses. Washington’s personal state-of-the-art white carriage was pulled by four horses, and a baggage wagon was pulled by two horses. Five extra saddle horses were brought along, including Washington’s favorite, a tall, white charger named Prescott.
The president always rode on horseback unless it was raining, when he used the carriage.
Washington spent his first night in Lancaster County at James Ingram’s home near Hanging Rock, which is just south of Heath Springs.
Known as an early riser, Washington wrote in his diary that he left Ingram’s home about 4 a.m. He preferred to ride for about three hours before stopping at an inn or tavern for breakfast, said local historian Louise Pettus, who wrote “President Washington’s Southern Tour” in 2001.
According to archives at the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies, Washington paid for his Barr’s Tavern breakfast – milk and mush – with half of a piece of eight that he cut into two parts with his sword.
The Spanish silver dollar was accepted legal tender in the United States until 1857, and cutting the coin in half to pay a bill was customary.
Before leaving, Washington placed the half coin in the empty bowl and handed it to Barr’s young daughter to pay for his meal.

Coin’s ownership
Barr’s daughter kept the coin for several years, then gave it to relative Andrew Mayer, who served as Lancaster’s first mayor (1831-32), according to “Lancaster County Tours,” a book by Viola C. Floyd.
Mayer later passed the coin to Dr. James H. Carlisle, who served as Wofford College’s president from 1875-1902. The college was founded in 1854.
An article in the Jan. 29, 1934, edition of the Spartanburg Herald notes that Carlisle’s heirs gave the coin to Wofford in 1902, along with his personal library of some 2,500 books.
The historic artifact was placed in the Wofford vault for safekeeping, though it has been displayed at the Lancaster County Library at least twice, according to TLN archives.
The coin went on public display for Wofford’s 150th anniversary in 2004.
“I’ve seen it,” Burgin said. “It’s not every day that you get to see a silver coin that was cut in half by our first president.”
Periodically, Stone said, someone would come in to the archives and ask to examine the coin, which is how the school realized in 2011 that it wasn’t in its envelope and folder in the safe. The envelope, which also contained a handwritten note from Carlisle, was there, but the coin wasn’t.
Stone noted that a lock of Charles Dickens’ hair, the ordination certificate signed by Wesley, Confederate War Bonds, and assorted Wofford class rings are also kept in the locked safe.
“It’s for the little things of importance that you really don’t know where to keep,” he said.
Now that the coin has been located, Stone said he plans to find a “slightly more secure home” to make sure that it doesn’t get misplaced again.
“I’m so relieved that it’s been found. I had figured that for the last several years, I might be the most hated man in Lancaster County,” he said, laughing.

Follow reporter Greg Summers on Twitter @GregSummersTLN or contact him at (803) 283-1156.