The California Gold Rush had made necessary and profitable the establishment of a steamship route from the northeastern states to California by way of Panama. The steamship companies held the contract for the United States Mail, delivering tens of thousands of letters and packages per month. In addition, these steamships carried hundreds of wealthy or successful passengers, and the all-important commercial shipments of tons of gold from California businesses to financial and business connections in New York and other eastern cities.
The S.S. Central America was an important steamship on this route, with 43 round trips between New York and Panama in less than 4 years. The “Panama Route” allowed relatively rapid communication between California and “The States” back east, taking around three and a half weeks for the two oceanic voyages and the overland leg across Panama. In 1855 the railroad across the isthmus was finished, and this connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific became of paramount importance. The regularly scheduled, twice monthly, steamship service between Panama and New York was designed as one leg of the trip from California back to the eastern states. But it also served the needs of others who were traveling to Europe from western South America or from other Pacific lands.
Pascual Esquerra was a Chilean and Spanish businessman, listing his hometowns as Valparaiso, Chile, and Zaragoza, Spain. In Panama he met up with a group that had sailed together from Callao, Peru. Jose Seguin, the Peruvian Minister to the United States, along with his Secretary, Nicolas Tirado.
The group included Ange Richon, the Belgian Consul at Lima, Peru, who was carrying diplomatic dispatches to Paris. In 1990 we uncovered and thus discovered around half (by face value) of the treasure recovered during SSCA1, the expeditions 1988 – 1991. Among the gold ingots and coins, we found a deposit of Chilean silver coins, Pesos, and half pesos (or 50 Centavos, minted as “50 C” on the reverse.) During the return expedition, in 2014, we cleared the entire area of the deposit, down to the wood of the frames and hull, and recovered the currently available coins.
It is reasonable to assume that Pascual Esquerra brought these coins as part of his luggage, probably conveying this wealth from Chile to Spain. We discovered the site of the S.S. Central America 131 years after it sank. During that time almost all the exposed wood had degraded and collapsed, and the components of those decks and the things on them had intermingled. So, we cannot tell whether Esquerra kept the bags of silver coins in his cabin in First Class, two decks above the hold, or if he requested that the purser store it with the treasure of the commercial shipment, down in the hold. Either scenario is logical and possible.