Archeologist discovers Chinese coin from 1600s in Yukon wilderness

WHITEHORSE – A Chinese coin found in the Yukon wilderness offers a rare glimpse into the territory’s history long before the Gold Rush of 1898, with links to a little-known transpacific trade route and a Chinese emperor poet.

The coin was found in July at the proposed site of Western Copper’s Casino Mine by archeologists working for a firm called Ecofor, which specializes in studies for mining companies and First Nations interested in cultural studies.

“We were looking for places with the potential for pre-historic resources, much that same way that you might look for a place to camp,” said Ecofor cultural resource manager James Mooney.

After a routine day of excavating, the team came across a coin that glittered in the mud below their feet.

“The coin is incredibly old,” Mooney said. “When we found it in the dirt, we were excited.”

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“The first question on everyone’s mind was, ‘Where does this coin come from?’”

Archeologist Kirby Booker found the coin, along with pieces of stone used for carving tools.

Mooney said that indicated the coin, which is about the size of a quarter, likely predates the Klondike Gold Rush.

The coin was minted sometime between 1667 and 1671 during the reign of China’s Kangxi Emperor and is a remnant of China’s imperial past, he said.

Kangxi was China’s longest-reigning emperor and known for expanding the Chinese empire, blocking several major uprisings and halting a Russian invasion of China.

He was also a poet and wrote one of his most famous works using symbols on the coins.

“He took 20 of 23 mints in operation during his reign and took the task of ordering the coins to make a poem,” Mooney said.

He said the poem was loved for its sounds, and the found coin is part of its second line.

“That means there might be 19 more out there,” Mooney said. “You never know, it’s fanciful.”

He said the brass coin is known as a cash coin and was among those that were cheaply produced in India and China.

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Such coins were minted by the billions in old China and used to barter for low-cost goods to make artwork such as decorative coin swords and as symbols of good luck.

“We believe it is protohistoric, a historic artifact being traded to a group of people that do not have a written record of it yet,” he said of the found coin. “I get the feeling that it is still pre-Gold Rush and could be pre-HBC (Hudson’s Bay Company).”

Mooney’s theory is that the coins were brought to the Northwest by Russian traders who would head down the northwest coast, primarily to hunt sea otters or trade for the pelts with the First Nations, particularly the coastal Tlingit.

“They would take furs to southeast Asia,” Mooney said. “The Chinese had deep pockets and would pay good money for sea otter pelts. They would trade with the Russians for glass beads, metals, cloth, cottons, silks, things like that.”

Often the traders would come back with cash coins, which were of relatively little value to the Chinese but highly prized by First Nations, he said.

“When trading was going pretty strong with Russia, northwest North America and China, the Chinese had one silver coin, which was worth 1,000 of these brass ones,” Mooney said.

He said the First Nations used them as trinkets and for ceremonial rattles and also stitched them to clothing.

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The coins have a large centre hole and four other, smaller holes, originally used in the casting process, which proved efficient as a means of fastening the coins to clothing.

“The Tlingit had a dance with jackets with 200 to 1,000 Chinese coins stitched into them,” Mooney said. “The American Museum of Natural History in New York City has such a jacket in their collection.”

Ecofor has recommended that the site where the coin was found be spared from further impact for Western Copper and Gold. The archeologists hope to be back in the area soon.

Though Mooney’s coin is a remarkable find for the area, it is actually the third of its kind found in the Yukon in the last 20 years.

The oldest, minted between 1403 to 1424, was discovered near Beaver Creek in 1993 by Keary Walde, an archeologist from Fort. St. John, B.C.

Another coin, dating from 1724-1735, was also found this summer in the Whitehorse area by Todd Kristensen, field director with Matrix Research Ltd.

“We found it around Marsh Lake,” Kristensen said. “We were doing a cultural heritage inventory for Kwanlin Dun First Nation. They were interested in their history in the area. We were excavating the site for stone tool manufacturing and found it on the surface.”

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Kristensen believes the intercontinental trade theory is certainly possible, though he presents another theory as well.

He said the coins may have simply been left behind by Chinese miners who carried them to the Yukon as mementoes of their homeland or used them as gambling tokens on the Gold Rush trail of 1898.

All three Chinese coins are held in trust by the territorial heritage branch and are the property of all Yukoners. (Whitehorse Star)