One more silver dollar

Looking for Mr. Sprinkle's silver

If the world of numismatists – coin collectors – has a white whale, the Sprinkle dollar could rightfully lay claim to the title. Carter County has a rich history of outlaws and counterfeiters, but Jacob Sprinkle's silver dollars hold a unique spot in that history.

Sprinkle's dollars weren't counterfeit in the traditional sense. Most counterfeit coins used base metals in place of precious metals, and they were made to look like legal U.S. tender. Not Sprinkle's coins though. His dollars were not replicas of the silver dollars coming out of the U.S. Mints, but featured their own design. An owl was inscribed on one side of the coin, and a six pointed star on the other.

A one drachma coin with an owl.
They weren't made from base metals either. They were minted from precious metal.

In fact, during the court case against Sprinkle for counterfeiting, which took place in Grayson around 1840, it was found that the purity of the silver in Sprinkle's dollars was greater than that in the coins being minted by the government at the time. Because of this, and the design of his coins, Sprinkle was acquitted, and was even said to have paid his attorney in his eponymous coinage.
After the trial Sprinkle returned to his home, off Kinniconick Creek near the Lewis and Carter County lines, where both he and his coins fell into legend.

Local historian and author Neal Salyers has a small collection of counterfeit coins found while metal detecting near caves in western Carter County that were used as hide outs and work shops for counterfeiters. But he's never come across a Sprinkle dollar, in person or in photos. This surprises Salyers, given the fact that news articles of the period, from the New York Times to the Macon Beacon, claim they were well respected coinage among the local population and in wide circulation in Lewis and neighboring counties. 

So where did all the Sprinkle dollars go? Were they sold off for the value of the silver? Melted down for use in jewelry and other silver items? Salyers doesn't know, and neither, it seems, does anyone else.

But there is another question that niggles at Salyers, just as it did at Sprinkle's contemporaries – where did the silver for the coins come from?

According to the November 16, 1895 issue of the New York Times, when asked about the origins of his silver, Sprinkle would respond, "It does not matter so (long as) I get it, and there's plenty of it left."

Salyers collects this article in his new book, "Caves, Counterfeiters, Trains & Moonshine," along with other accounts of Sprinkle's coins from various newspapers across the country. While his research into the man and his activities hasn't brought him any closer to finding a Sprinkle dollar, it has lead him to reconsider certain stories he heard as a young man growing up in Carter County. 

Stories like those of lost silver mines, and of a Frenchman's hidden hoard of treasure. 

It's also lead him to reconsider the portrait of Sprinkle painted in the articles of the era. For example, those articles made it seem as if Sprinkle was a lonely backwoods hermit. But Salyers exploration of census data tells a different story.   

"If he (Sprinkle) made counterfeit coins, and he was named in several of those articles, he had a wife and younger kids around. But I don't know what happened to him, and the family don't know what happened to him. We don't know how the story ends," Salyers said.

But the bigger question, still to this day, is about where the silver used in his coins came from. 

"That's the big question, because apparently he was on the edge of Lewis County, over around the Kinniconick area, somewhere around the Carter County line," Salyers said. "But supposedly (according to one article)... he was the leader of a band of counterfeiters in the Oligonunk Caverns. So they put him there in it. That's putting him at Carter City."

The newspaper articles pick up the story in the 1890s, but Sprinkle was operating, according to the articles, around 1840. So, Salyers explained, the articles detailing his exploits were telling the story 50 years or more after the fact.

"Now here we are, over 100 years after the newspapers facts," he said, still looking for the coins and their source. "We're tracing a heck of a cold trail." 

Salyers said he went to the Frankfort archives to try to find more information, and found information indicating that the government tried him for counterfeiting, but he couldn't find the actual court case.

"So I have the archivist help me to find it. We've got it, right here. The case against him. A couple of different years than (the news articles) said, but close enough. I knew it was him. So I go to the file to pick it up. I'm going through the numbers. I come to the number of that file, and it's gone."

Salyers said it almost appears as though someone wanted to try to erase the evidence related to Sprinkle for some reason. 

"We don't know if someone took it a year ago, or someone took it 150 years ago," he said.

But he still has his own ideas about where Sprinkle's silver could have come from, and it's a story almost as compelling as the mystery of Sprinkle himself.

One possibility is that the bullion for Sprinkle's dollars came from the lost John Swift's silver mine.

"Any time you hear a silver story in eastern Kentucky, it's about John Swift's silver mine," Salyers said. "Or, that's what everybody thinks it is. I've learned to tell the difference, because there was another silver mine story, and I've got information on it I pulled out of the papers years ago, along with family stories."  

This is the story of Howard LeKin and his lost mine. It's recorded in a 1976 history of Carter County, Salyers explained, but there are also "spin off stories" of LeKin and the Swift silver mine. 

"It's really two different stories," he said, but they are often conflated. 

LeKin's mine might not actually be a mine at all, he explained, but rather a cache of gold and silver that the French trapper and trader stored away in a local cave that can be distinguished from others in the area based on some distinct carvings that are said to be found near the cave entrance. 

Salyers isn't eager to share the information on the carvings or the possible location of the cave that he has been able to ferret out of the sparse records, but he does think he has an idea of where the cache may be, or at least may have been. There is no way of knowing, he explained, whether someone like Sprinkle found it already and made use of it in the production of his dollars, or if it still remains hidden somewhere in the hills of Carter County. Or, he said, if it is a real cache at all.

"Again, it's one of those things," Salyers said. "Supposedly it's two gallons of gold and six barrels of silver buried, in this treasure story. I doubt it, that that is exactly what it is. If anybody knew exactly what it was, they would d have seen it and got it." 

"I didn't think it was true," he said. But after more study, he explained, "I think there is something there. I don't know what."

He thinks he has an idea of the supposed location now as well, which he wishes to keep to himself at this time. But he can't currently get to it, as he needs land owner permission to go searching. 

"I've got a pretty good lead on something," he said. "But it's a completely different story."

"I really do think there is something to this one (the LeKin story)," he said. "But I don't think it's what they say. The premise is that LeKin was a French trader, and he was in (the caves) smelting gold and silver, and he got caught when the Shawnee was starting to get hot, and they run him out of here."

But not, Salyers explained, before he hid his cache and marked the cave.

"My initial question is, if he was making silver and gold, what was he making it from? He would have to mine it, and people will tell you that Carter County, with the way it's made, you're not going to find gold. Gold or silver. That would be the reason I would tend not to believe it. But if he was a trader, he might have had something anyway. He might have brought it from somewhere else."

It could tie in with the Sprinkle story too, because the location that Salyers is looking at for the LeKin cache is very near to the Lewis County line as well. 

"I tend to believe this story, to a point," he said. "I don't think it's two gallons of gold and six barrels of silver." 

But even if it is a smaller cache, it could still be valuable.

"For some reason (folks who have sought the treasure in the past) believed," Salyers said.

That's reason enough for him to keep looking.

Originally published in the now defunct Grayson Journal-Enquirer and Olive Hill Times.

You can contact the writer at jeremy@latetothegames.com.

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