By Dr. Steve Carr
Early American large cents were probably the most used, abused, and altered coins in America during most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of these abused coppers are common, like holed, bent, and squished cents. Others, like engraved love tokens and Masonic pennies, are scarce. Some, like a suit of body armor made of large cents for a Civil War soldier are probably unique.
Many years ago, I bought a different type of “abused” large cent, an 1852, Newcomb variety undetermined, It came from a dealer’s junk box. The obverse of the coin is close to fine in sharpness, but is mostly covered with a hard, green colored substance. This substance covers the center of the coin completely (except where scraped off) but is missing around the edges. This substance would not dissolve in acetone or xylene. One short-lived attempt to pick it off was unsuccessful. Today, I’m glad I wasn’t able to remove it.
The reverse is what makes this coin interesting. It was shaved smooth with the words “R. W. Furnas. Agent. Troy, O. U. S. E. X. C. O” engraved on it. Unlike most engraved coppers I have seen, these letters are cut in mirror image, just like on a coin die. The engraving is fairly well done and somewhat ornate.
What made the coin even more interesting was that Troy, Ohio is only half an hour from my birthplace of Dayton, Ohio. A local guy! Troy was only a short trip from my parent’s house. A trip was in order.
While driving to Ohio, I speculated on the coin, even though I had no real idea what I would find. I conjectured that the green “stuff” on the obverse could be a glue of some sort. Perhaps it was put on the coin to attach a handle. If my conjecture was true, this coin would make a nice identification stamp, possibly for use with ink or wax. I also wondered when it had been made. Since the coin only graded Fine, it had circulated for awhile. Perhaps it was made during the Civil War (unlikely, I thought) or later. Perhaps, I speculated, it was made even later, in the early 1870’s, when large cents temporarily reentered circulation in this country. I thought I would never know the answer to that question – it could have been engraved any time after it was minted.
And who was this R.W. Furnas? Obviously he was an agent of some sort from Troy, Ohio.
Troy is an older town, complete with many homes and buildings from the1850’s. I started at the library and was referred to the Troy Historical Society, which was next door. There, I was introduced to two people, Juda Moyer and Gale Honeyman. After showing them the coin, both left for a short time. Gale came back first with a couple of books. One was a Furnas family history and the other was a Quaker record book. He smiled at me and started looking in the family history. He also told me the name was pronounced like a home heater.
About this time, Juda returned with a listing of Miami County (where Troy is located) agricultural records. There was one listing for an R. W. Furnas, as secretary of the Miami County Agricultural Society in 1854 – 55. Finally, some information!
Meanwhile, Gale had made some progress. There were three Robert W. Furnas’ listed in the Furnas family records. One was born in the 1870’s and we decided he was probably not our man. It would have been the 1890s before he would carve the cent. The second was born in 1848, which could work. The third was born in 1824. He was the same R. W. Furnas who was the secretary of the Miami County Agricultural Society.
Gale also checked the Quaker records, where both men were listed. He would read a notation, consult another source, and then think. You see, Gale is the local “genealogist” and knows several old Troy family histories. He really knew about the Furnas family, as he was related to them.!
After reading and thinking for a while, he decided that the R. W. Furnas born in 1824 was our man. I was still a little skeptical when Juda returned with a copy of the 1850 census for Troy. Listed there was Robert W. Furnas, age 26, a jeweler! We had our man.
Robert Wilkinson Furnas was born May 5, 1824 in the Mill Creek area near Troy. His family had come to the colonies in 1763 from Standing Stone, Cumberlandshire, England. They landed at Charleston, SC and his grandfather was born on the voyage. The family was Quaker. Robert’s father died of cholera in 1832 and his paternal grandfather raised him (his mother apparently was not up to the task). His mother died in 1849 and he purchased a burial plot in Troy for her.
At the age of 17, he became an apprentice printer in the office of the Licking Valley Register of Covington, Kentucky. He later worked in a printing office in Cincinnati. In 1847, at the age of 23, Furnas became owner, editor and publisher of the Troy (Ohio) Times newspaper. He sold rights to the paper in 1852 and became a freight and ticket agent and, later, a conductor for the Dayton & Michigan Railroad. I also learned the letters “U. S. E. X. C. O” probably stood for the U.S. Express Company. This company was founded in 1850 and, among other things, provided services to the nation’s railroads. There was a mention of this company in Troy city directories from the 1870’s, but none earlier. Unfortunately, my only connection between Robert W. Furnas and the U.S. Express Company is this altered cent.
He married Mary E. McComas on October 29, 1845. The couple had eight children, three of whom died in the early 1860’s. Furnas was working as a jeweler in 1850 and served as the secretary of the Miami County Agricultural Society four years later. In 1857, he completed the final purchase of Lot 108 in Troy. I was not able to determine where this was or what building was on the site. By this time, however, Furnas had already left Troy for the “wild west.”
In March 1856, Furnas moved to Brownville, Nebraska Territory, arriving on April 6, 1856. Once there, he established the Nebraska Advertiser and the Nebraska Farmer, the first agricultural publications in the territory. Furnas was also elected to the Territorial Legislature, rising to the office of Chief Clerk in 1861.
On March 22, 1862, Furnas was commissioned a Colonel in the United States Regular Army. His orders from the Secretary of War were to "organize the first Indian regiment, which was composed of Indians who had been driven by the Confederates from Indian Territory into southern Kansas.” He succeeded in raising three regiments. They served under General Blount in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and the Indian Territory. After resigning his Army commission in 1862, he organized the 2nd Nebraska Cavalry, a nine-month regiment that campaigned against the Indians in Nebraska, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. From 1869 until 1873, he served as an Indian Agent for the Omaha and Winnebago tribes, resigning to become the third Governor of the state of Nebraska. He served as Governor until 1875. The state of Nebraska also honored Furnas bynaming a south central county, Furnas County, in his honor.
Furnas was also a member of the board of regents of the University of Nebraska (1869-1875), the first president of the Nebraska State Historical Society (1878-1880), president of the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture and the State Horticultural Society, and a United States Commissioner at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the New Orleans Cotton Centennial, and the Chicago Columbian Exposition.
According to the Furnas family history, Robert was still living in Brownville, NE in 1896. Several of his children also lived in Brownville at that time.
Furnas died in Brownville on June 1, 1905. He was survived by his second wife, Mrs. Susanna E. Jamison, and five of his eight children with his first wife, Mary McComas
I first shared this story with members of the Early American Copper club in March 2005. In a letter, Terry Stahurski provided some of the above details about Robert Furnas. Harry Salyards, long time editor of Penny Wise, also added some details. Terry also concurred that the coin may have been used by Furnas as a stamp for receipts or postal envelopes while he was a travel agent. That would date the engraving to between 1852 and 1856.
Wow - story some of our coins have! Imagine, a copper altered and used by a publisher, a jeweler, a train conductor, a travel agent, a colonel, and a governor, all rolled into one. And a Nebraska County is even named for him! This coin is a part of my collection that really adds spice to the hobby. Don’t you wish you could tell a story like this about one of your coins? Make it happen.
Ahern, Ed, correspondence, 2005.
Carr, Steve, “An Unusual 1852,” Penny Wise, Volume XXXIX, number 2, March 2005, pp. 66 – 69.
Furnas, Tanzy R, Genealogy of the Furnas Family, Dayton, OH: Furnas Publishing, 1897.
Lapp, Warren A., “Uses and Abuses of U.S. Large Cents,” The Numismatist, Volume 84, August 1971.
Schwarz, Ted, Coins as Living History, NY: Arco Publishing Co., 1976.
Stahurski, Terry, Letter to the Editor, Penny Wise, Volume XXXIX, Number 3, May 2005, pp 140-141.
Troy Historical Society, Troy, OH, various sources, including deeds, official records, marriage certificates, census reports, Quaker records, and genealogies. A special thanks to Juda M. Moyer, archivist, and Gale Honeyman, volunteer, who were as intrigued as I about R. W. Furnas and his cent.