Pocketful of Change
By Erin Linn McMullan ~ Fall 2012

Three Chinese coins at the heart of the MacBride Museum exhibit Change are at the same time datable archaeological artifacts and baffling enigmas. That the currency was uncovered in the Yukon’s interior is a rarity--such artifacts are more commonly discovered at sites on the Pacific Northwest coast--leading experts on a mission to solve the mystery of these findings.

Two of the three coins date to the early 1600s and 1700s. They were found just days apart, in 2011--one near Carmacks, and one at Michie Creek. The other was discovered in 1993, at Beaver Creek, and dates back to A.D. 1408–1424--before Christopher Columbus arrived in North America.

All three of the coins predate the 1790 voyage of British Captain Meares, who sailed with Chinese craftsmen and a cargo of Chinese coins to set up a trading post at Yuquot (Friendly Cove) in Nootka Sound, B.C., and Vitus Bering, whose exploration in 1741 led to Russian settlement in what is now Alaska. It begs the question of whether these coins are evidence of a pre-contact aboriginal-trade network, connecting interior Athapaskans and coastal Chilkat Tlingit with the Pacific Rim.

“Since the coin has been identified as being minted during the Ming dynasty [1403–1424], and not Qing dynasty [1880– 1930], I don't have a problem in believing the coin could have been left by First Nations or was likely obtained as a result of aboriginal trading between coastal and interior groups,” explains archaeologist Keary Walde, who made the Beaver Creek discovery. “Did [the trading] occur in the 16th, 17th, 18th century, or later? Who knows? I am a strong supporter of aboriginal-trade networks throughout the archaeological past.”

However, Grant Keddie, Royal B.C. Museum’s archaeology curator, cautions that these isolated coins are too small a sample for conclusions.

“A single Ming dynasty coin would be statistically more likely to be from an earlier aboriginal-trade network based on the fact that Ming coins are very rare compared to Qing dynasty assemblages from the known historic-trade-period assemblages found in British Columbia,” he says. “It would seem likely, however, that older coins were making their way over long distances around the Pacific Rim. Japanese coins first appear in archaeological sites on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the 12th century.”

Walde says the pre-Columbian coin was misidentified as early 1900s by tourists of Chinese ancestry staying in the same hotel as their archaeology crew. It seemed plausible that Chinese placer miners left it behind when travelling through to the Chisana Gold Rush, from 1913 to the 1920s.

“There are caches of coins in the interior of B.C. found associated with the gold- rush period that were brought by Chinese miners, but only a few that are likely from an earlier period,” Keddie says.

Few records remain of Chinese miners trying their luck in the Klondike and Chisana Gold

Rush, possibly because they ended up as cooks and bartenders, Peggy D’Orsay explains. D’Orsay is a librarian with Yukon Archives and a contributor to the Asian Hidden History project. During the 1901 census, she says, “only one person was Chinese: Toney Yeehung worked as a cook in a mining camp on Upper Bonanza.” There is no evidence of Chinese labourers participating in the construction of the international White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, as most workers were European.

Kirby Booker, an archaeology student, was luckier with identification when she unearthed the Chinese coin found near Carmacks while working for Ecofor Consulting Ltd., in July 2011. An engineer back at camp wrote and spoke Mandarin and could connect the coin to Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty.   “Right away it gave [the coin] more of a story,” Booker says. A quick Internet search narrowed the date down even further to between 1666 and 1671. The discovery was the sixth “poem coin” in a limited edition of 20. When strung together the symbols on each piece create a poem that is said to be harmonious and powerful. Also of interest were four rough-hewn holes around its outer border--a contrast to its distinguishing square centre.

Days later, Todd Kristensen, a field technician with Matrix Research Ltd., uncovered the third coin now featured in MacBride’s collection while working on a heritage-inventory project for the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. When walking towards a helicopter at Michie Creek, he spotted something shiny in the topsoil. It turned out Kristensen’s find is even rarer than the poem coin. Minted during the short reign of Emperor Shi Zong (1723–1735), it predates more commonly found coins favoured for gaming by Chinese miners in B.C.

“The most likely scenario is that the British, Americans, and Russians brought over old Chinese coins to trade for pelts with coastal First Nations in the 1800s,” Kristensen says. “[They] could have picked up coins in Chinese port towns that had less value, that were out of circulation. Once the coins were traded to First Nations in Alaska, they were likely traded via aboriginal-trade routes from the coast to Yukon First Nations. These trade routes have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years, in Alaska and the Yukon.

“I think that's the real value of artifacts like these: they tell us about human movement and they give us glimpses at the human stories experienced by the hands that held those artifacts.”

Tlingit master carver Wayne Price, of Haines, Alaska, says Chinese coins had value as a trade item and may have passed from trader to trader over generations and great distances. He’s not alone in his theory that Russians may have been trading towards the Bering Sea with coins, beads, and other goods for pelts much earlier than documented European contact in the Pacific Northwest.

“The coin has meant nothing to the Tlingit people except for the handy hole which allowed it to be easily sewn onto hides and used as chainmail,” explains Sitka artist Tommy Joseph. Joseph studied Tlingit regalia and weapons with the Smithsonian and in museums across the world. Now he is preparing a travelling show, which includes six mannequins wearing replica regalia, from headgear to wooden collars and armour adorned with replica coins.

While research has shed light on how the coins ended up in Yukon soil, James Mooney, a senior archaeologist with Ecofor who arranged for the evaluation of all three coins, says there are still many questions to be answered.

“I think we are only scratching the surface of these types of travel and trade stories, and people tend to underestimate the distance that individuals have travelled,” he says. “I think with the receding ice patches and more heritage-impact assessments, we are bound to uncover other great stories and even better questions.”

Change is on display at the MacBride Museum until Sept. 28. Y


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