The Use of Ciphers in Colonial Times

22 Apr

Lot 1748, Sedwick Auction #19

We have a fascinating document in our Treasure, World and U.S. Auction #19 that is unfortunately a counterfeit, but its underlying theory is genuine. Take a look at Lot 1743, a document purporting to be a statement made in 1553 by a pirate Eli Fleete giving details of where he buried his treasure in Barbados or thereabouts so he or his relatives (in case he wasn’t around anymore) would know where to find it again. The statement is coded, and the cipher to read the coding accompanies it. How convenient! None of it is true, so don’t bother to go looking for his treasure. What’s true is that ciphers were in use in colonial times.


Lot 1743, Sedwick Auction #19

Monarchs used ciphers to correspond with ambassadors and viceroys who were their ears and eyes in foreign courts. We have a letter and its accompanying cipher written by Hernan Cortes in early colonial times. We even have evidence of Philip II, the son of Charles I of Spain (also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) corresponding with ciphers. If you’re interested, you can read more at And so, while Lot 1743 is not a genuine letter and cipher, it represents a very well used convention in early colonial times. Nowadays, we call this “encryption,” so maybe there’s nothing new under the sun.

Encrytped letter from Hernan Cortes

Hernan Cortes Letter

Auction bidding for our Treasure, World and U.S. Coin Auction #19 is underway, so please sign up to bid! The auction will go live on the Internet on May 18 and 19. Please consult the catalog for Session times. Remember that the advantage of bidding ahead of time is that if there is a tie bid, the winner is the bidder who bid first.

Like our artwork for the cover? It’s lot 1748, the final lot in the auction and can be yours if you’re the winning bidder! You can read about the artist in the lot description.

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