Legend has it that when R. J. Reynolds rode into Winston-Salem in 1875 to found the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, he had $500 and a sack of tobacco seeds in his saddlebag. What most people don’t know is that he also carried a lucky family coin with him—the Joshua Coin— that had originally belonged to his Irish great-grandfather Joshua Cox. Square in shape and silver in color, the totem was thought to be an ancient Peruvian coin that brought protection and good luck to its owner.
Stories about the coin started spreading locally in the early 1900s as Reynolds began amassing incredible wealth. Not only was the totem credited for providing his family with great fortune, it was also said to protect all those who wore it or shared its luck from harm’s way. For a time, the coin was passed down through generations of Reynolds. But at some point, it mysteriously disappeared, causing it to spiral into one of Winston-Salem’s most mystifying tales.
Some say the coin was nothing special, simply a piece of silver with no magical powers. Others say it was more of a curse than a blessing, causing both triumphs and tragedies. Some even speculate the coin wasn’t Peruvian at all, but was actually one of the original 30 pieces of silver given to Judas for betraying Jesus.
All of this leads toward a tale with lots of questions and not a lot of answers. So, in an effort to explore the coin in more detail, we turned to Noah Reynolds for help. Not only is Noah the great-grandson of R.J. Reynolds, but he is also a coin collector and family historian who’s done extensive research on the coin and its history to separate fact from fiction. According to him, to understand the full story of the Joshua Coin, you’ve got to go back in time nearly 300 years—back to a man named Joshua Cox. We’ll let Noah take it from here…
Joshua Cox Jr. was born in Pennsylvania in 1731 to parents Joshua Cox Sr. and Mary Rankin who had moved to America from Ireland. He and his younger brother Richard fought together during the French and Indian War in the Pennsylvania Regiments, during which Cox was captured by Native Americans. The Cox Family Legend, recounted in a privately published Reynolds Family History from 1970, explains:
“During the French and Indian War, [Cox] was captured by Indians, but, because of his great strength and magnificent physique (6-feet-6), his life was spared and he was adopted by the chief as a son. After many months with the Indians, he was allowed to go on hunting trips with them. [At some point] he separated himself from his companions and escaped. … He swam many miles down the Susquehanna River to a settlement wearing little but a square silver coin around his neck—and he was eventually able to return to his family in [Pennsylvania].”
This reference to a “silver square coin” is the first written record we have of the Joshua Coin. The face of the coin showed a cross, and the reverse showed the stamp of a Peruvian imprint in the 1700s. Cox believed the coin had saved his life, and it became a totem passed down from generation to generation together with a magic phrase said over it. Touched to a man’s gold, it was said to bring good fortune. But for it to work, it had to be in the possession of a son in direct descent who bore the name Joshua.
Further research shows the coin is actually a silver “8 Reales” minted in Lima, Peru, in 1749. Cox easily could have picked up a silver example of the coin anywhere in the English colonies before being captured in war. Peru was a major silver producer in the 18th century, and Spanish silver and gold coins readily circulated in North America as currency until gold and silver were discovered in the U.S. in the early 1800s.
After returning from captivity, Cox and his family would move to Virginia and later to Stokes County (N.C.), where he built a home and ran a farm. Years later during the Revolutionary War, Cap. Joshua Cox began training local Patriot militia men. He would engage in battle and narrowly escape death (again). According the Danbury Reporter Post, Cox and his horse were shot by Tories and left for dead. “Much joy was caused among the Royalists,” said the article, “but it was subdued when they learned that both man and horse had recovered so far as to be able to reach the camp.”
Reputedly, Cox lived to a great age without losing a tooth or having one decay. His son Joshua Cox III was born in 1775, and the current Cox homestead was built in the 1940s by his descendants on the original property near Hanging Rock State Park and the Dan River. Joshua Cox III had no sons, but he and his wife had a daughter in 1825 named Nancy Jane Cox. At age 18, Nancy fell in love with local tobacco farmer Hardin William Reynolds, who lived just across the state line in Patrick County, Va. The two would marry in 1843.
Soon after their marriage, Hardin began construction of the Reynolds Homestead in Critz, Va., where he and Nancy ultimately bore 16 children. This included Richard Joshua Reynolds, their second oldest son, whose birth coincided with the death of Nancy’s father (Joshua Cox III). This conjunction would allow Nancy to bring the Joshua Coin into the Reynolds family.
The Rise of Reynolds
Though he wasn’t the oldest son, R.J. Reynolds ended up with the Joshua Coin because he bore the name of both his maternal grandfather (Joshua Cox) and Joshua’s brother, Richard, who had fought in two wars together. (R.J’s older brother was named Abram David Reynolds after his paternal grandfather.) A quick anecdote from the book “The Gilded Leaf” by Patrick Reynolds mentions a young R.J. first calling upon the power of the coin. As Major A.D. Reynolds was departing for the Civil War, “his brother R.J. rubbed his square Joshua Coin against a few gold coins that Abram took with him to pass on its good luck for a safe return from war.” And return safe he did.
R.J. Reynolds settled in Winton-Salem in 1875 but did not wed until 1905 when he married Mary Katharine Smith from nearby Surry County. The couple promptly had their firstborn son and namesake Richard Joshua “Dick” Reynolds Jr. in 1906. Soon after they would begin constructing a new family estate, Reynolda, which was also home to a working farm village.
It was around this time that news of the Joshua Coin began spreading. Just after the completion of Reynolda in 1917 but before his death in 1918, R.J. apparently used his magical coin frequently and was said to have offered good luck to all of his employees who were drafted to fight in World War I. As Patrick Reynolds writes, “R.J. would solemnly touch his Joshua Coin to their gold coins, tokens, and teeth fillings. All those who had been similarly touched by the totem in the Civil War and Spanish-American War had survived; R.J. hoped the coin’s image would still be potent.”
Dick Reynolds Takes Control
Soon after being elected mayor of Winston-Salem in 1942, R.J. Reynolds’ firstborn son, Dick—then 36 years old— left home to serve in the U.S. Navy. More specifically, he would serve as a Lieutenant Commander and Navigator for Admiral Durgan’s Seventh Fleet in the Pacific Theater aboard the Escort Carrier U.S.S. Makin Island.
At the time, U.S. ships in the area were under heavy attack by Japanese kamikaze pilots, and Dick’s ship was constantly in the line of fire. Miraculously, however, Dick’s ship remained unharmed by enemy fire, even as ships all around it were sunk. According to a 1980 memoir held at Reynolda House by his lifelong attorney Stratton Coyner, Dick had also navigated the fleet through the coral reefs at Lingenyen Gulf without losing a single ship to the reefs. “They didn’t think it could be done,” it reads. “That was the battle where the Japanese Navy was finally put out of commission.”
Meanwhile, the legend of the Joshua Coin and its mysterious powers began spreading across Dick’s ship. As Patrick Reynolds notes: “In a time when four-leaf clovers or other good-luck totems decorated each bunk, Dick’s shipmates wondered if the Joshua Coin had anything to do with the Makin Island’s invulnerability. [The] stories of how it had protected people in the Civil War and in World War I made the rounds of the ship.”
The only thing is—Dick didn’t have the coin with him.
“Before leaving home, he’d rubbed his own gold-filled teeth with it but then had put it in the “Ship House” safe at Merry Acres [in Winston-Salem], fearing that the coin might disappear from the family if he were killed and his body lost at sea.”
Dick returned from WWII safely, but he never returned to the Ship House he had constructed with his wife “Blitz” on his Merry Acres Estate. Immediately after the war in 1946, he fell in love with his second wife, moved to Georgia, and had two more sons, including my uncle Patrick Reynolds, who wrote a book of family history titled “The Gilded Leaf” in 1989.
As a result of the divorce, my grandmother “Blitz” (Elizabeth McCaw Dillard Reynolds) got the “house and contents,” including the fabled Joshua Coin. In her diary, I found an entry from 1946 which stated, “[Dick] left the coin in the house, and when he called me up in 1946, I refused to give it to him.” She later gave it to her eldest son, Richard Joshua Reynolds III. This is confirmed in the Reynolds Family History from the 1970 reunion, which reads:
“Joshua Cox undoubtedly was the first American to own the Joshua Coin, a good luck piece highly valued by the Cox and Reynolds families. It is a silver piece which has come down generation by generation to the next of kin with Joshua in his name, eventually reaching R.J. Reynolds, then his son [Dick], and finally Richard Joshua Reynolds III, who now holds the coin.”
R.J. Reynolds III (who I knew as Uncle Josh) and his wife, Marie, lived a quiet life in Southern Pines, before passing away within a year of each other in the mid 1990s. Since they had no children, a foundation was created in honor of their estate. Of note is that the Joshua Coin was not listed in the estate, meaning that—for the first time since Cox originally strapped the totem around his neck as he swam down the river—no one knew the coin’s whereabouts.
Fact vs. Fiction
Shortly before my father, William Neal Reynolds II, passed away in 2009, he showed me an envelope that featured a number of items and notes pertaining to the Joshua Coin. Among these items was a silver “copy” of the Joshua Coin he'd made years before along with a note that read: “I made this silver copy of the Joshua Coin in 1982. I do not know where the original Joshua Coin is? It was not in his (Josh’s) Estate in 1995.”
That “copy” of the Joshua Coin is now in my possession, although the location of the original coin remains a mystery. Thankfully, though, this replica coin can help solve a few of the mysteries surrounding the coin, For instance, the fact that the coin was minted in Peru in 1749 dispels any notion that it was somehow originally given to Judas as payment for betraying Christ.
Another rumor is that Dick Reynolds (my grandfather) tossed the Joshua Coin into the ocean after discovering that my grandmother Blitz had drilled a hole in the middle of it to set a diamond. This also can’t be true, since the Reynolds Family History publication mentions that R.J. Reynolds III had the coin in his possession in 1970—six years after Dick had passed away.
As to the magic or the curse behind the coin, all I can say is that it was carried, generation after generation, by Cox and Reynolds men who fought for their country and lived through every major war in American history unscathed. Was it magical? Did it have special powers? No one can definitively say yes.
Then again, no one can definitively say no.
Here’s a quick list of nearby sites that are tied to Reynolds family lore, all of which were mentioned in this article.
Reynolds Homestead: Located in the southern Virginia town of Critz, the Reynolds Homestead (aka Rock Spring Plantation) is designated a State and National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Registry of American Homes. In 1970, Nancy Susan Reynolds, daughter of R.J., deeded the home and 717 acres to Virginia Tech University, and a Community Enrichment Center and Forestry Research Center was established on-site. In addition to tours of the historic home and plantation, an array of programs are offered at the Enrichment Center including art exhibits, music, theater, lectures, family and senior activities, and more. www.reynoldshomestead.vt.edu.
Reynolda House: Reynolda House stands today as one of the nation’s premier American art museums, with masterpieces by Mary Cassatt, Frederic Church, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Gilbert Stuart among its permanent collection. Affiliated with Wake Forest, the museum features concerts, lectures, classes, film screenings, after-hours events, and dazzling temporary exhibits. Its current exhibit showcases the works of famed nature photographer Ansel Adams. The museum is stationed in the historic 1917 estate of Katharine Reynolds and her husband, R.J. Reynolds—and the surrounding property is home to Reynolda Village and Gardens, where you’ll find a spectacular public garden, dining, shopping, and walking trails. www.reynoldahouse.org.
Joshua Cox Homestead / Carolina Ziplines: The pioneering spirit of “The Patriot” lives on at the Joshua Cox homestead in Stokes County with the construction of the Carolina Ziplines Canopy Tour in 2007. The ziplines traverse a 26-acre site that was once the farm and homestead of Joshua Cox Jr., a Revolutionary War hero and great-grandfather of R.J. Reynolds. The Carolina Ziplines team continues to preserve the adventures of the Cox-Reynolds family by passing on history and folklore to everyone who visits. It’s also worth noting that the Cox family cemetery, featuring Joshua Cox’s headstone, is situated just above the entrance to the property. www.carolinaziplines.com.