Discovering the Uncle Sam

By: Waymon Cox

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Greetings from Crater of Diamonds State Park! In recent weeks, we have learned that the Uncle Sam Diamond—the largest ever found in the United States—is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C. While the Uncle Sam is one of America’s most significant diamonds, most people don’t know the fascinating story of how this gem was discovered or how it got its name.

The Uncle Sam Diamond came from a diamond-bearing volcanic crater near Murfreesboro, Arkansas. Diamonds were first discovered here in 1906, and the site was commercially mined for more than 60 years. Today, visitors to Crater of Diamonds State Park search for diamonds in a 37.5-acre plowed search area that encompasses most of the diamond-bearing material.

From 1919 to 1932, the Arkansas Diamond Corporation operated a commercial mine on the southern half of the park’s present diamond search area. One of the company’s early diamond-recovery methods used high-pressure hoses to wash diamond-bearing ore down long, wooden troughs to a plant, where the material was then sifted and sorted through a series of screens and pans. Most diamonds were small and easier to find once the soil and larger gravel had been removed. However, larger diamonds were sometimes seen earlier in the process.

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Wesley O. Basham, a farmer from Murfreesboro, worked for the Arkansas Diamond Corporation in 1924 and was the first person to see the gem that would become known as the Uncle Sam. In a 2006 interview, Doris Foshee, Basham’s granddaughter, shared the story her grandfather told of how he uncovered one of America’s greatest treasures.

“He was using a hydraulic hose to wash the dirt, spraying the water at full force, when all at once he saw a brilliant flash! He knew immediately it was a diamond, and a big one, so he hollered to the other workers and said, ‘Y’all watch out, a big one’s coming!’”

While most people might assume the diamond was called Uncle Sam after the United States symbol, Foshee revealed that it was actually named in honor of her grandfather. “When my grandfather was a baby, a relative was letting him hold his finger and remarked that he was as strong as Sampson. Growing up, everybody called him ‘Samp.’ As he got older, some people misheard his nickname and started calling him ‘Sam.’ Back then, everybody had an ‘Uncle or Aunt so-and-so,’ and he was known as Uncle Sam.”

Foshee noted that the name stuck almost immediately. “The day he saw the diamond, on down the line to the washing plant people said, ‘Watch for Uncle Sam’s diamond! Watch for Uncle Sam’s diamond!’ Then someone finally found Uncle Sam’s diamond.”

The Uncle Sam weighed 40.23 carats uncut and had a light pinkish-brown color. Ernest Schenck, a diamond cutter from New York, cut it twice: first into a 14.34-carat parallelogram, then a 12.42-carat emerald shape to improve its brilliancy. The cut Uncle Sam Diamond graded as M-color with very, very slight inclusions.

Schenck kept the Uncle Sam until his death in 1955, at which time Boston Jeweler Sydney DeYoung acquired the diamond. DeYoung sold the gem by 1958 to B. Beryl Peikin, a New York jeweler. Peikin owned the gem until he passed away in 1988; his wife kept it until her death in 2015.

J. & S. S. DeYoung Inc. obtained the Uncle Sam from the Peikin Estate in early 2019 and sold it a short time later to Dr. Peter Buck, cofounder of the Subway restaurant chain. Dr. Buck recognized the Uncle Sam as a national treasure and purchased it that summer for the Smithsonian Institution.

Doris Foshee passed away in November 2019, unaware that the diamond her grandfather uncovered had become part of the prestigious National Gem Collection.

On June 10, 2022, the Uncle Sam Diamond was unveiled to the public for the first time in more than four decades, nearly a century after its discovery. As part of the Great American Diamonds Exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the Uncle Sam now sits alongside the Canary Diamond, an uncut, 17.86-carat yellow Arkansas diamond found in 1917. Both gems speak to the excellent quality of diamonds that can still be found at Crater of Diamonds State Park today!

Crater of Diamonds State Park is located on Arkansas Highway 301 in Murfreesboro. It is one of 52 state parks administered by Arkansas State Parks, a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism. For more information about the park, call 870-285-3113, email CraterofDiamonds@arkansas.com, or visit www.CraterofDiamondsStatePark.com.

Search area last plowed: June 27, 2022
Most recent significant rainfall: June 10, 2022
Recent diamond finds (100 points = 1 carat):

June 24 – Erin Crowder, Benton, AR, 3 pt. white; Shane Tacker, Southaven, MS, 19 pt. white; Sarah Jones, Orange Park, FL, 11 pt. white
June 25 – Joshua Fox, Murfreesboro, AR, 4 pt. white
June 27 – Scott Kreykes, Murfreesboro, AR, 2 pt. white

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