The steamer trunk that Adeline and Ansel Ives Easton took on their honeymoon voyage finally reached shore last month, 133 years after they did. It was found where the Eastons almost ended up, on the deep ocean floor some 200 miles off the Carolina coast, amid ship timbers, steam machinery and a glittering fortune in gold.Those who found the trunk and have been cataloguing its contents consider it a vital part of the richest discovered treasure in American history, as important in its own way as the other stuff it was found with: the 62-pound gold ingot, the fist-sized 22-ounce gold nugget and the hundreds of millions of dollars in gold bars, gold dust and freshly minted gold and silver coinage hauled up so far from the wreckage of the packet steamer Central America. The trunk's contents -- mostly clothes and other personal items of the newlywed couple -- were so astonishingly well preserved that surviving intact was a July 20, 1857, copy of the New York News, headlines still readable.

But why was the newspaper wrapped around -- as though to conceal -- a man's dress shirt belonging not to Ansel Easton but to one William Ralston?

"Well, he founded the Bank of California with Adeline Easton's brother," said Bob Evans of the Columbus America Discovery Group, the Ohio-based treasure hunters who retrieved the suitcase and have been voluminously researching the lives of its original owners. "Maybe she was having an affair with him... . Your mind just runs wild with all the history."

History, as much as gold, was the real cargo of the Central America, which steamed into the path of a hurricane Sept. 8, 1857, en route from Panama to New York with passengers and bullion from the California Gold Rush. Some 425 were lost when she went down four days later, including Capt. William Herndon -- for whom elegiac citizens in western Fairfax County would subsequently name their town. Saved, however, were 153 others, including all the women and all but one of the 29 children aboard.

Evans and his colleagues, operating on the outer edge of ocean engineering technology, found the ship three years ago, in 7,000 feet of water. They have been painstakingly excavating it ever since, using an undersea robot tethered and controlled from their ship by a half-mile-long fiber-optic leash. So far they've brought up more than $100 million in gold (hundreds of millions more remain) but insist they're just as fascinated with the rest of the artifacts, which they call a "time capsule": personal effects linking them to men and women of pre-Civil War America, where miners could become millionaires overnight and manifest destiny was a near-religion and a current event.

"We've lived with these people for so long," said Judy Conrad, the group's historian and archivist, "we almost feel like they're family."

The dramatic and improbable rescues of the Central America's survivors, rich in the narrative melodrama of Victorian prose, fueled the popular press for decades after the shipwreck, making the side-wheeler's loss a kind of 19th-century media event -- as famous a wreck in its century as the Titanic is in ours.

And like the crew and passengers of the Titanic, those aboard the Central America were a varied and colorful lot. They came from 12 foreign countries, as well as 28 states and the District of Columbia, and included:

Judge Alonzo Castle Monson, who resigned from California's 6th Judicial Circuit after gambling away all his money and his house in a historic poker game in Sacramento. He survived.

Ange Richon, Belgian consul at Lima, Peru, who was bound for Europe via New York bearing important diplomatic dispatches concerning fleet movements in the Pacific. He survived.

"Mrs. Virginia Birch," a former dance hall girl better known to the San Francisco papers as "the notorious Jenny French." According to contemporary accounts, one of her numerous suitors had killed a German in a dispute over her honor. While this man was serving time in prison for his act of chivalry, Jenny married and shipped out with his business partner, a music hall comedian named Billy Birch who, after the sinking, reportedly entertained other passengers while floating in the sea.

Capt. Thomas W. Badger, master of the sailing ship Jane A. Falkinberg of San Francisco, who carried a carpetbag holding $17,500 in gold coins until just before the ship sank. While others reportedly were dragged to their deaths by gold-filled money belts and money bags they refused to abandon, Badger jettisoned his -- and lived to tell about it.

George Dawson, one of the few black passengers aboard, who survived nine days at sea without food or water. When greeted as a hero on his arrival in New York, newspapers reported, he grew "impatient at the distinguished attention shown him," according to one account, and limped away into the crowd.

Alexander Grant, fireman of the Central America, who had survived three previous shipwrecks and, when the Central America went down, was rescued with Dawson after a week and a half.

The Raging Storm The honeymooning Eastons were among the most socially prominent people aboard. He was a merchant who sold furnishings to the steamship line. His wife, Adeline, was the sister of Darius Ogden Mills, one of the richest men in California, soon to become a veritable titan of finance.

They had married the month before, just prior to shipping out from San Francisco. They were eastbound on the Panama route that carried the wealthiest travelers from California to New York in as few as 19 days. The fastest clipper ship passages around Cape Horn seldom took fewer than 100 days. Travel overland took at least four months.

In a memoir published in 1911, Adeline Easton described their southbound voyage to Panama aboard the steamship Sonora as "one long delight, with smooth waters, sunny skies and a joyous, congenial company." They had brought with them "so many beautiful clothes and gifts packed in trunks in the hold" plus "hampers of wine and choice biscuits and cakes given with laughter and good wishes for a bon voyage."

Once on the isthmus, they sped eastward to the Caribbean coast on the new inter-ocean railroad in just four hours, embarking on the Central America immediately on arrival to avoid the fever-plagued night air of the tropics.

Their ship for the voyage north was a black-hulled, three-masted sidewheeler, coal-fired, with three decks and a cruising speed of 11 knots. Her owner, the United States Mail Steamship Co., shuttled her twice a month between New York and Panama. Since her launching five years before she had completed 43 voyages, carrying nearly one-third of all the gold shipped east from California. Her commercial shipment this time was valued at $1.2 million in that era of $20-an-ounce gold. It included $260,300 from Wells Fargo & Co., $34,000 from Adeline Easton's brother's bank and $76,441.79 from an entrepreneur named Levi Strauss who was finding commercial favor in the gold fields making canvas pants.

For most of its life the ship had been named the George Law, after one of the founders of the steamship company, but the company's directors, noting that Law had sold all his stock four years before, had the previous spring re-christened her the Central America. Seamen muttered that it was bad luck to change a ship's name, but few passengers professed to be worried. The ex-George Law was a proven ship and her skipper, Capt. Herndon, was an intrepid officer who had explored the Amazon for the U.S. Navy.

Six days after leaving Panama, the ship sailed into the fringe of the hurricane. Adeline Easton took note of a "severe gale, which increased in violence, producing a heavy head sea... . The captain was cheerful and encouraging ... but it was a very uncomfortable time ... as we were all more or less seasick."

The storm raged into the next day, and the ship began taking water, her engine thumping reassuringly but her steam-powered pumps fighting a gradually losing battle against leaks below. The rising water crept closer to the boilers, and to the fires that fueled them.

About noon on Friday, the third day out of Havana, "the vessel suddenly careened to one side," Adeline Easton wrote, "and looking toward our port-hole, I noticed that it was entirely under water.

" 'Ansel! Ansel!' I cried. 'We are sinking!' "

The ship would no longer hold her head to the wind and the boiler fires went out. Herndon formed the male passengers into bucket brigades to bail. Realizing their peril, the Eastons "committed ourselves calmly, quietly into His care, whose voice even the winds and sea obey. We spoke lovingly of our dear ones, and decided that when the last moment came we should go down together, hand in hand.

" 'But until all hope is past we must work,' he said, and after kissing me, he joined the men" passing buckets of water from the flooded engine room, Adeline wrote of Ansel.

The men bailed for 30 hours. When their strength began to flag, Adeline Easton fetched from her cabin her gift hampers of wine and biscuits and passed among the workers to cheer and nourish them onward. "When too exhausted to work longer, my dear husband would come and sit by me for a few minutes... . Life had never seemed so attractive or dear to either of us, yet the wonderful truth ... of absolute calmness in the moment of death became a reality to us."

Through the night the men labored, turning aside through "gallantry" offers from the women to help with the bailing. The crew fired distress rockets. Finally, around 2 the following afternoon, the brig Marine, a tiny, crippled sailing ship northbound from Honduras with a cargo of sugar and molasses, floundered by in the storm and "hove to" at Herndon's signal.

Herndon ordered the Central America's lifeboats lowered and the women and children rowed to the little vessel. Two of the five boats were smashed in the effort, but somehow the women were lowered into the boats amid the towering seas, and even infants were handed safely down. Jenny French brought her pet parakeet tucked into her ample bosom for safety.

Adeline Easton left in the third boatload "with my husband's kiss upon my lips and breathing a prayer for his safety". At the last moment he tossed into the lifeboat with her a coat containing "$900 and some valuable papers rolled into a bundle." Waves almost swamped the lifeboat and "just when I felt that I could not keep from breaking down at the parting from my dear husband" Adeline Easton "had to rouse myself for action," bailing water. "The men were all needed to row {and} the other women were hysterical."

The lifeboat made it to the Marine, and Adeline watched anxiously as three more boatloads arrived. But none of them bore Ansel Easton. Soon darkness fell and the boatmen refused to return to the sinking ship.

Meanwhile, aboard the Central America, Ansel Easton had just handed his cigar to Capt. Herndon to ignite the last signal rocket on deck when the Central America "gave a great plunge" and sank. Easton was borne up by his life preserver and found himself on the surface floating amid hundreds of bobbing men. Eight hours later the Norwegian bark Ellen sailed into the midst of them. Ansel and 48 others were saved. The Ellen's captain told them a large bird had flown into his face the night before. He had beaten it away, but it had returned twice more. Being superstitious, he changed course in the direction from which the bird had flown, and a few hours later heard cries in the darkness and found himself in the sea of floating men.

As the Marine and the Ellen headed north, they encountered other vessels, which accepted Central America passengers headed their way. Survivors ultimately landed at ports from Savannah to New York, each telling his story to a thrilled and horrified press and public. The Eastons were reunited in Norfolk. "Of our meeting," Adeline Easton wrote, "I cannot speak. Great joy is too deep for words. Kindness loaded us with everything we needed. One lady insisted upon presenting us with a trunk. I laughingly told her that I didn't have a thing to put in it... ."

What she and her husband had lost rested undisturbed for more than a century until Evans and company hauled it up.

The Treasures in the Trunk "We had spotted the trunk in the debris field when we first found the wreck," Evans remembered. "We've found other artifacts, of course, but some professors we were talking to at Ohio State thought it might be fascinating to examine the condition of fabric that had lain on the ocean bottom that long. So we brought it up. It could have belonged to somebody on the wreck we knew nothing about. In fact, it belonged to perhaps the people we know the most about ... so I couldn't be happier."

In addition to the Eastons' trunk, other artifacts recovered from the wreck offered a peek at the habits, pretensions and sensibilities of Americans from the era.

While trolling the ocean bottom for gold dust, the robot vacuum cleaner picked up a small woman's ring, with six stone settings in a line. The first gem was missing; the rest, in order, were a puzzlingly disparate assortment: an emerald, a garnet, an amethyst, a ruby and a diamond.

Researching 19th-century jewelry, archivist Conrad discovered not only what the odd ring was, but the identity of the absent stone. At the time in the American West, it was customary for a gentleman of means who was attracted to a lady, but not sufficiently so to propose marriage, to instead favor her with a ring solemnifying his "regard" for her. The initial of the stones spelled out the word "regard." The missing gem was a ruby.

A glazed ceramic container bore the legend: "Highly Perfumed Bear's Grease for Beautifying The Hair." It was manufactured at 114 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.

A similar jar lid, found separately, apparently covered "Roussell's Unrivalled Premium Shaving Cream," which purported to have received "gold and silver medals from the institutes of Boston, Philadelphia and New York," whatever those institutes were. That product, curiously enough, also was manufactured at 114 Chestnut St.

Precisely what sort of place was 114 Chestnut St.? Conrad and Evans are on the case.

Lucy Sibley, chairman of Ohio State's department of textiles and clothing, which has been examining and conserving the Eastons' long-lost clothes, said the fabrics are in "amazingly good shape" for the most part, with thread intact and even dye still present in the prints.

"I suppose the first impression is that these are beautifully constructed garments," she said. "Of very fine quality and fine in detail." It is tempting, she said, to think of San Francisco in 1857 as something of a Wild West boom camp with everyone in overalls. "These clothes show it was already quite a cosmopolitan place."

Ansel Easton's shirts (distinguished by laundry marks) boast beautiful embroidery with pin tucks and handworked buttonholes. Adeline's bloomers have tucked lace. Eyelet lace decorates her nightgown, and her full petticoats have cartridge pleats at the waist.

"They were both small people by today's standards, from the size of the clothes. She was obviously a tiny little thing, possibly a teenager," said Evans. "The waist of her gowns is less than 20 inches." Her gloves indicate tiny hands and long slender fingers.

As for the other items, Evans is intrigued by a brace of pistols, possibly derringers or dueling pistols. "The barrels have rusted away so we can't tell how long they were. But the balls are almost three-eighths in diameter." Then there are the personal details -- Ansel's mustache brush and nightshirt, and a purselike device labeled "Dr. Mattson's Elastic Injecting Instrument," apparently hygienic, about which Evans refuses to speculate in the interest of delicacy.

And, of course, there was William Ralston's shirt.

The newspaper in which it was wrapped, said Evans, "was a month old when the Eastons left San Francisco, so they must have got it there. The shirt is much larger than Easton's and has 'W. Ralston' written on it. We don't know what the connection is, but it sure is intriguing."

William Ralston, like Adeline's brother Darius Ogden Mills, was "a real 19th-century tycoon," said Judy Conrad. According to Conrad, he "died under mysterious circumstances when there was a run on the Bank of California in 1875. He may or may not have committed suicide."

Conrad and Evans are trying to locate descendants of Easton and Ralston in San Francisco, to write the final chapter of their story.

Meanwhile, the robot under the sea keeps unearthing gold -- and other treasures.

There are more suitcases out there waiting to be brought to the surface, Evans says. He's seen them. There may be dozens.

Each with its own story.