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Mint founded on North Carolina gold

u.s. gold coinsThose who collect United States gold coins, especially of the 19th century, are well aware that the Charlotte (North Carolina) Mint struck a steady stream of such pieces from 1838 until it was closed in 1861 by the outbreak of the Civil War. Today these coins marked with the “C” mintmark are highly prized by their owners. The road to the establishment of this mint was a long one, however.

When we think of gold mining today, South Africa perhaps first comes to mind but in the early 19th century North Carolina was the name that everyone knew. The first recorded discovery of gold came in 1799 when Conrad Reed, a boy of about 12 years of age, found a large lump of yellow metal in a creek on the family farm in Cabarrus County, near Charlotte in the western part of the state.

Neither the boy nor his father, John Reed, realized that it was gold and it was used merely as a doorstop for two or three years. In 1802 the father took the piece with him to the nearby town of Concord and showed it to a jeweler, who gave him $3.50; the true value was probably at least $1,000.

Within a year, however, Conrad Reed and his brother had found fresh lumps of gold in the same area and the father, now aware of what had been found, took the pieces to a reliable buyer. The father himself later found a large mass of gold weighing 28 pounds, which was sold in the proper manner, putting the family a long ways above the daily grind that characterized rural North Carolina life in those days.

Within a short time Reed’s neighbors had also began to find gold, setting off a gold rush that grew in intensity over the years. Not long afterwards gold was also discovered in nearby counties, making some of the lucky farmers relatively wealthy.

One local newspaper account of December 1803 commented that “if our territory does not produce gold eagles [$10 gold pieces] ready coined, it furnishes the metal from which to coin them.” The editor was perhaps overly enthusiastic but he was proven correct over the long run as tens of thousands of ounces would be found in the mines and streams in this part of North Carolina.

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By the time of the Civil War in 1861, more than $10 million worth of North Carolina gold had been brought to the mints but it was estimated even at the time that only about half of the gold stayed in this country after being found.

By 1823 nearly $50,000 in North Carolina gold had reached the Philadelphia Mint and there were soon heard the first suggestions that a mint or assay office be established in or near Cabarrus County. The quantity of gold brought to the Mint continued to grow and in 1829 some $134,000 worth arrived in Philadelphia to be turned into half eagles, an amount that equaled all that had been deposited through 1828. By 1833 the amount had risen to $475,000, an extraordinary sum in an era when the average unskilled worker earned less than $2 per day.

It is also of interest to note that by 1834 North Carolina no longer had a monopoly on the gold being found in the South. It had been joined by South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, all of which produced significant amounts of the yellow metal.

The gold fever reached the North Carolina legislature in early December 1829 when that body passed a resolution asking the United States Congress to establish a branch mint in the “Gold Region.” Congress was less than enthused by the idea and the suggestion was voted down, at least for the time being. The Tarheel State continued to press for a branch mint, however, and President Andrew Jackson would be the catalyst that set this goal in motion.

Although North Carolina was rebuffed at first in its quest for a branch mint, they did obtain a mint for gold, though not sponsored by the government. “C. [Christopher] Bechtler and 2 sons” had arrived at Charleston, S.C., in mid April 1830 and had soon gone to the Gold Region of North Carolina, where Christopher intended to use his metallurgical skills to earn a living. He settled in Rutherford County, not all that far from the original Reed discovery of 1799. In March 1831 he was even granted patents for each of his “two machines for the purpose of washing gold ores;” these devices were soon put to good use by local miners.

In the spring of 1831 Christopher Bechtler decided to branch out even further in the gold business. Learning of the ill-fated 1830 coinage carried out by Templeton Reid in Georgia, he let his neighbors know that he was prepared to coin gold for a small fee and that the results, unlike those of Reid, would be accurate. It was not long before he was striking half and quarter eagles, with the dollar gold pieces not that far behind. By the fall of 1831 the Bechtler coins had reached neighboring states and provided a welcome addition to the marketplace.

Some idea of the business done by Bechtler may be seen by comparing the years 1834 and 1835. In the former year he minted about $110,000 in coins but 1835 fell just short of $700,000. Some of these coins were of course deposited at Philadelphia and later the branch mints, but it is also true that many of his coins were shipped to Europe.

It is perhaps not as well known, but the Bechtlers also prepared gold ingots for shipment abroad. In 1834-1835, for example, the value of such bars was $1.1 million. Added to the coinage totals, this meant that Christopher Bechtler handled about $2 million worth of gold during just these two years.

At the same time that Bechtler was running his private mint, the coinage reform movement had gathered enough strength in Congress that a law was passed which completely changed the monetary system of this country. In 1791 Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had recommended a ratio between gold and silver of 15 to 1, meaning that one ounce of gold was worth 15 ounces of silver; the United States then adopted a bimetallic coinage system, where gold and silver were of equal importance.

As early as 1800, however, the international ratio between the two metals had moved to 15.5 to 1, meaning that gold was undervalued in the United States. By 1818 gold had virtually disappeared from banks and the marketplaces in this country. Freshly-minted half eagles were oftentimes taken directly from the Philadelphia Mint and put aboard a ship bound for Britain or France. (Coined gold and ingots also left through the port of New York.)

In June 1834 Congress finally acted by setting the ratio at roughly 16 to 1 and reducing the weights of the gold coins in line with the new standard. As a result gold poured in from Europe and the Philadelphia Mint was very busy from 1834 to 1837 when the pressure eased up. (The new gold coinage had begun on the morning of Aug. 1, 1834.)

The Aug. 1 date is interesting for quite another reason. Christopher Bechtler marked some of his half eagle dies with this date so that those using his coins would know that they were made according to the new United States standards. This was the date, however, that the law took effect, not June 28 when President Jackson had signed the bill.

The heavy gold coinage of 1834, fueled in part by major deposits from the South, brought increased pressure for a mint in North Carolina as well as Georgia. The idea did not meet with encouragement in Philadelphia, however, as Mint Director Samuel Moore did his best to scuttle the idea through his congressional contacts. His best argument was that the new Philadelphia Mint, opened to coinage in the spring of 1833, was capable of striking all the coins that were needed for the American economy.

Moore’s effort, however, was a losing one from the start. President Jackson, who hated both the Bank of the United States and the ever-present paper money used in this country, was determined to destroy each of these problems. One prong of this attack was to create new mints in the South, to take advantage not only of the Gold Region, but also of the mass of foreign gold and silver coins that arrived at the port of New Orleans.

By early 1835 the Jackson political machine was in high gear. Instead of just the one mint at New Orleans, which would have been sufficient, three mints were created: New Orleans as well as Charlotte and Dahlonega (Georgia). It was overkill but the Administration was determined to put both gold and silver coins into widespread use throughout the country.

Once the die had been cast and the mints created, Director Moore threw in the towel and announced his resignation. He was replaced by Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson, one of the most energetic and able men ever to serve as Mint director.

The first step towards the Charlotte Mint, as well as the other two, was the appointment of a commissioner to oversee the construction of the building. Based on advice from local political leaders in North Carolina, the President picked Major Samuel McComb, who proved to be a wise choice. McComb was known for his integrity and ability and his work at the Charlotte site proved an additional feather in his cap.

Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury chose William Strickland as the architect, a man justly famed for his ability to create classical designs that blended well with the surroundings. His plans were approved in July 1835, just as Dr. Patterson assumed his post, and the cost was estimated at $33,000 for the building itself and $17,000 for equipment, including presses.

In mid July 1835 McComb advertised the project extensively in area newspapers. As a result he chose the firm of Perry and Ligon as the prime contractors. At the same time Dr. Patterson called on Coleman, Sellers, and Sons to supply the machinery. The laboratory equipment was ordered through a Paris supplier, however, with the advice of Mint officials in that country.

Progress was so good at the Charlotte site that Dr. Patterson arranged to have the heavy machinery, including a steam coining press, shipped in April 1837 to Charleston for transshipment to the North Carolina Gold Region. The shipment went smoothly and all arrived in good order.

At the same time the President was mulling over the numerous applicants for the post of superintendent at Charlotte. In due course he named John H. Wheeler, a man who was soon dogged by tragedy. Just after being named, his wife died unexpectedly, followed by his only son a short time later. To make up for this, Wheeler threw himself into his work in an effort to forget his personal problems.

Within a short time John Bolton was named as coiner but this was a choice by Patterson; Bolton had worked for some years in the coining department at the Philadelphia Mint. Wheeler also did on-site training at Philadelphia and the two men left for Charlotte in the spring of 1837. The arrival of the two officers led to miners trying to deposit bullion, but they were politely informed that it would be several months before this was possible. In September they were joined by Dr. John H. Gibbon, the newly named Assayer.

Superintendent Wheeler formally opened the Charlotte Mint for receipt of bullion on Dec. 4, 1837, and 111 ounces of gold were brought in the first day. Assayer Gibbon had only limited supplies on hand at this point and needed some of the materials ordered from Paris in order to begin coining operations; he was able to assay the incoming gold, however, and assign values.

On Dec. 16, 1837, the first dies arrived from Philadelphia, two pairs for striking half eagles. Dr. Patterson, in a covering letter, indicated that he hoped for the branch to begin operations in December 1837 even though the dies were dated 1838; the director did note, however, that coins struck in 1837 could not be delivered as coinage until January 1838 due to the date on the dies. As it turned out, however, coinage did not began for some weeks into the new year due to the problems faced by Dr. Gibbon.

On March 28, 1838, Coiner John Bolton struck the first half eagle at Charlotte. This very specimen was sent on to Dr. Patterson for a critical examination. It was the first coin struck outside of the Philadelphia Mint, the other two branches not yet having begun their operations. Patterson complimented the officers but did note that the dies had been slightly out of parallel, leading to a stronger strike on part of the coin.

Although the Charlotte Mint was in full operation by the summer of 1838, it still had a formidable rival in Christopher Bechtler. The latter was striking an estimated 20 to 30 percent of the gold coined in North Carolina. Superintendent  Wheeler explored various legal avenues to put the Bechtlers out of business but finally gave up as the effort was leading nowhere.

During 1838 the Charlotte Mint struck 17,179 half eagles and 7,880 quarter eagles. The latter coinage came primarily in the last few months of the year, the mintage beginning in July when 2,104 pieces were delivered. That quarter eagles were struck shows quite clearly that there was a need, even beyond the Bechtler coins, for a robust gold coinage to serve the North Carolina marketplace.

The success of the first year at Charlotte was due primarily to the hard work carried out by the superintendent but in all fairness the coiner and assayer were highly skilled men who performed their duties faithfully. Those who own one or both the 1838 Charlotte gold coins literally have history in their hands.

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