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Brother, can you spare some gold?

Next month, I’ll be attending the California State Numismatic Association’s Eighth Annual Northern California Educational Symposium, slated for Oct. 27 in Vallejo.

I’m one of four speakers at the symposium, which focuses mainly on California and its relation to gold. Alton Pryor will be speaking on “Those Lusty Gold Camps of California”; Dr. Donald H. Kagin will present “California Gold Coinages”; and Dr. Michael F. Wehner will talk on “The Golden Gate Bridge on Tokens and Medals.”

My presentation is title ‘A Tale of Mines plus Trade and Morgan Dollars” and is drawn from my book, Crime of 1873: The Comstock Connection (Krause Publications, 2001).

Few would relate silver to California, thinking first of gold. But it was California that at the Comstock Lode’s height controlled most of the silver-rich Nevada mines.

It was also an influential California banker, William C. Ralston, who through secret payments to Treasury agent Henry R. Linderman, engineered many of the provisions of the Coinage Act of 1873 (aka, the “Crime of 1873”), including the adoption of the gold standard and the dropping of the standard silver dollar from the coinage measure. Out of their relationship and maneuverings also came the U.S. Trade dollar and, eventually, the Morgan dollar, with the start of free silver agitation in 1876.

The tale of money during this time is a complicated topic. Specie (hard money) payments had been suspended during the Civil War and wouldn’t resume until the late 1870s. Much of the nation relied on depreciated paper money. The West, however, with its abundance of gold, clung to hard money and continued to use gold and silver in change.

An interesting illustration of the problems caused by having one region of the country value currency at different rate than another appeared in the May 21, 1869 issue of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, which wrote:

At Corinne [Utah], the traveller going east strikes a greenback country; a country where the people look with astonishment and perplexity upon a gold coin, and scarcely know what to do with it. Prices, as far as the Promontory, are on a gold basis, east of that on a currency basis. Thus, the traveller who starts from Sacramento pays $1 in gold for his meals, up to Promontory. Thence eastward he is agreeably surprised to find that the charge is only $1 in currency. On the other hand, the traveller bound west discovers, with a lengthening face, that the meal which only cost him $1 in currency at Corinne, requires $1 25 or more twenty miles west of that town.

I suppose with the U.S. dollar recently dropping below the Canadian dollar, Americans traveling to Canada are experiencing similar dismay as 19th-century travelers to the West. On the flip side, Canadians coming to the United States are probably quite happy.

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