The precise place in history of the 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle is hard to determine. Whether or not you think it is the first commemorative of the United States, there is little doubt that the 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle is important, tough and very historic. That group of factors makes it an awfully good coin.
The story of the 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle is the story of gold discovered in California. There was no doubt that the gold would change the sleepy area forever, but that gold meant a great deal to some in the East as well.
After all, California had not simply become a part of the United States without trouble. There had been a war with Mexico and not everyone was convinced that the war had been a good idea. California, in some minds, was not much of a prize and the debate and doubts had remained even after the firing had stopped.
In that atmosphere, Col. Richard Barnes Mason in Monterey, Calif., sent 280 ounces 15 pennyweight 9 grains of the first native California gold to Secretary of War W.L. Marcy in the care of Lt. Lucien Loeser. The gold was special for Marcy as it represented some vindication in the Mexican War matter. It was special for the president as well. Marcy went to President James K. Polk with a plan.
Marcy wanted the Mint to strike medals for heroes of the war from the gold and with the rest, make gold coins with some special indication that they were produced from gold found in California. It was natural to pick the quarter eagle as it was the lowest denomination at the time and would make the most coins.
The gold from California produced 1,389 quarter eagles, each with a small “CAL.” on the reverse. It appears that there was special care taken with the coins as many have raised die polish lines in the field and there is sometimes faint doubling of the reverse legend, suggesting at least two strikes to fully bring up the detail.
The idea was to get the coins in circulation so that people could see them and get the message that the California acquisition had truly been worth the cost. In fact, some examples do show evidence of circulation and they might have been more widely viewed than we suspect.
What we do know is the 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle is tough. Today is carries a price of $8,000 in F-12, while an MS-60 would is $50,000. In fact, they do tend to be more available in upper grades as some were definitely saved, even though that defeated the purpose of trying to have the public see them.
Certainly, with a low mintage and being made from that first shipment of native California gold, the 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle is a fascinating coin and one that is in constant demand. That keeps prices high and normally trending higher. This is one coin that almost everyone wants to own.