This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Those who collect United States gold coins often attempt a type set of post-1834 pieces. Obtaining the first issue of a branch mint is a strong plus for this kind of collection and the gold of Charlotte, N.C., and Dahlonega, Ga., has long been prized in this respect. For Dahlonega there was only one issue in 1838, the half eagle, and its minting was the result of a long series of events.
Gold had been discovered in North Carolina before 1800 but it was some years before a significant amount was panned from the streams in the western part of the state. In due course shafts were dug and the quantities increased, but at the same time gold was also found in surrounding areas. In particular, major finds were located in northeastern Georgia in 1829.
By early in 1830 large numbers of would-be miners had arrived in Lumpkin County, Ga., site of the most productive fields. Lotteries were held to sell off the best locations and these sales were well-attended. Landowners sometimes did better financially than the miners in parceling out their lands for those infected by the ever-present Gold Fever. In the long run, however, many of the mines and placers in northeastern Georgia did quite well.
Templeton Reid, a skilled gunsmith, had a small mint in Lumpkin County from which he struck eagles, half eagles, and quarter eagles. Reid’s dies are dated 1830 (except for one variety of the eagle) but his operations continued for only a few months. A series of letters published in local newspapers, claiming that Reid’s coins were of less value than stated, soon forced him out of the coining business.
During the late 1820s, as the output of gold increased in North Carolina, there arose demands from local political groups for a branch of the United States Mint to be established in that area. With the additional major discoveries in Georgia as well as lesser finds in Virginia and South Carolina, the voices asking for a branch mint became ever stronger.
By 1833 the value of gold being mined in the South was roughly $1.6 million per year, equivalent to perhaps $100 million today. Much of this went to the Philadelphia Mint and was coined into half eagles ($5 gold pieces) but a considerable amount was sent directly to refineries in London or Paris as ingots, nuggets, or dust. Even the freshly coined half eagles were exported almost immediately because American gold coin was undervalued in terms of European markets.
The rising demand for a branch mint was well received by the administration of President Andrew Jackson. This President was well known for his dislike of paper money and the Bank of the United States. He would, in fact, have been perfectly happy if both of these problems had simply vanished.
Jackson decided to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ by combining his dislike of paper money with the Southern requests for a branch mint. To this end the administration surrogates in Congress first introduced a bill into Congress in 1834 adjusting the amount of pure metal in the American gold coinage. This was signed into law in June 1834 and the effect was dramatic, with gold coins now entering into the domestic marketplace for the first time in decades.
The second step was to create three new mints, all in the South. They were to be situated at New Orleans, La., Dahlonega and Charlotte. The votes were regional and went across party lines, even Northern members of the President’s own party not being all that thrilled by the new mints.
Nevertheless the bill went through and the three new mints came into existence. In hindsight it is fair to say that there was little need for the Dahlonega and Charlotte Mints though a good case could be made for New Orleans. It would have been relatively easy to ship the North Carolina and Georgia gold to New Orleans at much less cost than creating the other two new mints.
The March 1835 act stipulated that $50,000 was appropriated for the construction of a building “at or near Dahlonega,” this sum to include the purchase of land and machinery. Col. Ignatius Few was soon appointed by the President to superintend the erection of the new building but as he lived some distance away he was seen but seldom at the site, making only an occasional foray to see what was going on.
The necessary public notice, advertising for bids, appeared in August 1835 and the contract was let the following month. The building was to be 125 feet long by 33-1/2 feet deep with “a projection in the rear of the center of 53 feet by 36 feet” and it was to be two stories high. There was to be a basement whose ceiling extended five feet above the ground level. There was even a rudimentary subbasement for drainage.
Famed architect William Strickland drew up the plans for the building, which were very similar to those already made for the mint at Charlotte. The architect, however, was unaware that good building stone was not to be found in the Dahlonega area and the plans had to be altered to use bricks instead. Unfortunately brick had been little used in that area either so there was a learning curve by the contractor as the building was erected.
One necessary point was the creation of reinforced arches in the basement to absorb the weight of the machinery as well as the heavy pounding that came from the planchet cutters and coinage presses. Without such an arrangement, there would have been a serious risk of a floor collapsing into the basement.
In early 1836 Director of the Mint Robert M. Patterson ordered machinery to the value of nearly $15,000 for this branch. Items included two steam coining presses as well as rolling benches and planchet cutters. All of this equipment had to be specially manufactured and it was not until April 1837 that the heavier items were shipped by sea to Charleston, S.C., and thence overland to Dahlonega.
Dr. Joseph T. Singleton, of Athens, Ga., was appointed by the President to be superintendent and treasurer (the two offices were combined at Dahlonega and Charlotte) on Jan. 4, 1837, while Joseph W. Farnum, of Lexington, Va., was named assayer a few weeks later. On March 7, 1837, David H. Mason, of Philadelphia was given the position of coiner at the Dahlonega branch mint. These three men comprised the officers and each took special training at the Philadelphia Mint in 1837 prior to taking up their respective positions.
Perhaps the most important of the three officers, David Mason, received lengthy training from Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt. The coins produced by the branch mints were critical in that they had to be of the same quality as those from Philadelphia.
Because of his extended stay at Philadelphia, Mason did not arrive at Dahlonega until late January 1838. He did bring with him two pairs of half eagle dies, the only such dies sent to this mint carrying the date 1838. No quarter eagle dies were sent for 1838 though this was done for Charlotte.
One of the odder exchange of letters came after the steam presses had been delivered at Dahlonega and put into readiness by the coiner. Superintendent Singleton abruptly decided that steam presses did not fit the Southern lifestyle all that well and suggested to Mint Director Robert M. Patterson in Philadelphia that screw presses be used instead.
At about the same time Coiner Mason learned of Singleton’s letter to Patterson and sent one of his own denouncing the superintendent’s interference with his department. Patterson was no doubt baffled by the bizarre request for screw presses and indicated to Singleton that “this is not the age in the country for going backward.”
Although the buildings at New Orleans and Charlotte had been reasonably well managed and constructed by local contractors, that at Dahlonega proved to be a singular exception. Col. Few was not exactly a strict taskmaster when it came to the contractors and their numerous problems that arose in 1837, such as basement walls which fell down in August, only a few months after being constructed.
Director Patterson was forced to send one of his officers, Franklin Peale, to inspect what had been done. Peale was able to correct many of the faults but after he left it was discovered that the roof had also been improperly done by bungling workmen and a sieve would have held back the rain better. Zinc had been specified but it was finally redone in 1840 with shingles, which worked well in that climate.
Superintendent Singleton took out advertisements in area newspapers about the opening of the Mint, which came on Feb. 12, 1838. The first deposit of gold was made on Feb. 15 and by year’s end more than $140,000 worth had been deposited by area miners.
It is interesting to note that the Dahlonega Mint did not strike silver coins, not being permitted by law to do so, but did separate silver from the gold deposits and make payments accordingly. Both Dahlonega and Charlotte had a special fund of silver coins sent down from Philadelphia to be used in paying off these silver accounts. This also served to put more silver coins into daily use in the South.
Even though Coiner Mason was more or less ready for coinage to begin in late February 1838, he was prevented from doing so because of another lapse by the contractors. They had dug a well for water, but it was improperly done and the accompanying pump was of little help as it failed almost immediately after being put on line. Mint workers were by necessity – until the pump was replaced – forced to carry buckets of water so that operations could commence.
Although there had been considerable troubles with the construction of the building, these paled in comparison to the developing squabbles among the officers. By early March 1838 Assayer Farnum and Coiner Mason were just barely on speaking terms. They each went to Singleton, denouncing the other as incompetent, while at the same time writing to Dr. Patterson in Philadelphia with equally unpleasant accusations.
In a sudden change of attitude, Farnum and Mason became close friends by June 1838 and had decided that Singleton was the root cause of their troubles. The two now heard the rumor, apparently spread by Singleton, that they would both be fired at the end of the year. It turned out that there was no truth to the story but in the meantime Singleton penned several letters to Patterson denouncing his fellow officers as incompetent. With the feuding among the officers, one has to wonder what the workmen thought of all of this discord.
Coinage finally began on April 17, 1838, with the striking of 80 half eagles, one of which was sent to Dr. Patterson as a specimen of the first Dahlonega coinage. Singleton claimed that it was one of the finest struck coins he had ever seen, probably a little overenthusiastic. (One wonders if this piece is still to be found in the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian.)
Patterson wrote back, after receiving the coin, that it was well struck but did have some minor defects. He made some suggestions for the coiner to improve the overall appearance but on the whole was pleased with the results.
One would tend to think, once coinage had in fact started, that most the problems would begin to go away, but such was not to be. In order to check on the accuracy of the coinage alloy (.900 fine gold with a slight deviation allowed by law), branch mint superintendents were required by Dr. Patterson to send in a “slip” cut from the ingot prior to it being rolled out for coinage.
When the small piece of gold was received at Philadelphia it was tested by Assayer Jacob Eckfeldt. Once the assayer gave his approval, Patterson then wrote Singleton that the coins from this ingot (or ingots if more than one “slip” was involved) could be released to the depositors.
It was a cumbersome arrangement and one that could go wrong in several ways. And did. Some of the slips were “lost” in the mails which actually meant, as it turned out, that they had been stolen by a light-fingered postmaster about 20 miles from Dahlonega. Not realizing what had happened at first, Singleton wrote increasingly agitated letters to Patterson asking that he be able to release the coins to depositors.
The first thefts came in July and Singleton did not learn the identity of the thief until October. The superintendent had neglected to keep duplicate melt slips on hand and had to hammer up three coins to send in as slips. These three pieces account for the fact that 20,586 half eagles were struck at Dahlonega in 1838 (exclusive of 41 assay pieces) but only 20,583 correctly reported as coinage.
Only one die pair was used for the entire 1838 Dahlonega half eagle coinage. The other pair, which was never used, had been stored in a damp area and had developed a “small defect.”
The dies for 1839 not arriving by the end of 1838, Mason asked Patterson (through Singleton) for permission to use the 1838 dies in 1839 pending arrival of the new dies. Patterson wrote back that this would not be permitted and that the coiner should wait on the arrival of the 1839 dies, which did arrive in late January.
The year 1838 at Dahlonega had been an interesting one for all concerned, to say the least.