This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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During the late 1820s and early 1830s there was a growing amount of gold mined in the United States, especially in the states of North Carolina and Georgia. At the same time President Andrew Jackson, who had taken office in March 1829, was a strong advocate of less paper money (which was issued by private banks as well as the public-private Bank of the United States) and more gold and silver in the hands of ordinary Americans.
In March 1835 these two forces came together in Congress when the legislators approved three new mints: at New Orleans, Dahlonega (Georgia), and Charlotte (North Carolina). The last two named were to strike gold coins only but New Orleans was meant for both gold and silver.
New Orleans was not ideally situated to receive deposits of gold from either North Carolina or Georgia, but this was not the intention.Significant amounts of foreign silver and gold, as both coins and bullion, came into the port at New Orleans and were sent to the Philadelphia Mint for coinage. The idea behind the 1835 law was that mintage would now be carried out in Louisiana and the coins would be more readily used in the South as a result.
The City of New Orleans was so pleased with the idea of a mint that it donated a valuable piece of ground to the United States government as a site for the new building. It was also in a choice residential area. Even though the City donated the land to the federal government there were lingering questions about the title and in 1846 the Villars family unsuccessfully sued to be reimbursed for their share of the property.
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Within a matter of weeks Martin Gordon, a prominent citizen of the region, was appointed commissioner to oversee the building of the New Orleans Mint. Plans were drawn up by famed architect William Strickland, who used classical motifs to create an imposing structure.
Construction began in the latter part of 1835 but the bulk of the work was done the following year. (Much of the stone had to be brought down the Mississippi River on heavy barges from the inland quarries.) By late in 1836 the basic building had been completed but the finishing touches were applied in the spring and early summer of 1837. In July of the latter year construction was so far advanced that three steam coining presses, and other key pieces of equipment, were shipped by sea from Philadelphia.
One of the presses sent out apparently had been tested at Philadelphia for cent coinage because someone forgot to remove an obverse die. Officials at New Orleans discovered an 1836 cent die in the press and notified Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson in Philadelphia; as it was an outdated die the answer was simply to deface it.
Some years ago when a researcher discovered the information about the cent die and published it, the matter was misunderstood, as sometimes happens. A rumor then made the rounds among numismatists that cent coins had in fact been struck at New Orleans; there ensued a fruitless search to identify which variety of the cent was to get the honors.
As is true for all newly opened institutions there were considerable efforts made by local politicians in Louisiana to obtain a lucrative post in the new mint. In particular two such positions were up for grabs, that of superintendent and that of treasurer. The final decision was made by the President but, as he did not know the candidates personally, he had no choice except to rely upon the Senators and Representatives from Louisiana for their advice.
Unfortunately President Jackson got bad advice and the two men picked, David Bradford as superintendent and Edmund Forstall as treasurer, were among the worst possible choices. Both men were honest but also overly trusting of subordinates and did little to ensure that strict honesty prevailed in all transactions.
The operative officers, on the other hand, were the domain of Mint Director Patterson and he chose highly qualified men for the key posts: Rufus Tyler (Coiner), James Maxwell (Melter & Refiner), and William Hort (Assayer). The three were either employees at Philadelphia or had been specially trained for the New Orleans positions. The annual salaries for each of the officers was $2,000, except for the superintendent at $2,500.
The last officer to arrive at New Orleans was Rufus Tyler, who brought with him many of the small items necessary for his job, but not including dies, which were not sent for some months. Tyler disembarked from his ship in early December 1837 and set about organizing the coining department.
In the meantime Superintendent Bradford had hired the ordinary workmen needed to staff the various departments. New Orleans at that time had numerous skilled mechanics and artisans but Bradford managed to find several men with virtually no skills and a tendency to avoid work at all costs. By February 1838 Maxwell and Tyler were fed up with some of these workmen and fired them for insubordination.
The uproar forced the superintendent to obtain qualified men, of which New Orleans had no shortage. The prompt action in dismissing the troublemakers had a salutary effect on the remaining workers as well and after that the Mint worked with reasonable efficiency and harmony.
By early March 1838 the Mint officers had put all in readiness. They needed only the necessary dies and bullion to begin operations. The first silver deposit was made on March 8, closely followed by gold on April 10. On April 9 Dr. Patterson sent two pairs of dime dies via Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury, who forwarded them under his official frank. They were received about 10 days later.
Oddly enough the dime dies sent to New Orleans were of the outdated design used at Philadelphia in 1837. The first Liberty Seated dimes, struck in the preceding year, had no stars on the obverse but this had been corrected for the 1838 Philadelphia coinage. However, the dies sent to New Orleans did not have the stars; the reason for this is unclear but perhaps the dies sent out in April had been prepared before Philadelphia had decided on the new obverse design using stars.
The “O” mintmark on the reverse had been punched in at Philadelphia as branch mints never added anything to the dies after they were received. The dies were, however, sent in a raw state and had to be hardened by the coiner before they could be used. This was done in case the dies were stolen en route and counterfeiters tried to make use of them. The hardening of dies was a very specialized task and unlikely to be known by criminals.
Shortly after the dime dies were sent, two pairs each of dies for the half dime and half dollar went out by successive mails. The half dime dies were also of the old No Stars type but the half dollar dies were the familiar Bust design of 1836–1839 and were the same as those in use at Philadelphia in 1838. These later dies were all received at New Orleans by May 3.
In his letter of April 9, 1838, Director Patterson wrote that “The dime and half dime dies have the false or plain border hubbed on them and this practice will be continued in the future. One pair of the half dollar dies also has the false border hubbed on, but this will not be done hereafter, as it increases very much the difficulty of hubbing, etc.” He also noted that the New Orleans Mint was, in the future, to grind its own dies to suit the basins for polishing.
There was one further delivery of coining implements, two pairs of Bust quarter dollar dies sent out on April 30 and received within the next two weeks. As far as is known to this writer, the quarter dollar dies of 1838 were never used at New Orleans, even for trial strikes. (No further dies for the quarter dollar were sent until 1840, however.)
On April 16 Dr. Patterson followed up instructions found in his earlier letters by noting that, out of every 10,000 silver coins, there was to be one piece reserved for the annual Assay Commission held in February. For gold it was one out of each 1,000 coins.
By early May all seemed to be in readiness. Superintendent Bradford set the first day of coining for May 8 and invited a number of influential citizens and politicians for the special ceremony. Dime planchets were put in the feeding mechanism and the press started up. Within a matter of seconds 30 dimes had been coined but, as luck would have it, something broke in the press. It was not an auspicious start to the New Orleans Mint coinage.
Of these first 30 pieces, 10 were put in the cornerstone of the North American Theatre then under construction not far from the Mint, one sent to Patterson, while the remaining pieces were distributed among the distinguished visitors. It seems likely, however that the remaining 19 pieces were not quite enough to satisfy the demand for one of the first coins from this mint.
The necessary repairs to the coining press turned out to be of a serious nature as coinage did not resume until May 22. About 20,000 pieces were then struck over the next few days when another accident befell the machine. This time we know what happened, the “lifters of the lower die” breaking apart. It required several weeks to repair this new damage to the press, which was not fully put back into working order until mid-July.
The fresh repairs proved more durable than the earlier ones and by July 27 the press had turned out about 345,000 dimes. Through that date the total mintage had been 367,434 pieces, all in dimes. Only the smallest of the three presses was used, the others not being suitable for coins of this size.
Just as the accounts were being brought up to date in late July 1838, the annual Yellow Fever scourge began to build up strength. Bradford closed the doors on Aug. 2 and did not reopen them until Nov. 1, when the danger was past. In the meantime all who could flee the city did so. Melter & Refiner James Maxwell and Coiner Rufus Tyler took the opportunity to visit Philadelphia and acquaint Director Patterson of the events at New Orleans over the past few months; they made it clear that Bradford and Forstall were less than competent in their appointed duties.
After the reopening on Nov. 1 there was little done except to put the equipment back into working order. It appears that there was a shortage of silver at this point, the Yellow Fever having disrupted the normal avenues of trade and importation of the precious metals. As a result only 35,000 dimes were struck by the end of the year, all of them being delivered on Dec. 29. There was no further coinage executed in 1838.
Coiner Rufus Tyler was well aware of Patterson’s rule about not using out-dated dies in the new year but apparently felt that he had no choice. On Jan. 7, 1839, he delivered a further 3,600 dimes and it is believed that these were the last dimes at New Orleans to carry the 1838 date.
On the 16th of the same month Tyler delivered 70,000 half dimes, the first such coinage of half dimes at that mint and the first branch mint coinage for this denomination. These half dimes were dated 1838 because the dies for 1839 had been delayed in preparation and not yet received at New Orleans.
By an odd quirk, or just perhaps carelessness, no assay coins were reserved from the deliveries of Dec. 29, 1838, or Jan. 7, 1839. It is possible, though not likely, that these coins had actually been struck just before the Mint closed in August 1838 and not officially delivered due to the confusion created by the Yellow Fever epidemic.
Two pairs each of the dime and half dime dies for 1839 were sent by Patterson on Jan. 30, 1839, but their time of arrival is not a matter of record. They may have been received as early as Feb. 10 but it could have been several days later, depending upon the number of stops made by the ship carrying the mails.
There were two separate deliveries of dimes on Feb. 20 with a further delivery of half dimes on the same day. The number of half dimes is known (10,000 pieces) but that for the dimes is not. We know of these coinages – estimated at 25,000 to 30,000 according to the assay pieces reserved – but the pieces were included in later deliveries for uncertain reasons. (It is probable that the February 1839 coinage was all dated 1839 though there is a possibility that 1838 dies were used for a portion.)
The half dollar dies dated 1838 were not used for regular coinage but one of the two pairs on hand struck 20 specimens, according to a later statement by Coiner Rufus Tyler, in testing the largest press. Two pairs of dies for 1839 had been mailed on Feb. 26 and the coiner perhaps tested the press with the older dies to avoid damage to those dated 1839.
It is sometimes reported that the 1838 half dollars were struck in January 1839, but it is more likely that Tyler struck these pieces shortly before commencing regular half dollar coinage in early April. (The two 1838 obverses were defaced on June 13, 1839.)
By any standard, the first year of operations at New Orleans had been an interesting one and the dimes and half dimes dated 1838 are worthy mementos for any collection of United States coins.