When the average collector thinks of California and the San Francisco Mint, one of the first images that may come to mind is that of the discovery of gold by James Marshall in January 1848. In reality, however, gold had been discovered in what is now California while it was still part of Mexico.
As early as March 1842 there was a minor gold rush to an area about 35 miles northwest of present-day downtown Los Angeles. The influx of miners to this region – now mostly covered by urban sprawl – soon gathered what gold was to be found. In one case a man named Abel Stearns sent about 18 ounces to the United States Mint at Philadelphia in the fall of 1842.
By early 1843 the Los Angeles gold find was nearly played out and most of the would-be miners had returned to their homes. No bodies of ore were found and all of the gold came from surface panning in the local streams. Little was then heard about gold until the arrival of the American forces during the Mexican War.
The accidental 1848 discovery by Marshall was at first kept from the public because the Swiss-born landowner, Col. Sutter, realized that an influx of miners would destroy his vast property holdings. Despite swearing all concerned to secrecy, the word did get out and soon men by the hundreds were headed for the goldfields east of San Francisco. In 1849 the influx became a veritable flood, with thousands leaving their jobs and farms in the eastern part of the United States and heading for El Dorado.
In many cases the miners would soon be joined by other family members, thus swelling the population of the territory now under the control of the United States. Statehood was declared as early as September 1850 when the required number of settlers was met. The population continued to grow, however, and by 1860 was nearly 20 times that found in the state during 1848.
The influx of people created an instant demand for the staples of life as well as luxury items for those who had done well in the gold fields. The merchants were willing to do their part by importing the necessary goods but as a considerable part of the imports were not from the United States, customs duties had to be paid. By law this meant gold coins of the United States, which were in short supply.
The merchants and shippers tried to get around the customs problem by importing foreign gold coins, primarily Mexican, but the exchange rate charged by the customs officials was so exorbitant that the merchants cried foul. The result was a petition to the military governor of California, Col. R.B. Mason, for permission to create private mints to strike gold coins that would be accepted at customs.
The suggestion for private mints did not exactly arise out of the blue. Many of the miners came from the Carolinas, where the gold coinage by the Bechtler family was well known and widely accepted. The reasons provided by the petitioners, however, did not sway Col. Mason and in June 1848 he refused to authorize private mints. For a time the situation was allowed to drift – and get worse.
By the late winter of 1848–1849, with an ever-increasing number of arrivals, the merchants had become desperate enough to try almost anything, even something that was illegal in the eyes of the military government. The firm of Norris, Gregg and Norris began coining half eagles ($5 gold pieces) at Benicia City, not far from San Francisco; the issues were not quite up to par with American gold because of the investment in machinery and workmen as well as the need to show a profit.
The local newspapers which reported this initial coinage indicated that the designs closely imitated current U.S. gold coins. This coinage seems not be known at present and was perhaps suppressed because of the similarity. It was not long, however, before other firms followed suit by striking different denominations in varying finenesses and weights. The coins were accepted at different rates, depending upon the intrinsic value.
With the coming of statehood in the fall of 1850, the public began to demand that a branch mint be established in California to provide the necessary gold and silver coins needed for everyday transactions. One of the new senators from California, John C. Fremont, even visited Philadelphia on his way to Washington. Fremont met with Mint Director Robert M. Patterson but did not find much encouragement as the director thought that there were too many mints already.
Despite opposition from several quarters to a California branch mint, Congress did authorize in September 1850 a United States Assay Office. It replaced a now-discredited state assay office, which had not been especially helpful during the seemingly endless coin shortage. The first coin ingots from the federal assay office, from dies prepared by famed engraver Charles Cushing Wright, saw the light of day in early 1851.
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The new assay office ingots, as they were usually known in official circles, did not solve the coin shortage and the suppression of the more venal private mints did not help either. The result was a financial panic in California during the early months of 1852, a situation which finally forced the hand of Congress; that body passed the necessary legislation for a branch mint in June 1852, which was signed into law by President Millard Fillmore on July 3.
As is usual in such matters little was done for some months as government officials debated the best way to proceed. At length, in April 1853, the Treasury Department awarded a contract to Joseph R. Curtis to construct a new mint and furnish it with the necessary materials. All was to be completed by the end of January 1854. The sum of $300,000 was appropriated by Congress for this purpose.
The practical decisions about the new mint were usually made by Mint Director James Ross Snowden in far-off Philadelphia. The lengthy time required for messages to and from California meant that critical decisions were often slow in arriving, however.
In due course the necessary machinery, nearly all constructed in Philadelphia, was loaded on ocean-going ships for the long trip to the West Coast. Lighter items, weighing up to a few hundred pounds, were off-loaded at Panama for the short trip across the isthmus and re-loading on another California-bound ship. Coining presses and other heavy equipment went by ship around Cape Horn, a long and dangerous journey but all arrived safely.
In order to properly staff the new mint with trained personnel, Snowden asked for volunteers from the Philadelphia Mint. Two members of the Eckfeldt family, George and John, were in such a group. George served as the government overseer in the construction work while John Eckfeldt became the coiner at San Francisco. Others who trained at Philadelphia and then took ship in November 1853 for California included Lewis A. Birdsall (superintendent), John Hewston Jr. (melter & refiner), J.A. Snyder (treasurer), and Agoston Haraszthy (assayer).
For reasons that are not entirely clear, and may have been merely to save money, the site chosen for the new mint in San Francisco was on the north side of Commercial Street, between Montgomery and Kearny. The premises proved to be very cramped and workmen were forever bumping into one another in the narrow aisle-ways. In the late 1850s the superintendent of the new mint even moved his office to a nearby building to open up additional space for the necessary coining operations.
(In a minor sidelight to the off-site superintendent’s office, one of the private secretaries in the 1860s was the soon-to-be famed writer Bret Harte. Mark Twain also lived close to the S-mint and later wrote, in his autobiography, about Harte’s days in San Francisco.)
The lighter equipment for the Mint had mostly arrived by the end of September but the presses and steam engine, due to the trip around the Horn, were not unloaded at the docks until mid December. Even though these items all belonged to the government, an overly officious customs officer demanded storage duty and port charges. Mint Treasurer Snyder had no ready funds with which to pay any kind of expense and the matter took time to settle.
In addition to the operating officers, Snowden had also recruited a number of skilled workmen for the new mint. Their travelling expenses ($280) were not paid although the government did loan them the money; this obvious inequity was partially met by starting their monthly wages from the moment they went on board ship in late December 1853.
The workmen went by the Panama route and arrived in due course, about one month later. When they arrived, however, they found that Treasurer Snyder had no money to pay them either so the men had to borrow funds in order to find lodging and have enough to eat while they waited for the Mint to open and funds to arrive from the East.
It was not until mid March that the necessary coinage dies were received at San Francisco. Only gold dies were sent for 1854, it having been decided by Mint Director Snowden that the San Francisco Mint should concentrate on gold during the first year of operations. Silver was scheduled for 1855.
It should also be noted that silver was not especially plentiful in California, most of it at that time being obtained as a by-product of gold mining. On average the gold bullion deposited at the Mint contained about 11 percent of silver.
During March 1854 Branch Mint Superintendent Birdsall arranged to bring in the necessary furniture to the institution. (The machinery had already been installed.) Birdsall expected to receive a useful quantity of desks and other items from the United States Assay Office, now being closed, but got only two desks, two old chairs, and a worn-out counter for the deposit room.
Because of the lack of furniture, Treasurer Snyder was forced to ask for credit from various merchants in order to fully equip the necessary offices, including his own. By the last days of March, however, all was more or less in readiness for deposits of gold to be made.
Deposits of gold bullion actually commenced on Monday, April 3, a pleasant way to start a new week and new month. On hand to serve the Mint were a superintendent, treasurer, coiner, assayer, melter and refiner, one carpenter, one doorkeeper, six clerks, one messenger, three watchmen, 18 men in the coining department, five men in the assaying department, 12 men in the melting & refining department, two laborers, 12 adjusters of planchets and one servant. The nearly 70 workmen and officers present in April 1854 grew considerably over the years, adding to the problems in the cramped quarters.
Adams & Company brought in the first gold bullion, some 45.44 ounces worth $868.27 after deductions had been made for parting and refining charges. The second depositor was one A.S. Wright who had more than $17,000 in value. In all, the first day saw bullion worth in excess of $200,000 brought in for coinage or ingots.
Because silver of a certain quality was need to refine the gold bullion in the nitric acid process then being used at American mints, Director Snowden had shipped nearly 5,000 ounces of pure silver to be used. This arrived during the second week of April 1854 and enabled the coinage process to proceed.
The nitric acid process was easily carried out at the Philadelphia Mint but San Francisco was a different matter. The acid was produced by a local firm but the ingredients had to be imported from Chile and there were often unforeseen delays. In addition, pure water was needed and it was some time before chlorine-free water was found at Sausilito, across the bay.
By mid April Coiner John Eckfeldt was able to begin rolling the ingots of gold provided to him by the melter & refiner. Once they were roughly the thickness, for example, of a double eagle the strips were run through a draw bench which gave them an exact thickness. After this was done the blanks were punched out and then processed into planchets ready for coinage.
April 19, 1854, would mark the first delivery of gold at San Francisco. Not only were double eagles struck that day but also half eagles (268 pieces) and quarter eagles (246 pieces). A mere 2,211 double eagles were struck in all of April but the coiner also delivered 260 eagles ($10 gold pieces) and 703 gold dollars. The quarter and half eagles are today extremely rare with the first day’s mintage all that was produced in 1854.
It has been speculated that the coinage of gold dollars at San Francisco in 1854 was more of a public relations gambit than a true attempt to provide small change. With less than 15,000 struck during the entire year, many of them were probably saved as souvenirs of the new mint rather than being used in commerce.
As the month of May opened its doors, the coinage steadily grew at San Francisco as the deposits became heavier and the workmen became more proficient at their appointed tasks. More than 17,000 double eagles were struck in May, for example, a good start on the more than 140,000 during all of 1854.
Some private coinage was struck after the opening of the San Francisco Branch Mint but clearly these competing mints were on the way out. By 1856 such entities were primarily concerned with preparing ingots of gold or silver for export or domestic use.
In 1855 San Francisco began to strike silver coins but only quarter and half dollars in that year. As time passed, of course, the other silver denominations would appear.
Those who specialize in San Francisco coins of 1854 and 1855 have historic mementos of the Gold Rush. The desire of Californians to have their own mint is well reflected in these special pieces.