Q. David Bowers
July 5, 2000
The following is excerpted and slightly revised from Dave Bowers' classic reference United Stated Gold Coins: An Illustrated History.
Gold! The elusive precious yellow substance has fired the imagination of mankind for centuries. Jason and his Argonauts sailed in quest of the Golden Fleece. "And with the ever-circling years comes round the age of gold," the carol goes. Indeed, the high point in any environment, discipline, or culture is usually characterized as "the golden age." And no better code of conduct has been devised than the Golden Rule.
Gold has formed the subject for countless volumes and narratives ranging from journals of world discovery to exhortations to amass as much gold as possible in anticipation of doomsday.
As a glance at Bartlett's Familiar Quotations will easily verify, literature from the Bible down to the present day is strewn with innumerable references to the metal. Shakespeare referred to gold many times, noting, for example that "The meat which made Caesar great was gold," and "Gold is the strength and sinews of the world." From Edgar Allen Poe's The Gold Bug to the 20th-century Hardy Boys' adventure Hunting for Hidden Gold, the quest for buried treasure has fascinated youths and adults alike who dream of chests full of gleaming golden doubloons or double eagles awaiting discovery.
Indeed, the romantic and historical connotations of gold are unparalleled. So, it is perhaps natural that numismatists with the means to do so often gravitate toward collecting gold dollars, half eagle, double eagles, or some other gold specialty, realizing that these coins at once embody history and financial treasure.
While gold coins of ancient Greece and Rome, medieval times, and world issues of the past several centuries are highly desired by numismatists, we focus on regular gold issues made under the aegis of the United States Mint. By 1792 when the Philadelphia Mint was established, gold coins were already an important part of the channels of American commerce. Although gold coins of England, France, Holland, and other countries circulated at varying rates, the best known gold coin in circulation in the fledgling nation was the Spanish doubloon, produced by various mints in the Spanish empire of Central and South America. Used over a period of many years, the massive doubloons or eight-escudo pieces became part of pirate legend and folklore. In fact, these doubloons and other foreign issues remained legal tender in the United States through 1857, well over a half century after the United States began issuing its own coins.
The first Philadelphia Mint gold issues, $5 half eagles and $10 eagles, were produced in 1795, followed by $2.50 quarter eagles in 1796. At the time there was no native gold mining industry and supplies of the precious metal were obtained from outside the country. This was to change drastically in the first half of the 19th century.
The first significant discoveries of gold in United States territory to be commercially exploited were made in Georgia and North Carolina. By 1830 mines in this area were supplying the majority of native metal used in United States gold coinage for a period of many years. The success of private minters in this area led to the opening of United States branch mints at Dahlonega, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina in 1838. Commercial gold mining continued in the area for many years, with the branch mints operating until the Civil War forced their closure in 1861 (by which time, most readily accessible deposits had been exhausted).
Of all events in United States history, the California Gold Rush (sparked by the discovery of gold in the race of Sutter's Mill on the American River in 1848) is one of the most significant and romantic and set the stage for the westward expansion which would eventually define the boundaries of the United States as we know them today. People flocked to California to seek their fortunes and much of the gold mined there traveled back to the East to be minted into federal coins at the mints at Philadelphia, Dahlonega, Charlotte, and New Orleans (which began production in 1838). The Mint Act of March 3, 1849 authorized the coinage of gold dollars and double eagles, bringing the number of gold denominations produced at United States mints to five. In 1854, this number would increase again when production began of the three-dollar gold piece, a rather unwanted coin which was minted in relatively small numbers through 1889 (the year which also saw the end of gold dollar coinage).
The amount of gold actually extracted in California will never be known, for no records were kept. However, by 1852 so much gold was being mined that a branch mint was authorized in San Francisco and began operations on April 3, 1854. The first building used (previously the facilities of a private minting firm) proved to be very inadequate and by 1874 a new mint was ready for full production. The second San Francisco Mint struck gold coins through 1930, at which time its production became limited to copper, nickel, and silver coins.
Further discoveries of gold in Oregon, Montana, Colorado, and Nevada led to private minting in those areas, and eventually to the establishment of branch mints in Carson City, Nevada, and Denver, Colorado. By 1870, production was underway at the Carson City Mint to coin gold and silver mined from the famous Comstock Lode, located 15 miles from the city. This mint would continue production until 1893, although coinage was suspended from 1885 through 1889. In 1862, Congress authorized the establishment of a branch mint in Denver, Colorado and, in fact, purchased the building of a private minter Clark, Gruber & Co. to be used in this capacity. However, it was not until 1906 that the Denver Mint began production of circulating coins, and this was accomplished in a different building, one built specifically for this purpose. The Denver Mint coined gold coins through 1931, when it coined its final double eagle.
On April 5, 1933, the newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proclaimed that gold coins were to be returned by the public by the Federal Reserve System by May 1, with the exception of pieces held for numismatic value. The Gold Reserve Act of January 30, 1934 effectively ended gold coin production and removed the gold backing of paper money in the United States. Thus ended the "Golden Era" of United States coinage, and gold coins were no longer to be found in the channels of commerce.
1795 $10 gold eagle first minted at the Philadelphia Mint.