California Fractional Gold

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Throughout the early years of the California gold rush there was a constant need for coinage to satisfy the commercial needs of a booming community being based on gold dust. While many firms issued coins from $2 1/2 to $50 denominations, there was still a need for coins of smaller denominations.

Foreign silver coins were imported and passed as change in the West. But this trade-with so many varieties of coins-was confusing, and many of these pieces were intrinsically worth less than their trading value. When the United States branch mint in San Francisco finally was established in 1854, only 15,000 gold $1 pieces were coined, with no $1 denominations being issued the following year. During 1855, only $150,000 in United States small denomination silver coins were issued in California, with most being hoarded or exported. The need for smaller fractional denominations of gold coins may have been met by hundreds of varieties of small gold pieces in quarter, half, and dollar sizes.

Over 450 varieties are known to exist, some undated but most bearing dates between 1852 and 1882. Most are anonymous or identified only by initials, but research over the years has made it possible to attribute the majority of the issues to manufacturing jewelers in San Francisco, California and Leavenworth, Kansas; some may have been made in New York and New Orleans.

The San Francisco firms included Nouzillet & Routhier (Antoine Louis Nouzillet and Isadore Routhier), NR; Louis Nouzillet alone, N; Frontier & Deviercy (Pierre Frontier and Eugene Deviercy), FD; Pierre Frontier alone and with Augustus Bellemere, no mark; Gaime, Guillemot & Co., GG (their factory was located in New York, but perhaps the pieces with their initials were made for them by Frontier & Diviercy); Robert B. Gray & Co., G; California Jewelry Co. (Levison Bros.), L and no mark; and Herman J. Brand (1882), no mark. M. Deriberpie, an engraver, apparently cut dies for Nouzillet & Routhier; his work is signed DERIB,DERI, or D. Hershfield & Mitchell (Reuben N. Hershfield and Noah Mitchell) of Leavenworth, Kansas (pieces signed H-1871) is the only maker outside California identified so far. It has been thought by some that Ferdinand Gruner and Albert Kuner engraved some of the varieties. This is possible, though no pieces can be assigned to them at this time.

Most of the fractional coins were made by the hammer method, like the Pacific Company issues. This was a process of striking where the bottom die was placed on a block, a coin blank was laid upon it, and the top die upon the blank; this top die was then struck by a sledgehammer. Blows of varying intensity would cause potions of one side or edge to be more weakly struck than another. Many varieties are very crude in design. Other pieces were holed and strung on gold or copper wires to prevent loss or used for watch fobs, etc.

These small pieces ranged in fineness from 22 carats (24 being pure gold) to 14 carats or 583 thousandths fine. All contain substantially less gold than their face value, making them a form of token. The questions of how much – if any – circulation they saw has been for some time, and remains still, a point of controversy. One viewpoint holds that some of these pieces circulated as coins in the 1850’s, with the dollars being extensively used into the late 1850’s, 1860’s and 1870’s, as few regular official dollars were issued until then. The author doubts that any saw circulation, and believes that they were made purely for souvenir purposes. Other students of the series have concluded that the earliest issues (those from 1852 through 1856) were intended for actual circulation and saw some usage at first, while later issues were sold as jewelry.

Prices skyrocketed in California at the beginning of the Gold Rush and remained high for years thereafter. Nothing could be purchases for less than 12 ½ cents, and very little for less than a quarter. The influx of fortune-seekers from all over the world brought a motley assortment of small change into circulation, which passed by size and not instrinsic value.

Presumably conditions were ripe for the introduction of underweight private gold coins in denominations of 25 cents, 50 cents, and one dollar. The earliest known mention of such pieces is an article appearing in the Alta California of August 25, 1852 (reprinted from the New Orleans Picayune):

We were shown this morning a gold half dollar, California money, which is so much like the United States gold dollar piece, that the best judges would be completely deceived at a first glance. The half dollar is lighter in color, and somewhat smaller in diameter, than the dollar. They are of a private issue, and have stamped on them, “Half-Dollar, California Gold, 1852.”

How much significance can be placed upon the reference to this item as “California money” remains a point of controversy.

By the end of 1853 a number of other such pieces had appeared, completing the series of the three denominations in both round and octagonal shapes. A “time capsule” of monetary conditions at this time is provided by the wreck of the Steamer Winfield Scott. This ship was operated by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to carry passengers and cargo between San Francisco and Panama. On December 1, 1853, she left San Francisco bound for Panama with about 400 passengers and $884,861.50 in treasure. Two days out she was caught in a storm and ran aground 30 miles west of Santa Barbara. The passengers and most of the treasure were rescued. What was left behind were mainly items of small value abandoned by the passengers in their haste to flee the ship.

In 1965 a California scuba diver discovered the wreck of the Winfield Scott and began salvaging it on weekends. Other divers visited the site also over a period of years extending into the early 1970’s. From articles they have written and a record kept by the dealer who purchased many of the coins found, the following picture has emerged:

A total of 59 coins were recovered, of which 33 were private California gold $ ¼ to $10 (56% of the total); thirty-two $1 coins were found, 17 of them California gold (53% of the total). There were also seven or more gold nuggets. Every shape and denomination of small California gold except round $1 pieces was recovered. This would appear to indicate that fractional California gold either formed a substantial part of the small change in circulation in San Francisco in late 1853, or was being shipped East as souvenirs. Many pieces of this era are frequently found in circulated condition or with bagmarks, but a large proportion are in high grade.

Additional questions can be raised concerning the circulation of these pieces:

There is no period California reference yet known stating that these coins circulated, although the existence in California of American and foreign fractional silver coins was occasionally mentioned.

1. On these issues there are no initials or other marks indicating minting by any of the major private gold coiners, e.g., Moffat & Co. or Kellogg & Co., leading one to believe that they did not produce any of these fractional gold pieces. Since these firms were already in the business of issuing coins it would have been relatively easy for them to strike these smaller pieces. It is conceivable that they did not choose to issue the fractional coins since they would have yielded smaller profits on a per coin basis than the higher denomination coins. It might also have been that there was thought to be no need for fractional gold coins in California at that time.

2. All of these pieces, especially those dated after 1860, are underweight, and many of them are very deficient in intrinsic value. With all the publicity against the larger denomination pieces being overvalued, way is there not a single reference to these, unless they were issued as souvenirs and not for circulation.

3. By the late 1850’s the chaotic currency situation in California had changed completely. Silver quarters and half dollars had been issued in such quantity by the new San Francisco Mint that they actually sold at a discount from face value from 1858 or 1859 until 1873. When the manufacture of small California gold pieces was resumed in 1859 after a hiatus of two years, it is clear that they were not intended for circulation. These later pieces are thinner and lighter than the early issues and are normally found in extremely fine condition, or better. Many prooflike pieces exist, further evidence that currency use was not expected The Private Coinage Law of 1864 prohibited the manufacture of all private gold coins intended for use as current money, but was ignored by the makers of fractional gold pieces, evidently in the belief that their products were not coins.

But if the later-made pieces were not coins, what were they? Souvenirs of California, certainly; the U. S. Mint Cabinet’s account book for November 25, 1862, calls them “California pocket-pieces.” Hershfield & Mitchell of Leavenworth, Kansas, makers in 1871 only, described their products as “tokens or charms” and “trinkets.” (They were arrested anyway, charged with violating the Private Coinage Law of 1864. The U. S. Mint assayed their half dollar and found it to have a value of just 17 cents.) F. C. Suhr, a jeweler in San Bernardino, California, told the Secret Service in 1883 that the gold 25cent and 50cent pieces he sold were used “as bangles. His female customers would purchase them, he would drill a hole through them and attach them to the bracelets or necklaces with a short chain.”

The final suppression of fractional gold coins came in 1883, when Col. Henry Finnegass, Chief Operative, San Francisco District, U. S. Secret Service, received a letter from his superior – James J. Brooks, Chief, U. S. Secret Service. This letter, dated February 20, 1883, complained that Frederick Linde, a Los Angeles jeweler, “has been furnishing a Mr. Kunz of Wellington, Ohio, with large quantities of 25 cent and 50 cent pieces.” Col. Finnegass set out for Los Angeles on March 4 to investigate. He arrived March 5 and went straight to Linde’s store, where he saw a number of fractional gold coins in the show window. Mr. Linde himself was out, but a clerk sold him a set of one 50 cent and one 25 cent for 75 cents. Later Col. Finnegass returned, identified himself and his mission to Linde, who by then was badly scared, and seized Linde’s whole stock of the pieces.

Following this action Col. Finnegass seized “bangles” from several other jewelers in California. On March 15 he discussed prosecution of these persons with United States Attorney Hilborn and Carrol Cook, his assistant. Mr. Hilborn was not quite certain that an offense had been committed, but after urging by Reneges, agreed to refer the matter to the Attorney General of the United States for an opinion. Before a reply could be received, Col. Finnegass visited the establishment of H. J. Brand, Manufacturing Jeweler, 230 Kearny Street, San Francisco, by then apparently the only remaining maker of such items. As a result of this visit, Brand promised “that he would not hereafter manufacture the pieces.” On Monday, April 16, authority was received from Washington in the form of a letter signed by J. H. Robinson, Acting Solicitor of the Treasury, confirming Col. Finnegass’s position. By June 9, 1883, Col. Finnegass was able to write to jeweler Linde that he had entirely suppressed the trade in fractional gold coins in California, and added, “I shall do all in my power to break up the traffic in those coins.” Though very effective, Col. Finnegass’s zealousness in this regard is hard to understand, since he himself officially reported that “I have not heard of a single instance in which those pieces have been sold or passed as coins on this coast either without or within the limits of my District.”!

--Reprinted with permission of the author from Donald H. Kagin's, "Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States", copyright 1981, Arco Publishing, Inc. of New York