Image courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution
The first private gold coiner in Sacramento, the largest trade center near the gold fields, was J.S. Ormsby & Company. The firm was composed of Dr. John S. Ormsby, his brother, Major William M. Ormsby, and a clerk, O.H. Pierson.
The two brothers traveled west, leaving St. Joseph, Missouri, by wagon train on April 14, 1849. On May 20, they joined the Newton-Boston Company near Independence, Missouri, and arrived in Sacramento in late September or early October, 1849. They soon opened a gold melting and coining company, probably at No. 140 “K” Street, near Front Street, beneath the Golden Eagle Saloon.
For many years the coins, which have no date engraved on them, were thought to have been issued in 1850. It is more probable that Ormsby began issuing $5 and $10 pieces during the first part of October 1849. The former theory was based on the fact that the then only known piece (a $10 specimen) had thirty-one stars inscribed on it, indicating that California had already been admitted to the Union. Had this theory been true, the date of issue would have had to be 1850 or later. In 1911, however, an Ormsby specimen, a $5 coin, was discovered, this one bearing only twenty stars. Perhaps the stars on the $10 specimen had no significance other than ornamentation, or perhaps Dr. Ormsby altered his larger die merely in anticipation of California’s entrance to the Union.
According to Herbert F. Ormsby, grandson to John, the coins were made by use of dies and a sledgehammer, upon poorly annealed gold planchets. The Ormsbys were unable to refine the gold properly and finally hired a leading dental surgeon, William W. Light, as chief operator of the establishment to resolve this problem. Dr. Light had left the East in early 1849, boarding the ship Von Humboldt from New Orleans on August 1, 1849. He arrived in California on August thirtieth, and came directly to Sacramento, where he soon found employment by the Ormsbys. Light was paid $50 a day to superintend the works and improve their annealing process. But the dentist quit shortly afterward to try mining. He later formed a brief partnership with a clerk, O. H. Pierson, in a dental clinic in Sacramento.
As the Ormsby mint was the closet one to the mines in California, it is presumed that they conducted an extensive business. There is newspaper evidence to support this theory, in spite of the fact that the Ormsbys charged a high seigniorage and their $10 gold pieces intrinsically were worth $9.37. Their high seigniorage and overvalued coins must have yielded them a substantial profit.
The sloppiness and wasteful nature of their operation is indicated by an 1877 report in the San Jose Pioneer which stated that Ormsby’s “crucibles used in melting the dust, and which have long been buried by the filling in of the street, contain a large amount of gold, so wasteful was the operation and so plentiful the precious metals in those days which constituted the ‘flush time in California.’”
The Ormsbys continued their profitable coinage operation in 1850, although John left for Pennsylvania to fetch his wife and then returned later that year. Still later, he practiced medicine in Sonoma County where, in1857, he was elected to the California Assembly. In 1866, after being a miner in the Nevada gold rush, John moved to Utah where he died ten years later.
William evidently was not only the manager of this mint, but also had diversified his holdings by establishing a stage line, a hotel, and a read estate business. He even spent time vainly promoting the creation of the Sierra Nevada Territory which was to encompass parts of Nevada, Utah, and the New Mexico Territories as well as part of California. He was killed in 1860 in a fight with Indians at Pyramid Lake, Nevada.
Like most of the first series of private gold coins, the Ormsby coins were found to be badly debased and did not continue to circulate past the early months of 1850. Eventually the coins were turned into assay offices and remelted; today, only six or seven specimens exist.
--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