Image courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution
The “gold fever” hit hard in New England and hundreds of small groups banded together to form mining companies. These associations, usually ranging from twelve to one hundred men, would elect officers and a board of directors to plan the overland or sea journey to California. Most of these companies involved the pooling of small sums of venture capital, with each of the members paying an equal assessment – usually amounting to from $50 to $100 – and sharing equally in the profits, if any.
During 1849, no fewer than 124 of these companies were organized in Massachusetts. The town of Northampton alone organized three separate companies, and it is believed that one of these successfully issued private gold coins.
Of the three companies, the Holyoke-Northampton Overland Mining Co. was one of the less likely candidates to have issued these coins. Records indicate that the company sailed from Boston March 4, 1849, on the bark S. L. Crowell via the Panama route.
The Massachusetts and California Mining and Trading Company, whose members sailed from Boston to California on the brigantine Mary Wilder, departed January 28, 1849, and sailed to San Francisco harbor on August 10, 1849, with forty-nine passengers and eight crew members aboard. There is little evidence that this firm had any more intention of issuing coins than the Holyoke-Northampton group.
The most probable issuer of the $5 gold pieces reading “Massachusetts and California Co.” was the third company, the Massachusetts and California Company. Rather than form an organization to mine gold, about which they knew nothing, this company was created for the expressed purpose of capitalizing on the shortage of coins in California, as recorded in the Northampton Courier (March 1849):
Under this title [Massachusetts and California Company] a company has been organized in Northampton, Mass., for the purpose of establishing in California a private Mint, something like that of Christopher Bechtler in North Carolina . . . [whose coins] will be actually worth a share more than the corresponding U.S. coins.
he Courier further stated that the directors were men of good repute. The President, Mr. Josiah Hayden, of Haydenville, was a manufacturer of gold pens. Another member of the firm, Josiah’s son, William H. Hayden, was a Yale graduate, and was appointed assayer for the company, having qualified himself by a series of studies under the famous Yale Chemistry Professor Benjamin Silliman and through further experience gained at the U.S. Mint. William also procured for the company a coining machine capable of producing up to $10,000 worth of $5 coins per day.
A third member of the firm was the Rev. Frederick P. Tracy of Thompson, Connecticut, who acted as Agent for the company. The directors included Messrs. S. S. Wells, Miles G. Moies, Wm. S. Rogers, G.H. White, A. H. Bullen, and C. K. Hawks, Secretary.
The association was formed with a capital of $6,000, one quarter in cash and the rest in pledges. Later this total was increased by assessment to$50,000.
The first recorded meeting of the company was held on January 15, 1849, at which time the directors were chosen. On the twenty-second, the association voted that the matter of “sending a Mint to California” be left up to the directors. The last entry in the minutes of the company for the year is dated March 9, 1849. It mentions a letter written to Tracy from the Livingston Wells Express Company concerning shipping terms, possibly for the coining equipment.
A consensus gleaned from a wealth of contradictory newspaper articles indicates that the company originally planned to leave for California in March, although they were not certain which route to take. The plans were postponed until the first week in April, and then moved back to the end of the month. It was not until the latter part of May, however, that part of the group finally got under way.
Unlike the other minting companies which transferred their “headquarters” or management along with the western-bound coining personnel and operations, this company apparently functioned as would a major organization or holding company, retaining its “headquarters” offices at the site of organization. Records indicate that the directors continued to hold meetings in Northampton every January until the company officially dissolved in 1854.
An article published in the June 5, 1849, Hampshire Gazette details the execution of the Company’s plans:
Messrs. F. P. Tracy, agent, and Annis Merrill, of Boston, Cashier, of the Massachusetts and California Mining, or rather coining company, sailed for San Francisco, via the Isthmus, in the Falcon, on the 26th. The other persons, employed by the company, with the machinery, have taken the route by the Cape. They consist of Wm. H. Hayden, assayer, Ezra Carpenter, and W. Joslyn of Haydenville, George F. Wilcox of Springfield, and Gilbert Hills of Hartford.
O. W. Haskins, in his book Argonauts of California, confirms that Tracy and Merrill along with a future partner, E. D. Weld, sailed on the steamer Falcon on May 27. He also confirms that Hayden and the other men left Boston on the Alice Tarlton on May 21.
Further mention of the party taking the coining machinery was made in a May article in the New York Tribune:
What Congress failed to do for California, private enterprise has taken in hand. A party has just gone from Northampton, Mass., taking with them a mint, or rather all the implements necessary for coining gold and silver, and a competent assayer. Their object is to establish a private mint, purchase gold at a fair price, and coin it for circulation. They will be able to coin $10,000 per day, and their enterprise is said to have the sanction of the Government. What a commentary is this upon the enterprise of our Government.
It is interesting to note the reference to the government sanction of the company’s intent to issue gold coinage. While it was not against the law for private companies to mint their own coinage, it was highly doubtful that the Federal Government would have given its sanction to this enterprise. The Tribune statement was probably gleaned from the earlier Northampton Courier announcement that, “They go out to establish this Mint with the approbation of the highest influences at Washington.”
There is considerable evidence that both Tracy and Hayden made it to California. There is no comparable evidence to show that the coining equipment arrived or was used in California. Using the Panama route, Tracy should have arrived in California on August 18, 1849, on the Panama. By the latter part of October, 1849, he and his partner, E. D. Weld, were running the Weld & Company’s Inland Express – one of the first express companies in California. Evidently they were only marking time, for a February 1850 article appearing in a Massachusetts paper stated that Tracy was running an express between San Francisco and Sacramento City, and that, “The machinery for coining ‘the dust’ had not arrived.” The express company was sold in January, 1850.
Hayden’s arrival in California was recorded in the minutes of the January 15, 1851, meeting of the company in Northampton. Hayden reached California January 12, 1850 about the same time Tracy and Weld sold their express company, yet there is no mention in the company minutes of what had happened to the coining equipment.
It is now believed that the coins made by this company were struck in Massachusetts and not in California. At the time Tracy and Hayden were in California there was a glut of private mints, and by 1850, public resistance to private gold coins had grown to the point where they were refused and an attempt (albeit unsuccessful) was made to halt all private mints. These events may have discouraged Tracy and Hayden from setting up a new mint in California.
The primary cause for believing that these coins were made in the East comes from the fact that they are all heavily alloyed with copper, a characteristic of Eastern gold, and not silver, which is common for native Californian gold. In addition, most known specimens were discovered in the East. Exactly where the coining equipment was set up prior to its being loaded in the Alice Tralton is unknown, but local people seem to agree that it was either Northampton or nearby Haydenville.
Since the company could issue $10,000 worth of $5 gold pieces per day, it would mean that several pairs of dies would be necessary. Several differences in the impressions of the known trail pieces would indicate that several pairs of dies were prepared. Only a few specimens in gold, silver, and copper exist, which were probably used to test the equipment and either provide samples for officers or investors. Two $10 brass coins exist but no gold impressions of these are known.
On January 18, 1854, a last entry appeared in the minutes book of the company: “The subject of closing up the affairs of the Co. and dividing what funds they have was then discussed, whereupon the company unanimously voted that the whole subjects respecting settling up and dividing be left with the directors.”
--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