The first United States Mint was built in Philadelphia, which was serving as our nation’s Capital City during the period spanning 1790 through 1800 while Washington, D.C., was being built. Even when the federal government was, itself, moved to Washington in 1800, the nation’s only mint remained in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Mint continued to serve the coining needs of the fledgling nation, supplemented, of course, by the millions of foreign coins that had been circulating throughout the colonies since Europeans first landed in America. Copper coinage, then gold and silver coins, all started to flow from the mint building in Philadelphia to citizens and merchants throughout America.
The First Gold Strikes
Around 1799, a 12-year old boy found a 17-pound gold nugget while playing on a river bank in North Carolina. His family wasn’t aware of the actual treasure that they had and sold it to a jeweler for around $3.50 (about $70 in current value). After learning the real value of what they had sold, the family scoured the area around the river and found other large nuggets, including one that weighed almost 28 pounds. The Reed Mine was America’s first gold strike. These farmers kept their secret for as long as they could, but by 1820 mining operations were springing up along streams and rivers all across the southern and western regions of North Carolina. The “Carolina Gold Rush” was on and people came in droves hoping to strike it rich.
By 1828, gold was also found in northern Georgia, and those who hadn’t become rich in the Carolinas headed south. The mines and streams in these two states were providing gold nuggets and gold dust to be made into coins, but the major problem was that the nuggets and dust had to be shipped 750 miles northeast to Philadelphia. The trip was long, dangerous, and expensive. Private gold coining operations such as that by Templeton Reid sprang up in Georgia, but their integrity was questioned. Additional private gold coins were struck by the Bechtlers, whose accuracy was unchallenged, and their coins were widely accepted in the southeastern region of America. But by 1831, the miners had petitioned Congress to establish branch mints somewhere in North Carolina and Georgia.
The First Branch Mints
It wasn’t until 1835 when President Andrew Jackson signed into law an act that provided for branch mints to be established in Charlotte, North Carolina; Dahlonega, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Jackson was a strong and ardent supporter of actual gold and silver coinage and an opponent of paper currency. Thus, having more minting facilities during his administration made perfect sense to him.
The mints in Charlotte and Dahlonega were established to strike gold coins and satisfy the needs of the miners in these two states. Once the facilities were built and the staff appropriately trained, these two mint facilities were able to handle the flow of gold from the ground in those two states and turn it into coinage fairly quickly. Due to the mints’ success, the need for private gold coinage waned and only the Bechtlers were able to survive, their coinage circulating as freely as was the federal coinage.
New Orleans was selected as another branch mint location to produce both silver and gold coins. Most importantly, the city’s geographical location at the mouth of the Mississippi River made New Orleans a critically important commercial port. The area’s plantations used it to transport their cotton to England and to Europe, and very large quantities of gold from Mexico and South America came through New Orleans. It was during this period (1835-1855) that the New Orleans facility became the second-most important mint after Philadelphia, because of the sheer volume of silver and gold coins produced there.
New Orleans Commences Operations
The New Orleans Mint building was designed by noted architect William Strickland. It was built of red bricks in the Greek Revival style that was then popular. Strickland went on to design all three branch mints and, subsequently, the new Philadelphia Mint building. The New Orleans Mint was in continuous operations from 1838 to 1861. The United States was experiencing a shortage of coins and the New Orleans Mint assisted Philadelphia in keeping coinage flowing. No silver dollars had been struck since 1804, leaving the half dollar as the workhorse denomination.
Coining operations commenced on March 8, 1838, and this mint struck all of the numerous contemporary denominations from half dimes through silver dollars, including striking three cent silver coins in 1851 only. For gold coinage, all denominations were struck from $1.00 gold coins through $20.00 gold double eagles, with the exception of $4.00 gold Stella coins.
The New Orleans Mint proved to be an important part of our coinage system during the two decades leading up to the 1860s. The specie that it minted help establish faith and belief in the power of the federal government. While the mints churned out millions of coins and boost the economy, they were not immune to the tenor of the times.
The “Late Unpleasantness”
Tensions were building in America between those promoting state’s rights and the principle of slavery, versus those wanting strong central government and the abolition of slavery. The problems were both philosophical and pragmatic as the economies differed – an increasingly industrial North and a stable agrarian South. The election of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois as President of the United States was the catalyst for lighting the fuse of insurrection.
In December 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. By February of 1861, six more states seceded from the Union and joined the newly formed Confederate States of America. Lincoln took the oath of office in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1861, as the nation’s 16th president. Five short weeks later, on April 12, on a quiet Friday morning, gun emplacements opened fire on the federal Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor, and the American Civil War had begun.
Meanwhile in New Orleans, the mint had operated as a federal minting facility continuously from March 8, 1838 until January 26, 1861. On that latter day, the state of Louisiana seceded from the Union. A few days later the Secession Convention met in New Orleans and ruled that all federal mint employees would be permitted to continue their important work. But they would no longer be federal employees; they were now employees of the State of Louisiana. In March, an inventory was completed at the New Orleans Mint and it found that the state of Louisiana had “inherited” nearly $500,000 in gold and silver coins.
In March of 1861, the state of Louisiana accepted the constitution of the Confederate States of America and the mint now became an official facility of the Confederacy. The New Orleans Mint, which had lowered the United States flag in January, and then raised the flag of the State of Louisiana, now lowered that one and raised the “Stars and Bars” of the Confederacy.
The Coinage of the Confederacy
Production inside the mint continued. Prior to losing its status as a federal facility, the staff had struck approximately 330,000 1861-O Seated Liberty Half Dollar coins. Under the auspices of the State of Louisiana, the mint struck another 1,240,000 of those same coins. As the facility became part of the Confederacy, an additional 962,233 coins were struck, arriving at a total mintage of 2,532,633 coins. Most of them are indistinguishable from one another due to the same dies being used.
But there are three different 1861-O Seated Liberty Half Dollar varieties that are identifiable as having been struck during the period of Confederate occupation and one variety that was struck solely for the Confederate States of America. The first variety that is identifiable as a CSA-minted product displays a prominent crack from Miss Liberty’s nose to the rim. Research has assured us that as the coins with this diagnostic were all struck at the latter end of the obverse die’s life cycle, which would have put it squarely in the hands of the mint employees now working for the Confederacy.
The second Confederate variety 1861-O Seated Liberty Half Dollar has a bisected date, meaning that there is a die crack separating the “18” from the “61” in the date. The die crack is easy to see.
The third and final Confederate variety of 1861-O Seated Liberty Half Dollar has a bisected date but also has a “speared olive bud.”
For more than two decades after the cessation of the war, it was believed that the Confederacy had not attempted to strike any coins. But in 1879, Dr. B. F. Taylor, Chief Coiner for the Confederate States of America, dispelled that notion. He related that in April of 1861, C. G. Meminger, who was the Confederate States of America’s secretary of the treasury, requested coinage designs for a Confederate States of America half dollar coin.
Among the designs he received was one that he and other Confederate officials had approved. The obverse design had the familiar Union-designed Seated Liberty figure, holding a cap and pole in her left hand and a shield in her right, with 13 six-pointed stars above – seven to Miss Liberty’s right and six to her left. The reverse design has a shield with seven five-pointed stars (representing the seven CSA states). Above the shield is a Liberty cap and surrounding the shield are stalks of cotton and sugar cane. The reverse inscription is “CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA” and the denomination “HALF DOL.” resides below it.
One coin was sent to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, and the other three coins were distributed among the coiner Dr. B. F. Taylor, a professor from the University of Louisiana, and a prominent New Orleans doctor. However, on April 30, 1861, officials at the New Orleans Mint closed operations there in order to focus all of their assets on the war effort.
The original dies were retained by Dr. Taylor in 1861 and their existence was unknown until 1879. In that year, coin dealer J. W. Scott purchased the dies from an E. B. Mason of Philadelphia. Scott wanted to profit from his purchase, so he bought 500 New Orleans half dollars dated 1861. The reverse side was planed off and the reverse of the coins was struck by the original Confederate die. Scott feared that the die might break, so it was bound in a steel collar. Scott produced a circular advertising these new “coins” and offering these silver restrikes at $2.00 each. Ever the promoter, Scott stated all 500 coins were oversold and that he had no further specimens to sell, which was untrue. As late as 1909, Scott was offering to sell specimens that he claimed he had purchased back from customers for $20.00 apiece.
Of the four original coins struck, one is in the collection of the American Numismatic Society and the remaining three coins have all been offered at auction within the last five years, bringing between $650,000 and $960,000.
The Minting Resumes
The New Orleans facility remained closed until 1876, when it reopened as an assay office. But by 1879 the government needed another minting facility, as the United States Mint was striking more than two million silver dollars each month as required by the terms of the Bland-Allison Act. During this period, the mint also struck dimes, quarters, half dollars, $5 gold half eagles and $10 gold eagle coins. In the year 1879, the mint created a rarity by striking only 2,325 examples of the $20 gold double eagle.
Coinage struck at this New Orleans Mint during its years of service is generally mediocre with respect to strike, and the luster does not compare to that of coins struck in Philadelphia or San Francisco. By 1909, with the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver mints in full swing, coinage operations ceased for good in New Orleans.
But during its existence, the New Orleans mint struck more than 427 million gold and silver coins with a cumulative face value of over $307,000,000. The building continued to serve the citizens of New Orleans as an assay office again, a federal prison, a Coast Guard facility, and later as a fallout shelter in the 1960s. Since 1981, it has operated as a branch of the Louisiana State Museum.
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