The lure of gold has fascinated mankind since antiquity. Many voyages to the New World and elsewhere, by Spanish, British, and other explorers, were in quest of gold. Wars have been fought, kingdoms have risen and fallen, and countries have been won and lost because of this precious yellow metal. No other substance has ever captured imagination and engendered fascination as gold has.
At New Helvetia, California, in 1848, Captain John A. Sutter, a Swiss who had come to the state in 1839, managed a community of tens of thousands of acres centered around what was known as Sutter’s Fort. Seeking to create a source for lumber, which was fairly scarce in California at the time, Captain Sutter enlisted James Marshall and several others to explore sites for a sawmill along the American River, a fast-flowing waterway about fifty miles on horseback from the fort.
After some consideration, a spot was selected at Coloma, and erection of the sawmill began. As the structure neared completion, Marshall and his associates sought to deepen the channel, or race, that diverted water from the river and drove the mill wheel. To do this, they dammed the top of the race, then opened it at night and let the water rush through to sweep out small rocks and gravel.
Marshall traveled back to the fort and asked for a private audience with Captain Sutter, where Marshall displayed some samples of the yellow substance he had found. Sutter took from the shelf a volume of an encyclopedia and performed several tests, including weighing and subjecting the metal to acid. It most certainly was gold.
“Eureka!” Or “I have found it!” became the word of the day and, in 1849, was incorporated as the state motto.
On December 5, 1848, in his annual message to Congress, President James Knox Polk stated that gold had been found in California, and in large quantities. Specimens were sent to the Philadelphia Mint for analysis, where the assayers found the metal to be of unbelievable quality. The Gold Rush was on.
Many elected to go to California around the tip of South America, Cape Horn, continuing in the Pacific to San Francisco, nearly 15,000 miles and about 5 months in travel if the winds were good and nothing unforeseen occurred. Others sailed to the Isthmus of Panama, secured passage across the 60 miles of land, and then took their chances on finding another ship to take them from Panama to San Francisco, a much shorter trip, but one that involved the hazards of tropical disease and danger in the Panamanian forests.
They experienced many hardships, including the plague of cholera which may have carried off as many as three or four thousand of theestimated forty to fifty thousand travelers one year. Accidents, other illnesses, and starvation claimed hundreds more.
Immigrants coming to California by land or sea brought pans, shovels, containers for gold, contraptions for processing gold, etc., but few thought to bring much in the way of money. Thus, by the summer of 1849 there were tens of thousands of newcomers in California, but not enough coins to go around. Trade was conducted in gold dust, such as a “ pinch” as payment for a saloon libation.
Assaying was a very difficult process, and because of this relatively few firms entered the business. Not only was a high degree of scientific expertise needed, but facilities were required for the melting and processing of gold and the storage of incoming gold as well as for ingots and coins prepared for customers. Moreover, to be successful an assayer had to have a completely unblemished reputation, his word to be, literally, “as good as gold.”several private coining firms set up business in California, including Moffat & Company, which was joined
Moffat implemented a contract with the federal government in 1851 to found what became known as the U. S. Assay Office of Gold, with August Humbert, New York City watchmaker of excellent reputation, employed under the title U. S. Assayer of Gold. Beginning in 1851, impressive, large, eight-sided gold “slugs,” often called adobes (for adobe “bricks” used in construction), were made in quantity, affording a convenient way to transport gold from place to place. In addition, rectangular ingots were made for larger transactions and export.
In 1854 the San Francisco Mint opened, using facilities formerly occupied by the U.S. Assay Office of Gold. During the first year, gold coins were struck there of the $1, $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 denominations. The highest value coin, the double eagle, became the denomination of choice—as it was the largest regular federal piece issued.
Golden double eagles were strictly utilitarian, and after they were placed into circulation they soon became scattered, worn, damaged, or lost. So far as is known, not a single numismatist saved an example of a Mint State double eagle in the 1850s.
The Mint Cabinet at the Philadelphia Mint, which had been set up in June 1838 to display the nation’s coinage, received one striking of the first double eagle, an 1854-S, but did not have such
It took a while for the San Francisco Mint to become fully operational, and until 1855 private minters still flourished. In later years, such firms as Kellogg & Company and Wass, Molitor & Company were active and produced mainly $20 pieces, although Wass, Molitor made some impressive $50 coins. After 1855 there was no private coinage in San Francisco.