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The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill near Coloma, California, on January 28, 1848, ignited one of the most exciting times in our nation's history. People from all over the country, and the world for that matter, swarmed to the gold fields of California and surrounding areas. Considering the available modes of transportation at that time and the perils of traveling through uncharted territories, it is no wonder that many suffered hardships and even died during the long voyages to the Mother Lode region. But the allure of free gold, that beautiful, mystic metal highly prized by humans since prehistoric times, obviously outweighed the associated risks, and between 1848 and 1855 an estimated 300,000 people came in search of newfound riches. Settlements quickly sprung from the landscape, and many thrive to this day. San Francisco became a boom town, and infrastructure was promptly built throughout the region. Improved means of transportation, including advancements in railroads and steamships, fueled further development of California. All of these changes ultimately led to the admission of California into the Union as a state in 1850.
As important as the California Gold Rush is to the general public, it is particularly significant to coin collectors, as many classic numismatic treasures were born from this historic period. The first, and as such one of the most important, are the 1848 CAL. two and one half dollar pieces. The story of this coin is compelling. Although California gold had been used to strike Federal coinage at the Philadelphia Mint in the years prior to the Gold Rush, all gold deposits were treated as one source. Therefore today we have no way of identifying which coins were struck from California gold or other sources. That changed in August 1848 when a special shipment of gold was transported from the acting governor of California, Colonel R.B. Mason, to Secretary of War William Learned Marcy in Washington. Q. David Bowers remarks of this event in his landmark treatise on the subject, A California Gold Rush History: 'We can trace the advent of coins specifically linked to California and easily identifiable as such to the purchase of 228 ounces of gold, averaging .894 fine, by Asst. Quartermaster Folsom in California who had obtained the metal for the bargain rate of $10 per ounce at a time when the metal was common and Spanish American and other coins in exchange were scarce. The money came from a civil fund.' The gold was received by Marcy in December and subsequently shipped to the Philadelphia Mint. Marcy penned a letter regarding the precious metal to Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson on December 8, 1848, as documented in the Bowers reference:
'If the metal is found to be pure gold, as I doubt not that it will be, I request you to reserve enough of it for two medals ordered by Congress and not yet completed, and the remainder, with the exception of one or two small bars, I wish to have coined and sent with the bars to this department. As many may wish to procure specimens made with California gold, by exchanging other coin for it, I would suggest that it be made into quarter eagles with a distinguishing mark on each, if any variations from the ordinary issues from the Mint would be proper and could be conveniently made ?'
Breen surmised that the two medals mentioned by Marcy were for Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield 'Old Fuss and Feathers' Scott. However, a letter dated January 5, 1849 from Mint Director Patterson to Secretary of War Marcy states that 'The California gold reserved for the medals is from another deposit ?' Apparently this letter was not available to Breen during the time of his research on the subject. The two gold medals were authorized by Congress to be presented to the two victorious generals and their ultimate contributions in winning the Mexican War. The Scott medal is permanently impounded in the Smithsonian Institution while the Taylor medal, a behemoth piece struck from 20 ounces of California gold, was sold as part of the November 2006 Norweb Collection by Stack's, where it realized $460,000. It is now accepted by researchers that the gold used to produce the two gold medals was actually derived from a deposit of 1,804 ounces of gold extracted from the American River near Sutter's Mill. This was the first arrival of California Gold Rush gold at the Mint, deposited by a prospector named David Carter on December 8, 1848, just one day before the 228-ounce shipment from Marcy arrived.
It is significant to note that the estimated 1,389 1848 CAL. quarter eagles struck were technically the first commemorative coins issued by a U.S. mint. Sufficient documentation exists to indicate that these pieces were intentionally modified to signify the earliest utilization of California gold in our nation's circulating coinage. The method of distinguishing the California pieces from the regular issue quarter eagles of 1848 was likely the work of Patterson, since Marcy did not provide specific instructions on this matter. Due to time constraints, the 'distinguishing mark' first suggested by Marcy was a simple CAL. punch of one piece. It would have been interesting if a decision had been made to actually modify a working die for the California coins, but the urgency of producing the commemoratives dictated a simpler option. Since all known pieces are devoid of any obverse deformation, it is widely believed that each coin was manually stamped while in the die. When Marcy questioned the Mint Director on the delay of completing the project, Patterson provided the excuse that stamping each coin with the CAL. logo was 'time-consuming.'
Bowers notes that the 1848 CAL. quarter eagles 'were available at face value to anyone desiring them. Although about 1,389 pieces were minted, probably fewer than two or three dozen numismatists--if indeed, even that many--learned of them at or near the time of issue and added the coins to their cabinets. Among those acquiring such pieces was Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, who preserved at least three prooflike specimens in his personal cabinet.' Given the state of preservation and the semi-prooflike fields of the current example, one can easily accept the possibility that this piece once resided in Longacre's collection. Those coins not purchased at face value by the public obviously entered circulation, as evinced by the numerous pieces known in grades from VG through AU.
Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.
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