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The Mints that Coined Southern Gold

James Obler

Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans

The first mint in the United States was established in Philadelphia and commenced regular coining operations in 1793. Despite the best efforts of mint personnel, for many years the output of the mint was not sufficient to meet the commerce requirements of the young nation. Official US coins circulated alongside a wide variety of foreign coins, private tokens, and paper bank notes. Gold coins in particular were practically unknown in circulation, primarily because the official standard ratio of 1 ounce of gold to 15 ounces of silver undervalued the gold in comparison to the European standard. Most American gold coins were exported and melted for bullion. This problem was eventually solved by the passage of a law in 1834 that reduced the amount of gold in the coins. It was no longer profitable to melt coins for bullion so they began to be seen in circulation.

The discovery of gold deposits in Georgia and North Carolina in 1828 precipitated the first American gold rush. Miners and settlers moved into these areas and the population grew rapidly. Several private coinage operations were started in order to convert the raw gold into usable coins. Chief among these were Templeton Reid and the Bechtlers. However, there was increasing demand to provide a means to make universally-accepted Federal coinage from the local raw metal. The recommended locations for new mint facilities were Charlotte, North Carolina and Dahlonega, Georgia. During this same period, Mint Director Samuel Moore was promoting the establishment of another new mint for the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans was the transit point for commerce for the Mississippi Valley and much silver and gold from Mexico passed through the city. The proposals for three regional mints seemed reasonable to President Andrew Jackson and on March 3, 1835 he signed a bill authorizing the U.S. Treasury to establish branch mints at all three locations.

The Charlotte Mint

 Construction of the Charlotte mint facility started in December, 1835. The building was a T-shaped structure with the front section measuring 125 feet wide and 33.5 feet deep. The “upright” section of the T shape extended from the back of the main building, measuring 36 feet in width and 53 feet in length. The facility had two stories and a basement and was built from dressed stone. In the 1830’s Charlotte was already an established town with a reliable supply of materials and labor. Construction was carried out under the competent supervision of Major Samuel McComb and the project was completed without serious difficulty. The Philadelphia Mint dispatched Franklin Peale to inspect the Charlotte facility and he declared the new mint ready for operation by the end of 1837. Mr. John Wheeler became the first Superintendent.

The Charlotte mint operated for a total of 24 years, from 1838 to 1861 and was shut down after the onset of the Civil War. Only gold coins were struck at Charlotte, in denominations of one dollar, $2.50 (quarter eagles), and $5.00 (half eagles). The first coins were produced between March 26 and March 31, 1838, when 678 half eagles were struck. The Charlotte Journal reported the event, stating “We have the pleasure of announcing this week, that our Mint has commenced coining – there is no mistake now, for we have both seen and handled the yellow boys.” Mint operations were interrupted in 1844 when a fire broke out in the wing where the coin presses were located. The facility was severely damaged and its contents were almost completely destroyed. Due to the production shutdown relatively few 1844-dated Charlotte quarter eagles and half eagles were made and they are somewhat scarce. No coins were produced in 1845 but the mint was restored to operation by 1846 and coinage resumed. Production continued until the final shutdown in 1861.

The Charlotte mint building was put into service as a U.S. Assay Office in 1868 and there was an unsuccessful attempt to re-open the facility as a U.S. Branch Mint in 1873. The assay office closed in 1913 and the building subsequently saw service as a Federal courthouse, headquarters for the Red Cross (during WWI) and as a meeting place for the Charlotte Women’s Club. In 1932 the structure was dismantled and later reconstructed in a new Charlotte location, opening in 1936 as the Mint Museum of Art. This museum remains open today.

One-year Charlotte type coins:

1849 Open Wreath gold dollar

1855 Type 2 gold dollar

1838 Classic Head half eagle

1839 Liberty Head half eagle, with obverse mint mark.

1855-C Half Eagle, graded PCGS XF-45.

The Dahlonega Mint 

The design for the Dahlonega mint building was the same as that for the Charlotte facility. However, the town of Dahlonega (which is a word from the Cherokee language, meaning “yellow money”) did not exist prior to the 1828 gold strikes. The area was basically a wilderness and construction of the mint was plagued by shortages of building materials and skilled labor. The Commissioner of Construction was Ignatius Few, a lawyer and Methodist minister who apparently did a very poor job of overseeing the construction process. When Franklin Peale inspected the site in 1837 he found the quality of work to be abysmal. He reported back to the Philadelphia Mint that the Dahlonega workmen “certainly deserve diplomas for Botching”. Nevertheless, the facility was eventually approved and the first 80 half eagles were struck on April 21, 1838. The Dahlonega mint superintendent Joseph Singleton remarked that the coins were beautiful, accurate, and had “a most cordial reception wherever carried.” During its years of operation Dahlonega produced gold coins only, in denominations of one dollar, $2.50 (quarter eagles), $3.00, and $5.00 (half eagles).

The Dahlonega mint accepted gold dust, nuggets, bullion, and foreign coins for conversion into Federal coins. Depositors would first present their gold at the counter of the Superintendent/Treasurer and would be issued a receipt. The gold was melted and assayed to establish its fineness and corresponding value. Most Georgia gold was more pure than the 90% standard for Federal coins and the practice was to leave the naturally-occurring silver in the alloy and add copper until the target purity was reached. The alloy would then be coined and depositors would return to pick up their brand-new Dahlonega gold pieces.

After the discovery of gold in California a significant amount of California gold was transported to Dahlonega for coining. One estimate is that about 20% of the total output from the mint was produced from California gold. With the opening of the San Francisco mint in 1855 shipments of California gold to Dahlonega largely stopped.

The state of Georgia seceded from the Union in January, 1861. Dahlonega struck 1597 half eagles in February while the mint was still operating under the authority of the United States government. After mint superintendent George Kellogg tendered his resignation to President Lincoln in April, the mint struck approximately 1600 more half eagles and about 3000 gold dollars. All of the 1861 dollar coins were struck under the authority of the Confederate States of America and they are unique among regular United States coins in that respect. The mint was officially closed by order of the Confederate Congress on June 1, 1861.

The Dahlonega mint building served as an assay office and repository for the Confederate Treasury during the Civil War. It was donated to the State of Georgia and became the main building for the North Georgia Agricultural College in 1873. Unfortunately a fire broke out in 1878 and the building burned to the ground. A new building was constructed on the foundation and it exists today as Price Memorial Hall of the North Georgia College and State University.

One-year Dahlonega type coins:

1855 Type 2 gold dollar

1839 Classic Head quarter eagle

1854 Three dollar gold piece

1838 Classic Head half eagle

1839 Liberty Head half eagle, with obverse mint mark.

1857-D Half Eagle, graded PCGS XF-40.

The New Orleans Mint

The building for the New Orleans mint was a neo-classical structure designed by well-known architect William Strickland, who was paid $300 for a set of watercolor and ink drawings and 16 pages of manuscript specifications. Strickland unfortunately never visited New Orleans and his designs were better suited for firm ground such as was found in Philadelphia. The soft soil of New Orleans did not provide a suitable foundation for Strickland’s building design, which meant that many repairs, reconstructions, and makeshift accommodations were later required in order to keep the facility operational. By the early 1840’s the main building was deemed to be in immediate danger of collapse and architect James Gallier, Sr. was hired to effect repairs. He installed many steel tie rods and plates to shore up the weakened structure. Later repairs included installation of new support structures below the melting room and replacement of wooden beams and floor supports with iron beams.

The New Orleans mint was much larger than the Charlotte and Dahlonega facilities. It was a three-story brick structure with a granite basement, consisting of a central section and two wings. The overall length was 282 feet and the depth was about 180 feet. Construction was nearly completed by 1837 and coining equipment was installed. By the end of that year Presidents Jackson and Van Buren had appointed many mint personnel, including a Superintendent, treasurer, assayer, melter/refiner, and coiner. Coining operations began in 1838 with the production of silver dimes. Gold coinage began in 1839 with a small mintage of quarter eagle coins. Throughout its service, the New Orleans mint produced gold and silver coins only. All gold denominations from dollars through double eagles were made at New Orleans.

As was the case at the Charlotte and Dahlonega facilities, coining operations at New Orleans were interrupted by the Civil War. On January 26, 1861 Louisiana voted to secede from the Union. The Federal employees at the Mint were allowed to continue in their posts as employees of the state of Louisiana. The state ceded the mint authority to the Confederacy and coining operations continued until the bullion supply ran short in April 1861. The mint changed ownership again in 1862 when the United States Marines recaptured the city from the Confederacy. The mint was not used in any official capacity until 1876 when it re-opened as an Assay Office. New coining equipment was eventually installed and the mint began striking new gold and silver coins starting in 1879. Over the next 30 years it became increasingly difficult to justify mint operations since coinage output from Philadelphia and San Francisco (and, starting in 1906, Denver) was adequate to serve the needs of commerce. Coining operations ceased in 1909. An assay office continued to operate on the 3rd floor of the building until 1931. A Naval Recruiting station, a Veteran’s Bureau dispensary and a dental clinic also made use of the facility. The building served as a federal prison until 1943 and then became a Coast Guard Receiving Station. Jurisdiction over the site was transferred from the Federal Government to the State of Louisiana in the 1960’s and was placed under the authority of the Louisiana State Museum Board. The mint opened to the public in 1979 as part of the state museum complex.

One-year New Orleans type coins:

1855 Type 2 gold dollar

1839 Classic Head quarter eagle

1854 Three dollar gold piece

1909 Indian Head half eagle

1879 Type 3 double eagle.

1844-O Half Eagle, graded PCGS AU-53.

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