California was sparsely populated prior to the arrival of American settlers in the early 19th century. Even by 1846, San Francisco was a still small settlement with about 200 residents. It was in June of year that a group of American settlers rebelled against Mexican rule and raised their own flag, featuring a grizzly bear. The rebellion was soon subsumed into the official US takeover of California as part of the Mexican-American War. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 sparked the California Gold Rush, and the ensuing immigration of hundreds of thousands of settlers cemented American control. California became a state as part of the Compromise of 1850. The “Bear Flag” was adopted as the official state flag of California in 1911.
In 1925, the San Francisco Citizens’ Committee lobbied Congress to provide legislation for a silver half dollar commemorating the 75th anniversary of California statehood. The measure was ultimately rolled into an existing bill authorizing a similar half dollar commemorating Vermont’s sesquicentennial. A similar provision was later added for a half dollar in honor of the centennial of Fort Vancouver, making this the first time that multiple commemorative issues were authorized in a single piece of legislation.
Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon complained in a letter to President Calvin Coolidge: “The Federal Government is permitting its coinage system to be commercialized for the profit of any celebration, whether national in its scope or not,” he wrote. Nonetheless, Coolidge signed the bill authorizing all three coins in February 1925. The legislation authorized production of 300,000 California Diamond Jubilee half dollars.
The Citizens’ Committee hired California sculptor Joseph “Jo” Mora to design the coin. However, Mora’s sketches were disliked by the Commission of Fine Arts, a federal committee charged with making nonbinding recommendations on the design of US coinage. James Earl Fraser, the designer of the Buffalo nickel and a member of the Commission, wrote that Mora’s design appeared “amateurish” and suggested hiring Robert Aitken, designer of the 1915 Panama-Pacific $50 gold coins, instead. Nonetheless, the Citizen’s Committee stuck with Mora.
Mora’s obverse design features a Gold Rush prospector, sifting for gold. The reverse shows a California grizzly bear (now extinct), modeled from the official state flag. The background, or “field” in numismatic terminology, was left unpolished on the die so as to give the coins a textured appearance. Despite the Commission of Fine Arts’ criticisms, the design is now considered one of the most successful commemorative coin designs. Many numismatic historians have commented on its simple yet effective design.
Distribution of the coins was not very well organized and more than sixty thousand coins were eventually returned to the Mint. A total of 86,594 ended up in the hands of the public, which makes the California Diamond Jubilee half-dollar neither particularly rare nor particularly common.