The California Gold Rush had a profound impact on American history—and American numismatics. Among its many effects on United States coinage was the creation of three new denominations: the gold dollar, three dollar gold piece and $20 double eagle. Unlike the $3 and $20 coins, which were brand new denominations, the United States Mint was already producing silver dollars. However, given the huge influx of freshly extracted gold, it was decided to strike a concurrent coin of the same denomination.
The first gold dollars struck for circulation were made in 1849. Philadelphia Mint production was quite robust, but mintages at the branch mints (New Orleans, Charlotte, and Dahlonega) were significantly lower. The federal government anticipated strong public demand for the new gold dollars, but the public’s reaction was largely mixed. A common complaint was that the coin was too small and difficult to handle. Numismatists conclude that large quantities were struck because gold was abundant—not because there was a large commercial appetite for the coins.
In 1854, the US Mint attempted to solve the size issue by changing the gold dollar’s design and dimensions. They enlarged the coin slightly but made it thinner. Ultimately they simply traded one issue for another; the new thin version was extremely difficult to strike properly. Most coins came off the dies with incomplete design detail. Furthermore many specimens became bent or easily damaged in circulation.
The gold dollar was further modified in 1856; this time the design was changed to improve metal flow and allow for a more complete strike. The Mint may have fixed the design and production issue, but they weren’t able to improve the public’s opinion of the coin. It remained a white elephant of sorts in circulation; most Americans preferred to use silver dollars or one dollar paper notes. The Mint continued to strike gold dollars until 1889 but did so largely out of habit. Mintages were tiny towards the end of the coin’s run; in many years fewer than 10,000 pieces were made.
Today, gold dollars are popular collectibles due to their (generally) low price point and availability in higher grades. Respectable AU (About Uncirculated) pieces can be had for under $400 each and Uncirculated specimens are easy to locate too. Due to their small size, quite a few ultra-high grade examples managed to survive. Unlike most other 19th century gold coins, gold dollars can be sourced in lofty grades like MS 67 and MS 68 without searching for years or spending five figures.