The Numismatic Impact of the Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush was a pivotal event in United States history. It helped shift attention westward, brought incredible prosperity to San Francisco and resulted in a tremendous amount of the yellow metal entering the marketplace. Miners and merchants were eager to convert the raw gold into money—and the United States government responded accordingly with three new coinage denominations and a minting facility.
Almost immediately after the yellow metal was discovered in 1848, California gold was being converted into money. The only problem, however, was that turning the metal into federally-issued currency was difficult. Although a small amount of California gold reached the Philadelphia Mint in 1848, most of the Gold Rush metal remained in San Francisco. There, private minters and assayers turned the gold into ingots, bars and coins.
While the assayers were generally accurate in terms of purity levels and weights, most merchants preferred federally-issued coins over privately-issued pieces. Just because an assayer was well-respected in San Francisco did not mean their bars would be accepted in, say, San Juan. Merchants wanted US coins that would be universally accepted, both in the states and abroad.
The US government responded first by opening an assay office in San Francisco, followed by a full-fledged mint in 1854. In addition, Congress authorized three new gold denominations: the gold dollar, three dollar gold piece and twenty dollar double eagle. These three new issues helped soak up the huge influx of gold that entered the marketplace.
The gold dollar and three dollar pieces saw limited success, but the double eagle became a wildly popular coin. Immense quantities of $20 double eagle gold pieces were struck from 1850 onward—it became the coin of choice for large transactions, institutional trades and bank holdings. Its popularity extended beyond the United States, as evidenced by the huge amount of European bank reserves that (even to this day) are held in $20 double eagles.
The numismatic effects of the gold rush would last many decades. The gold dollar and three dollar gold pieces were made until 1889, the double eagle was produced continuously until 1933, and to this day there is still a United States Mint in San Francisco. The privately-issued coins, bars and ingots have also become coveted numismatic items. Depending on rarity and gold cent they trade anywhere from a few hundred dollars all the way to six figures per coin.
In summary, the California Gold Rush had a profound effect on American numismatics. It was the spark behind numerous privately-minted items, three federally-issued coin denominations and the US Mint at San Francisco. Just as the Gold Rush is considered an extremely significant event in our country’s history, the coins from that era are similarly regarded as highly desirable and historic.