Today, many Americans associate New Orleans with Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, Creole culture and Southern charm. What few realize is that “The Big Easy” was also an economic powerhouse in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As of the mid-1800s the city was the fifth largest in the nation, its port was the third busiest, and it was the South’s undisputed hub of finance and trade. Not surprisingly, this prosperous city required a tremendous amount of hard money to fuel its commercial activity. This is why the United States opened one of its first branch mints in New Orleans.
When the first United States Mint was founded in 1792, America’s territory and population was very much concentrated along the eastern seaboard. The vast majority of all commerce and trade took place between Baltimore and Boston—and thus the Philadelphia Mint was superbly located. Furthermore American money was just one of many currencies that circulated in North America. Merchants would happily accept Mexican, Spanish, British, French or even Dutch coinage—basically any trustworthy coin was smiled upon.
Over the following 20 years, America’s boundaries and population centers shifted dramatically. With the Louisiana Purchase, the United States absorbed France’s important city of New Orleans as well as a tremendous swath of Western land. Frontiersman began settling in the hills of North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. All of a sudden Philadelphia was no longer at the center of American population of trade—and a need for branch mint locations emerged.
In 1835, the US federal government authorized three branch mints: Charlotte NC, Dahlonega, GA and New Orleans, LA. The former two were opened more as a matter of convenience; gold had been discovered near those locations and the government wished to produce coinage near the mines themselves. The New Orleans facility, however, was opened to service the needs of local merchants and bankers. At the time, Mexican gold coins were plentiful in Louisiana, but the United States preferred to have its own currency circulate in the South.
While the city of New Orleans was prosperous, the mint itself saw limited success. The building was constructed on swampy lowland, leading to many floods and structural issues. Its equipment was not always as sophisticated as the presses used in Philadelphia—many New Orleans coins exhibit weak strikes and incomplete design detail. Even the Mint’s reputation for accuracy was questioned; a newspaper once accused the mint of not knowing how to conduct a proper assay!
The New Orleans Mint experienced further difficulty in 1861, when Confederate troops seized control of the building as the Civil War began. Remarkably, the Mint would not reopen until well after the war concluded. The facility officially reopened in 1876, but not a single coin was struck there until 1879. Even after production resumed, the primary focus was on silver dollars, not gold. As demonstrated by mintage records, the New Orleans Mint clearly dedicated the majority of its resources to striking silver Morgan dollars in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1904, for example, the Mint produced over 3.7 million silver dollars compared to just 108,950 $10 gold eagles.
The Louisiana-based mint would eventually end coinage production in 1909, but its remains open to the public as a museum. In addition, coins bearing the “O” mintmark remain highly prized collectibles to this day. They serve as a reminder of how powerful New Orleans was in the 19th and early 20th centuries—and its influence on the North American economy.