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  • Writer's pictureDouglas Keefe

The Gold and Silver Mine: California Gold Coins

Discovery of gold in the California Territory (California wasn’t a state yet) in 1848 set in motion a mass movement of people heading to California in search of riches. People from all walks of life left their jobs, left their farms and left their families in search of a better life. And that journey west was not an easy one because the west coast was isolated from the rest of the country. Only three ways were available to get to California and none were easy and all were dangerous. First was overland by way of wagon train with many other like-minded individuals which would take months to complete, if at all. Weather, terrain of mountains and desert and Indians were a constant danger. Many of these travelers were city folks, unaccustomed to this environment, resulting in some giving up and turning back.

“One if by land, two if by sea” to borrow a phrase from the poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”, there were 2 options to get to California by sea. First was to take the perilous journey around Cape Horn, the southern-most point of South America. There was no Panama Canal then, so that was the only direct route by ship. There other way by ship involved sailing to Panama, the narrowest point between the 2 sides, disembarking and traveling overland to the west coast and boarding another ship to get to California. Upon arrival, many of the ships crews abandoned their ship and went with the passengers in search of gold, leaving ghost ships stranded in the harbors. Neither of these two options were without risk with storms, pirates and disease the primary threats.

Successfully arriving in California was not the end of problems for the weary travelers. Crowded or non-existent living conditions and lack of law and order were just some of the problems encountered. And, the topic of this article, a lack of money to make purchases. Granted, many brought their life savings in order to purchase what was needed to mine for gold, but once that money was gone, even though they may have struck gold, making purchases was difficult. Initially, shop keepers, saloon owners and other who catered to the miners took gold nuggets in payment, but there was no standard accounting for the value of the gold used as payment. And even though there was gold available, there were virtually no silver coins to make small change or for small purchases.

To help alleviate the problem, some jewelers struck small denomination coins in 25 cent, fifty cent and dollar denominations, a practice that started in 1852 and continued until the 1880’s. Unfortunately because of their small size because it didn’t take much gold to equal those denominations, they weren’t popular and in many cases were mailed back home as souvenirs. In other instances, assayers struck bars and coins in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $20, $25 and $50. Both series are quite collectible, but the higher denomination assayer coins and bars are rare whereas the little coins are more affordable. The small 25 cent 5o cent and dollar cents all had their denomination on them with either a “D”, “DOL” or “DOLLAR” after ¼, ½ or 1 for the amount. Many copies and tokens exist that are not to be confused with the real thing, but they all lack the “D, “DOL” or “DOLLAR” notation. I have seen many instances where collectors have purchased the tokens thinking they are the real thing. Real California small denomination gold “coins” sell in the hundreds of dollars where the tokens are usually only worth a couple of dollars.

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