The California Gold Rush may have been set off by James Wilson Marshall’s January 24, 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, but the commercial extraction of oro fino in California had already been underway for eight years by this time.
This fact is important to understand because contrary to popular belief, the 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle is almost certainly not the first federal coin struck from California gold. That distinction probably belongs to 18.34 ounces of gold sent to the Philadelphia Mint in 1842 on behalf of Abel Stearns, a prominent trader and landowner living in the Los Angeles area. The gold was delivered to the Mint on July 8, 1843, and turned into $344.75 USD in coin.
Gold production in California would continue at a modest pace for the next few years, attracting hundreds of hopeful prospectors hoping to make a living extracting gold from the banks of alluvial springs
The 1848 discovery at Sutter’s Mill was the start of a completely different animal. Unlike the modest discoveries of 1840/1841, the discoveries from 1848 on were history-defining for the American continent. Gold yields in 1848 eclipsed $10 million. This total would quadruple in 1849 and reach $60 million or more annually from 1851 to 1854 when gold was discovered along the banks of the Kern River in Southern California. While the majority of the placer deposits were exhausted by the outset of the Civil War in 1861, California remained a leading producer of American gold well into the 20th century.
The 1848 CAL quarter eagles were struck with gold delivered to the United States Mint in Philadelphia on December 15, 1848. The metal was shipped by War Secretary William L. Marcy, who received it from California Military Governor Richard Mason. In total, $3,910.10 worth of refined gold was contained in the parcel.
According to the best guesses of numismatic researchers, the 1848 CALs were likely struck in the last week of December 1848 and then delivered to Marcy in 1849. When struck, the coins did not bear the incuse inscription “CAL” that appears above the eagle’s head. This would be added later by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, who imparted the three letters by striking each coin with a single punch. Longacre concluded his work on the 1848 CAL quarter eagles on January 4, 1849.
Aware of the historic nature of the moment, Longacre created and retained three Proofs for his private collection. It is possible that the Longacre Proofs were not struck with gold from Marcy’s deposit (actually it is highly likely that they weren’t). One of the Longacre Proofs was sold at auction 1869, mere months after his death.
In total, 1,389 “CAL” quarter eagles were struck. Some argue that this emission represents the very first federal “commemorative issue”. That the issue commemorates the discovery of California gold is true, but the incuse embellishment does not rise to the level of a Congressionally approved commemorative coin. The first U.S. issue carrying that imprimatur would not arrive until 1892 with the issuance of the World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar.
Commemorative or not, most of the issue was released into circulation and today possibly 200 or a little more survive – the overwhelming majority of them in circulated condition. So scattered about were they that the issue had become difficult to find by the late 1860s, and many serious coin collectors of the period were unable to source examples for their collections.
In Mint State, the issue is rare. As of the time of this writing, NGC reports only 19 grading events in uncirculated grades, 11 of which grade MS61 to MS63. The sole finest at NGC grades MS68*. The coin brought $300,000 at an April 23, 2020 Heritage Auction.
At PCGS, only 25 grading events in Mint State have been reported throughout the company’s 35 years of business. The majority of these Mint State examples grade MS64 and below. Gems at both services are rare. Like NGC, PCGS reports a single coin at the MS68 grade. We could find no record of a public sale of this coin, but estimate its value at $300,000 or more.
In lower Mint State grades, 1848 “CAL” quarter eagles routinely trade for $100,000 or more. Proof strikings are even rarer. All Proof examples have a prominent die chip on the neck and display a date that is lower than what is found on business strikes. The finest of these resides in the National Numismatic Collection. The second-finest is graded PR64 by PCGS. The third is graded PR62 by PCGS.
As an enigmatic numismatic oddity connected to a pivotal period in America’s history, the 1848 “CAL” will always place high amongst the great numismatic objects in American history. In the most recent edition of Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett’s 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, the 1848 “CAL” ranks 54th.
Christian Gobrecht’s design features a left-facing bust of Liberty with her hair tied up in a bun, which is secured by a string of beads. Liberty wears a diadem on which the word LIBERTY is inscribed. Thirteen six-pointed stars encircle the design leaving room only for the date, which appears centered below the bust truncation. Beaded denticles border the rim.
The reverse features the heraldic eagle with its chest protected by the federal shield, its wings held aloft, and its talons gripping arrows and olive branches. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA encircles the design. Above the eagle’s head and beneath the word STATES is the incuse inscription “CAL.”. The denomination 2 1/2 D. is inscribed at the bottom of the design, between two dots separating the beginning of UNITED and the end of AMERICA. Beaded denticles border the rim.
The edge of the 1848 CAL $2.50 quarter eagle gold coin is reeded, like all other Liberty Head quarter eagles.
Christian Gobrecht was the third Chief Engraver of the United States Mint. He was first hired to temporarily fill in after the passing of Chief Engraver Robert Scot. Later, he was hired to assist ailing Chief Engraver William Kneass. At the U.S. Mint, Gobrecht designed a number of coin designs, including the Seated Liberty type, the Liberty Head gold type, and the Flying Eagle cent.
|Year Of Issue:||1848|
|Denomination:||Quarter Eagle ($2.50)|
|Mint Mark:||None (Philadelphia)|
|OBV Designer||Christian Gobrecht|
|REV Designer||Christian Gobrecht|