Moffat Gold Coin – Imagine this for a moment: private issuance of currency isn’t frowned upon. In fact, it’s legal. There is an abundance of currencies: shinplasters, red dogs, smooth monkeys, stump tails, George Smith’s money, and Anti-Bank notes, as well as Spanish, French, and Brazilian coins.
As hard as it may be to imagine now, Americans used to use tens of thousands of types of money.
It was a veritable “Wild West” of currencies, and today we bring you the tale of a coin from the thick of it: the 1850 $5 Moffat Gold Coin.
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Moffat & Co. was the most important private gold minter in the California Gold Rush. In fact, when the federal government decided to open a San Francisco mint, it asked two members of the company for their help. The firm’s senior founder, John Little Moffat, had extensive experience in gold, having worked in the Georgia and North Carolina gold fields and as an assayer before striking out for California to make his fortune.
In California, Moffat and his partners set up an assaying and smelting business. With testimonials from distinguished figures such as the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and a guarantee to buy back its own coins at face value, Moffat & Co. had little trouble getting started.
The company first issued gold rectangular ingots that, although impractical for everyday commerce, answered an urgent need for coinage (gold was coming out of the California mines so quickly that coinage couldn’t keep up, and in late 1849, there were no fewer than 18 companies in California issuing coins). Soon after Moffat & Co. set up shop, they were joined by Bavarian engraver George Albrecht Ferdinand Kuner, the engraver of California’s State Seal.
In 1850, Congress directed the U.S. Treasury to establish an Assay Office in California, and Moffat & Co. received the contract to perform the Assay Office’s duties. Augustus Humbert was appointed as U.S. Assayer of Gold in California, and in 1851, he stamped the Assay Office’s first $50 octagonal coin-ingots. Although the ingots were not officially recognized as coins, they were accepted as on par with U.S. gold coins.
One problem: they didn’t quench California’s thirst for gold coins.
The state was awash in gold dust and people with wages to spend. Furthermore, the ingots were of such high value that they drove the lower-purity $5, $10, and $20 private gold coins from the market, and people returned to using gold dust for transactions.
Thus in 1852, Moffat and Humbert resumed issuing $10 and $20 gold coins, which had been discouraged by the state legislature and the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury. That year, Moffat left his company to enter the diving bell industry–the desire for gold being so great that diving bells had been invented that allowed people to go underwater to glean gold from riverbeds.
A Curious Liberty
Still popular with collectors today is the 1850 $5 Moffat. This unusual coin mimics the 1850 U.S. Half Eagle in design. The obverse features a Liberty head, but with the words “Moffat & Co.” instead of “Liberty” on her crown. The reverse features an eagle with outspread wings and the words “S.M.V. California Gold” instead of “United States of America.”
Due to Moffat & Co.’s scrupulous production standards, collectors today invest in these coins confident of their quality. Moffat $5 and $10 coins were heavily used in gold camps, and many were later melted down, rendering Mint State 1850 $5 Moffats very rare and a coveted prize for many collectors.
Each piece of this gold is a true artifact of this pioneer period in our nation’s history.
1850 Historical Events Timeline
June – Nashville Convention Held
Delegates from nine slave states meet in Nashville, Tennessee, to decide their course of action should the U.S. Congress decide to ban slavery in the new territories being added to the nation as a result of the Mexican–American War and westward expansion. Some of the compromises reached during the Nashville Convention make their way into the Compromise of 1850, which enacted a harsher version of the Fugitive Slave Law and temporarily staved off civil war.
July – Millard Fillmore Sworn In
After President Zachary Taylor’s death, Vice President Millard Fillmore is sworn in to serve the rest of Taylor’s term. One of America’s few rags-to-riches presidents, Fillmore was born in a log cabin to tenant farmers in New York State. When asked how to raise a son to be president, Fillmore’s frontiersman father responded: “Cradle him in a sap trough.” Fillmore is later defeated by Franklin Pierce in the presidential election of 1852.
September – California Becomes 31st State
After being part of the U.S. for only two years (and skipping the “territory” period of many states), California becomes a state. In the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded California to the U.S., not knowing that gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill only nine days before. Due to the gold rush, California’s population skyrocketed, bringing it quickly above the 60,000 population threshold needed to become a state. Thirty-eight days after Congress approves California’s statehood, the word arrives in San Francisco by steamship, setting off a weeks-long celebration.
Jenny Lind Performs in NYC for First Time
In 1849, P.T. Barnum approached famed Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, inviting her to tour America for over a year. Barnum’s advance publicity created hype ahead of Lind’s arrival, and she received an enthusiastic welcome upon arriving in New York City. The “Swedish Nightingale” wows her audiences at her charity concerts at Castle Garden, NYC, and her renown only grows upon Barnum’s announcement that Lind is donating her share of the proceeds to charity.