By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
Privately minted gold coins from the first decades of the United States have always intrigued numismatists. Though these coins were not minted by the United States Mint, they were integral to the regional economic systems in which they circulated. And while many associate privately minted gold with the American West (where the famous California Gold Rush occurred beginning in the late 1840s), fewer may know about the Gold Rush in the South and the privately minted coins it inspired.
That is where gold was discovered in massive quantities beginning outright in the late 1820s and spawning a major run on the yellow precious metal in places like northern Georgia and western North Carolina. Tens of thousands of people swooped in from all over the young United States to stake a claim on the gold, causing entire towns to spring up overnight around these golden hotspots. The gold rush(es) in Georgia and North Carolina eventually led to the establishment of the first United States branch mints in Dahlonega (Georgia) and Charlotte (North Carolina) in 1838.
But long before the production of federally minted gold coins in the South began in the late 1830s, the newly panned – and mined – southern gold was locally assayed, refined, and coined by private ventures.
This privately minted gold coinage was popular with the locals, who demanded hard money in gold denominations. While the United States Mint had been minting gold coinage since 1795, there weren’t necessarily enough of these coins to meet demand in places like Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, where thousands of gold-hungry pioneers were setting up shop – some permanently. To meet this demand, enterprising private minters began issuing their own gold coinage to distribute as circulating money.
One of these entrepreneurs was a Georgia jeweler and gunsmith named Templeton Reid, whose minting operations lasted from July through October of 1830. The exact number of coins that he struck is unknown, but production included coins denominated to $2.50 (quarter eagle), $5 (half eagle), and $10 (eagle). Accounts contemporary to Reid’s time suggest his output was substantial; an 1831 account in the National Gazette of Philadelphia suggested that he struck some $200,000 in gold coins. However, research by numismatist Dexter C. Seymour points to a much smaller mintage totaling some 1,000 quarter eagles, 300 half eagles, and 250 eagles.
Over time, however, the vast majority were melted for their precious metal content, leaving very few behind today for numismatists to study or collect.
Also causing confusion is the purity of the gold itself. It is believed Reid did not precisely assay the gold he used for making his coins, instead minting them from the gold virtually as it was recovered – mixed with other metals, as found in nature.
According to numismatic author Walter Breen, the gold in Reid’s 1830 coinage was approximately .942 fine, purer than the .917 standard used by the government for making federal coinage. This, coupled with the fact that Reid’s coins were physically larger in size (if only slightly) than their equivalent federally issued counterparts, would have made these private-mint coins worth more than face value from the bullion perspective.
Still, many of his contemporaries claimed Reid was producing coins consisting of less gold content than face value suggested. This claim, along with a fallacious belief that it was illegal for Reid to mint his coins (the United States Constitution banned states, not individuals, from producing coins), caused many to be suspicious of Reid’s coins and not trust them.
Though Reid produced his 1830-dated gold issues for but a few months, they weren’t the last coins to bear his name.
As the 1830s melted into the ’40s, gold fever cooled in northern Georgia as the local yield of precious metal dried up. But the fever was about to spike again, this time 2,500 miles west in the territory of California. That’s where a new gold rush kicked off in the late 1840s, luring thousands of fortune seekers to try their luck at striking it rich there. A new breed of territorial gold coinage also arose from the California Gold Rush, including at least two gold coins emblazoned with the name “Templeton Reid”. These coins include $10 and $25, with just one authentic example of each ever accounted for.
Some have long theorized that Reid made his way to California to capitalize on the gold rush and struck coins out west. But many numismatic experts believe that would have been impractical for the intrepid but ailing Georgia metalsmith, who by 1849 was nearly 60 years old and suffering from a variety of debilitating health maladies. He surely would have been physically unable to make such a long journey at a time when boats and cattle-driven wagons were the only ways to travel from rural Georgia to the rugged Pacific coast.
So, what’s the story behind these two Templeton Reid coins featuring an 1849 date and the inscription “CALIFORNIA GOLD”?
The most likely explanation is that a small amount of gold ore from California reached Reid, who decided to transform it into gold coins with markings that honor their Californian origin. These gold pieces were of lesser purity than his earlier pieces, with Reid’s California gold coins estimated by him to boast .893 fineness; a United States Mint estimate suggested their purity at just .871.
Unfortunately, the whereabouts of only the 1849 $10 Templeton Reid California Gold coin are known. The gold coin’s $25 counterpart was stolen from its home in the United States Mint Cabinet Collection on August 16, 1858 and has never been recovered. The mystery surrounding the 1849 $25 Templeton Reid California Gold coin continues today, with few answers and many hoping the coin could still eventually turn up. Meanwhile, others theorize the $25 coin may have been melted for its bullion content soon after it was lifted from the Mint Collection. PCGS has long offered a $10,000 reward to the individual who submits the elusive rarity for grading and authentication.
As the numismatic world awaits the recovery of the 1849 $25 Templeton Reid gold coin, collectors enjoy pursuing the other scarce Templeton Reid gold coinage that turns up from time to time via public auctions and private transactions. Of the 1830-dated pieces, possibly 15 total $2.50 specimens exist, with six $5 issues and five $10 coins known. Three $10 pieces exist without a date. While the authentic 1849 $10 gold coin is unique, there are some copper, silver, and base-metal copies that were produced from forged dies by coin dealer Stephen K. Nagy in the very early 1900s.
Meanwhile, PCGS has graded a total of 18 Templeton Reid gold coins. To be sure, these coins are highly sought after by collectors of territorial and private-issued gold coinage. Among the 1830 $2.50 coins, a finest-known PCGS MS61 specimen set the record for the denomination when it realized $480,000 USD at a February 2020 Kagin’s auction. Of the six $5 specimens known, two reside at the Smithsonian Institution, leaving only four in private hands; one of those pieces, an example graded Genuine by PCGS, commanded $204,000 at an August 2019 Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction. The equally rare 1830 $10 Templeton Reid gold coin has seldom traded hands at public auction, with the most recent such transaction happening at a Bowers & Merena event where an EF40 specimen took $90,750 in 1984.
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