U.S. Coins

Where’s the Gold? (Part 1)

Published May 2, 2024 | 5 min read

By David McCarthy

The discovery of gold in California on January 24, 1848, took around six months to reach the East Coast of the United States. Almost immediately, the public began to clamor for a new coin—the gold dollar. The tiny denomination had been considered as an alternative to its silver counterpart as early as the mid-1830s. Once rumors of a steady supply of gold began to circulate, its adoption became inevitable. On January 2, 1849, a resolution passed in the Senate that “the Committee on Finance be instructed to inquire into the expediency of directing the coinage at the Mint and Branch Mints of gold dollars.”

By late February, the House of Representatives approved a bill calling for creating the gold dollar. In early March, an amended version passed in the Senate before being sent back to the House. It was ratified as An Act to Authorize the Coinage of Gold Dollars and Double Eagles on March 3, 1849. News of the coins spread like wildfire throughout the United States. As early as April, newspapers were calling for their immediate release. On April 12, the Baltimore Sun ran an item announcing that “some of the gold dollar pieces have been issued,” and the following day, the Washington Union made a similar statement.

Despite these newspapers’ claims, the new gold dollars had yet to be released. The same day the Baltimore Sun ran its story, Philadelphia’s Public Ledger reported complaints that “the public have not yet had sight of the gold dollar,” despite reports that “specimens of the coin were in Washington while the bill was pending in Congress.” The article continued that, in fact, “no die [had] yet been prepared,” but made no mention of the hand-engraved gold dollar prototypes (Judd-115), which were shown to Congress in early 1849.

The Public Ledger article then described a conversation with an anonymous “officer in the Mint” who explained that the delivery date for gold dollars “was so far removed that he could not tell when they would be [released]. He had that morning for the first time seen [a die] in hand, and the first side was only about half done.” The same person suggested that internally some opposed the new denomination and that it was his opinion that it would not enter general circulation.

1849 gold dollar. (Photos: PCGS CoinFacts)

Trouble in Paradise

The Public Ledger’s curious article points to an issue that had been quietly brewing at the mint: antagonism between Chief Coiner Franklin Peale and Chief Engraver James B. Longacre. Peale, a Philadelphia insider, had been appointed to the post of chief coiner after serving several years as the U.S. Mint’s melter and refiner. Longacre, an outsider, had been appointed to his position by President John Tyler. Longacre’s involvement in the gold dollar and double eagle (gold $20) designs seems to have threatened Peale, who began plotting to force Longacre from his chief engraver position.

The Peale/Longacre conflict found its way into the pages of the Public Ledger again on April 13 in an editorial that stated that members of the mint staff might not be “conversant with the duties they are expected to fulfill.” It continued that “the office of die sinker at the mint should be filled by a practical man, one who can perform what he is expected to do.” This letter, probably written by Peale hiding behind the pen name “Hickory Broom,” concluded that “few men can sink a die in a correct manner, when it is wanted to be of a different size than the ones in use at the mint, as they cannot multiply from the old ones, but must create a new one; must show that they possess a skill which will be some remuneration for the large salary which they receive from the government.”

This public attack must have been awful for Longacre, who had been warned earlier in the year that Peale intended to force him out. Left with no choice, the embattled chief engraver rushed to complete the gold dollar in a hostile environment.

Next month, we’ll explore how Longacre’s predicament resulted in three major varieties of the 1849 gold dollar.

A version of this article appears in the June 2024 issue of The Numismatist (money.org).