Investing in Gold: 1849 California gold rush leaves legacy |

Investing in Gold: 1849 California gold rush leaves legacy

Allen Rowe
For the Nevada Appeal

With the discovery of gold in California the rush of 1849 was on. Thousands of people from all over the world converged on California, creating a host of problems. One of those problems was the lack of circulating specie (or coin) to conduct business with.

Costs for goods and services were becoming astronomically expensive and with a lack of coins to go around gold became a currency to itself. Merchants used scales to measure out gold for the purchase of goods, but what was really needed was the stability of coinage.

A host of assayers and businessmen quickly tried to fill the gaps by making coins of their own. Coins sizes were made to match our standard $5, $10, and $20 coins, but without silver and copper coinage other sizes were needed as well. Within a few short years California became famous for both small and large gold coins.

The smallest gold coin the U.S. ever produced was a $1 gold coin, but the private minters of California produced 25 cent and 50 cent gold coins. These coins were amazingly small and came in a host of varieties.

On the flip side a few of the private minters in California produced very large gold coins. The $50 gold piece was two and a half times the size of the U.S.’s largest coin, the $20 gold piece. These massive pieces were referred to as quintuple eagles, or five-eagle pieces, but the term “slug” quickly became the most used synonym for these impressive coins.

The small gold coins were so small that they were very easy to lose. It is thought that only the very earliest of these coins were actually circulated. Although pieces were produced into the 1880s most were made by jewelers as novelties rather than for currency. There were dozens of different producers of these small gold coins and overall there are over 500 varieties known. Collecting these coins by type is popular, but by variety is much more daunting. Only a few world class collections have ever come close to having all of the known varieties.

At the other end of the spectrum, the $50 gold coins were only produced for a few years and by a few minters. These large gold coins saw a surprising amount of circulation. In fact most of the survivors known have been heavily circulated. By 1856 there were no more $50 coins being produced, but it is almost assured that those that had been made were still being spent regularly.

In 1854 the U.S. officially opened a mint in San Francisco thus ending the need for privately minted coins in California. A host of different coins made by various makers were left behind as a testament to the wild west and the need for pioneers. California gave us the largest size range of gold coins ever. Many of these coins are exceedingly rare, but there are a few that are readily available to those collectors seeking a piece of California history.

• Allen Rowe is the owner of Northern Nevada Coin in Carson City.