Lesher Referendum Dollars

The so-called Lesher Dollars were octagonal silver pieces minted by Joseph Lesher of Victor, Colorado, in 1900 and 1901 as part of a larger movement for the cause of free silver, which had particularly strong support locally. After the Crime of ’73 saw the United States effectively demonetize silver and embrace the gold standard, a diffuse alliance of farmers, miners, and their political allies pressed to reintroduce silver currency and concomitantly expand the money supply. The apex of this ongoing struggle was the presidential election of 1896, in which Republican William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan and his coalition of free silver supporters. Although Bryan’s defeat seemingly settled the issue nationally, he had received more than 80% of the vote in Colorado, and it continued to roil the politically tumultuous mining districts there through the early twentieth century.

Lesher-AJNVictor was a boomtown on the western slope of Pike’s Peak, just a few miles southwest of its more famous neighbor, Cripple Creek, where the 1890 discovery of gold inaugurated a decade-long rush into the region. Joseph Lesher was an early arrival and by the turn-of-the-century he was well-known and established figure in the local mining and real estate business. The contentious politics of the county boiled down to a struggle between the heavily working-class mining districts and the more conservative city of Colorado Springs to its west, where many of the mine owners lived. In 1899, the mining districts broke off to form the new Teller County, named after the progressive and silver-supporting Colorado Senator Henry M. Teller. It was against this background that Lesher conceived of his silver pieces, which he saw as “referendums” on the silver issue because in his words, they were “referred to the people for acceptance or rejection.” No one would be compelled to accept them, but if they did begin to circulate, it would ostensibly demonstrate the utility of silver currency.

The American Numismatic Society holds fourteen Lesher dollars and some related minting equipment–2 obverse dies, 1 reverse die, 2 punches, and 3 bed plates–that were donated by Farran Zerbe (1871-1949). Zerbe also published a useful account of their genesis in the American Journal of Numismatics in 1917 that drew from an in-person visit with Joseph Lesher some years prior. As Zerbe points out, Lesher was clearly in a very grey legal area vis-à-vis the United States government, which held a monopoly on issuing hand-to-hand currency. He differentiated his silver pieces from government money with an octagonal shape and an inscription on the obverse that read JOS LESHERS REFERENDUM SOUVENIR. The dies for this initial issue of one hundred pieces were cut by Frank Hurd and struck by metal stampers in Denver. They were composed of silver .950 fine with copper alloy, weighed 480 grains (equivalent to one troy ounce), and measured 35mm in diameter.

ANS, 1947.132.14
ANS, 1947.132.14

A closer look at Lesher’s “souvenir” reveals several problematic issues. For one, the reverse inscription that it could be exchanged for “currency coin or merchandise” at the very least implied it was legal tender, and the former phrase was duly removed in subsequent emissions. Zerbe informs us that Lesher’s plan was to have merchants pay them out at $1.00 and receive them back at $1.25 in exchange for merchandise, which does not make a whole lot of sense, but accounts for the novel denomination.

The scheme garnered a great deal of attention in the press and the support of a local merchant named A. B. Bumstead, who was the proprietor of a grocery in Victor. A second type of Lesher dollar was subsequently manufactured expressly for Bumstead. This second type had a much more elaborate design, highlighted by a well-cut mining scene by Herman Otto, a Denver artist who made the dies for the remainder of the series.

ANS, 1947.132.10

The obverse shows the sun rising over Pikes Peak, which looms above a large trestle and gold mill at center while a miner pushes a cart out of a shaft in the foreground.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Although shot from a different angle (Pikes Peak is out of frame to the right), this contemporary photograph from the Library of Congress shows that the design bore at least a passing resemblance to Victor at the time. The town was then near  the height of its prosperity, with some eighteen-thousand residents and silver and gold pouring out of the surrounding mountains.

This second ‘Bumstead Type’ was minted in late 1900 and included two varieties. They are  distinguished by the presence of scrolls on either side of the Colorado seal on the reverse (example below without).

ANS, 1947.132.1

In a very useful census undertaken by Adna Wilde, the results of which were published in the February 1978 edition of The Numismatist, it is shown that around 700 of this type were manufactured.

Lesher’s final 1900 issue questionably replaced the phrase “will give in exchange merchandise” on the obverse with “will give merchandise or cash at any bank.”

ANS, 1947.132.2

When Zerbe conferred with Lesher, he said that government agents seized the dies used to manufacture the initial and Bumstead types, but it has been speculated that it was these ‘Bank Type’ dies that got Lesher into real trouble. The fact that the American Numismatic Society holds what is perhaps the one and only ‘Bank Type’ obverse die in its collection would seem to belie the belief that these were the dies seized by the authorities though. The ANS has one of the few Lesher dollars manufactured with this die as Wilde counted just eight extant examples.

ANS-Lesher Materials

Whatever the case, the subsequent issues, all of which are dated 1901, were smaller (33 mm) and lighter (412 ½ grains as with the standard U.S. silver dollar) than their predecessors. According to Wilde’s census, a total of around 800 of these were struck and then either engraved or stamped for merchants around the state who were sympathetic to Lesher’s enterprise. There are nine main varieties of this second type, each produced in varying numbers and attributable to a different business. One of those was a jewelry shop in Victor owned by Sam Cohen, who later became a prominent attorney in New York City and authored a lively account of his Colorado years in Gold Rush De Luxe (1940).

ANS, 1947.132.5
ANS, 1947.132.5

The other varieties can be viewed in MANTIS, the American Numismatic Society’s online catalogue. Although some supposedly new varieties of this second type have since been ‘discovered,’ they seem to be the result of shenanigans rather than genuine specimens. Ultimately, Lesher’s scheme was unsuccessful, but his silver pieces show an interesting numismatic dimension of the protracted political and economic struggle between labor and capital in the Mountain West.

Sources: Farran Zerbe, “Private Silver Coins Issued in the United States: The Lesher or Referendum Pieces,” American Journal of Numismatics (1917) 51: 153-174; Philip W. Whiteley, “The Lesher Story,” Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine (1958) 24: 2047-53, 2328-35, and 2829-38; Adna G. Wilde, Jr., “Lesher Referendum Medals: Where Are They Today?” The Numismatist (February 1978) 91: 229-248. For more on the contentious history of the Cripple Creek mining district, see Elizabeth Jameson, All That Glitters: Class, Conflict, and Community in Cripple Creek (1998); John Enyeart, The Quest for “Just and Pure Law”: Rocky Mountain Workers and American Social Democracy, 1870-1924 (2009).

Matthew Wittmann