Moving West: 19th-Century America

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The United States began the 19th century as a minor power struggling to claim its place next to the European nations, but ended the century on the brink of economic and political greatness. The country’s coins reflect its growing confidence and also illustrate its territorial and economic expansion.

Early in the century, the U.S. Mint was unable to meet the needs of the economy, so foreign coins remained legal tender and private tokens continued to be common. The discovery of gold in the southeast in the 1830s and in California in 1848 helped ease this problem. The establishment of branch mints, including those at New Orleans and San Francisco, also made the distribution of money more efficient, as did the authorization of a gold 20-dollar “double eagle” in 1849. Finally, in 1857, Congress mandated that only U.S. coins were to be legal tender for all transactions.

In the second half of the century, the role of the United States in the international economy continued to grow. The desire to facilitate trans-Pacific exchange lay behind the creation of the trade dollar, a silver coin containing slightly more silver than a standard U.S. dollar. Unfortunately, the two denominations were too similar and the resulting confusion led to the trade dollar being officially demonetized. The mint also produced unusual denominations, such as 3-cent and 20-cent coins, for domestic circulation, but none lasted very long. By the end of the century, cents, 5-cent “nickels,” dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollars were the common coins—and these are all still struck today.


The California Gold Rush (1848-1856)

When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California, in 1848, it touched off the gold rush that drew over half a million fortune-seekers to California. In 1857, the S.S. Central America, carrying 1.6 million dollars in California gold sank off the South Carolina coast, contributing to the Financial Panic of 1857 when banks lacked enough gold to cover withdrawals.

Gold nuggets similar to those found in California in 1848.


U.S. gold 20 dollar “double eagle” (1857), with another coin fused to it, from the wreck of the S.S. Central America.


Gold 10 dollar “eagle” (1852) assayed by Augustus Humbert, the official U.S. Assayer (1851-1852), from the wreck of the S.S. Central America.


California gold dollar (1855). A lack of small denominations during the gold rush led to privately produced gold quarter dollar, half dollar, and dollar coins.



California Assayers

Once obtained, raw gold went to an assay office for refining and manufacture into ingots or coins with guaranteed values. Norris, Gregg & Norris was among the first assay companies producing gold coins in California. Moffat & Co. was one of the most important assayers during the gold rush, and their successors established the U.S. Branch Mint at San Francisco in 1854.

Gold 50 dollars (1851) assayed by Augustus Humbert. His name and office are marked on the edges.


Gold 50 dollars (1855) assayed by Wass, Molitor & Co. The largest denomination produced by the assay offices of the gold rush was the 50 dollar piece, an extremely large sum of money for the 19th century.


Gold 5 dollar “half eagle” (1849) assayed by Norris, Gregg & Norris.


Gold 5 dollar “half eagle” (1849) assayed by Moffat & Co. The company name was written on Liberty’s coronet.



Other Private Gold

Assay offices also sprang up where precious metals were discovered in other U.S. states and territories. In Alaskan mining towns, small gold tokens were made to replace the pinches of gold dust used to make purchases. Between 1848 and 1860, the Mormons of Salt Lake City, Utah, also produced their own coinage from gold brought back from California.

Unparted assay bar containing 94.8% silver and 2.9% gold, assayed by Weigand (1952-1868) in Silver City, Nevada.


Georgia gold 5 dollars (1831-1840) assayed by C. Bechtler.


North Carolina gold 5 dollars (1842-1846) assayed by A. Bechtler.


Colorado gold 5 dollars (1861) assayed by Clark, Gruber & Co. Pike’s Peak is named as the originating mine.


Alaska gold quarter pinch token (1902).


Utah Mormon gold 5 dollars (1849), depicting the emblem of Mormon priesthood.



U.S. Gold Coinage

In the 19th century, the U.S. Mint produced official gold coinage in a wide range of denominations—from the dollar to the 20 dollar “double eagle.” Many of the finest late-19th century U.S. gold coins in the American Numismatic Society’s collection originally belonged to J.P. Morgan, the famous New York banker.

Gold dollar (1858) depicting Liberty wearing a feathered headdress.


Gold 2 1/2 dollar “quarter eagle” (1869). Although 2 1/2 dollars seems like a strange denomination, it makes sense as a fraction in the system of 10 dollar “eagles.”


Gold 20 dollar “double eagles” (1858 and 1904) with Liberty, wearing a coronet, and a heraldic eagle. In 1866, the motto “In God We Trust” was added to this denomination.



Gold 20 dollar “double eagle” (1877-1906) that was fused with a silver dollar and dimes in the San Francisco Fire.



Mexican Influence and the U.S. Quarter Dollar

Although the U.S. Mint produced its own silver coinage, Mexican silver reales were the most common silver coins circulated in the United States until 1857, when foreign coins ceased to be legal tender. The 2 reales was equivalent to a U.S. quarter dollar. Occasionally, U.S. coins were actually nailed to Mexican reales in order to raise their value to a common U.S. denomination.

Spanish silver 2 reales (1784) of King Charles III of Spain (1759-1788) from Mexico, with the coat-of-arms of Leon and Castile between the Pillars of Hercules. Its denomination and the U.S. quarter dollar were sometimes call 2 bits.


U.S. silver quarter dollar (1888), depicting seated Liberty.


Mexican silver 8 reales (1874) with attached U.S. dime and half dime. This piece may have circulated in Texas, where the value of 8 reales was 85 U.S. cents. The attached coins bring the value up to 1 dollar.



U.S. Silver Coinage

For most of the 19th century, U.S. silver coinage displayed variations of a capped Liberty head or Liberty seated. By the end of the century, the head of Liberty designed by Charles E. Barber, was standard for dimes, quarters and half dollars. One of the most attractive silver designs was the popular “Morgan” dollar (1878-1921), nicknamed for its engraver, George T. Morgan.

Silver half dollar (1834) with a capped bust of Liberty.


Silver dollar (1848) with seated Liberty. This design appeared on all U.S. silver denominations from the 1830s to the 1890s.


Silver “Morgan” dollars (1880 and 1883-CC), with the head of Liberty and an eagle. The letters “CC” below the wreath stand for Carson City, Nevada, a mint established specifically to coin the large quantities of silver mined in the surrounding area.



Silver “Barber” quarter dollar (1906) with the artist’s well-known Liberty design, used from 1892-1916.



Failed Experiments

Fearing the loss of precious metals through hoarding and also hoping to stimulate international trade, in the 1870s, the U.S. Mint planned to introduce new alloy coins containing both gold and silver. Coins marked for easy conversion into foreign denominations were also considered. Only the silver trade dollar was actually produced for circulation.

Goloid dollar pattern (1878). The patented goloid alloy was essentially silver with a 4% gold content.


Gold 4 dollar “stella” pattern (1879), named for its star design.


Bronze pattern for an “international” 10 dollar trade coin, with values in U.S., British, German, Austrian, Dutch and French currencies.


Silver trade dollar (1875) with seated Liberty closely modeled on images of Britannia. These were produced between 1873 and 1878 for trade with Asian countries, and for collectors until 1885. It is the only coin to have been officially demonetized by the U.S. government.



The “Racketeer” Nickel

In 1883, the U.S. Mint overlooked the fact that the design for a new nickel 5 cent coin lacked the word “cents” in its inscription. This flaw was quickly seized upon by enterprising individuals, who plated the coins with gold and passed them off as 5 dollars. It is no surprise that, later in 1883, the word “cents” was added to the inscription.

Nickel 5 cents (1883) lacking the legend “cents.” The Roman numeral “V” stands for the number 5.


Nickel 5 cents (1883) lacking the legend “cents.” This coin has been gilded in an attempt to pass it off as a 5 dollar piece.


Nickel 5 cents (1884) with the denomination indicated.



U.S. Copper Coinage

The cent underwent important changes in the 19th century. In the early 1800s, they were still made on large blanks, but in 1857, they were replaced by the so-called “small” cent—the size that we still use today. During the Hard Times of 1834-1844 and the Civil War, shortages of small change resulted in the private production of tokens to fill the void (see case 19).

Copper “large” cent (1842).


Copper “small” cent (1874). The popular “Indian Head” design was used from 1859 until 1909 when it was replaced by the now familiar Lincoln cent.


Copper half cent (1849). Production of this denomination ceased in 1857.


Copper token (1837) marked “NOT ONE CENT.”


Copper token of the Civil War period marked “No compromise with traitors.”



Remarkable Denominations

Most of these denominations were short-lived experiments that never really caught on. The least popular of all was the 20 cent piece—only produced for a period of four years before it was discontinued.

Copper 2 cents (1871). This denomination was only made from 1864 to 1873.


Silver 3 cents (1871). Silver 3 cent coins were struck from 1851 to 1873.


Nickel 3 cents (1867). Although the denomination failed, the nickel 3 cent coin, struck from 1865 to 1883, is part of the long transition to a base-metal coinage.


Silver 20 cents (1877) showing an eagle. These were only made between 1875 and 1878.


Gold 3 dollars (1875) depicting Liberty wearing a feathered headdress. This denomination was only produced between 1854 and 1889.



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