13 May

A History of Dahlonega Mint, Part 1

In 1828 Benjamin Parks stepped on a yellow rock in the woods in the vicinity of Dahlonega, Georgia. Parks quickly deduced that piece was large gold nugget, but he couldn’t keep his discovery secret for long. Before the end of the decade 15,000 people invaded the area which became the site of America’s first gold rush. Nine out of ten of these prospectors would never “strike it rich,” but they did create a colorful chapter in American history.

In the mean time two individuals, Templeton Reid and Christopher Bechtler, opened private mints to convert the native gold into coins. Templeton Reid’s mint remained open for only a few months because it was found that while the weight of his coins was accurate, his assay results were not. Christopher Bechtler’s mint gained a solid reputation and would continue to issue coins for the next 20 years even after the federal mints opened. On January 1, 1833 the government opened a new, modern mint in Philadelphia. This action was followed by the Coinage Act of 1834 which reduced the weights of U.S. gold coins to more reasonable levels. Finally in 1835 Congress authorized the opening of three branch mints in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dahlonega, Georgia and New Orleans, Louisiana.

photos from www.goldrushgallery.com

The Charlotte and Dahlonega mints were authorized to strike only gold coins while the New Orleans mint would produce gold and silver pieces from metals recovered from foreign coins that were brought into that international port city. The construction of the Dahlonega Mint was difficult. First, the contractors in the area had never built a project as large and complex as a Federal mint. They had mostly laid bricks for the underpinnings of houses and had build fireplaces and chimneys. Second, many of the raw materials were not available in the area and had to be transported over the hilly, poorly maintained roads that led to the Dahlonega area. Finally, a political appointee, Ignatius Few, who was selected to supervise the construction of the mint, had had no experience with construction projects and was preoccupied with other pursuits. Ignatius Few was a lawyer and a Methodist minister. He had reputation for honesty, but also was known “not to have a head for business.” He also suffered from “a rupture of the lungs” which was a 19th century term for tuberculosis. His physical condition limited his activities and during the period that he was responsible for supervising the construction of the mint, much of his time was taken with establishing Emory College, which is now known as Emory University. After Few selected and purchased a site for the mint and made arrangements for building materials to be shipped to the area, he had little to do with the construction of the building. During one year of construction Few visited the site three times. On each occasion he visited the site late in the afternoon and then returned early the next morning before any of the workman had arrived. Then he went home. Given the scant level of supervision, it was not surprising that the mint had significant structural problems. When coinage began in the still uncompleted building, the roof leaked, plaster was falling from the walls and there were concerns that the floor above the basement was too weak to support the heavy coinage equipment on the first story. When mint official, Franklin Peale, inspected the facility in November 1837 he described the quality of the workmanship as “abysmal,” said that the workmen “certainly deserve diplomas for botching.” To further complicate matters, the water pump that was to supply water to the mint and its machinery, including the boiler would not work. That failure resulted in the need to transport water by hand from the well, up a hill, to the mint during the facility’s earliest days. The first Dahlonega Mint superintendent was Joseph Singleton who had been failed Democratic Party candidate for Congress. Singleton lacked management skills, and the Assayer, Joseph Farnum, and Coiner David Mason were constantly bickering with him when they weren’t bickering with each other. Assayer Farnum treated his job as if he were “an old mother hen.” He insisted that each batch of gold ore that he processed had to be of a specific size before he would begin the refining process. This resulted in significant delays in the processing ore deposits, but to his credit, Farnum’s assays were very accurate.

1838-D $5 R.jpg

1838-D $5 R.jpg

Despite all the problems the mint delivered its first batch of coins, 80 five dollar gold pieces, on April 21, 1838. Surprisingly the coins were high quality, well executed pieces that were within the legal limits of the law for weight and gold content. By the end of year the Dahlonega Mint had struck 20,583 examples of the 1838-D half eagle. Today these coins are highly prized not only as the first of their kind, but also as the only Classic Head design half eagles that the Dahlonega facility would produce. Still despite its successes, mint faced another major challenge, a much lower than expected level of production from the Dahlonega area gold fields. That shortage of gold threatened the mint’s long term viability.

In 1839 Christian Gobrecht introduced his Coronet design to the half eagle. He had first used this new motif in 1838 on the eagle or $10 gold coin and would adapt it for the quarter eagle or $2.50 gold piece in 1840. Because of the design change, the shipment of a new set of 1839 dated half eagle dies was delayed to the Dahlonega Mint. Quarter eagles with the old Classic Head design were sent early in the year, however, which left the southern facility with only $2.50 gold coin dies to use during the first months of 1839. The Dahlonega Mint employees did not like to make quarter eagles. First, those who deposited gold at the mint for coinage preferred half eagles. Second, the quarter eagle dies were prone to breakage which complicated the mint process. No official reason was given for this problem, but I would speculate that the Chief Coiner, David Mason, had trouble calibrating the coin presses properly. Although Mason had had experience at the Philadelphia Mint with the coin striking process, the coin presses that had been shipped to Dahlonega were smaller versions of the machines that were used at the head office. The capacity of these machines limited production at Dahlonega to coins that were the size of the half eagle and smaller and that might have had something do with useful life of dies, at least in the early years.

When the new half eagle dies arrived, they had the “D” mint mark on the obverse above the date. This resulted in a one year type coin, the 1839-D half eagle, which is a very popular collectors’ item. Gobrecht would move the mint mark to the reverse below the eagle where it would remain for the rest of the series. To be continued … (Cited from: https://www.cointalk.com/threads/a-history-of-dahlonega-mint-part-1.341684/)

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