Dahlonega mint offers storied history

$5 half eagles were the only coins struck at Dahlonega during its first year of operation. It is reported that, during the course of the Dahlonega Mint’s existence, more than 1.1 million half eagles were minted at the Georgia location. (All images courtesy Stack’s Bowers)

If present-day collectors see a coin with the mintmark D, they automatically assume that it was struck at Denver. This was not always true, because before 1862, this mintmark meant something quite different. Dahlonega, in northern Georgia, began striking gold coins in 1838 and continued to do so until the work was ended by the Civil War. The story of this little-known mint began nearly two centuries ago.

Gold was first discovered in the Dahlonega region in the late 1820s. In the fall of 1830, a Georgia gunsmith named Templeton Reid established a private mint and started to coin gold pieces in three denominations, $2.50, $5, and $10. He was soon out of business, however, because his assays were unreliable, and newspaper attacks made certain that everyone knew of this problem.

Although Reid’s mint and coinage were soon a dim memory, the idea of a federal mint in the gold region was not; at the same time, there was agitation at Charlotte, North Carolina, for a similar institution. Powerful political forces soon backed the Southern boosters, and in March 1835, President Andrew Jackson signed into law a bill establishing not only the Dahlonega and Charlotte mints but also one at New Orleans.

In far-off Philadelphia, Mint Director Samuel Moore had tried to derail the legislative process through his friends in Congress, but in the end found himself facing the inevitable. The facts of the matter were that it was far cheaper, including insurance, to send the gold to Philadelphia to be coined, but regional pride, then as now, dictated otherwise. Moore was so irritated after the bill’s passage, however, that it contributed to his decision to resign his post in June 1835, leaving it to his successor, Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson, to oversee the myriad details connected with the new mints.

As in all such matters, the choice of a local commissioner to oversee the construction work fell on Colonel Ignatius Few, who had the correct political connections. The Colonel soon arranged for a spacious plot of ground in the town of Dahlonega, and contracts were let for the building using plans drawn up by noted Philadelphia architect William Strickland. No one, however, told Strickland that brick was scarce in this region, and his plans called for a liberal use of this building material.

Dr. Patterson, in the meantime, arranged for the necessary machinery to be sent to Dahlonega when the building was ready to receive it. In particular, he ordered a steam coining press for Dahlonega, as he felt that the branch mints should have the latest technology.

Appointments were considered for the branch mint offices once the machinery details had been arranged. The superintendent’s office was political, and Joseph J. Singleton pulled the proper strings for the coveted position, but Patterson was able to name the coiner (David Mason) and the assayer (Joseph W. Farnum). Mason, in particular, was a skilled employee at the Philadelphia Mint and had volunteered for Dahlonega; Singleton lived nearby; and the other two officers arrived towards the end of 1837.

The construction overseer, Colonel Ignatius Few, lived more than 50 miles from Dahlonega and did not bother to visit the site very often. By the fall of 1837, it was noticed that the building had severe structural problems.

These problems were so serious that Franklin Peale was sent by Director Patterson to straighten out the troubles, which included basement walls that had fallen down only a few weeks after being erected. The contractor had apparently advertised for bungling workmen to do the roof work because it proved to be in even worse shape than the basement.

Finally, on Feb. 12, 1838, Superintendent Singleton issued a public notice that the Mint was open to the receipt of bullion. The first such deposit was made on the 15th, but the assayer had to wait several days before a sufficient amount of gold had been brought to the Mint so that he could begin the necessary operations.

Although there was a delay before coiner David Mason received the ingots of gold, he was able to deliver 80 half eagles on April 17, the first Dahlonega coinage. Superintendent Singleton was so pleased with this first issue that he sent a specimen to Patterson with the claim that it was one of the finest coins ever struck in this country. The director had it inspected by the staff and then wrote Singleton that, while the coin was reasonably well made, there were some minor flaws needing correction.

Dahlonega struck only half eagles in 1838; in VF-20, the collector can expect to pay (according to the price guide that appears monthly in Numismatic News), about $4,000 for a specimen, while in MS-60 the tab will be a much steeper $26,000.

Although coinage operations tended to be rather smooth during most of the Dahlonega years, relations between the officers were not. The first of many feuds broke out in March 1838 when Mason and Farnum nearly came to blows over some minor dispute. Both men then wrote to Patterson, denouncing the other in stringent terms. Singleton, however, managed to patch up the quarrel so that outward harmony reigned.

Singleton barely managed to survive this crisis when another came, this one much more serious. In 1837, when the new officers received on-the-job training at the Philadelphia Mint, there had been less than complete confidence in the ability of the group to function well. Patterson ordered that a ‘slip’ (sliver) from each melt of bullion be sent to Philadelphia for assay. Patterson then was to notify the superintendent that all was well and that a particular batch of bullion could be coined; it was slow but worked well for a while.

Within a few weeks, however, a nearby postmaster detected what was in the envelopes and simply kept the letters. And the gold. It took some time to catch up with the postal roadblock, but he was finally arrested in October 1838, and operations went back to normal.

Not content with the relative calm at the mint in late 1838, Singleton started rumors that the assayer and coiner were both going to be fired; they responded by writing to Patterson again but this time defending each other, quite a change from the preceding spate of letters. Singleton added fuel to the fire by denouncing both men to the director in Philadelphia.

Unable to stand the boredom, Mason decided that feuding was again in season during the spring of 1839. A skilled workman sent from Philadelphia, William Thomas, wrote Patterson that Mason was looking for an excuse to fire him so that he could hire his (Mason’s) son-in-law.

Mason soon found his excuse, and Thomas was sent packing to the North. To protect himself, Mason solicited a testimonial from Dr. Farnum that Thomas was a troublemaker. Not to be outdone, Thomas procured from the other workmen and officers a statement saying that he had been a diligent workman. Singleton signed it, and so did Farnum! Thomas, however, stayed fired.

Quarter eagles were first minted at Dahlonega in 1839. The designer of the coin was William Kneass.

During February 1839, the Dahlonega Mint coined their first quarter eagles, but there was little demand for them. Less than 14,000 were struck in all of 1839; in EF-40, one can expect to pay about $5,800 for a specimen. It is difficult to find in the higher grades, however.

The 1839-D quarter eagle is a special coin for several reasons. It is the first quarter eagle from this mint but is also an overdate, all known pieces being 1839/8. (Because so few depositors wanted quarter eagles, Singleton requested permission from Patterson in October 1840 to stop coining them but was told that this was not possible.)

Having had several months of peace, the officers resumed their feuds in 1840, but this time there was an unexpected result: Singleton was dismissed in May 1841 by President John Tyler. His replacement was Paul Rossignol. Singleton then retaliated by writing numerous letters denouncing his successor as incompetent.

This is the style of $5 half eagle minted at Dahlonega Mint between 1839 and 1861. At the start of the Civil War, the Mint was taken over by the Confederate Army.

In 1843, there were several changes at Dahlonega. Paul Rossignol left, though whether by his own choice is uncertain. Assayer Joseph Farnum also resigned. The new superintendent was James F. Cooper, and the assayer was now Isaac L. Todd. The new set of officers worked together rather well, and the mails were no longer filled with angry denunciations of fellow officers.

Although there are occasional rumors that slaves were used at the Dahlonega Mint, this does not seem to be the case. It may have been, however, that slaves were used on rare occasion by their masters to carry out skilled tasks when there was a shortage of hands at the Mint.

Unlike the Philadelphia Mint, it was standard practice for at least one of the officers and his family to live within the mint walls. This not only provided accommodations but also served to have someone on hand to protect the Mint from thieves. Some of the more interesting minor disputes during these years came from the infighting over which officer would get the choice living arrangements. In April 1846, for example, Superintendent Cooper used pressure to get Mason out of the place he wanted. It seems the Superintendent’s family was about to “increase.”

In 1848 and 1849, many of the Georgia miners went to California to ply their trade, causing a drop in local deposits; Dr. Patterson even had hopes of abolishing the Mint due to the lower coinages. However, when the miners returned from the West, they brought considerable quantities of gold with them, and they were loyal enough to deposit it in the home mint, forcing coinage totals upwards once more.

In 1849, Southern representatives in Congress, afraid that the Dahlonega and Charlotte Mints would indeed be abolished, persuaded fellow legislators to create a one-dollar gold piece, which would of course stretch the bullion being deposited. It did not quite work out as intended, but the Dahlonega Mint did strike several tens of thousands of pieces, thus adding to its coinage numbers, though not value. The first gold dollars were struck at Dahlonega in July 1849 and were popular with the local citizenry for some time. In January 1850, however, the superintendent noted that “the gold dollar is fast losing its novelty and will be called for but seldom by the end of the present year.”

Gold dollars began coming out of the Dahlonega Mint in 1849 and continued through 1854.

In mid-July 1849, in the same letter announcing the first gold dollar, Cooper wrote the following: “As you have doubtless seen, a vacancy has been created in the office of Superintendent by a process familiar to politicians, other than death or resignation. No mention is made of my removal, but another officer is appointed, and as I cannot suppose that two are to occupy the station, it is not a strained presumption to infer that I am to give way.” He was replaced by Anderson W. Redding.

During the summer of 1853, it became apparent that the superintendent’s job was once more up for grabs. Julius M. Patton replaced Redding in June of that year. The new superintendent, the fifth since the opening in 1838, was to serve the longest, until late in 1860.

The $3 gold coin of 1854 is among the most rare of the existing coins struck at the Dahlonega Mint. Mintage of this coin was merely 1,120.

The low mintages of the 1850s created a number of rarities, including the famous 1854–D three dollar gold piece. Only a little over one thousand were made, during July 1854, and not all that many survive today; in VF–20, for example, the book value is $13,000.

The late 1850s were a time of genteel decline at the Dahlonega Mint. Coinage totals continued to drop, and the pressure for abolition of this branch from Philadelphia officials grew apace. One indication of this was the amount of California gold being brought to the Mint by returning miners: it fell from $211,000 in 1854 to less than $20,000 for all of 1857–1861. There was not enough bullion during the last few years, in fact, to keep busy for more than a few weeks. There were many months in those last declining years that had coinage so small as to be insignificant.

There was a minor reprieve in 1860–1861, when an influx of gold from Colorado kept the Mint alive. Probably many of the Georgia miners (including those who had returned from California) had gone on the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1859. Nearly $60,000 in bullion from this source was brought to the Mint after July 1859.

On Oct. 1, 1860, George Kellogg replaced Julius M. Patton as superintendent, the last major change in officers. It was also one of the few changes that does not seem to have been politically motivated; Patton had been in office over eight years and simply resigned.

This 1861gold dollar struck at the Dahloega Mint is likely one of the finest examples of a usually poorly struck coin, with the ‘U’ in ‘United States’ often missing. Only about 1,000 of the 1861-D gold dollar were struck at Dahlonega before it was seized by Confederate forces.

Little is known of Dahlonega operations in 1861, as the last report to Mint Director James Ross Snowden in Philadelphia was made on Feb. 28. It is known that 1,597 half eagles were coined in the first two months. After that, there is little but conjecture. It is known, however, that after March 1, there were gold dollars struck (perhaps 1,000 or more pieces) as well as two or three thousand additional half eagles.

There was a March request from Dahlonega officials to Director Snowden for payment of quarterly salaries, which the director Snowden passed on to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase; the latter replied on March 22 that, “Your letter of the 19th instant enclosing a requisition of the superintendent of the branch Mint at Dahlonega for salaries of the current quarter is received. Notwithstanding in this request is approved by you, the department before issuing a warrant must be fully satisfied that the branch Mint in question is legally conducted under the authority of the United States of which there are doubts.” The salaries were not paid, and on April 8, the Georgia governor seized the Dahlonega Mint.

During the Civil War, the Mint building was used for various purposes by the Confederate Government, but at war’s end in 1865 was seized by Union troops. The Mint was not reopened. Although technically it remained a mint until March 1873, in due course the building was donated to a local agricultural college. It burned in 1878.

 

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