On December 5, 1848, in his annual message to Congress, President James Polk stated that gold had been found in California, and in large quantities. Specimens were sent to the Philadelphia Mint for analysis where the assayers found the metal to be of unbelievable quality. The California Gold Rush was on!

Immigrants coming to California by land and sea brought pans, shovels, containers for gold, contraptions for processing gold, etc., but few thought to bring much in the way of money. Thus, by the summer of 1849 there were tens of thousands of newcomers in California, but not enough coins to go around. Trade in the early days was primarily conducted in gold dust, such as a “pinch” of dust as payment for a saloon libation. Early California was, indeed, a “gold dust” economy.

Obviously, gold dust was not an ideal form of money. It was difficult to count dust and also impossible to accurately measure value because of the varying purity of raw gold. Historians estimate that during those times, gold in dust form would buy half as much as if it were in the form of coin issued by the United States Mint.

Paper money was not used in the West and was certainly not accepted in foreign exchange. Gold coins and bullion bars were money. The shortage of coins in the West continued throughout the mid-1850s. Private minters and assayers, including Kellogg & Co., Moffat & Co. and F.D. Kohler, fulfilled the need for the manufacturing of money, transforming the area’s wealth of raw gold ore, dust and nuggets into rectangular gold ingots or coins. Much like a bank, the reputation of the coin or ingot’s maker was a guarantee of value. To be successful, an assayer had to have a completely unblemished reputation, his word to be, literally, “as good as gold.”

As gold poured forth from the rivers, streams and hills of California, it made its way to assayers in San Francisco, Sacramento and Marysville and from there to distant points around the world, most notably New York and London. While coins were needed primarily for the rapidly expanding western economy, both small and large monetary ingots, which were stamped with the assayer’s name and the weight, fineness and U.S. dollar value, were used to settle large domestic transactions and for international exchange.

In 1851, Moffat & Co. implemented a contract with the federal government to establish what became known as the U. S. Assay Office of Gold, with Augustus Humbert, a New York City watchmaker of excellent reputation, employed under the title U. S. Assayer of Gold. Beginning in 1851, impressive, large, eight-sided gold “slugs,” often called “adobes” (for the adobe bricks used in construction), were made in quantity, affording a convenient way to transport gold from place to place. In addition, rectangular ingots were made for larger transactions and export.

In 1854 the San Francisco Mint opened, using facilities formerly occupied by the U.S. Assay Office of Gold. During the Mint’s first year, gold coins were struck in $1, $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 denominations. The highest value coin, the $20 Double Eagle, became the denomination of choice, as it was the largest regular federal piece issued.

It took a year or so for the new San Francisco Mint to become fully operational, and until 1855, private minters still flourished in California. Firms such as Kellogg & Co. and Wass, Molitor & Co. remained active and continued to produce mainly $20 gold pieces, although Wass, Molitor & Co. produced some impressive $50 coins. After 1855, with the San Francisco Mint then in full production, new private coinage all but disappeared in California.

Finest Known is one of the nation’s leading dealers in California Gold Rush numismatic artifacts, including gold dust, gold nuggets, assayer and territorial coinage, assayer “slugs” and ingots and early San Francisco Mint coinage. We maintain what may well be the nation’s largest inventory of these rare California Gold Rush treasures and encourage you to speak with one of our Account Representatives about the current availability of the kinds of rarities of greatest interest to you.

Want a copy of our latest Gold Rush Treasures catalogue that will show you the broad range of California Gold Rush rare coins, ingots and other numismatic items available from Finest Known? Simply give us a call and we’ll send your free catalogue out to you in the mail.

In addition, you should know that Finest Known has a wide range of supplemental brochures, books, video and DVD programs and other material available on California Gold Rush numismatic rarities for those interested in learning more about these amazing artifacts. Call us and we’ll be happy to send this material to you with no cost or obligation whatsoever.


The Mint Cabinet at the Philadelphia Mint, which had been set up in June 1838 to display the nation’s coinage, received a single striking of the first Double Eagle, an 1854-S, from the new San Francisco Mint, but did not receive such issues as the 1855-S, 1856-S or anything later, as incredible as that may seem today. In fact, the gem condition 1857-S Double Eagles recovered from the 1857 shipwreck of the SS Central America in the late 1980s have no counterpart in quality at the National Coin Collection in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC or any other museum anywhere!