By Carl Lester
A combination of the discovery of gold in the southeastern United States in the early nineteenth century and the subsequent political machinations resulting from this newfound wealth led to the establishment of United States Branch Mints at Dahlonega, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. Officially mandated to coin “gold only” by a Congressional Act in 1835, the two branch mints soon opened for business, producing their first gold coinage in 1838. Today, their most tangible legacies, the gold coins themselves, are among the most avidly collected in all of American numismatics. This numismatic loyalty stems from the fact that these southern “gold mints” operated during America’s first gold rush, were in existence for only a short period (24 calendar years), produced relatively low mintage gold coins with very distinctive characteristics, and had as a backdrop to their demise the most turbulent conflict in American history, the Civil War. In numismatic terms, what could be more romantic?
Dahlonega and Charlotte coins often have a green-gold cast, due to the alloy’s high silver content, and are typically weakly struck on irregular planchets. As unappealing as this may sound to the uninitiated, to Dahlonega and Charlotte aficionados these traits give the coins charm and character.
Although gold was found all the way from Virginia to Alabama, a particularly rich belt was discovered on Cherokee Indian land in Georgia, near what was to become Dahlonega, in 1828, causing a huge influx of miners. First the frontier town of Auraria sprang up around the mines, then nearby Dahlonega (from the Cherokee language, meaning “yellow money”) edged her out as the newly-formed Lumpkin County seat. Although several private coiners, including Templeton Reid and the Bechtlers, had attempted to alleviate the problem of converting the raw gold to a more readily accepted medium, there was considerable political pressure for a universally accepted Federal coinage.
A Congressional appropriation of $50,000 was made for the construction and outfitting of the Dahlonega Mint. The plans were copies of those drawn for the Charlotte Mint by William Strickland, a noted architect of the day. The mint was to be a two-story, stucco-covered brick structure, having a basement constructed of “hammer-dressed” stone. The front of the “T”-shaped facility was to be 125 feet across and 33.5 feet deep, although recent measurements indicate that the front was actually constructed to a length of 127.5 feet. A projection extending to the rear from the center of the front portion of the building was to be 53 feet deep and 36 feet wide.
The Commissioner of construction was Ignatius Few, a lawyer and Methodist preacher, who unfortunately seemed to have only a passing interest in attending to his duties. A site was chosen on a hill in full view of the town square and a contract for construction was let in September 1835. Dahlonega’s remote location and Commissioner Few’s lack of aggressive oversight were significant contributors to the ensuing construction difficulties.
There were approximately 15,000 miners in and around Dahlonega at the height of the gold rush. Dahlonega experienced a scarcity of goods, building supplies, and reliable labor. It is no wonder, therefore, when Franklin Peale, upon arriving in Dahlonega in November 1837, to inspect the Dahlonega Mint structure on behalf of the Philadelphia Mint, found the quality of workmanship to be abysmal. He related in correspondence to the parent institution that the Dahlonega workmen “certainly deserve diplomas for Botching.” Although the workmanship was suspect, Peale ultimately recommended acceptance of the building.
The Dahlonega Mint was supplied with state-of-the-art coining equipment, including two of the “small version” steam- driven, toggle joint presses, a design that was first used to strike coins at the Philadelphia Mint in 1836. Power was supplied from steam produced in a boiler and which was transmitted to a steam engine, both located in the basement, in the stem of the “T.” A series of belts and pulleys transmitted the power to the presses, which were located on the firsi floor, just above the engine room. The presses were designed to produce approximately one coin per second. The small size of the presses limited coin production to the half eagle and smaller denominations.
Superintendent Joseph Singleton oversaw the striking of the mint’s first coinage, 80 half eagles ($5 gold), on April 21. 1838, remarking that the coins were beautiful, accurate, and had “a most cordial reception wherever carried.” The first coinage of the quarter eagle ($21/2 gold) denomination did not occur until the following February.
Depositors would present the gold at the counter of the Superintendent-Treasurer and were issued a receipt, m addition to dust and nuggets, deposits were in other forms, such as bars and foreign gold coins. The deposit was then melted and assayed in order to establish the fineness and thus the corresponding value. Because most Georgia gold was more pure than the standard of fineness (.900), the normal practice was to leave in the naturally occurring silver, rather than parting the silver from the gold, prior to adjusting the fineness downward to .900. The gold was then coined and depositors returned to pick up their newly minted Dahlonega gold pieces.
The Dahlonega Mint positions were very political, with changes often being made upon a shift in a political party’s power in Washington, a situation that caused much internal conflict among the mint personnel. In April 1841, Paul Rossignol, who was viewed as a “foreigner” by the citizens of Dahlonega, replaced Singleton as Superintendent, upon the election of Whig President William Henry Harrison. m June 1843, James Cooper replaced Rossignol. Superintendent Cooper, who was a West Point graduate, had the most smoothly operating tenure in the mint’s history. Increasing gold deposits, harmony among the mint personnel, and good relations with the citizens of Dahlonega marked this period. He also presided over the first production of the diminutive gold dollar in July 1849. hi October 1849, Anderson Redding became the new Superintendent, a fallout of the election of Whig President Zachary Taylor the year before.
The bulk of the Georgia gold deposits at the Dahlonega Mint occurred in the 1840s, although the facility also received deposits from a number of surrounding states. The mint had a significant amount of California deposits following the discovery of gold that state in 1848 (about 20% of the facility’s lifetime deposits). Much of this gold was brought to the mint by miners who had worked the Dahlonega mines prior to trying their luck in California. These deposits breathed new life into the flagging mint. Unfortunately, the California deposits dwindled after 1854, when the San Francisco Branch Mint, which was much more convenient to the California gold fields, was opened.
Julius Patton became Superintendent in July 1853, having been appointed by newly elected Democrat President Franklin Pierce. The following year, the Dahlonega Mint had its only three dollar gold production. Much to the chagrin of its employees, with the declining gold deposits of the late 1850s, the viability of the Dahlonega Mint was more and more in question.
George Kellogg replaced Patton as Superintendent in October 1860. The State of Georgia seceded from the Union in January 1861. The mint produced 1,597 half eagles in February 1861, with the coinage being reported to the Philadelphia Mint. After Superintendent Kellogg tendered his resignation to President Lincoln in April, the Dahlonega Mint produced an estimated 1,600-1,700 half eagles and 2,750-3,250 gold dollars dated 1861, neither of which was reported to Philadelphia. The additional coinage was made, not by “Rebel forces,” but by the same personnel who had executed the February striking, albeit with a new allegiance. The Dahlonega Mint was officially closed by order of the Confederate Congress on June 1, 1861 and never reopened as a U. S. Branch Mint.
During its 24 calendar years of operation, the Dahlonega Mint produced just fewer than 1.4 million gold coins, with a face value of over 6.1 million dollars. The facility struck half eagles for each year of operation (24 issues). Quarter eagles were made continuously from 1839-1859, with the exception of 1858, for a total of 20 different dates. Gold dollars were produced every year from 1849-1861, which constitutes 13 issues. The lone emission of the $3 gold piece occurred in 1854. Thus, a complete date set of Dahlonega gold coins consists of 58 pieces, although significant die varieties can push that number well above 60.
The former Dahlonega Mint building served as an Assay Office and repository for the Confederate Treasury during the Civil War. Eventually the facility was donated to the State of Georgia for educational purposes, becoming the main building of North Georgia Agricultural College in 1873. Unfortunately, the historic structure burned to its granite foundation in December 1878. A new college building was constructed on the original foundation and exists today as Price Memorial Hall of North Georgia College and State University.