THE STORY OF THE
MOFFAT & CO. GOLD COINS
While not the first private coining
establishment, Moffat & Co. was by far the most important in the
first period of California private gold minting. It enjoyed the highest
reputation of all the coining companies, affirmed by the Federal
Government when it asked the two surviving members of the firm to
initiate the United States Branch Mint in San Francisco. The story of
Moffat & Co. is a microcosm of the origin, rise, and fall of private
gold coinage, and provides us with an idea of the importance of private
gold coinage during this significant era in United States history.
Moffat & Co., smelters and
assayers, was composed of four partners: John Little Moffat, Joseph R.
Curtis, Philo H. Perry, and Samuel H. Ward. They were first located on
the San Francisco water front, but moved when the bay's tidal action
threatened their building's stability. The firm relocated their gold
smelting and assaying office to the southwest corner of Clay and Dupont
Streets, where Moffat continued as assayer, Curtis as manager, Ward as
secretary, and Perry as cashier.
The senior member of the firm, John
Little Moffat, was born in Goshen, New York, February 12, 1788. After
being in the gold fields of Georgia and North Carolina for a while,
Moffat returned to New York, where he was a partner with the assaying
firm of Wilmarth, Moffat, Curtis. There he acquired considerable skill
in assaying and metallurgical knowledge.
During the winter of 1848-49, Moffat formed a company and chose to join
the many other fortune seekers in California. On February 15, 1849, the
61-year-old assayer left New York on the bark Guilford, arriving
in San Francisco during the summer of 1849. It is evident from the news
articles concerning this sailing that Moffat had intentions of operating
a mint in California:
"The good bark Guilford
sails today from the foot of Wall Street. Whatever success may attend
the various adventurers, associated or individual, they will require a
certain medium of circulation, or a fixed standard for their gold dust.
This end may be obtained through the operations of Messrs. Moffat &
Co., who go out in the Guilford, with proper assistants, and most
complete machinery and apparatus, to supply the want of Californians; in
other words, to establish a sort of mint, to receive the gold dust,
smelt and assay it, and by their stamp to give it a currency value,
which must, in the absence of a government character, be received by the
merchants and consumers."
The "proper assistants"
traveling Moffat were his previous employees, Curtis, Perry and Ward.
The first Moffat & Co. advertisement was placed in two California
newspapers on June 21, 1849, announcing the company's new smelting and
assaying business. Several testimonials appeared in this ad. One, from
Beebee, Ludlow, and Company, the largest bullion dealers in the United
States, equated Moffat & Co.'s assaying abilities to those of the
United States and London mints. A second testimonial from several
prominent businessmen mentioned Moffat's superior metallurgical skill
and incorruptible integrity. But the most important endorsement came
from R.J. Walker, then Secretary of the United States Treasury, who
confirmed that the above-mentioned merchants were "gentlemen of the
The first advertisement did not
identify Moffat & Co. as coiners, although they probably began
issuing their famous gold rectangular ingots soon after they opened for
business. In an attempt to answer the acute need for coinage, Moffat
& Co. issued these ingots, valued from $9.43 to $264.00, for about
two months, before shifting to coins:
"Moffat & Co., who were doing
and assaying and gold brokerage business in San Francisco during the
summer of 1849, issued rectangular ingots of gold, which passed current
in place of circular coins. In the latter part of July or the first of
August, a circular $10 piece bearing their
private stamp; the first of that denomination to be struck in California
and the second coins to be made in the state from the native gold by
private coiners . . ."
On the bars were hand-stamped the
purity or fineness of the metal, weight in pennyweight or grains, and
value in dollars and cents. A further substantiation of the early appearance
of these ingots is noted on the Alta California in the fall of
1850. While referring to the $50 ingots coins to be produced by the U.S.
Assay Office, the article mentions that the latter will "have no
particular advantage over the ingots prepared by Messrs. Moffat &
Co. last year, which failed to serve as coin for public use." These
early ingots were nothing more than converted raw dust and were often in
odd denominations that made them awkward as a medium of exchange. Thus
we realize that most of the ingots were not intended for circulation and
were not widely used as a circulating medium.
The official government assay of these
ingots proved them to be worth more than the amount stamped on them, the
average being a quarter grain per ounce. The ingots probably were issued
until the first part of July, for it was during that month that George
Albrecht Ferdinand Kuner arrived in California, immediately joining
Moffat & Co. as chief engraver, with his first task being to design
a proposed $10 value circular coin. Kuner, a goldsmith from Bavaria, had
emigrated to the United States in 1835. He left New York for the gold
mines in January, 1849, and arrived in San Francisco on July 22.
In appearance, the Kuner-designed
pieces were quite similar to the United States "eagles" and of
very fine workmanship. They were evidently issued in August, for a
letter sated August 28, 1849, appeared in the Washington National
Intelligencer, mentioning the coins of a "quasi mint" in
San Francisco. Moffat would have been the only private minter at this
time located in San Francisco besideds Norris, Gregg, & Norris. Soon
afterwards a $5 coin was also issued by Moffat, followed in 1850 by
another issue of the same denomination and design.
Chief U.S. Assayer J. R. Eckfeldt
calculated an average value for each $10 Moffat at $9.98 without the
silver alloy added. Because Moffat & Co. offered to redeem its own
coins in silver at the coin's face value the firm enjoyed a favorable
reputation and its coins were widely circulated. This exceptionally high
esteem, promoted by the Moffat redemption policy, most likely is why
Moffat & Co., unlike every other private coiner in 1849 (except
Norris, Gregg, & Norris), survived its first year in business.
It was during the first part of 1850
that there was serious agitation against private coinage. The California
Legislature considered a bill introduced by Senator S. E. Woodworth
which would have branded private coiners as counterfeiters, and which
urged subjecting "the makers or passers of such coin to the penalty
imposed upon coiners and counterfeiters." The bill would also have
forced the private mints to redeem their coins in "lawful
money." The Alta California printed the proposed bill along
with a supportive editorial. The editor further pointed out the
inability to use private coins in payment of customs, prost office fees,
or at many private establishments.
Moffat replied the next day in this
newspaper with a very convincing open letter. In it he reminded the
legislature and editor that Mr. Brechtler of Rutherfordton, North
Carolina, was still striking gold coins (some two million dollars worth
having already been issued), though he was but eighty miles from the
branch mint at Charlotte. Moffat also observed that while a state may
not issue coins, there is no law which prohibits a private individual
from striking them. Finally, he announced that not one person had ever
been cheated out of one cent by his company, and if a person took his
coins to the U.S. mint in Philadelphia, he would reap a profit instead
of a loss.
The original proposed legislation was
replaced by a compromise bill that passed on April 10, 1850. The new law
forbade issuing private coins under four ounces, but it was never
enforced, probably because the State Assay Office was created that
The new law was designed to make it
difficult for private coinage to continue, since a four-ounce gold piece
(the stated legal minimum value of any private coin in California) would
be worth about $64 - too large a denomination for most transactions and
thus not subject to wide circulation. Any need for these large
denomination coins easily could be met by the State Assay Office's
output. But in actuality, this law served to defeat its purpose, since
there still existed a local need for fractional coinage under the
prescribed legal minimum (e.g., $2½, $5, $10, $20)
that only private coiners were able to satisfy.
1850, Moffat's coins circulated at par while all other coins and ingots,
except those of the State Assay Office, were taken only at 8 percent
discount. By September, Moffat & Co. was one of the two remaining
private issuers of gold coins and remained do until March, 1851.
the 1849 and 1850 issues, Moffat & Co. ceased their own coinage with
but one exception. This took place in 1852 with the issuance of a $10
gold piece (the 1853 $20 coins labeled MOFFAT & CO. are not private
issuances and properly are mentioned under the coinage of the U.S. Assay
Office). The incidents surrounding the 1852 issue are well worth
During the interval -
from September 30, 1850, until December, 1853 - Moffat & Co. held
the semi-official capacity as the United States Assay Office. As soon as
Congress authorized the establishment of this new assay office in San
Francisco, Moffat & Co. offered its services and was subsequently
awarded a coining contract. Not until January, 1851, however, did the
new U.S. Assay Office under Augustus Humbert begin striking coins.
the new official gold coins were issued, they provided the citizens with
a universally accepted medium of exchange. As a result, most of the
private gold coins in circulation were brought to the United States
Assay Office and remade into new coins at their intrinsic gold value of
$20.64 an ounce. By this time (December, 1853) the State Assay Office
had ceased operation.
replacing these variously stamped denominations with like issues, the
United States Assay Office struck $50 gold pieces, the only denomination
it was authorized to issue. At first the effects of such a shortsighted
policy were not universally felt, but soon there were few coins under
the denomination of $50 in circulation.
early as March 5, 1851, Moffat & Co. sought permission from
Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Corwin to issue coins in smaller
denominations. This request was rejected by Acting Secretary William L.
Hodge, perhaps because expanding the Assay Office's line of coins would
have made it a de facto mint, or because there were still private
coiners in operation at the time, presumed to be fulfilling the
fractional coinage need. But by April, adverse publicity had put the
private mints out of business, and by the end of the year, the
inconvenience and losses suffered from the lack of smaller denominations
then the bulky $50 slugs were so acute that most merchants discounted
the huge coins by 3 percent. Editorials began appearing in all the major
newspapers bemoaning how the $50 slugs were a "drug" on the
On December 9, 1851,
Acting Secretary Hodge finally advised Moffat & Co. that the
Department had consented to the company's issuance of $10 and $20 gold
pieces. The next day, however, this permission was rescinded.
incensed U.S. Assayer, Augustus Humbert, wrote Secretary Corwin in
December explaining how business had diminished because of the lack of
small change. Humbert also mentioned that bankers were being forced to
pay a premium for coins under $50, and warned that if something were not
done soon, private coinage, with all its potential for fraud, would
again become prevalent. At the same time, Moffat & Co. renewed its
request for permission to issue smaller denomination coins.
cavalier attitude of the government also annoyed San Francisco's
businessmen, sixty of whom on the fifth of January, 1852, petitioned
Moffat & Co. to issue coins in denominations smaller than the Assay
Office's $50 slugs. The firm replied two days later that it had held off
issuing small denominations in the hope of a favorable reply from the
Treasury Department, but since the necessity for small coins was now so
great, the firm would comply with their wishes regardless of the
government contract. The firm further promised delivery of these issues
on "Monday next" (January 12).
promised, Moffat issued a new $10 gold piece within a week. This issue
was quite different from the previous ones of Moffat & Co. and was
eagerly welcomed. Moffat & Co. sought legal justification for its
action, which was privately affirmed in a lengthy opinion from Attorney
J. H. Mudd, eventually submitted by the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury,
and endorsed by U.S. Custom Collector King in California.
weeks later, after having issued some $86,500 worth of $10 MOFFAT &
CO. pieces between the twelfth and twenty-seventh, Curtis, Perry, and
Ward (Moffat having sold out on December 24, 1851 - see chapter on
U.S. Assay Office) ceased that operation and, on February 12, 1852,
having finally received permission (after the rescission in December) to
strike $10 and $20 coins for the U.S. Assay Office, they commenced a new
issue of Assay Office coins, which bore the inscription, "U.S.
Assay Office" (see p. 140). The 1852 $10 Moffat & Co. coins
were the last issued by them.
Moffat left his company in the hands of Curtis, Perry, & Ward on
December 24, 1851, he went to work for the San Joaquin Diving Bell
Mining Company. This firm, situated on the San Joaquin River, built
boats and diving bells used to dredge up the sand and gold from the
river bed. Moffat worked in this capacity for many years.
number of recent sources mention a mint at Mt. Ophir in Mariposa County,
which was built and run by John L. Moffat, but the author has found no
acceptable reference to confirm such a mint. A California State
Historical Society sign directing the public to the ruins states that
Moffat, part owner of an adjoining mine, built a mint on that site.
There it is alleged he coined $50 gold pieces in February, 1851. The
truth, alas, is somewhat less spectacular.
Mt. Ophir mine was discovered by "Quartz" Johnson and later
sold to the Merced Mining Co. in May 1851. The latter was formed on
March 4, 1851, with the purpose of operating a quartz mill. The entire
mill was not completed until February, 1852, at a cost of some $100,000.
Among the major stockholders in the Merced Mining Co. were John L.
Moffat and T. Butler King (the former U.S. Custom Collector for
The February 1852
date corresponds favorably with the time Moffat sold out his interest in
his coining operation (having struck the 1852 $10 gold coins bearing his
name), and officially departed the company for the mine. Evidently
Moffat conceived the idea of establishing a mining company while working
for the U.S. Assay Office and became actively involved when the Merced
Mining Co. completed its mill in February 1852. Some gold was found on
the property, but there probably was not enough to offset the expenses,
and the disgruntled stockholders subsequently voted to sell the company
to an English mining firm.
was an owner in the Merced Mining Co. for several months while he was
still the principal in Moffat & Co. (minters). The period of dual
association by Moffat also was while Moffat & Co. issued some $50
gold pieces under its U.S. Assay Office contract (see chapter on U.S.
Assay Office). But the mine was not in operation until February 1852,
about the same time Moffat sold out his coining firm to Curtis, Perry
It is doubtful that
the mine yielded much gold, let alone enough in the brief period of the
dual Moffat company affiliations (mint and mine) to have warranted any
coins having been produced by the San Francisco-based Moffat & Co.
or any local (Mt. Ophir) affiliation.
--Reprinted with permission
of the author from Donald H. Kagin's, "Private Gold Coins and
Patterns of the United States", copyright 1981, Arco Publishing, Inc.
of New York, pages 85-92.
Images courtesy of Hanks
Sources and/or recommended
"Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States" by
Donald H. Kagin