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Moffat & Company Gold Coins by Type | Pioneer Gold Coins by Type

Obverse of Moffat & Company Gold Coins     Reverse of Moffat & Company Gold Coins


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 highest respectability."

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 month.

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., $2, $5, $10, $20) that only private coiners were able to satisfy.

During 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.

After 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 recounting.

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.

When 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.

Instead of 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.

As 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 market.

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.

The 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.

The 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).

As 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.

Two 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.

When 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.

A 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.

The 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 California).

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.

Moffat 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 & Ward.

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 & Associates

Sources and/or recommended reading:
"Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States" by Donald H. Kagin

 
 

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