1848 is a banner year in the American mythos: the year gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, CA. The Gold Rush still inspires dreams of striking it rich, finding fame and fortune, and enjoying life.
However, the Gold Rush effect wasn’t limited to California. The influx of gold dust caused a numismatic furor in…the Utah territory?
The Church in the Valley
In the summer of 1847, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) leader Brigham Young led over a hundred settlers into the Salt Lake Valley, looking for a place where his growing community could be protected from government interference. The remote Utah territory was perfect for this goal, but there was one problem when it came to commerce: what to use for money? The barter system worked to some extent, and the community experimented with paper money and scrip, but nothing was satisfactory. Gold dust was often used as currency, but was difficult to measure and trade easily. Spanish silver pesos were in circulation in the area, but this meant adding the difficulty of agreeing on an exchange rate. The community needed a currency that could be easily used in their town as well as for trade in surrounding areas.
According to the History of Mormonism website, “Douglas Nyholm, a currency expert, has written a book on how Mormons have created the most diverse array of currency outside of the U.S. government. The first paper money printed in the valley was called white notes or valley notes. Other notes included those from the Salt Lake City Corporation, scrip from different cooperatives, and reissued currency from a failed bank in Kirtland, Ohio, where many of the Saints had lived previous to migrating to Utah. There was even a type of note, issued by Deseret Currency Association, which was backed by livestock—the only currency in U.S. history of which that can be said.”
An Influx of Gold
Everything changed in 1848 when members of the Mormon Battalion (the only religiously-based unit in United States history) returned from their march to California with $17,000 in gold from the discovery at Sutter’s Mill. Community leaders seized the opportunity to begin minting coins that could be used for regular trade.
Hal Schindler of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote, “Gold dust was finding its way into the Mormon economy in increasing amounts. There are numerous cases of Mormons paying their church tithing in gold dust (at $15 an ounce). This ‘church treasure,’ as Alter describes it, was to be melted and rolled into strips from which coins could be stamped.”
Minting began in December of 1848, but only 46 coins were made during the month, due to problems with the dies. The first coins were pure gold, and did not hold up well during regular use, so later mintages were mixed with an amount of silver to increase durability. It is estimated that $70,000 of LDS gold went into circulation. There are no firm numbers regarding the exact denomination mintages, but based on the surviving coins, it is believed that more of the smaller denomination coins were minted than the larger denominations. Very few of these coins are on the market at any given time, and they often go for very high rates. (An 1849 $5 coin sold in 2011 for $19,550, according to Worthpoint.) HistoryOfMormonism reports that some of these coins can be worth more than $10,000. “Campbell owns one of two-dozen-existing $20 Mormon gold pieces, which is worth about $350,000. The most coveted Mormon gold piece is the $10, which can be worth up to $1,000,000.” It is believed that no more than about 300 of these historic coins are held by collectors, making them highly valuable and desirable.
As preparation continued for the minting operations, church leader Brigham Young wrote to a trading partner, “The coined money, I have now not on hand, but we are preparing to put the gold dust into coin without an alloy, which if you are disposed to take, you can have–but if you choose the American-coined money we can probably get it by the time you want it. If not, it will probably save me some little trouble.”
The First Coins
On November 25, 1848, Young and other community leaders drew up coin designs and created inscriptions. The minting equipment (dies, punches, tools, and collars) were forged by Alfred B. Lambson; Robert L. Campbell engraved the stamps; Martin H. Peck created a drop hammer; and John Kay minted the actual coins. An accountant and weigher, William Clayton and Thomas Bullock, were also part of the minting process.
While four denominations of coin were planned and eventually minted, the $10 coin was the first to be made. 25 of these coins were minted on the first day of production. “The first design called for an obverse with the motto Holiness to the Lord and an emblem of the priesthood–a three-pointed Phrygian crown over an All-Seeing Eye of Jehovah. On the reverse, the $2 1/2, $5 and $20 coins were inscribed G.S.L.C. P.G. (Great Salt Lake City Pure Gold) over two clasped hands symbolizing friendship, then the value and the year date. The $10 coin bore the words Pure Gold on its reverse, rather than the initialed phrase. This was altered in later coins so the obverse inscription would read Deseret Assay Office, Pure Gold and, at the base, 5 D. On the reverse side was a crouched lion, surrounded by Holiness to the Lord written in Deseret Alphabet characters, then the year 1860. The coins were .899 fine, with a bit of native silver, but no other alloy, for strength. Most of the coins bore the date 1849, but a great many were issued in 1850 and later.”
This gold inevitably made its way out of the Utah territory and into the rest of the country. GoldMormonCoins.com reports that “Mormon gold was shipped to places like New York and Baltimore on the east coast to secure goods needed back in the territory. It is easy to think that a trader in a major city could have put aside a strange coin from a faraway place as a keepsake from a profitable transaction. Surely some high grade Mormon gold coins were saved purely because of their curiosity factor.”
When good coinage became a reality in the LDS community of the Salt Lake Valley, all of the old paper money and scrip had to be destroyed, a process that took some time. The coinage was highly successful, but ceased to be necessary when the San Francisco Mint began operations in 1854. Many of the LDS coins were melted after the government outlawed privately-minted coins in the 19th century.
Legend of Lost Treasure
As can be expected with historical gold coins, the “Mormon gold” has its own lost treasure legend. There are several versions of the story, but the core of each is the same: one or more strangers came to Salt Lake City (sometimes they are said to be brothers with the last name of Baldwin). They either find the mint for themselves, or are given a tour of it by trusting citizens, and later make off with thousands of dollars in unguarded gold coins. In all of the stories, the strangers disappear into the desert, and the coins never return to circulation. Is there a hoard of gold coins out in the Utah deserts? No one knows for sure, but it’s yet another story to keep dreamers and treasure hunters searching the wastelands for years to come.
All color photos of Utah courtesy of Kristen Knorr Photography and used by permission.