The history of rare gold coins is also the history of America. In 1795, the US Mint in Philadelphia began striking gold coins to establish a sound, uniform currency. America was on the Gold Standard and was valued under $20 an ounce.
In 1803 when Napoleon sold the “Louisiana Purchase” for $15 million, he demanded payment in gold coins. Likewise, Lewis and Clark carried gold coins when they explored the west to the Pacific.
Famous for French Culture, Paddlewheelers, and Coins
By 1812, Louisiana was admitted to the Union as a slave state. That same year, Robert Fulton’s steam-powered riverboat made the first successful trip down the Mississippi to arrive in the city she was named for, New Orleans. Paddle wheelers soon lined New Orleans’ harbor loaded with bales of cotton and other goods bought with gold coins.
Western Expansion Gold Shortage
In 1830, New Orleans was the primary port of entry for expansion into Texas and the wild west. During these days, there was an acute shortage of hard currency in the form of U.S. gold coins.
By this time, the Philadelphia Mint was striking gold coins at full capacity, yet unable to mint enough gold coins needed for trade in a growing America. To resolve the gold coining problem on the Western Frontier, Congress decreed that a new branch mint be opened in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The New Orlean’s facility was clearly the most colorful of all branch mints, having struck Legal Tender for the United States, the State of Louisiana, and the Confederacy. Because collectors search out coins with an interesting history or that exhibit special credentials, collectors love coins with the “O” mint mark from the famous New Orleans Mint.
Mint Strikes First Coins in 1838
The year was 1838. The gold strikes in Georgia, combined with the wealth created on the Southern Plantations, kept the original United States Mint in Philadelphia working at capacity.
The mint could not strike gold coins fast enough to keep up with the demand for hard money. In those days, hard money was real, minted in solid gold or silver. Unlike today’s paper money that is backed only by a promise from the U.S. Government, currency of the 1800’s was truly “worth it’s weight in gold.” (And it still is today.)
The Coins That Got Away From Jesse James
As a result of the shortage of hard currency, Congress enacted legislation to open its first branch mint in New Orleans.
The goal was to reduce the distance that gold had to be carried from Georgia and western frontier gold mines. These were the 1800’s when the Apache Indians still controlled most of Texas and outlaws like Jesse James were a serious threat to banks and US gold shipments.
Put in perspective, New Orleans was a key port of entry from Europe to the Southern States during the Wild West Days. It was on the edge of the Western Frontier of the United States. Only a few decades before the mint was opened, New Orleans was a part of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon and France.
Why Collect Pre-Civil War Era Coins?
When official operations began at the New Orleans Mint in 1838, things were slow in getting started. Early mintages were quite low due to the limited capacity of the older presses which had been shipped in from the Philadelphia Mint.
Today, higher grade, Pre-Civil War, New Orleans gold coins are among the most highly prized of all US rare coins. The original mintages were very low and most of the coins were immediately put into circulation at banks and quickly worn out.
In no time, the soft gold coin surfaces were worn down from handling. Later, they were often removed from circulation and melted down for their gold content.
A Great History and Unique Tradition
The next part of the New Orleans Mint story is clearly the most fascinating for history buffs. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Confederacy needed money and fast in the form of gold coins that would be accepted for trade in Europe.
In short, the Confederacy needed U.S. gold coins. In 1861, the New Orleans Mint was seized by the State of Louisiana, and then mint personnel were forced to strike U.S. coins using the existing U.S. Mint presses and coin dies. Later that same year, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America, decreed that the mint in New Orleans strike coins for the South.
As a result, 1861 dated coins were struck at the New Orleans Mint by all three government entities–the Union, Louisiana and the South. Sadly, from the point of view of collectors, it’s impossible to tell the coins apart because they were all struck from the same set of dies.
The New Orleans Mint struck gold coins in denominations from $1 to $20 gold pieces. In addition, it struck a variety of silver coins including the famous Morgan Silver Dollars
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