Author Topic: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold  (Read 103 times)

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Offline brandm24

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Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
« on: August 14, 2020, 12:28:26 PM »
The California Gold Rush started in 1849 and it soon became apparent to the US Government that they would need a minting facility in the region to handle the large amounts of ore being recovered by the so-called "49ers. To that end, a New York watchmaker named Augustus Humbert was appointed U.S. Assayer of the treasury and moved to California in 1850 to oversee the minting of gold coins by government appointed private mints. It wasn't until several years later that a federal mint would be established in San Francisco to take over the responsibility then shared by those companies.

The government set up a minting facility for Moffat & Co. called the Mt. Ophir Mint. It began production of $50 gold ingots (called slugs) immediately. Though not technically coins, the round slugs actually traded and circulated as currency as did other privately struck ingots and coins. Moffat struck the pieces form dies designed and cut by New York sculptor and medalist Charles C. Wright. By 1852 they'd turned to producing $10 coins using new dies made by Albert Kuner. All the private production was done under the watchful eye of Agustus Humbert.

It's here that W.W. Light and H.H. Pierson, whose counterstamp is neatly struck on a $10 Moffat slug, enter the picture. The two were dentists who formed a partnership in Sacramento after both moving to California independently in 1849. At some point they were stricken by "gold fever" and found themselves working for a private minter named J. S. Ormsby. Light was the manager and also cut dies for them while Pierson was a company clerk. The "San Jose Pioneer" in their May 5, 1877 issue published a description of the company and Light's employment with them.


          This establishment which was located on K Street, just below the site of the Golden Eagle, did an extensive
           business, the miners bringing dust to be coined forming a line and awaiting their regular terms. The gold was
          melted there, and without alloy, as it came from the mine, cast into bars, rolled into strips, the rollers used
          for this purpose being still in the possession of Dr. Light, a leading dental surgeon of San Francisco, who was
          the chief operator of the establishment at a salary of 50 per diem.


Though nothing is known of Pierson, William Wayland Light is an open book. He was born in Bethel, Ohio in 1819 where he studied medicine early but had turned to practicing dentistry by 1846. For whatever reason he decided to through in his lot with other '49ers and booked passage on the Von Humboldt on August 1, 1849. After his connection to Ormsby and his dental partnership ended around 1860 he did some mining in Sonora, Mexico. He later returned to Sacramento and passed away there in 1895.

The Light / Pierson counterstamp is unique on a $10 Moffat slug. The piece, graded VF-30, was last sold by Kagin's at the May 15, 2017 Santa Clara Coin Expo. The hammer price was $17,265. The only other example known is struck on an 1855 Seared Liberty Quarter. Individually, both men counterstamped coins. There are about 9 known specimens of  "W W Light / Dentist" counterstamps on an odd variety of coins.These include an 1816 Austrian Kreuzer, an 1851 French Franc, an 1843 US Quarter Eagle and a $5 Moffat and $10 Wass Molitor & Co private issues.

Included in the attached images, in addition to the subject stamp, is one of Dr. Light , an example of his stamp on a 1799 Silver Dollar, and a Light / Pierson advertisement.

Bruce
« Last Edit: September 11, 2020, 09:41:57 PM by brandm24 »
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Offline brandm24

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Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
« Reply #1 on: September 10, 2020, 05:43:29 PM »
John L. Polhemus arrived in California from New York at the beginning of the gold rush in 1849 and quickly set up a pharmacy in Sacramento. He carried a huge variety of medicines, paints, oils, kerosene, alcohol and many other products needed by the miners and their families. Surprisingly, he was open 24 hours a day and accepted cash only for purchases. He advertised himself as the "oldest established legitimate druggist in the city". He remained in business until his death in 1866. His wife and partner continued to operate the store until 1874 when she withdrew.

Polhemus was a prolific counterstamper as over 100 examples are known to survive today. He was said to have stamped every coin that crossed the counter. That may be true as his stamp has been recorded on such diverse silver coins as those from Russia, France, Britain, New Grenada, Chile, Mexico, the British East India Co., and others. Many more appear on US coins of course. Since silver and gold were king in California, not a single example is known on copper

Surprisingly, only three examples are struck on gold coins...all on $20 gold pieces (called slugs). The host coins are dated 1855, 1856, and 1857 and are all the product of the new San Francisco mint opened in 1854. Until 1988 or so only one was known, the specimen I've highlighted here. This example from the collection of Roy Van Ormer sold in 2000 for $48,300.

Two additional examples were recovered from the wreck of the sidewheel steamer SS Central America which foundered off the coast of the Carolinas during a hurricane in 1857. Her final restinf place wasn't discovered until 1988. Despite heroic efforts by crew and passengers, the ship went down with 578 people  In it's hold was an astounding 30,000 lbs. (14,000 kg) of gold bars dust and coins being shipped east from the California gold fields. So much was lost that it helped percipitate the financial panic of 1857.

Bruce
« Last Edit: September 11, 2020, 09:43:14 PM by brandm24 »
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Offline Figleaf

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Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
« Reply #2 on: September 10, 2020, 11:13:49 PM »
Quite a story, or two stories even.I suspect that the CA gold rush was one of these events where we hear mostly the success stories, not the failures and the crimes and its victims. Mr. Polhemus (what's in a name?) may have made a very correct call to settle for selling to the miners, rather than get in the business of mining.

Peter
« Last Edit: September 11, 2020, 09:43:58 PM by brandm24 »
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.

Offline brandm24

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Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
« Reply #3 on: September 11, 2020, 02:49:31 PM »
Legitimate merchants, of which there were many, could make a handsome living and not participate in the rough and dangerous life of the miners. Unfortunately, there were many scoundrels who sold inferior goods for exhorbinant prices who gave all merchants a bad name. The unfortunate way of the world I suppose.

In the sketch of Polhemus' store you'll note a mortar and prstle mounted atop a pole used for advertising. Made it pretty obvious what he sold.

Bruce
« Last Edit: September 11, 2020, 09:44:32 PM by brandm24 »
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Offline Figleaf

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Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
« Reply #4 on: September 11, 2020, 08:36:37 PM »
Yes, noted the sign and also the outdoor stairs to the second floor of the building. Great fun illustration!

Peter
« Last Edit: September 11, 2020, 09:45:13 PM by brandm24 »
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.