World of Coins

Other tokens and medals => Advertising, propaganda and numismatic artefacts => Private countermarks => Topic started by: brandm24 on August 14, 2020, 12:28:26 PM

Title: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: brandm24 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.

Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: brandm24 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.

Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: Figleaf 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.

Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: brandm24 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.

Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: Figleaf 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!

Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: brandm24 on December 13, 2020, 02:40:04 PM
Though this is an official counterstamp on California gold, I thought I'd slip it into this thread.

In late 1848 228 ounces of recently mined gold was sent to the Secretary of War, William L. Marcy by Col. R. B. Mason, the military governor of California. Marcy forwarded the gold to the Philadelphia Mint with the intention of having Congressional Medals struck for past military heroes, Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Excess bullion after striking the medals was to be used to strike 1848 dated quarter eagles specially ounterstamped with "CAL." (California) to identify them as special issues. The stamps were applied on the reverse just above the eagle's head, and seem to have been done so while each coin was still in the press. No marks or blemishes appear on the obverse of any known specimen that would indicate otherwise.

While 1,389 examples were struck, what became of many of them is a mystery. Some have survived until today but many haven't been traced. An interesting early California gold counterstamped coin.

Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: Figleaf on December 13, 2020, 07:19:54 PM
Interesting and puzzling. How did Colonel Mason get his hands on the gold? Why was it found necessary to distinguish coins struck with this gold from other coins?

Does it have to do with the gold being in military hands? I guess it would be normal for the military to have a say in the design, production and distribution of medals for military heroes, but wouldn't it be unusual that the military finances the medals, other than from one of its budget items?

Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: brandm24 on December 13, 2020, 09:34:44 PM
At the time California had a military governor, namely Col. Mason. You'll notice that he sent the gold to the Secretary of War, who would be his superior, and not the president or directly to the mint director. While the two medals were Congressional Medals, only the second and third ever awarded, it seems that the Secretary of War was the driving force behind them.

The first US Assayer, Augustus Humbert, wasn't even appointed until 1850, and there was no fedral mint until San Francisco came on line in 1854. Things in California were chaotic at best with little civilian control so the military was the only agency able to manage the situation.

All gold recovered from the fields up to that point was either sold to or processed into bars or tokens by private assayers and mints. I don't know how Col. Mason acquired the metal , but likely from a private source. I also don't know how it was handled as a budgetary item.

As far as stamping the coins "CAL." goes; I haven't come across any information in regard to that although I was curious about it myself. I'll look a bit more and see if I can come up with an answer.

Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: brandm24 on December 14, 2020, 11:13:40 AM
I did a bit more poking around, and as Paul Harvey used to say here's "the rest of the story."

Not that this changes the important details of the "CAL." issues, but later research has found that the entire 228 ounce cache of gold was used to strike the coins only. The Congressional Medals were struck from a 1,804 ounce deposit extracted from the American River by prospector David Carter. Both deposits arrived at the mint within a day of each other, thus the confusion. This also explains how the government acquired the metal. They simply purchased it from prospectors or assayers.

The reason for the "CAL." stamp is actually quite simple. California was a US Territory at the time and hadn't yet acquired statehood. Powerful interests, including Governor Richard B. Mason, supported California's admittance to the Union and thought that tangible evidence of the wealth of the territory would contribute to that end. Although California gold had been used to strike coins previously, there was no way to "advertise" the fact. Apparently, Secretary of War William Marcy was the man who first promoted the idea. In a letter to Mint Director Robert Patterson dated December 8, 1848 he remarked:

 "As many may wish to procure specimens made with California gold, by exchanging other coin for it, I would suggest that it be made into quarter eagles with a distinguishing mark on each, if any variations from the ordinary issues from the mint would be proper and could be conveniently made..."

Although I couldn't find details of the coin's distribution, it seems likely that many of them at least were given to important people who might influence the granting of statehood to California.


Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: Figleaf on December 14, 2020, 02:28:27 PM
Well, since we know that 1389 coins were struck, each with a gold content of 0.1209 oz, it follows that striking the coins took 168 oz of gold. Perhaps that 228 oz wasn't pure gold, so let's assume it was .900 fine. In that case it took 186.6 oz to mint the gold. So who took the remaining 40 oz home to show to his wife? :wicked:

Similarly, 1804 oz converts to 51+ kilogramme gold. Them medals must have been pretty obese or else they were given out very freely indeed. >:D

Long ago, I did similar simplistic calculation showing that the story of the Smithson donation in British sovereigns, converted into 1838 half eagles is physically impossible. I sent my calculations to the Smithsonian. The story is still on their web site (

I know. I'm mean. :coinsilver:

Title: Re: Merchant's counterstamps on California gold
Post by: brandm24 on December 14, 2020, 05:46:29 PM
Somehow I knew you would run some numbers on thr weight of the gold compared to the number struck, Peter ;D I admire your attention to detail. I thought about doing it, but I was just too lazy. Maybe the "leftovers" were used to make some pretty jewelry for Marcy's wife.

As far as the other gold for the Congressional Medals, only a small amount went for that purpose, as intended. Surprisingly though, I read somewhere in my research that Taylor's medal was made from 20 ounces of gold, a huge impressive piece I'm sure. Not sure about Scott's. I don't think they liked him so well, so probably skimped on the size. :o