Criminal Annals, Part 39 – The Placer Times: Watchmen and Gold Coins

There being very little artificial light in early Sacramento during the night, the possibility of a crime or disruption of the peace occurring was high. Thus, the recently established city government took steps to help its citizens and protect the peace. On page three of the May 22, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times,” there is a notice of the establishment of a “Night Watch,” for the safety of the people of Sacramento, a portion of which is repeated here.

“AN ORDINANCE establishing a Watch for the safety and good order of the City of Sacramento.

“Section 1. Be it ordained, that there shall be appointed by the Marshal of the City and the Captain of the Watch ten able-bodied, sober and discreet men to constitute the Night Watch of the City of Sacramento. From the hour of seven in the evening until sunrise in the morning one half at least of said Watch shall be constantly on duty, unless sickness or some other cause of like character should render it impracticable for such a portion of the Watch to be on duty. That during the time any Watchman is on duty he shall have power, and it shall be his duty to prevent the commission of any breach of the peace, to suppress riots and all disorderly assemblages, to arrest and take into custody any person found committing any act injurious to the quiet and good order of the city, or to the person or property of any citizen; and also to arrest and take into custody all vagrants or suspicious persons whose appearance and conduct many seem to justify their being called to account for their manner of living.

“Sec. 2. Be it further ordained, that upon the arrest of any person under the provisions of the first section of this ordinance, such person so arrested shall be taken to the watch house, or such place as may be provided for such purpose, and delivered to the Captain of the Watch, who shall be informed by the person who may have made such arrest, of the occasion and circumstances under which such arrest has been made. And it is also further provided, that in no case shall any Watchman or any officer having in any manner any charge of such Watch receive from any person arrested or about to be arrested, or charged with any offence, any sum of money or any thing of value, either ass a present or as a fine, or in any other manner whatsoever.

Sec. 3. Be it further ordained, that at the earliest possible period after the arrest of any person as aforesaid, the Captain of the Watch shall report said arrest to the Marshal of the City, who shall take immediate custody of such offender, and report the arrest, the occasion of the same, the name of the party arrested, &c. to the City Attorney, in order that such offender may be brought before the Recorder for examination.”

After several more sections regarding the fine points of the process it notes in Section 7. that for any neglect or violation of duty by these “able-bodied, sober and discreet” watchmen, a fine of up to five hundred dollars and ten days in jail can be imposed. Section 8. adds that each watchman shall receive a monthly salary of one hundred and fifty dollars.

One of the biggest problems facing the miners in early California was disposing of the gold once they found it. Often the nuggets were saved and dust was just used as cash, a “pinch” at a time. It was carried around in a small leather bag called a “poke” and offered up to pay bills.
If a miner wanted to sell his gold, he had to use a speculator who would purchase it for less than its real value and make arrangements to have it shipped to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, PA, where it would be assayed, melted and then cast into bars.

There were also a number of private mints making coins in California that often had less gold than the stated value (gold dust was valued at $16 per ounce, but a one ounce U.S. gold coin was worth $20). One of these private mints was F. D. Kohler and Co., which was sold to Baldwin & Co. in April of 1850.

After being petitioned by the citizens of California, the legislature of the “State of California” decided what was happening was not a good idea in many ways and in May of 1850 established the Office of the State Assayer.

The May 22 edition of the Placer Times published the new law in its entirety and then added a comment explaining the action in simple words.

“TO MINERS. – The foregoing law affords a remedy for an evil the mining community had long been subject to, in having their gold to pass into the hands of speculator at more than two dollars less than its value. – The State Assayer melts the dusts of the miner into bars or ingots, tests its fineness, and stamps it with the same value as would the United States Mint The dust current in this market is intrinsically worth above $18 – it assays at an average from $17 90 to $18 20 per ounce. Besides, but the Act creating the office, all stamped bars or ingots are received for all public dues throughout the State, at the same value as government coin.

“The Governor has appointed O. P. Sutton, Director, and F. D. Kohler [yes, the former private mint owner], Assayer. Their office is at San Francisco, on south side of Portsmouth Square.

“Under the provisions of the Act, a branch office will likely soon be opened at Sacramento City, and also one at Stockton.”
The State Assay Office of California was the only mint in the country to operate under the authority of a state, since the U.S. Constitution forbid the coining of money by states in 1789.

The California State Assayer refined and assayed gold dust and cast into ingots weighing a minimum of two troy ounces, ingots not being mentioned in the Constitution as being illegal and nobody seemed to care anyway. On these pieces he stamped the state name, value, weight and fineness of the ingot. Their value ranged from $36.55 to $150.00. The $50 “slugs” were probably the most common.

In late 1850 the California State Assayer’s office became the United States Assay Office, which issued United States coins noting that they were certified by the California Office and in 1854, the U.S. Mint in San Francisco was established, replacing it.

Most of the privately minted gold coins and early California gold coins were later melted down by the San Francisco Mint.


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