Criminal Annals, Part 32 – The Placer Times: Mormon Gold Coins

Tucked away in the advertising section of the April 22, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times” is a short notice regarding some lost luggage. The ad has been in the paper for several weeks without the bags being found, so one wonders about their contents or if they may have been taken.

“Between the city of Sacramento and Yales’s Ranche, above Vernon [on the Sacramento River, north of Sacramento],TWO SACKS, answering the following description: One, a carpet bag nearly square in form being two feet long and about the same in width, containing books and mementos of departed friends. The carpet bag was enveloped in a linen bag, tied. The other sack is longer and larger but not so heavy; It is enveloped in a coarse cotton cloth and sewed closely. Through inadvertency the sacks were not labeled. Any person having knowledge of the above described sacks, will please inform Mr. Smith, of the firm of Smith, Bensley & Co., or leave word at this office. The courteous favor will be gratefully acknowledged by A WOMAN.”

The Wednesday, April 24, 1850 edition of the Placer Times has devoted the entire front page to advertisements. This is quite a change from their previous editions that kept such information on page four and sometimes on page three. Page two has two stories regarding a problem that seems to be increasing, fake gold.

“LOOK OUT! – Mr. McKnight has shown us a bogus specimen of gold, weighing between 5 and 6 ounces, which was taken by a merchant in town yesterday. He says there have been some similar offered at his office, a small one of which he purchased a few days back, and disposed of again, without discovering the deception. – the pieces of quartz are ingeniously inserted, and the whole getting up calculated easily to deceive the unwary. It is quite possible that the manufacture of this galvanized metal is going on in our midst.”

During the Gold Rush, coinage in California consisted of a mixture of Spanish, Mexican and United States coins in various denominations. Because of the previously shown distrust for many of these coins, a fair amount of the daily business was done in gold dust using various measuring methods (i.e. an ounce, a pinch, etc.), or barter.

When the first members of the Mormon Battalion reached Salt Lake City with California gold dust in 1848, the Mormons decided to create what was known as the Deseret Mint and make their own coins. Inscribed with dates of 1849, 1850 and 1860, an unknown, but limited number of coins were minted in denominations of 2 ½, 5, 10 and 20 dollars.

The coins have a fineness of about 900 thousandths gold and 100 thousandths silver, which, we are told, was added for strength. This is about the same as the California native gold, so some believe that they may have just been made with gold as it was found. (“The Sampling and Assay of the Precious Metals,” by Ernest A. Smith, London (1913) shows typical California native gold at 89.1 percent gold, 10.5 percent silver with trace amounts of iron and other metals.)

When the coins were first circulated in St. Louis by Salt Lake merchants who used them to pay for merchandise, the $20 coins were accepted at $18 because of the silver alloy. In the valley of the Salt Lake, however, the coins went for face value.

In the same edition of the paper as quoted above, is an article relating to these coins.

“MORMON GOLD COINS. – The Philadelphia Ledger says:

“Last week, Clark & Co., of this city, deposited at the Mint, for recoining, what purported to be $3,000 in Mormon double eagles, each piece stamped as worth $20. After melting, the aggregate value was found to be $2,583 63, or about $17 22 1-2 each piece. The fineness was found to be 89.7 thousandths – silver parting 98 thousandths. The public will have to be on the lookout for this coin; for, if this assay at the Mint be a fair test of the great Salt Lake manufacture of coin, as we presume it is, the Mormons seem to understand what they are about, and to be determined to make the most of their gold mines.”

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 ½, $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. In spite of this inscription, the coins were not made with Salt Lake City gold, or Utah gold at all, but California gold.

Today the only gold Deseret coins known to exist number 254 and are: 1849 $2 ½ (43); 1849 $5 (71); 1849 $10 (10); 1849 $20 (21); 1850 $5 (54) and 1860 $5 (55). In good condition, some bring prices in excess of $120,000 each.


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