Just recently a photograph surfaced which provided the first overall view of the original mint building in Dahlonega, Georgia. Taken in 1878, mere months before the structure burned to the ground, this photograph featured the front elevation of the former mint building during its subsequent use as part of North Georgia Agricultural College. No such view had been known to exist previously, despite the fact the the mint's founding nearly coincided with the invention of photography. Such an anomaly seems in keeping with this most mysterious of United States Branch Mints.
Another structure now stands on the foundation of the original mint building, and North Georgia College itself continues to prosper. But from 1838 to 1861, gold coins were made at this site, which was located in one of the richest gold mining regions in the nation. Only the catastrophe of civil war ended its production and led to complete abandonment by the federal government. This is the story of that mint and its coins.
The town of Dahlonega is the seat of Lumpkin County. It lies in north-central Georgia, not far from the modern metropolis of Atlanta. In the early 1830s, however, there was no city of Atlanta at all, and there was just barely what could be described as a town at Dahlonega. What prompted the building of a branch of the United States Mint in this sleepy hamlet was the discovery of gold�vast amounts of gold�in northeastern Georgia in 1828. The yellow metal had been found in large deposits in parts of North Carolina some years earlier, and these two events led to America's first gold rush during the 1820s and early '30s. In addition to furnishing millions of dollars worth of gold to the young nation, this development also resulted in the expulsion of the native Cherokee people from their ancestral lands, as there was simply no way for them to maintain their lifestyle within a gold field.
Just as the California miners would discover twenty years later, gold nuggets and dust do not make for a practical medium of exchange, and their use in transactions often led to heated arguments over value. The solution to this problem was to have the gold coined, so that it came back to its owner in units of recognized value. In an era before railroads, however, this meant slow and uncertain transportation via wagon and canal boat to the United States Mint at Philadelphia. Not only was such a route risky, it was also quite expensive and time consuming.
The first to undertake the coining of gold within Georgia was not the federal government but a jeweler and metalsmith named Templeton Reid (1789-1851). First in the town of Milledgeville, and then later in Gainesville, Reid minted gold coins having declared values the same as those of the U. S. Mint�$2.50, $5 and $10. These coins were similar to the federal issue only in size and value, their designs being highly distinctive. A unique specimen of the $25 denomination once held in the U. S. Mint's coin collection was stolen in 1858 and never seen again.
Reid's mint operated only from about July to October of 1830, when he evidently ceased coining due to claims that his issues were worth less than their stated values. Assays performed at the Philadelphia Mint, however, revealed that while the Reid coins were slightly lower in weight than the federal issues, their higher fineness made them equal or greater in actual gold content. Despite this endorsement, nearly all of the Templeton Reid coins were ultimately sent to Philadelphia for recoining into federal issues. Surviving pieces are exceedingly rare, the ten-dollar denomination being unique.
As far as the miners were concerned, the real solution to their lack of coined money was for the United States Mint to establish a branch facility in the mining region itself. Their goal was initially expressed as the need for a federal assay office but, as the pleas of Georgia's congressional delegation went unanswered year after year, this desire eventually manifested itself into a demand for an actual United States Mint. Similar action was being called for by North Carolina and Louisiana, the latter seeking a mint to handle the vast amounts of bullion being received in New Orleans, which was then one of the nation's primary seaports.
This was the Jacksonian Era, however, and debate raged continually in Congress over the merits of hard money and stability versus paper currency and the more lenient credit that its issuance prompted. There were forces opposed to expanding the coinage of gold, especially after August 1, 1834, when the standard of United States gold coins was lowered to permit their unrestricted circulation. Leading this opposition was the influential Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. In support of the bill calling for three new southern mints was the equally persuasive South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. With his endorsement and continued campaigning, the bill was passed first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate. It was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on March 3, 1835.
In addition to authorizing mints at New Orleans for the coining of gold and silver and at Charlotte, North Carolina for the coining of gold only, this legislation provided for "one branch at or near Dahlonega, Lumpkin County, in the state of Georgia, also for the coinage of gold only." The United States Branch Mint at Dahlonega now existed on paper, but there was as yet no facility to house it. The actual construction of the mint and the installation of its machinery would prove to be an even greater obstacle than merely providing for its authorization.
At the instigation of President Jackson, on March 13, 1835 Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury appointed Ignatius A. Few as commissioner of the Dahlonega Mint's construction. Mint Director Samuel Moore advised Few by letter to visit the Philadelphia Mint before undertaking this task, as it would be beneficial to see what such an operation entailed. Instead, Few remained in Georgia, anticipating the arrival of building plans before proceeding to Dahlonega. When these failed to materialize, he went ahead to examine proposed building sites in Dahlonega, returning to Athens, Georgia a week or two later. Few wrote to Moore on May 21, bemoaning that "those most immediately interested in the establishment of the Branch Mint at Dahlonega are already disposed to complain of what they consider tardiness in carrying the law establishing it into effect." Moore responded that he had taken no action on supplying plans because he anticipated Few's arrival in Philadelphia, as requested. This sort of misunderstanding was typical in the protracted construction of the Dahlonega Mint that would lead to so much frustration at both ends.
Commissioner Few, distrusting Moore, began to correspond directly with Treasury Secretary Woodbury, notifying the secretary of the various proposed lots on which the mint could be built. Moore shortly thereafter advised Woodbury that he had written Few to find out what was delaying work on the new mint. He added that he saw no reason why the plans for the Charlotte Mint, already drawn by architect William Strickland and approved by the Treasury Department, would not suffice for the Dahlonega Mint. Moore expressed some urgency in his letter, as he was soon to be succeeded as mint director by Robert M. Patterson. It was Patterson, in fact, who seconded Moore in subsequent correspondence, suggesting that both the plans and the budget for the Charlotte Mint be approved for Dahlonega.
In the meantime, there was growing concern within Lumpkin County, as the miners and other prominent figures in the local community saw no progress being made. In July, a committee formed from their ranks petitioned Secretary Woodbury to expedite the construction of the mint, so crucial to the regional economy. The committee also took exception to Ignatius Few, citing his poor health and his reluctance to actually relocate to remote Dahlonega. Indeed, Few had remained in the more genteel Gainesville and had visited the proposed mint site only once since his appointment. They urged his replacement with a local businessman who, it was assumed, would be more attentive to the task.
Commissioner Few defended his inaction. Learning of the Treasury Department's intention to use the Charlotte building plans, he questioned why they hadn't been sent to him sooner so that he could have proceeded with the work. In actuality, Few had been making progress. He purchased ten acres of land from William J. Worley, though it would later be revealed that lots had been trading so quickly and without formal recording that it wasn't certain who actually held title to the site. Once the plans arrived, the commissioner contracted with Benjamin Towns to erect the mint structure at a cost of $33,450. The estimated completion date of March 22, 1837 did not sit well with the Treasury Department, though Few and the contractor understood, certainly better than those in Philadelphia, the challenge of completing a building in what was than still a semi-wilderness.
Work did indeed proceed slowly. By April of 1836 only the foundation was laid, though the materials for erecting walls had already been acquired. Commissioner Few offered a variety of explanations for the delay. He cited inadequacies in the furnished plans which necessitated some on-site changes. The area was experiencing unusually heavy rainfall that year, Few added. As a final touch, even an Indian uprising among the local Creeks was included as a cause for the slow progression of work. By September of 1836 only the basement and a portion of the first storey had been completed.
It was soon discovered that not only was the work slow, but it was sloppy as well. The mint's newly appointed superintendent-treasurer, Dr. Joseph J. Singleton, arrived in Dahlonega in March of 1837 to assume his duties there, expecting to find the mint nearly ready for the installation of its machinery. Instead, he found an engineering catastrophe. Masonry arches had been designed as a support for the mint's floor, but these induced a lateral thrust that the poorly constructed walls were unable to withstand. Thus, further work had come to a standstill, and extensive changes would have to be made. In addition, no water supply had been furnished for the mint's boilers, and Commissioner Few had been unsuccessful in locating a supply of zinc for the building's roof.
As Singleton's awareness of the scope of the problems grew, he finally informed Mint Director Patterson on August 6 of the failure in the structure's walls. With the new mint's machinery having already arrived in Dahlonega on May 29, the Treasury Department was thrown into a panic. Concluding that neither Few nor Singleton were really up to the task, Director Patterson ordered Franklin Peale to report to Dahlonega and act as an adviser. Peale was the Philadelphia Mint's melter and refiner, and he would later succeed Adam Eckfeldt as chief coiner in 1839. Also sent to Dahlonega was David H. Mason, who had been appointed the new mint's coiner and who was already impressing his superiors with his skill and resourcefulness.
With four men�Few, Singleton, Peale and Mason�now held accountable for the mint's progress, things came together quickly. Mason was able to return to Philadelphia on November 10, accompanied by William Baker, who had supervised the installation of the machinery. Having been delayed at the Charlotte Mint, Peale arrived in Dahlonega ten days after Mason's departure. He and his men were there just a week, installing the furnaces, refineries and boilerworks, and Peale left for Philadelphia on November 27.
The machinery for the mint was furnished at a contracted cost of $14,987. The firm of Coleman & Sellers provided much of this, including the steam engines, rolling mills and milling machines. The coin presses were supplied by the firm of Merrick & Agnew and were of the very latest design. Franklin Peale had toured the mints of Europe on a fact-finding mission in 1833-35, and his discoveries were perfectly timed for the building of the southern mints and the upgrading of the Philadelphia Mint.
On February 12, 1838, Superintendent Singleton announced in a letter "This is the day of commencement of Branch Mint operations," referring to the mint's readiness to accept bullion deposits for coining. The actual manufacture of coins would come a bit later. Commissioner Few, in whom no one had much faith at this point, had not been present since the previous summer and would play no further role in the mint's history.
There were yet some obstacles to coining. The roles of assayer versus melter and refiner, separate duties at the Philadelphia Mint, had been combined into a single position at the branch mints. This responsibility fell on Dr. Joseph W. Farnum, and it was simply too much work for him. A similar situation existed at the Charlotte Mint and was likewise causing delays. It was suggested that the melting and refining portion of Farnum's job be transferred to Coiner David H. Mason, but Mason objected to assuming the duties of Farnum, with whom he was already not on good terms. At least one technical problem further delayed coining, when the mint was unable to raise sufficient steam pressure to operate its machinery.
Depositors of bullion did not immediately receive their payment in gold coin. They could accept a certificate redeemable in coin at Philadelphia, or they could come back to Dahlonega to collect in coin after their deposit had been assayed and minted, usually a delay of two to three weeks. So, while bullion was received almost immediately after the mint's opening, the first coins were not struck until April 21, 1838. A total of 80 half eagles (five-dollar pieces) were struck that day. Singleton, furnishing an example for the U. S. Mint's annual assay, wrote to Director Patterson "You may possibly consider it presumptuous in me to say that I believe our coin equal to any made in the world both for its beauty and accuracy in its legal parts."
Only half eagles were coined at Dahlonega in 1838, these being the coins most desired by depositors and the most useful in general circulation. A total of 20,583 pieces were minted there in the first year of operation. Quarter eagles, valued at $2.50, followed in 1839. Both coins were of William Kneass' Classic Head Liberty type. Chief Engraver Kneass (1824-40) was about to be succeeded by Christian Gobrecht (1840-44), who introduced a new design to the half eagle in 1839. This featured the Coronet Head of Liberty, and it was applied to the Dahlonega Mint half eagles during mid-1839 and to the quarter eagles the following year. On the Classic Head types, Dahlonega's 'D' mintmark appears beneath the bust of Liberty. The Coronet Head coins bear their mintmarks on the reverse, beneath the eagle.
The Dahlonega Mint struck quarter eagles of the Gobrecht design annually through 1859, with the sole exception of 1858. Mintages were generally small, especially in comparison to the output of the Philadelphia Mint, which would sometime produce a million or more strikes in a single year. The largest quarter eagle coinage recorded for the Dahlonega Mint was in 1843, when 36,209 pieces were struck. This was the exception, however, and the absurdly small mintage of just 874 1856-D quarter eagles reveals how rare these coins really are. Half eagle mintages were typically greater, ranging from a high of 98,452 in 1843 to a mere 1,597 pieces in 1861, the final year of production.
There are some popular varieties of the 'D' Mint half eagles. The 1840-D edition comes with two slightly different diameters, the broader one being much scarcer than the smaller size used subsequently through the end of the series. The large date variety of the 1842-D half eagle is considerably scarcer than the small date in all grades. One reverse die used in 1846 has its mintmark distinctly repunched, the first impression appearing well above the second and actually imbedded in the olive branch.
In addition to quarter and half eagles, the Dahlonega Mint struck gold dollars beginning in 1849. The first style was small in diameter and featured a bust of Liberty wearing a coronet. The size of the gold dollar was increased in 1854, and Liberty's coronet was replaced by a feathered headdress. Slightly modified for better striking quality in 1856, this third type was minted through the end of production at Dahlonega in 1861. All three types featured a wreath on their reverses and were the work of U. S. Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre (1844-69). The 'D' mintmark appeared below the bow of the wreath.
With the introduction of the gold dollar in 1849, the Dahlonega Mint immediately contributed to its production. Some 21,588 examples were coined there that first year. Production of this denomination continued annually through 1861. The high figure of 1849 was never again achieved, however, and the smallest recorded mintage occurred in 1856, when a mere 1,460 pieces were made.
The personnel problems at the Dahlonega Mint, alluded to earlier in reference to a feud between Coiner David Mason and Assayer Joseph Farnum, were widespread during the early years of operations. Things settled down with the resignation of Farnum in 1843 and the replacement that same year of Superintendent-Treasurer Joseph Singleton with a new appointee, Major James F. Cooper. Singleton had actually done a fine job, all things considered, and his termination was merely a political consequence of the Whig Party's victory in the White House. There would be others following Cooper, and the mint's history continued to offer some minor dramas, but these pale in comparison to the events which would unfold in 1861 and ultimately close the mint.
When Abraham Lincoln, an avowed defender of the union, was elected to the presidency in 1860, it was just a matter of time before conflict developed with the southern states. South Carolina was the first to defect in December, seceded from the union and turning its back on the federal government. Others followed, Georgia succumbing to rebellion on January 19, 1861. As a property and installation of the United States, one possessing a wealth of bullion and machinery, the mint was essentially indefensible within the State of Georgia. The coming of civil war in April of 1861 between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America made its surrender seemingly inevitable.
Initially, there was little change in the mint's routine. The new superintendent-treasurer, George Kellogg, had assumed office only months before in October of 1860. He maintained a normal correspondence with Mint Director James R. Snowden, and both the receiving of bullion and the manufacture of coins continued at its usual pace. Though Kellogg was himself a Georgian, he did not initially seem disposed to join the southern cause. This sentiment was confirmed by Director Snowden to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase: ". . . notwithstanding the revolutionary proceedings in the State of Georgia, the Branch Mint at Dahlonega continues to recognize itself as a Branch of the Mint of the United States . . ."
Still, uncertainty prevailed over the fate of the mint following the secession of Georgia and its subsequent admission to the Confederate States of America. Perhaps not known to Snowden and Chase was that the Georgia Secession Convention had already claimed jurisdiction over all property of the U. S. government within that state. Lumpkin County's delegate, a Mr. Hamilton, moved to have the Foreign Relations Committee contemplate a change in the devices of the coins being struck at Dahlonega, as well as possible changes in the mint's management.
Perhaps sensing this shift in political winds, Superintendent Kellogg made known to the CSA his willingness to "resign at any time and be commissioned under the Southern Confederacy." Kellogg also appealed to CSA Treasury Secretary Christopher Memminger to retain his position. He formally resigned from office with the U. S. Treasury Department on April 25, 1861, to be effective May 15. In taking this action, it was clear that Kellogg anticipated being renamed to the same position by the Confederate government and that the operations of the mint would continue.
The business community of Lumpkin County and its environs likewise urged that the mint be kept in operation, even if this entailed a change in the imagery of its coins. Both parties were to be disappointed, however, as the CSA government, meeting in its capital of Montgomery, Alabama decided to close the facility instead. A dejected George Kellogg then informed Secretary Memminger that he would see to the mint's closure by June 1 and to the discharging of all employees. There was some hope of maintaining merely an assay office at the site, but Kellogg reported to Memminger that this would not be cost effective, and he held out for an actual mint.
The last financial report of the Dahlonega Mint was prepared on June 26 by Henry Kellogg, the superintendent's son and clerk. As directed, all the bullion assets of the mint were transmitted to Benjamin Pressley, the CSA's assistant treasurer in Charleston. Amounting to a total of $23,716.06, this figure included $4,937.00 in gold and silver coins. The production at Dahlonega that year had been limited to 1,597 half eagles and an unrecorded but small number of dollars.
Responding to continued appeals from the residents of northern Georgia, the CSA did finally approve the operation of an assay office in the former Dahlonega Mint on August 24, 1861. In this capacity, the structure remained active at least through the first quarter of 1864, all subsequent records having been lost. It's likely, however, that the South's collapsing economy would have led to a cessation of bullion deposits around that time.
At the war's end in 1865, there was a strong desire among Georgians to see
the mint reopened. In its constitutional convention of that year, a necessary
step in Georgia's readmission to the union, one of the platforms presented was
for the resumption of coinage at Dahlonega. When this failed in Congress, an
attempt was made to reopen the former mint as a federal assay office, but this
too was rejected. With the government seemingly having no further use for the
old mint, the structure and its ten-acre plot were deeded to North Georgia
Agricultural College. It was serving in this role when the building burned on
the night of December 19-20, 1878. The superstructure was razed, and a new
college building was erected on the old foundation.
Birdsall, Clair M., The United States Branch Mint at Dahlonega, Georgia: Its History and Coinage, Southern Historical Press, Inc., Easley, SC, 1984.
Bowers, Q. David, United States Gold Coins: An Illustrated History, Bowers & Ruddy Galleries, Inc., Los Angeles, CA, 1982.
Head, Sylvia Gaily and Elizabeth W. Etheridge, The Neighborhood Mint: Dahlonega in the Age of Jackson, Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 1986.
Winter, Douglas, Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint: 1838-1861, DWN Publishing,
Dallas, TX, 1997.
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