California Fractional Gold (1849-1883)
Territorial and private issues were common all the way through the Coinage Acts of 1857 and 1864, which banned private and foreign money from circulating alongside U.S.-minted currency. There were still private issues which circulated in Western states and territories like Utah and California even after this act. Some of these were certified by the U.S. government before official mints were put in place, while others only saw circulation for a limited period of time. California saw a number of private issues that saw varying degrees of circulation. Much of the Gold that people flocked to the state to mine found its way into local currency.
California Fractional Gold Design
The history of early United States coins embraces a wide variety of money, not just coins minted within the United States itself. World coins saw common usage across the whole of the United States, and major denominations from countries like the Netherlands, France, and Spain were widely circulated through the 1850s. British coins were commonplace, not surprising considering the American colonies were under British rule. The bulk of coinage was English crowns, shilling and pence as well as the Spanish piece of eight (which laid the groundwork for the Silver dollar). This began to change as the U.S. started striking its own coins, but this currency still circulated alongside it.
Foreign coins were not the only circulating currency in the New World. Private issues were also available, and there were circulating coins created by some of the states in both colonial and post-colonial times. There are several major private issues that were created in the Americas and saw varying degrees of circulation. After the colonial era, many of these were Gold coins created to fill in the gaps in higher-denomination coinage. Gold private and regional issues saw use even after they technically became illegal, particularly out in the Western states.
“Private Gold” is defined by the Guide Book of United States Coins as “interesting necessity pieces of various shapes, denominations and degrees of intrinsic worth that were circulated in isolated areas of the United States by individuals, assayers, bankers and so on”.
Some issues were allowed under U.S. law. Provisional mints were established as private enterprises out in California and other new Western states. Out in the West and the territories, Precious Metals saw more circulation than they did back East. Eastern states were moving towards banknotes and base metal coins were starting to gain traction, but in the farther-flung areas there were not the same established networks of value. That meant people gravitated to the things that they knew held value regardless: Gold and Silver.
Many larger-denomination Gold coins were created by private mints, but there were also small denominations that circulated. Small-denomination Gold coins in quarter, half and dollar sizes were used to fill in the gaps in circulation when regular circulation was not possible for U.S. coins of that size. 1852 was the beginning of this. The Coinage Act of 1864 banned private coinage but it was not fully enforced till 1883, particularly in the Western states. Later tokens were made without denominations. Some were backdated. There are over 570 different varieties that have been identified.
These private issue fractional Gold coins were a symptom of the difficulties of commerce with the Western states. They occupy a unique space in the history of U.S. money.
Most of these tokens have a decent premium over their intrinsic value, but the most expensive of them generally tend to be a couple thousand dollars. There are a variety of counterfeits and modern imitations that have made the rounds as well. Any of these tokens created after 1883 are much less valuable.
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