PIONEER GOLD COINS
The coins and patterns of J.H. Bowie represent a family organization’s efforts. The name Bowie is known to many people because of the Bowie knife invented by James Bowie of South Carolina and because of his relative Jim Bowie who defended the Alamo in Texas. But it was the Bowies of Maryland (distant cousins of the aforementioned Bowies) and the senior branch of the family who were destined to make dies and so render their name numismatically immortal.
In 1705, John Bowie emigrated from Scotland to Maryland and established a clan still prominent in that state. Lord Baltimore granted Bowie as a tenant-in-chief several manors in an area located approximately midway between Washington and Annapolis, where the town of Bowie and its racetrack thrive today.
Joseph Haskins Bowie – great, great, grandson of John – was born in Georgetown, D.C., on January 25, 1816. Young Haskins, as he was called, grew up on a plantation in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, where he and others his own age played amid the many pine trees. In later years, Haskins used the pine tree as a symbol on his coinage.
There was then, and is now, a branch of the Bowie family in North Carolina, and it is possible that Haskins visited them and may have known of the gold strikes and the mints of Reid or, more likely, the Bechtlers. It is more than coincidental that the Bowie coins and Bechtlers’ are quite similar. Both have the weight and fineness in grains recorded on their surfaces. This feature is unique to Bechtler, Bowie, and a coiner formerly associated with Bechtler, Schaeffer. Perhaps Bower used a Bechtler coin as a model, or remembered the appearance of these coins. Certainly he could have seen them often enough in Maryland or at his cousins’ place in North Carolina, or both, during the twenty years of their currency before his departure for California.
At any rate, Bowie apparently left the plantation in Maryland to join his cousin Augustus, a surgeon, who had opened a practice in San Francisco, after completing a tour of duty with the United Stated Navy. Dr. Augustus J. Bowie established his office in a cottage at the corner of Dupont and Clay Streets across from Moffat and Company, which may have suggested the idea of a mint to the Bowies.
On his trip to California, Haskins was accompanied by his cousins, Hyde Ray and Hamilton (Ham) Bowie. The three men sailed on the U.S. Frigate Saint Andrews (probably due to Augustus’ influence) on March 12, 1849, arrived in Panama, crossed the Isthmus on foot, by Indian dugout canoe, and on donkeys. Because of the great difficulty in transporting very heavy loads across the Isthmus, it is probable that even if Bowie or his cousins had the foresight to provide themselves with a coining press, planchet forming the equipment, etc., they would have had to discard them. Probably they could only have carried the comparatively lightweight dies which were almost certainly engraved in the East. These, as shall be seen, were eventually used in striking coins.
Not being able to obtain passage in Panama on any of the fully booked ships that regularly plied the California route (California, Oregon or Pacific), the Bowies were reduced to the less comfortable accommodations offered by the Massachusetts Whaler, Sylph, and arrived off Monterey on May 21, 1849. Coastal fogs delayed the cousins’ entry into San Francisco Bay until June 25.
One wonders if the Bowies, after such an arduous journey, did not regret that they had not taken up an interesting but obvious spoof in the New York Tribune of March 12:
AIRLINE TO CALIFORNIA
Our staid citizens were somewhat excited on Sunday (March 11) by the appearance of large hand bills announcing in bold capitals, the Aerial locomotive will leave this city on the 15th of April, on its first flight to California. The price of passage is fixed at $50, including board, and the trip is expected to be made, in calm weather in two days – against head winds in five days. The proprietors, Messrs. Porter & Robijohn, propose to stop on the way for companies of not less than twenty. We are glad to learn the plan will be at least fully tested.
Of the down-to-earth Bowie coinage itself, little is known. There was no readily available iron in California to make a coin press, planchet rollers, or similar heavy equipment, but evidently coining equipment was shipped around Cape Horn by some other company and was later used to form and finish the planchets which were then struck with the Bowie dies to produce coins. Perhaps one of the California coiners, such as Kohler & Company, purchased the Bowie dies and used their equipment to make gold coins, as they probably did with other issues. The Bowie dies may have been engraved by Baltimore’s one jewelry manufacturer, George W. Weber.
However the coins were struck, there is only one known gold specimen of the Bowie coins. The reason for their scarcity can be deduced by examining this unique $5 gold piece. Its weight is 8.60 grams and purity .879 fine gold, giving it an intrinsic value in 1849 of just over $5, or more than its purported worth. If this piece is typical of his output, obviously most of them would sooner or later have been taken to the mint, melted, and recoined for profit.
Bowie, after living some time in California, Mexico, and Texas, finally settled in Monticello, Illinois. He died on January 5, 1879, while on a visit to St. Louis, Missouri.
H. R. Bowie went on to become a partner in the law firm of King, Bowie and Judah (no relation to James King of William, though Judah pioneered the transcontinental railroad). He died in 1853 during a trip to Washington, D.C., where he was pleading a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ham speculated in real estate and became treasurer for the city and county of San Francisco from 1852 to 1854. It is an interesting irony that his career was put in jeopardy by another private coiner, the infamous James King of William. An editorial written by King in his newspaper, The Bulletin, accused Ham, then the County Treasurer, of embezzlement. Although indicted, Ham was not convicted even though King was the jury foreman! Later, Ham went to Nicaragua, where he died of cholera in 1856.
--Reprinted with permission of the author
from Donald H. Kagin's, "Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the
United States", copyright 1981, Arco Publishing, Inc. of New