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UNITED STATES ASSAY OFFICE
IN CALIFORNIA

History of the United States Assay Office

While the government’s response to the need for an adequate coinage was slow and never satisfactory, two institutions were established (the State Assay Office of California and the United States Assay Office) that did provide an unconventional and partly successful attempt to supply a frontier area with an acceptable quantity of an "official" circulating medium.

The private coinage proscription was not enforced by the public or government because the State Assay Office failed to mint enough ingots for the local demand. Ironically, an institution that was designed to replace the need for private gold minting actually preserved it (i.e., Moffat & Co.'s undebased coins from the first period continued in circulation) and in fact stimulated its resurgence (i.e., the second period of private gold coinage).

The history of the U.S. Assay Office can be broken down into three major time periods:

State of California Assay Office under F.D. Kohler (1850-1851)

The United States Assay Office under Moffat & Co. (1851-1852)

The United States Assay Office under Curtis, Perry & Ward (1852-1853)

WAS THE U.S. ASSAY OFFICE A BRANCH MINT?

There is considerable support for the belief that the U. S. Assay Office should be regarded as a provisional branch United States mint.  The Act of September 30, 1850, provided for the establishment of an assay office under the supervision of the United States assayer, “Who shall cause the stamp of the United States . . . to be affixed to each bar or ingot of gold.” The assayer was directly responsible to the Secretary of the Treasury, an even higher authority than the Director of the Mint to whom the Superintendents of the Philadelphia, Dahlonega, and Charlotte mints were responsible.

In addition, Humbert used the same form for his monthly reports to the mint director in Philadelphia as did the other branch mint superintendents; these are preserved at the National Archives.  In effect, the United States Assay Office seems to qualify at least as a Provisional Mint of the United States Government as it operated in many ways as the four United States Mints did.

USE OF PAPER MONEY

One may wonder why, with such a meager amount of small denomination currency, the state did not resort to issuing paper money, as did the Mormons (see Utah and the Mormons).  The California State Legislature wrote into its Constitution that it would “prohibit by law any person or persons, association, company, or corporation from creating paper to circulate as money.”

Quite simply, it was not legal.  State issues of paper currency were unconstitutional; private issues of paper currency were outlawed by the California state constitution.  But neither was private gold coining legal – at least it certainly was not authorized by the Federal Government.  The difference was that the public was prone to accept gold coins, sometimes even those that were debased, whereas there existed a nationwide aversion to paper money, probably arising from the disastrous effect of the 1837 paper money speculation elsewhere in the United States. While some states and their cities issued scrip bearing interest to fund public debts, little private or public currency was issued in the western United States prior to 1858.  Vain attempts, however, were made by enterprising companies in California to relieve the dearth of small denomination currency in the West.

Sometime in 1850 the banking house of F. Argenti & Co. planned an issue of $50, $100, $500, and $1,000 notes. No signed notes are known, however.

According to historian Ira B. Cross, on December 31, 1851, the firm of F. Marriott & Co., loan, land, scrip, mining, and money agents in San Francisco, lithographed one thousand $1 and three hundred $5 “cash orders” to be used as currency.  The company first claimed that the orders would be redeemed by them and the banking house of B. Davidson, but the latter ran a disclaimer for almost a month cautioning the public against receiving any of the notes.

Practically every newspaper printed editorials against the currency issue citing its unconstitutionality, the possibility of setting a dangerous precedent, and the deceit of Marriott & Co. by its unauthorized use of a banker’s name to sell its currency.  It can be seen by this abortive attempt at a paper currency why the experiment was not tried again for several years.

--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 York.

Images courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles, Inc.

Significant examples:
PCGS Proof-65 (illustrated above).  Ex - Garrett

Sources and/or recommended reading:
"Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States" by Donald H. Kagin