The S.S. Central America
The Coins
The Coins of the SSCentralamerica

The thousands of coins carried aboard the Central America in 1857 represent an illuminating cross-section of the minted currencies of the time. In addition to European and privately minted coins, passengers carried a modest amount of silver such as Mexican and Chilean pesos and Spanish pieces of four.

Such a wide range of currencies was not unusual. When James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848, California did not have a branch mint. As the population of San Francisco exploded from just a few hundred settlers to 25,000 gold-mad citizens in a matter of months, a monetary system couldn't be developed fast enough. Not surprisingly, entrepreneurs were among the first to fill the need for a dependable currency with privately minted coins. The oldest California gold coins found aboard the Central America were $10 gold pieces minted by Moffat & Company, one of the first and most esteemed of the early private coiners of California. John Moffat, along with his three partners and his machinery, set sail for the West Coast almost immediately upon the news of the gold rush.

By August 1849, Moffat & Company was issuing $5 and $10 gold coins bearing a bust of Liberty, similar to the federal design but with the name "Moffat & Co" replacing the word Liberty on her coronet. On the other side soared an eagle, accompanied by the words SMV California Gold, 1849." The SMV stands for Standard Mint Value.

Not all the assayers were as honest as Moffat & Co, and there were occasionally problems when some firms minted coins containing less than their stated amount or purity of gold. In frustration, the public turned to silver and to foreign coins on a limited basis.

A Graded San Francisco Mint CoinDespite several well-publicized scandals, including the Baldwin & Company gold swindle of 1850, private coins continued to be accepted in the absence of public issue. Without a way to verify the purity of private coinage, however, a suspicious public increased the clamor for a branch mint that would issue "real coins," preferably in the $2.50, $5, and $10 denominations required for daily commerce. On September 30, 1850, the United States Congress established the US Assay Office in San Francisco. This was not the full mint required to produce coins identical to US mint issue, but at least it could mint provisional coins from the local alloy. Augustus Humbert, a watchmaker from New York City, was named US Assayer; Moffat and Company received the contract.

Unfortunately, the US government failed to address the critical need for small commercial denominations and did not authorize any that were lower than $50. The most commonly used government denomination, Humbert's $50 octagonal "slug," was wildly unpopular. However, the words "Augustus Humbert United States Assayer of Gold 1851" enscripted around the edges to discourage made it "tamper evident," and the coin did succeed in driving many of the debased private issues off the street.

But even this was a mixed blessing. The disappearance of these privately minted coins made the smaller denominations even scarcer and depressed commerce. Although it was the proper weight and purity, the $50 slug became so undesirable that it eventually traded at a discount of $48, which was no improvement over the earlier debased coinage.

Samuel Wass and Agoston Molitor, Hungarian refugees and graduates of the esteemed School of the Mines in Germany, capitalized on the $50 slug's unpopularity when they opened a gold processing plant and assay office in San Francisco in October 1851. Wass, Molitor & Company began to issue round $10 and $20 coins. During a later coinage crisis, in 1855, the company produced the only circulating $50 coin ever minted in California. An example appeared in one of the very first trays of coins Nemo brought to the surface. The wide acceptance of all the Hungarian assayers' issue is evident by the many other Wass, Molitor coins that were possessed by the Central America passengers. In February 1852, the government finally authorized the issue of $5 and $10 coins. John Moffat had sold his interest in the company, but his partners, Curtis, Perry, and Ward, won the contract and produced many of the $10 eagles so plentiful in the treasure. They also produced half eagles and double eagles. When these lesser denominations began to appear in the market, the $50 slug regained public favor because it was useful for large purchases. Its unique octagonal shape became a symbol of California coinage, and several of the slugs found their way on boards the Central America. By 1854, the government established a full-fledged US Mint offering coins struck from California gold. As the common currency of the day, thousands of these government-issued coins were carried by passengers, as well.

Previous Page Next Page