Would the mere detail
of the easy acquisition of $50,000 for the loss of a paltry $50
heirloom interest you?
Then get out that little box of coins your grandfather left and look
them over. For somewhere, some place, in these wide United States
there must still be one of two of these flattened lumps of two and a
half once octagon shaped pieces of California gold, those octagon
pieces that he miners called "slugs."
Now, don't worry about these $50 slugs in that broker's widow down on
Montgomery street. These are not the $50,000 kind. When one
of the latter is found it will be most likely in the possession of some
private family. No public or private coin collector has one, or
at least none has so advertised the fact. Even the main
Philadelphia hasn't a single specimen of the slug. But there
should be one or more left that may be resting in some old attic,
possibly in yours.
When you take into consideration that between one and two millions of
dollars worth of gold was melted down and made into $50 slugs during
three months of 1851, the chances of finding a few ought to be very
good especially as those and more were made after that date.
Now the chance of finding these slugs should but as a matter of fact,
they are not. The reasons are various.
While millions of dollars worth of gold was used in making those
slugs, still but comparatively little is known about their history. One
of our greatest coin experts, Charles H Shankle, of Pittsburgh, Pa.,
has examined scores of them, says that he has not found one of these
priceless pieces that are almost mythical in their mystery.
Even the appearance of this early slug is unknown, the date of its
first issue is likewise unknown. Who engraved the die, who hammered out
the gold, who "struck the first coin, who was the first man to spend
it, all is unknown.
It is one of California's great mysteries, is this "the first mint in
I have talked with scores of old miners along the Other Lode and most
of them knew of it, many had seen it, but none knew anything positively
anything about it or its coinage. I have talked with old mine
superintendents , old mine foremen who have lived in the vicinity for
years. I have discussed it with old stage drivers, storekeepers,
with geologists, mining engineers and with old Bill Harden. All
had heard of the place, most had been there or past there, all were
sure that the mint was at Mount Ophir, that it was the first mint in
California, but--------. And right here each stopped, for none could
offer any tangible proof that what they believed was true.
Another thing about it all is that absolutely no mention is made of in
in any of the book devoted to the subject of early California coinage,
though the statement that such a mint did operate at Mount Ophir has
been current for over seventy years. But then, everything doesn't
get in books that happened in California in the early days. Up to the
present, including this year's issue of the latest (four or five words
here are unreadable) which has been in current use in this state and
throughout the mining world since 1848, has not yet been honored with a
place in its pages. It was a "Chispa" of gold that Marshall
found, not a nugget, but you would never discover what a "chispa" was
from any standard dictionary.
(transcribers note- gold in a
flatten "rolled-oat" formation or chispa, such as Marshall had found in pellets
like pumpkin seed, flax seed, and wheat. . page 29 ,
History of the Gold Discoveries of the Northern Mines of California's
Mother Lode Gold Belt as Told by the Newspapers and Miners 1848-1875
By Lewis J Swindle
Published by Trafford Publishing,
ISBN 1412241928, 9781412241922 )
Of all the counties in the State, probably non contains as little
authentic record of its early history as does that of Mariposa.
Even Thompson & West, those prolific producers of county histories
from one end of the State to the other, never attempted one of Mariposa
county; yet that could had one of the most interesting histories of
any on the Mother Lode.
The cause of its lack of written record is due primarily to the fact
that Colonel Fremont had it so completely tied up and under his
for so many years that it never became sufficiently settled to tempt a
producer of county histories to write one of that county.
Those early county histories, at one time considered as more or less of
a joke by historians, are now most eagerly pressed by these same
students of California history, for in many cases all that is known of
many local events is chronicled in these old books, books made
possible by the paid "puffs" of various subscribers.
Neither Mariposa nor Calaveras County had the necessary population
willing to finance a county book, and in many cases there does not
exist a file of the earliest papers. Calaveras' sole hope lies in a
certain editor in its county seat carrying out his much promised plant
to write a history of that county. (San Andreas papers please copy),
Leaving the Yosemite road at Mariposa and turning north, one passes
through Mount Bullion, now called Princeton. A few miles further
on one goes down a long winding road through a ravine, to come
suddenly upon great masses of stone masonry at the bottom of the
grade, masonry that was placed there three quarters of a century
ago. These heavy foundations, almost monolithe in their solidity,
extend in all directions. A road to the left across the creek leads you
past all that remains of the chute through which has passed
probably two or three tons of gold. A bend in the road discloses
the remains of what had once been a truly beautiful stone building,
with a very large, triple-flued chimney. The original roof has
long since disappeared; the present one being of shakes.
Out near the edge of the creek lies an immense flat stone. It has been
broken in two or three pieces, and they now lie separated by several
feet. The upper side looks as though it had ben once held in gigantic
lathe and its face turned smooth and true. This stone, on which,
so the story goes, was ground to powder the gold quartz ore from which
the first fifty dollar slugs were made, is now the property of the
State, but its weight precluded its removal to Sacramento at the time
it was given.
Just across a small ravine stand the walls of the one building that
holds a fascinating interest for us; for in this building was coined
the first gold coin of California if all the stories current
along the Mother Lode be half true.
A thorough search of the old papers on file at the State Library shows
no mention of the operations of this first mint, though we do get a
reference to the early mine there.
Edgar Holmes Adams, author of by far the best work on California
coinage, who spent much time both at the Bancroft Library and the State
Library, apparently found not a single item in reference to the Mount
Ophir Mint. On the other hand I am indebted to him for the first
tangible evidence that possibly this mint did exist just as has been
claimed these many years.
That reference, on page 59, states that Colonel J. D. Stevenson,
commander of the First New York Volunteers in the Mexican war, in
1849,..........told Kohler that a number of Englishmen, among them
being skilled assayers, had a consultation with him about starting an
assaying plant and coining gold pieces that should pass in lieu of gold
That was in April of 1849.
From the various stores told me I have culled the following data which
may sometime aid in solving the problem.
Jim Ridgeway at Mariposa, the dean of old timers in this district, told
me that Christova Ortega discovered the Mount Ophir mine, that he dug
out millions from it. Ortega did discover the Oso mine further up
towards Bear Valley, it is true, but aside from Ridgeways statement
there is no record that he discovered the Mount Ophir mine and took
millions form it. It is quite possible that Ortega did first locate
that lead, but if so, then he sold it out before developing it to any
Tying in with the statement that Colonel Stevenson made to Kohler in
that an English company had arrived with the intention of
producing coin here is the fact that an English company that __
___ _ ______ description of Stevenson's arrived in Mariposa
county at that time with just that kind of a personnel, having expert
assayers, mill men and high class machinery with them.
Mariposa county, and particularly that section around Hornitos and
Mount Bullion was more of a Mexican settlement in the beginning of
the gold rush, and about the only attention they paid to anything was
the gold placers.
Consequently, the arrival of an English company that was interested in
quartz mining should have been an outstanding item in the history of
That they must have had ample capital is proven by the fact that by
1852 they had erected a mill and were running ten stamps to capacity,
the ore running in value from $14 per ton up.
They had the first steam engine in that part of the mines, an old
marine engine and boiler salvaged from a small steamer that went on the
rock near San Francisco. They bought the machinery cheap, got it out at
a low tide, loaded it on a Stockton boat; at Stockton they loaded it
onto ox teams and by this slow freight finally got it up in the
mountains to Mount Ophir.
They had from eighteen to twenty men working all the time, and
sometimes many more. In order to facilitate milling, they had a furnace
in which they burned the quartz before they milled it.
They put up building after building, nearly all made from the flat
stone so plentiful in that district. The architecture was very
artistic, some being very much of the Italian, some of the English
type, as both nationalities were represented among the workmen and
designers, and apparently each ______with the other in making
good looking structures.
The old office building, which still remains, give a faint idea
of how really good the the others must have looked.
The original English company, who first opened up the works went
under the name of Hale & Company. Their headquarters
was in Edenburgh, Scotland, and they were all business.
They came for but one purpose and that was to get as much gold out as
possible and ship it home.
There was a great shortage of gold coins here in '48 and '49.
The government required that all custom dealers be paid in gold
coin. There wasn't enough gold coin here at that time to half go
around. Those who had it used it to advantage when the United
State, in order to allow merchants and miners to get their good through
the Custom house, permitted them to deposit gold dust as security for
the payment of the duty in coin later. The custom house men most
graciously allowed the gold dust to be valued at $10 per ounce, though
much of it had an intrinsic value of nearly $20. As there
was little opportunity of getting gold coin with which to redeem their
gold dust, the merchants and miners were compelled to stand by and
watch it sold at auction thirty days later, the gold dust going to
speculators who had gold coin to pay for it at the rate of from $6 to
$8 an ounce.
The so-called "Forty-thieves" of the modern "old hoss" sale have
nothing on those early speculators for keeping the other fellow out.
The cry for a local mint was loud and incessant, but with profits of
from ten to fourteen dollars an ounce on gold dust, these speculators,
and so its often claimed, the custom officials, did everything
possible to delay the establishment of a branch mint.
Individuals began to make gold coins. Some were beautiful specimens of
the coin maker's art, others were very crude in their appearance.
All circulated for a time as coin.
Tales of the scarcity soon reached the east and other places. From
Oregon came a large shipment of five and ten dollar pieces, and from
Salt Lake City the Mormons sent thousands of twenty-dollar
pieces. These started out with a rush, and soon started back
again, for the merchants found that the wily Mormon had put only
seventeen dollars worth of gold in each $20 piece. This made them
suspicious of all Mormans coinage so they refused to take it Eventually
most, if not all of it, was gathered in and melted up for bullion.
Many mining companies, organized in the East, thinking that the
operation of a private mint in California would prove a bonanza,
started west with complete minting machinery of various degrees of
Minting machinery is notoriously heavy, loose sand is notoriously
difficult to get through with heavy loads, which explains why the
Plains Route was strewn from end to end with minting machinery in '49
Some men, however, brought out just the simplest of coinage devices, a
sledge hammer being the power used to strike the dies with. In
the spring of '49 a five dollar piece was struck at Benicia by Norris,
Gregg & Norris. It had a San Francisco imprint, and evidently
when the die was made they had intended making the coins in San
Francisco. but the owners had moved to Benicia, or at least were
stopping over there when they struck their first coin. Specimens
of it are very rare today.
In the mines the miner wanted gold coin. The reason was manifest
every time he went to a saloon or gambling house. If he put
dust down on a bet, or let the bartender take a pinch for a drink, the
miner was always certain that he was getting cheated, and he always
was; but if he laid down a coin he felt that he wasn't, but he
was, just the same.
So the miner demanded gold coin. We are now getting back to Mount
Under the Constitution it was unlawful to make private coinage, but at
that time the law was pretty much of a ded letter. They were allowed to
make it if of proper intrinsic value and did not too closely
resemble the regular United States coni.
Mount Ophir was a long way from San Francisco. Gold coin seldom
filtered down that far. The English company, having artisans
along, having machinery for doing the work, and having their own assay
offices, decided to relieve the situation by making up their own coins
and paying their men off in it.
Quite a little town sprang up around the mine . A fellow named
Miller ran a litte store on what is now the main county road.
A state station was established, a postoffice added, and a
boarding house put up. According to all reports, the
personnel of the entire English company was of the very best.
Now comes the most difficult part of the problem, that of deciding just
when those first coins were minted. All those who claim to have
any knowledge of it concede that these coins antedated any
other $50 slugs produced in teh State, which, if true, puts them as
being made before the summer of 1850. This is quite possible, for
the ENglish company was supposed to have been in active operation long
before that time, using the arastra method of grinding their gold ore
in order to extract the gold from the rock.
If they had their die maker with them the owrk of preparing and making
a pattern and die would have been a matter of detail, while for
the actual coining all that was needed was one husky man to swing a ten
pound sledge hammer while another man held the dies steady on the
striking anvil. Then a file, a pair of scales, a little find sand
paper, a brisk rubbing over a piece of felt and the coin was ready for
The first cry that goes up from the average person is "Well, if they
made all those coins, where are they now?" That's the question
most of us would like to be able to answer.
Some years ago, so it's said, a man dug up three $50 slugs at the foot
of a tree at mount Ophir, which explains why so many trees there
have since had the appearance of being so well cultivated around their
roots. No one seems to have noticed what these three slugs look
like. No one seems to know just who found them.
If those three slugs could be located and they should happen to bear
the authenticated mark of the Mount Ophir Mining Company, the owner
would have little cause to worry over the future.
Everything points to the fact that the slug was issued at Mount Ophir,
and the chances are even that they made the first $50 ones, and
there is a chance that some are still in existance. If one is
found it will be practically pricelss. The finder can command his own
As to the why of the scarcity of early $50 slug: In order to meet
all criticism from private and governmental sources the coiners made
their slugs to contain not only to containa full $50 worth of gold, but
in most cases a little bit more. The result was that when
government coinage of gold came into force, it was very profitable to
gather in these slugs and melt them down into bullion.
I'll anticipate the question, "But how could they afford to put more
than $50 worth of gold into a coin that was only worth $50?" The
answer is easy, the private mints paid but $16 to $18 per ounce for
gold dust that assayed $20 per ounce in real value. They put a
little more than two and one half ounces into a fifty dollar slug, but
they paid probably only $41 for the gold dust that went into a $50
piece. It was the intrinsic value of most of the early California
coinage that caused it to be sent ____ later to the melting pot, hense
In 1860 the Mount Ophir mint passed into the hands of the Merced Mining
Company, and from them to Colonel Fremont. It had at one time
twenty-four stamps, with a forty-six horse ower engine.
Now nothing but the memory remains, and even that is indistict.
transcribed by C Feroben
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