Gold Coins of the Mormons, 1849-1850, 1860
Two years after the martyred death of the President of the Mormon Church at Carthage, Illinois in 1844, the Mormons, led by their new leader Brigham Young, were forced to move their settlement due to increased anti-Mormon sentiment and occasional mob violence. These pioneers made their destination the Great Salt Lake Valley and first arrived there on July 24, 1847. During this migration, nearly five hundred Mormon men left and joined the United States army to fight in the Mexican War. Known as the Mormon Battalion, these men were assigned to posts in Alta California, located quite near to the American River, the source of the first gold strike.
When the War ended, many battalion members were able to leave for the Great Salt Lake to rejoin their families. Most, however, remained in California in order to earn enough money to equip themselves for the journey home. Shortly thereafter, James Marshall, a veteran of the Mormon Battalion himself, discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill. The immediate result was everyone abandoned his or her local jobs in the hopes of striking it rich as a miner. Most Mormons did succeed in their attempts and as a result, a substantial quantity of gold dust made its way from California to the Mormon community, now organized as the State of Deseret.
Since there was no uniform medium of exchange, the emergence of gold was at first welcomed. The task of weighing and making the gold suitable for commerce, however, created problems and the Church leaders eventually decided to strike coins by establishing a mint. After designs for $2 1/2, $5, $10 and $20 denominations were created in November of 1848, an initial deposit of gold was made by a battalion member on December 10th, and the first coins, twenty-five $10 Eagles came off of the press on the 12th. A second minting occurred seven days later and only twenty-one more $10 Eagles were made before the crucibles cracked and all production ceased. Nearly a year went by before minting resumed when all four denominations were struck. By some accounts, nearly $70,000 face value could have been struck between 1849 and 1851.
The coins themselves were not minted with any additional alloys and wore down rapidly as they circulated. Mormon coinage was also underweight as a U.S. Mint Report indicates the $20.00 pieces, for example, assayed at between $16.90 and $17.53, although it wais noted that they were of very high quality. Eventually the supply of Mormon gold coins diminished as most were shipped to the East Coast in the form of bullion deposits or in trade. As they were redeemed at the U.S. Mint, they were melted down for official use. The Mormons thus relied more heavily upon the circulating paper currency for exchange.
Gold was discovered again in 1858, this time in the Colorado territory. As prospectors brought dust into Salt Lake City, Brigham Young resumed the production of gold coinage, but limited the denomination to the $5 Half Eagle. Only 202 pieces were struck between July 27, 1859 and December 12, 1859, all bearing the date 1860. Then on January 14, 1860 until March 8, 1861, an additional 587 pieces were struck, bringing the total mintage to only 789 coins.
In an attempt to curb the minting of coinage by private concerns throughout the United States, the U.S. Mint entered into a deal with the Mormons to exchange all remaining 1860-dated Mormon $5 gold coins for the official circulating equivalent. The new governor of Utah then prohibited any additional manufacture of coins by an order released in 1861 and in 1862 production of all Mormon coin and currency ended. On June 8, 1864, the United States Congress passed a law forbidding any further private coinage of gold.
Altogether, the Mormon Church created seven denominations with different designs, four of which were for $5 Half Eagles, dated 1849, 1850 and two in 1860. On the earliest coins dated 1849, they used the all-seeing eye symbol of Jehovah on the obverse, similar to that found on their temples at the time, and clasped hands symbolizing friendship on the reverse. (It should be noted that this was the first time a $20 gold piece was struck for circulation within the United States!) For reasons uncertain, nine stars were added to the same design on the only issue struck in 1850, the Half Eagle. On the issues dated 1860, the recumbent image of a lion was used on the obverse, and an eagle with outstretched wings protecting a beehive (the symbol for industriousness) appears on the reverse.