Pioneer, Oregon region, 1849


Gold Coins of Oregon, 1849

Nearly ten years before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, settlers became consumed with an ideology of expansion aimed towards the country east of the Mississippi, and in the aftermath of the Panic of 1837 — a string of events which devastated the economy.  In 1844, presidential-nominee James Polk based his Democratic election campaign platform on the new and appealing concept of “Manifest Destiny,” vowing to vigorously extend the frontiers of America westward.  His pledge included bringing Texas into the Union and seeking to take all of Oregon before the British could claim it.  People started to migrate west.

The promises a newly elected President Polk made were not easily realized.  The Mexicans refused to recognize the Texas claim to independence (c.1844) and turned down a second offer made by the United States to purchase California(1845).  The ensuing battles over the Alamo and San Jacinto provided Polk with the pretext to go to war with Mexico over Texas and to take California by force, in addition to securing the Oregon Territory.  After learning the results of the Alamo – American bloodshed on American soil – Congress declared war on Mexico in June of 1846 and the U.S.- Mexican War commenced, however, not before Congress authorized two military expeditions forward into the Sacramento area in the early 1840’s under the leadership of Colonel John Fremont.

In actuality, these expeditions promoted a land development scheme, especially in the Oregon Territory (which stretched to the southern border of Alaska).  The few pioneers who relocated

News was slow to travel back and forth betweenWashingtonand these new frontiers, andFremontfound himself awaiting orders

the interests of those pioneers located in the Oregon Territory were limited to the development of agriculture, preparation of lumber products and fur trapping.  Many of these settlers had relocated from parts East by following the Oregon Trail blazed earlier by explorers and the military.

were the main occupations of settlers and beaver pelts served as a medium of exchange.  After the discovery of gold in California, gold bust began to appear in the Territory but was not really suitable for use as money.

On February 16, 1849 the legislature of the provisional government authorized an issue of $5.00 and $10.00 coins to be struck in pure gold.  Although a new Governor, appointed in Washington, declared this act to be illegal, the need was so great that a group of public spirited met took steps on their own to implement the initial legislative permission.  They organized the Oregon Exchange Co. and established a mint in Oregon City.

Hamilton Campbell who incorporated the beaver, the original currency, into his design, cut the dies for the new issues.  The minting machinery was made from scrap iron by an enterprising blacksmith.  The fist coins issued were the $5.00 pieces.  The now valuable and sought after $10.00 pieces followed.


Arnold and Romisa:

When the precious yellow metal was discovered in 1848, news spread quickly northward to Oregon.  By 1849, a sizable percentage of the white population had journeyed to the south to seek gold.  Many returned to Oregon territory in the same year bringing with them quantities of gold dust.  Similarly, Mormons returned to Utah with gold.

Early in 1849 a number of petitions to establish a mint in Oregon were proposed.  On February 15th of the same year an act was passed in the legislature which provided for the establishment of such a facility in Oregon City.  It was provided that nay profits arising from the coinage would be used to pay the debt of the Cayuse Indian War.

The state Treasurer was authorized o purchase gold dust of virgin purity at $16.50 per ounce.  The resultant coins were to be legal tender throughout the territory at $1 per penny weight.  Punishment was provided for anyone who traded gold at a false weight or stamped gold without legal permission. Oregon City, located 15 miles from Portland, was then an important community.  The coinage act stipulated that:

“The dies for stamping shall represent on one side the Roman figure 5 for the pieces of 5 pennyweights and the Roman figure 10 for the pieces of 10 pennyweights.  The reverse side shall have the words ‘Oregon Territory’ and the date of the year stamping around the face, with the arms of Oregon in the center.”

Joseph Lane, the governor, declared the legislative act to be unconstitutional on March 3rd, for it was seemingly in conflict with United States government coinage laws –something which did not even seem to bother private coiners in California to the south, but the engaging of a state government in  minting was another thing entirely.

To remedy he situation a group of eight prominent merchants and citizens banded together to establish a private facility.  The principals were W.K. Kilborne, Theophilus Magruder, James Taylor, George Abernathy, W.H. Wilson, William H. Rector, J.G. Campbell, and Noyes Smith.  The firm was designated as the Oregon Exchange Company.

Hamilton Campbell, a Methodist missionary, was employed to cut the dies for $5 a piece, while Victor Wallace, a machinist, engraved the $10 dies.  The coins produced were to be of virgin gold without alloy, due no doubt to the lack of sophisticated refining facilities.

The obverse die of the $5 bore the initials K.M.T.A.W.R.G.S., representing the names of the company members.  The G was an error and should have been C for Campbell.  The obverse of the $5 pictured the beaver on a log facing to the right, the same animal which, being a trade mark of the territory, had been sued on the Northwest Trading token.  Below was the designation T.O. for Territory of Oregon and below that the year 1849 with branches on either side.  On the reverse appeared the notation OREGON EXCHANGE COMPANY, 130 G. NATIVE GOLD 5 D.  The pieces contained 130 grains of gold or nearly 5 ½ pennyweight.

The $10 design was similar to the $5 except that the error of the G initial was corrected by substituting the correct letter C.  The initials of Abernathy and Wilson were omitted, perhaps because they had left the firm by the time the $10 issues were made.  The abbreviation for Oregon Territory was changed to O.T. rather than the earlier T.O.  With the exception of the denomination and weight information, the design closely followed that of the earlier $5.  The dies were engraved very lightly on the reverse, with the result that coins struck were characteristically very weak on that side.

Thomas Powell produced the necessary machinery for preparing the metal and striking the coin, using as a source iron from wagon wheel rims.  The Oregon Exchange Company paid him $1 per pound for all the iron he was able to obtain for this purpose from old wagons that had crossed the plains and other scrap sources.  Powell did the forging, while William Rector, one of the partners in the Oregon Exchange Company, did all the lathe work.

Coinage amounted top approximately 6000 of the $5 pieces and 2850 of the $10 coins.  These were accepted as legal tender throughout the Oregon territory, which at that time included the present status of Oregon and Washington and all land toward the east reaching the Rocky Mountains. Oregon City had approximately 1000 white citizens, while the entire territory comprised only about 900 inhabitants.

Many of the Oregon issues were sent to Californian payment for merchandise.  In keeping with other ephemeral coins of the era, by a decade later nearly all had been melted.  By the late nineteenth century, the few surviving pieces were recognized as prize rarities.

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