Coins of gold rush San Francisco

Adventurers from every quarter of the earth crowded into San Francisco in the early days, Europeans and Americans from the east coast mixed with Chinese, Japanese, and Hindus from Asia as well as Pacific Islanders, Mexicans, Central and South Americans and Africans. Every day in the streets of the city the individual national dress of these men could be seen and their native languages heard. They also brought with them a large quantity of the coins of their respective countries, which, because of the lack of any kind of convenient or acceptable currency in San Francisco at the time, were traded from hand to hand with little reference to their relative worth.

Gold 1850 Liberty Head US Dollar

The standard of the day was the American dollar and to that were related the Mexican peso and Mexican real, also known as a bit or eighth of a dollar. So any foreign silver coin about the size of a dollar, such as the less valuable French five-franc piece, was rated as a dollar. The Indian Rupee passed for a half dollar and the British shilling a quarter, or two bits. An American dime, a British sixpence, or a French half-franc all passed for a bit.

In the beginning of the gold rush there were few gold coins, the most numerous were British sovereigns but a year after the gold discovery a number of assay offices, as many as fourteen by 1851, began to issue private gold coins. The most plentiful of these were the five and ten dollar pieces of Moffat and Co. dated 1849 and 50. Other issues from Baldwin and Co., Dubosq. and Co., Schultz and Co., and Dunbar and Co. were well circulated.

Mexico 1850-Do JMR 8 reales coin

In 1850 Frederick D. Kohler, newly appointed state assayer, issued stamped ingots worth from forty to one hundred and fifty dollars while Moffat and Co. also issued ingots valued from nine to two hundred and sixty dollars. After a United States assay office was established, Moffat and Co. was authorized to issue large, octagonal fifty-dollar pieces known as slugs that bore the stamp of Augustus Humbert, United States assayer. More five, ten, twenty and fifty dollar coins were issued by Waas, Molitor and Co., Kellog and Co. and others but none were United States coins and intrinsically not worth what they purported to be, but all passed for currency in those early days until a United States branch mint was established in California and they were withdrawn from circulation.

1st San Francisco Mint



  1. Isaiah Ingels says

    Gold coins were one of the oldest forms of money. This was later followed by silver coins. Gold coins were in circulation in the United States from 1838 to 1933. The design was the Liberty Head bust but this was only made until 1907. The design was then changed to the Indian Head and Saint Gaudens motifs and was used until 1933 when the Great Depression began. This prompted the recall of gold coins which makes them very difficult to find today….

    See ya soon

    • Thanks for writing, Isaiah. In spite of all the gold around, coins were in short supply is the early days of the gold rush. One man, David Broderick, who later became a powerful political leader, reportedly minted $10 gold pieces with $8 worth of gold in them. It must have been an incredible time.

  2. Harold Grice says

    Did anyone at that time realize the adventure, the magnitude of the adventure, that was present? Is there a comprehensive report from that time on this?

    • I’m with you, Harold. I wish there was some record of how the early residents felt but I don’t know of one. Things were so scattered in those days it’s amazing we know what we do of the history, but for a comprehensive report on the feelings or ethos of the population I expect we are out of luck.

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