A History of the New Orleans Mint

Date of Service: 1838 to 1861 and 1879 to 1909
Mint Mark:  "O"

The New Orleans Mint opened for business in 1838, amid political strife. The venerable facility subsequently experienced war, peace, neglect, modern rebirth, and Hurricane Katrina. Read on to learn more about the New Orleans Mint and its unique role in the history of the Crescent City.

Hit the "Saga of the US Mint" link at the upper right to choose other US Mint facilities to study. The headings directly below are units of the New Orleans Mint chapter.

United States Mint Facilities
Philadelphia Charlotte Dahlonega New Orleans
San Francisco Carson City Denver West Point

Jackson vs. Biddle, New Branch Mints, and the Panic of 1837
Mississippi River steamboat
The introduction of commercially successful steamboats in the early 1800s increased commercial traffic on the Mississippi River, elevating the importance of the city of New Orleans. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

The introduction of reliable steam-powered paddleboats in the early 1800s helped make New Orleans one of the busiest port cities in the United States. Steamboat traffic on the Mississippi River floated American goods bound for worldwide distribution to New Orleans, for access to the high seas.

As a port of entry, New Orleans played a major role receiving foreign imports, including gold and silver from Mexico, and was a critical link to the western frontier. By 1830, "The Crescent City" was one of the largest American cities and a focal point in the nation's economy.

The Philadelphia Mint was producing coins at full capacity, but was still not capable of supplying the coinage needed for westward expansion, due in large part to the great distance separating the "City of Brotherly Love" from the farthest reaches of the American South and West. President Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, persuaded Congress that establishing a branch mint in New Orleans would increase coinage circulation in the more remote regions of the nation and stimulate economic activity and growth.

Second Bank of the United States
The Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, designed by William Strickland, built in 1819. At one time, the Second Bank was the financial center of the United States, and the source of great political controversy. This photo taken in 1959. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Jackson also viewed a mint in New Orleans as another weapon in his bitter crusade against Nicholas Biddle and the powerful Second Bank of the United States, located a very short distance from the Philadelphia Mint.

Jackson disliked the Second Bank because he saw it as a banking monopoly set up by the "rich and powerful" to benefit the wealthy few living in eastern seaboard states, locking out financial opportunities for those living in the Appalachians and points further west.

Jackson also claimed the existence of the Bank to be unconstitutional. In staking this position, he expressed his belief in the limited powers of the federal government, but at the same time was ignoring the 1819 Supreme Court ruling that the Bank was acceptable under the Constitution. Distant branch mints would generate hard currency far outside Biddle's orb of influence, weakening the Second Bank while strengthening the hand of state banks and common citizens, or so the Jacksonians averred.

On March 3, 1835, the President signed into law the Act authorizing the construction of the New Orleans Mint. The same Act included text to create additional branch mints at Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia. Of these three new mint outposts, it turns it that it was the New Orleans facility destined to have the longest, most colorful history.

Andrew Jackson Nicholas Biddle
Andrew Jackson (l), President of the US, faced off against Nicholas Biddle (r), President of the Second Bank of the US, in the greatest political battle of the Jacksonian Era. Jackson prevailed, but in doing so, inadvertently sowed the seeds of the Panic of 1837. Images courtesy of National Archives and Library of Congress.

Some historians view the origin of the New Orleans Mint as little more than a pawn in the tale of Jackson vs. Biddle. Eventually, Jackson succeeded in destroying the Second Bank of the United States. The Bank's federal charter was not renewed upon its expiration in 1836.

However, several years before the Bank was to die a natural death, Jackson hoped to speed the process along by withdrawing gold and silver from the Bank and depositing it into smaller banks out West. This move triggered a series of unintended consequences that proved disastrous to America's financial health. With federal money as security, many of Jackson's "pet banks" issued their own paper notes, whose cumulative face value far exceeded the worth of the precious metals they had on deposit. This "easy money" was often leveraged by ordinary people to speculate in land purchases from the United States government. By 1836, the US Treasury was awash in this unsound currency.

Jackson acted to counter the wild land speculation by issuing an Executive Order called the "Specie Circular" (specie is another word for gold and silver coinage). The order mandated the Treasury not to accept anything other than specie (or notes backed by same) for the sale of federally owned lands. Soon thereafter, serious trouble began. The sale of public property dried up because the gold and silver coins required to consummate transactions were scarce, especially in the hinterlands where much of the land was for sale. Clients flocked to their banks, clamoring for redemption of their unsecured notes in gold and silver coins. Of course, banks that over issued their notes could not honor the exchange demand, and as a result, had no choice but to declare insolvency and close their doors.

Panic of 1837
The Panic of 1837 caused men to stand idle, and women and children to beg for food. The government demanded gold and silver coins for payments, which few people could do because banks had suspended specie exchanges. The Whig Party made large political gains as a result of the economic malaise, at the expense of the Democrats. Public domain image.

By early 1837, every bank in the United States was forced to suspend specie payments. A great panic ensued, causing hundreds more banks to fail, wiping out depositors' savings and taking down thousands of businesses and jobs. Factories closed. Construction work on buildings and roads came to a standstill. Hungry unemployed wage earners rioted in the streets of major cities.

The new President, Martin Van Buren, had hardly settled into the White House before being confronted by all this massive financial chaos. The Panic of 1837 dragged on into the 1840s, and to a great extent, crippled the Van Buren administration.

Sadly, what started out as an earnest attempt to help the common man gain better footing against privileged business interests, indirectly led to the worst economic depression in American history, up to that point in time.

The First New Orleans Mint Coins
New Orleans Mint
Two of Strickland's original four 1835 drawings of the proposed New Orleans Mint. The front and side elevations (top), and the first floor layout (bottom) are shown. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

William Strickland, the famous architect who designed the Second Philadelphia Mint, the Second Bank of the United States, as well as the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints, was also commissioned to draft plans for the New Orleans facility. Strickland's Greek Revival style was clearly evident in the drawings and specifications for the fortress-like structure he provided to the government.

The 1835 law authorizing the creation of the nation's first three branch mints allocated a sum of $50,000 to cover construction costs for each of the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints. A total of $250,000 was set aside to build the New Orleans Mint, so it was obvious from the outset that Treasury officials intended for the three-story edifice to be one of the most dignified architectural accomplishments in the entire South upon its completion.

Construction commenced in September, 1835. By the time it was finished, the overall length of the building was 282 feet, having a center section measuring about 90 feet in length and 107 feet in depth, graced by a columned entrance. The center section was flanked by two "L-shaped" wings, dimensioning approximately 96 feet in length by 81 feet at the bottom of the "L" (i.e. the sides of the building). The stem of each "L" connecting into the center section was built to about 45 feet in depth.

New Orleans Mint Coin
The New Orleans "O" mintmark. Photo courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles, Inc., Beverly Hills, CA.

In 1837, coining presses and other minting machinery were shipped to New Orleans from Philadelphia. The next year, May 1838 to be precise, the first New Orleans Mint coins were struck, bearing the characteristic "O" mintmark. A total of 30 dimes were struck the first day. Less than $500,000 face value was coined in 1838, most of it gold. In fact, the first several years of production saw relatively small mintages because the equipment from Philadelphia was all manually powered.

In 1845, steam-powered machinery was introduced. Some of the gold recovered from the California Gold Strike of 1848 made its way by ship to New Orleans, substantially increasing the Mint's output. By 1851, the Mint's production capability kicked into high gear, striking more than $10 million in coinage. In between a spate of structural repairs during this time (the building's foundation and supports were not well suited for southern Louisiana), the facility soldiered on with its coinage mission. It was, however, the next chapter of the New Orleans Mint ordeal that earned it a tumultuous standing in the annals of history.

Turbulence and War Between the States

The Louisiana Secession Convention voted on January 26, 1861 in favor of separating from the United States, whereupon the State of Louisiana took possession of the New Orleans Mint. Before the January 26 vote, 330,000 half dollars bearing the 1861-O date were struck by the hand of the US government. On February 8, Louisiana and six other states formed the Confederate States of America. After the birth of the Confederacy, Louisiana turned the New Orleans Mint over to the Southern cause. Between January 26 and February 8, mint personnel, loyal to rebellious Louisiana, produced 1,240,000 of the 1861-O half dollars. Minting of the half dollars continued, with another 962,633 struck under the auspices of the Confederacy.

1861-O New Orleans Half Dollar
Who knows under whose authority the 1861-O half dollar pictured above was struck? Since the same dies were used throughout all of 1861, it is impossible to know if this was issued by the US, the State of Louisiana, or the Confederate States of America. Coin Photos courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

In all, 2,532,633 half dollars were minted in New Orleans in 1861, all carrying the "O" mintmark. Unfortunately for numismatists, it is impossible to determine which coins were struck by what government entity, since all the dies utilized were of the same federal design. 17,741 gold double eagles were also issued at the New Orleans Mint during this time, but as with the half dollars, it is not possible to know exactly when and and under whose authority they were struck.

The New Orleans Mint, renamed by its new owners as the Confederate State Mint, was the only southern mint to produce authentic coinage bearing designs symbolic of the Confederate States of America. It was the desire of CSA president Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders to strike coins in the name of the Confederacy, in the hopes of winning international recognition as a sovereign nation.

Confederate coinage is indeed quite fascinating, as are other coins from those turbulent years. For this reason, we've written another chapter, Money of the Civil War, that describes in greater detail, including images, the story of how Confederate coinage came into being, and the events leading to its premature demise.

Mint operations were formally halted on June 1, 1861, thanks to less than ample bullion supplies, and other considerations. Confederate soldiers took up residence inside the building. The steam-powered coining machinery was transferred to other southern factories and converted over to the war effort.

General Benjamin Butler
General Benjamin Butler of the Union army, the man sentenced by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to be executed instantly, if captured. Davis was retaliating for Butler's order to hang a southern sympathizer from a New Orleans Mint flagstaff. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

In April, 1862, the city of New Orleans fell to a Union naval force commanded by Captain David Farragut. The Mint's remaining bullion supply was safely whisked away just in time to Dahlonega to avoid Union capture. The Yankees promptly selected the old Mint as their headquarters, and raised the United States flag to fly atop the building.

To see Old Glory proudly waving over one of the South's finest cities was too much of an insult to endure for a few of the locals. William Mumford, a New Orleans riverboat gambler who drank heavily, removed the flag and defiantly desecrated it publicly. He was arrested and as punishment, hanged to death from a flagstaff projecting from one of the windows under the front portico of the center section, by the order of U.S. Army General Benjamin Butler, on June 7, 1862.

This incident at the Mint was one of the most notorious events of the Civil War, prompting CSA President Jefferson Davis to proclaim Butler a "felon" and to issue the extraordinary decree that if the general was ever taken captive, he was to be executed immediately.

A Second Life for the New Orleans Mint

Throughout most of the Reconstruction Era, the New Orleans Mint building sat empty. In October, 1876, the Mint reopened as an assay office. The following year, Treasury officials began to seriously contemplate the feasibility of restoring the facility to full mint status.

New Orleans Mint
This photo taken between 1880 and 1901, during the second life of the New Orleans Mint. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

After making repairs and installing new machinery, the New Orleans Mint resumed coin production in 1879. Of the three southern mints, it was the only one to reopen following the Civil War.

For the next 30 years, New Orleans continued to strike gold and silver coins, but as time marched on, it became increasingly clear the "O" Mint was nearing the end of its heyday. Newer equipment in the Denver and San Francisco Mints dwarfed the productivity of the aging New Orleans facility, raising many questions about its future viability. In 1909, in its 71st year of existence, the New Orleans Mint released the last of its $298,660,707 lifetime coinage production. Two years later, the historic structure was stripped of much of its machinery and relegated once again to an assay office.

An Urban Eyesore Becomes a National Historic Landmark
Inside New Orleans Mint photo
This 1963 photo, taken on the second floor of the New Orleans Mint, illustrates the effect of neglect and decay on the historic structure. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

The mint building remained an assay office until 1931, when it was transformed into a federal prison. Perhaps some Washington bureaucrats were impressed by the imposing structure's potential as an incarceration center. The building functioned in this capacity until 1943, when the Coast Guard took over and used it as a receiving station. For the next two decades plus, the building was neglected and fell into a sad state of disrepair, a real eyesore and token image of urban blight.

In 1966, possession of the building was transferred from the federal government to the State of Louisiana free of charge, with the provision that it be restored within 10 years. Under the direction of the Louisiana State Museum, a number of community groups successfully raised the funds necessary to renovate the old Mint, though most of the work occurred beyond the ten year time frame. In 1981, the Mint was opened to the public as a museum, dedicated to building's original purpose and to Louisiana history. In November 2002, the museum greatly expanded to occupy the entire open area of the first floor.

Today, the old New Orleans Mint remains safely registered as a National Historic Landmark. It is the nation's oldest unreconstructed mint in its original location, and is one of five sites operated in the city's French Quarter by the Louisiana State Museum.

Thousands of visitors from all over the globe are welcomed here annually. Once inside, they will find artifacts of yesteryear's minting processes, including coining presses, weighing machines, and assay balances. Numismatists will take delight in a large coin dealership that specializes, naturally, in New Orleans Mint coins. A virtually complete collection of "O" mintmarked silver coins is on view for all to see and enjoy.

New Orleans Mint Today
The New Orleans Mint as it appears today. Constructed during the 1830s, it is actually one of the "newest" buildings in the historic French Quarter district, on Esplanade Avenue. Image courtesy of Louisiana State Museum.

The museum complements the landmark's coin factory image by going to great lengths to chronicle the human side of a few of the characters who once walked these very same hallways, some of whom actually lived within the Mint's confines during their tenure of employment in New Orleans.

Explorers venturing to the second floor will discover the old Mint also plays host to a New Orleans Jazz display, chocked full of memorabilia celebrating the rise of jazz from its humble street origins to worldwide acclaim. On the third floor is the Historical Center, an archive specializing in maps and documents of the early French and colonial periods, and other aspects of Louisiana's past.

During its storied, sometimes raucous existence, the New Orleans Mint has served many purposes: coining facility, military headquarters, assay office, federal prison, warehouse, and museum. Certainly, there must have been occasions where razing the old building was a temptation. Thank goodness Andrew Jackson's sponsored project survived the wrecking ball mentality, and now, in our modern age, is a vibrant link to America's numismatic and historical legacy.

Katrina Strikes the New Orleans Mint

One of the most unforgettable days in recent history occurred August 29, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city of New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. In its wake, Katrina left massive destruction, flooding, and death. For many days, news headlines documented the storm's fury and the human misery it caused.

The historic New Orleans Mint building did not escape Katrina, but the situation could have been worse. The floodwaters that engulfed most of the city stayed clear of the Mint building and the French Quarter district in general. Within two days after Katrina hit, the Louisiana State Museum staff re-entered the building under armed escort. Structural damage was limited to a large piece of the copper roof blown off, causing some water damage in office areas below. Miraculously, no one attempted to break into the unattended building, leaving the artifacts inside, including rare coins, intact.

The museum staff worked with government officials to repair the Mint roof and water damage. More than two years were required to complete the restoration. While the museum was closed, the numismatic collection and other historical exhibits were stored at an undisclosed location. The museum reopened in October 2007. We have a section describing in fuller detail, the activities at the New Orleans Mint after Katrina.

United States Mint Facilities
New Orleans
San Francisco
Carson City
West Point

1 Brinkley, Douglas. History of the United States.
New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1998.
2 Jordan, Winthrop D., Miriam Greenblatt, & John S. Bowes. The Americans.
Evanstan, IL: McDougall, Littell & Company, 1988.
3 Lambousy, Greg. "The Mint in New Orleans."
The Numismatist 116 (March 2003) pp. 36-43.
4 von Klinger, Eric. "Louisiana Expands Displays at New Orleans Mint Museum." Coin World, July 29, 2002, pg 1.
5 von Klinger, Eric. "Minting in the Old South on View."
Coin World, December 9, 2002, pg 3.
6 von Klinger, Eric. "New Orleans Mint Serves Multiple Purposes."
Coin World, December 9, 2002, pg 3.

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