US Coin History: The Mint Branches Out

The American people largely believed it was the Manifest Destiny of the United States to expand westward. The siege of the Alamo, the Mexican War, and the 49er Gold Rush were some of the most important defining events during this time. As the United States extended its boundaries, new branch mints were established to serve the needs of the growing nation.

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Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny American Progress
John Gast's American Progress depicts a symbolic Liberty unrolling telegraph wire, as settlers head west. Indians can be seen in retreat. Public domain image.

From the earliest colonial times, rugged pioneers had been drawn to the vast expanses of America's frontier. Successive generations of settlers pushed the boundaries of the United States ever more westward.

By 1820, most of the nation east of the Mississippi River had been organized into states. Immediately to the west of the Mississippi lay the fertile soil of the Great Plains, and beyond that, the majestic Rockies, where a hardy breed of "Mountain Men" discovered trails and passes that others would later travel.

To the far northwest beckoned the Oregon Country, a prolific, heavily timbered land with easy access to bountiful fishing waters. Looking to the south was Texas, a sparsely populated region of unknown potential. And finally, on the coast of the mighty Pacific Ocean was a far away place called California, blessed with some of the continent's finest natural beauty.

Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar
This commemorative half dollar was struck intermittently from 1926 to 1939, to remember the historic 2000 mile Oregon Trail, which brought thousands of settlers to the West. Photo courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles, Inc., Beverly Hills, CA.

By the 1830's and 1840's, the desire to expand westward intensified across all sectors of American society. Most people came to believe it was the purpose of the United States, or its manifest destiny, to own all the territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Thus, "Manifest Destiny" became the guiding principle under which the West was won.

As new states entered the Union, the triumphant expansiveness of Manifest Destiny was pushed off center stage by an old divisive issue taking on new proportions: the question of slavery. As we shall see in the next chapter, the debate became so contentious that the nation eventually ripped itself apart, resulting in a horrible civil war.

Remember the Alamo!
Stephen F. Austin portrait
Stephen F. Austin established large American colonies in Texas and held key posts in the new Republic. Sam Houston eulogized Austin as the "Father of Texas". Image courtesy of Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

In 1821, Mexico won independence for itself from Spain. The new Mexican government, in a move to encourage development of a thinly populated area we know today as southeastern Texas, offered land grants to anyone, including Americans, who would be willing to inhabit the land. In return, settlers promised to obey Mexican law and observe Roman Catholicism.

Among the first Americans to receive a land grant was Moses Austin, originally of Connecticut, who planned to establish a colony in Texas. Austin died before his dream could be fulfilled, so the task of leading the people to Texas fell to his son, Stephen F. Austin. In 1823, the younger Austin led 300 families to the banks of the Brazos River, where each family received about 200 acres of fertile farmland and more than 4000 acres of range land.

Under Austin's extraordinary organizational skills, the colony prospered. Soon, many thousands of Americans flowed into the territory, attracted by the rich farm soil and the generous land grant policy of the Mexican government. Some settlers brought slaves and started up cotton plantations.

By 1830, the number of Americans living in Texas greatly outnumbered Mexicans, a fact that deeply concerned Mexican authorities. In an attempt to curtail American influence in Texas, Mexico closed the border to immigration from the United States, imposed taxes on the importation of American goods, and restated that slavery on Mexican lands was prohibited. The Mexican government then sent troops into the Texas province to enforce its laws.

Davy Crockett at Alamo
Davy Crockett fights off Mexican soldiers with upraised rifle, in the final moments of the Alamo siege. Crockett and all defenders of the Alamo perished, but Texas gained a new battle cry "Remember the Alamo!", going on to win independence a few weeks later. Image courtesy of Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

The Americans in Texas protested against what they perceived to be a violation of their individual rights.

As tensions escalated over the next several years, the Mexicans responded by sending more troops. Finally, in 1835, violence broke out, prompting the Texans to reject Mexican rule and declare their desire for self rule.

In late 1835, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the latest in a series of Mexican military dictators, decided to crush the rebellion. With an army of 6000 men, Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande headed north to take care of the Texans once and for all. On February 23, 1836, Santa Anna's army began a siege against 187 men garrisoned at a fortified former mission called the Alamo, in San Antonio. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis, the brave defenders of the Alamo refused to surrender, despite overwhelming odds. Serving under Travis in the Alamo included a group of volunteers from Tennessee, led there by the famous backwoodsman Davy Crockett. On March 6, the Mexicans stormed the Alamo, finally scaling the walls and killing every last man inside, but at a cost to Santa Anna of some 1600 troops.

Sam Houston portrait
Sam Houston dominated Texas politics like no other person, serving as President of the Republic, US Senator, and governor. Image courtesy of Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

While Santa Anna was preoccupied at the Alamo, Texas formally declared its independence from Mexico on March 2. While the heroic standoff at the Alamo continued, Sam Houston raised an army of Texans to carry the fight onward.

Houston's forces surprised Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, shouting "Remember the Alamo!" as they swept through the Mexican encampment. The Mexican general himself was taken prisoner, but bargained for his release when he promised to recognize Texas independence.

Upon his return to Mexico, Santa Anna reneged on his pledge, but made no further attempts to corral the feisty Texans. The Republic of Texas, also called the Lone Star Republic, was born. Not surprisingly, Sam Houston was elected as its first president.

During their revolution for independence, American sympathy was with the Texans, but when the new republic petitioned for statehood, strong opposition arose. Texas permitted slavery, causing members of Congress from northern states to argue against the admission of another southern slaveholding state. Others feared that Mexico would be provoked into war if Texas joined the Union. For these reasons, statehood for Texas was delayed.

Texas Centennial Commemorative coin
This commemorative coin celebrated the 100th anniversary of Texas Independence. Minted between 1934 and 1938, the obverse features a Lone Star behind the eagle. The reverse depicts a winged Liberty cradling the Alamo, birthplace of Texas. Flanking Liberty are portraits of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. Photo courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles, Inc., Beverly Hills, CA.

As the election of 1844 approached, the annexation of Texas became a major campaign issue.

The Democrats rejected Martin Van Buren, a former president and member of their own party, in favor of James K. Polk of Tennessee, who strongly favored Texas statehood and westward expansion.

When the electoral college votes were counted, Polk easily outpaced Henry Clay of Kentucky. A majority of congressional candidates supporting expansion won likewise, a clear signal the public supported Texas annexation in particular and Manifest Destiny in general.

With the mandate sent by the voters, outgoing President John Tyler moved quickly to push a statehood resolution for Texas through both houses of Congress, ending the controversy over the fate of the Lone Star Republic. Finally, on December 29, 1845, Texas entered the Union as the twenty-eighth state.

The Mint Branches Out
1840 Population Distribution map
Population distribution map, published in 1840. The darker the yellow, the heavier the population. A clear westward trend is evident. Public domain image.

When the Philadelphia Mint began regular production in 1793, it was thought at the time that this facility would fulfill the coinage demands of our new nation. Within forty years, however, pioneers had extended the boundaries of the American frontier so distant from Philadelphia that the Mint could not viably serve the entire nation any longer.

In order to meet the needs of the growing country, several branch mints were opened, the first ones striking coins in 1838, located in Dahlonega, GA, Charlotte, NC, and New Orleans, LA. To distinguish the place of origin, small letters, or "mint marks", were included in the coin's design, differentiating one mint from another.

We have a Saga of the US Mint section that goes into greater detail on the various mints that have ever seen service in this country. You can learn more about our US Mints and see images by clicking here.

Most people think the first gold rush in US history happened in California, but actually, it took place in North Carolina and Georgia decades earlier. For the hard core coin collector historian type, we suggest obtaining a copy of Neighborhood Mint: Dahlonega in the Age of Jackson. The details of the creation of the Dahlonega Mint are described in amazing detail. The Dahlonega Mint never did produce the quantity of coins originally envisioned, meaning that some of the coins of this branch mint are amongst the rarest in American numismatics. A fascinating story, the Dahlonega Mint continued in operation until the earliest days of the Civil War.

War With Mexico

Not everyone was as enthused over the idea of Manifest Destiny as were the Americans. Still seething over the loss of Texas, Mexican authorities were concerned over the possibility of giving up the vast region west of Texas, including California, to the United States. These and other factors led to a war between the United States and Mexico, finally breaking out in 1846.

Spanish Culture
The influence of Spanish culture was evident throughout California and the southwest. A Spanish mission is shown above. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Mexico's claim on California and the southwest was inherited from the Spaniards, dating back to the 15th century. Spanish law, architecture, culture, and language prevailed throughout the area. However, Mexico's grip on the territory was weak at best, in large part due to sparsely populated regions, poor administration and a revolving door of corrupt government officials.

In 1845, tensions between the United States and Mexico mounted as the dispute over the southern boundary of Texas magnified. The Mexican government asserted the boundary between Texas and Mexico was the Nueces River, while the Americans maintained that it was the Rio Grande River, about a hundred miles to the south of the Nueces, that separated the two nations.

President James K. Polk
James K. Polk is rated as one of the most effective presidents in US history, who met the demands of office with perseverance and great administrative skill. Under his watch, the US expanded all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The only president ever to achieve all of his platform goals, Polk declined to run for a second term. Three months after leaving the White House, the Tennessean was dead. Image courtesy of the National Archives.

When it appeared the Mexicans were willing to negotiate the dispute peacefully, President Polk secretly dispatched congressman John Slidell to Mexico City in November 1845, with instructions to pay off claims of about $2 million by American citizens against Mexico, if Mexico would acknowledge the Rio Grande as the southern boundary of Texas. Furthermore, Polk authorized an offer of $25 million for the purchase of California and $5 million for the New Mexico territory.

When news of Slidell's mission was leaked, the Mexican populace was incensed over what they perceived as yet another American expansionist scheme at the expense of Mexico.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government refused to speak with the American envoy, sending him home empty-handed. Mexican newspapers ridiculed American diplomacy and military prowess and called for a "necessary" war against the United States. Mexican army leaders bragged they could defeat their northern neighbor in a military confrontation, based on their experience at expelling the Spaniards and putting down internal revolutionists. They also assumed Great Britain would come to their aid, because the British had opposed the United States' annexation of Texas. They also believed American public opinion would be sharply divided over support of a war. Clearly, Mexico was itching for a fight.

News of the Mexican War
News of the Mexican War hits the home front, as shown in this engraving based on the 1848 painting by R.C. Woodville. Image courtesy of Humanities-Interactive.

In January 1846, President Polk ordered troops under General Zachary Taylor to cross the Nueces River, southward into the disputed zone, to the northern bank of the Rio Grande. In May, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and skirmished with American forces, killing or wounding sixteen. If Polk had been waiting for an excuse to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Mexico, he now had it. On May 13, Congress obliged. War with Mexico was on.

It soon became apparent that Mexico's boast of military superiority was premature. Even though the Mexican army was four times the size of the American army, the natural resources and industrial might of the United States enabled its troops to be better equipped and supplied. Many reservists were quickly called into active duty to rectify the initial imbalance of manpower. They were all trained and led by competent graduates of the national military academy at West Point. In addition, the small, but well organized American navy was capable of ferrying troops to within 250 miles of Mexico City. With these advantages, American military strategists were able to devise a war plan consisting of three fronts that effectively subdued the Mexicans.

The first front was to commence from the Rio Grande, where General Taylor's army sat primed to go. Taylor became a national hero following his victory at Buena Vista, giving control of northern Mexico to the Americans. Another group of Americans, led by General Stephen Kearny, marched from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Santa Fe, taking possession of the New Mexico territory. From there, Kearny proceeded to California and joined with Captain John C. Frémont (who had established temporarily the Republic of California, a.k.a. the Bear Flag Republic) and other American forces, to completely overcome Mexican resistance in California.

Conquest of Mexico City
General Winfield Scott (center, on brown horse facing right) parades the US army in Mexico City's main square. To the right of the cathedral is the National Palace, built atop the ruins of the Halls of Montezuma. Image courtesy of University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.

A third expedition, under the command of General Winfield Scott, hit Vera Cruz following an amphibious landing in March 1847 of 14,000 men from the Gulf of Mexico.

From there, the Americans embarked on a tortuous journey toward Mexico City, following the route traveled by Hernando Cortez centuries earlier. Nearly every step of the uphill, mountainous road leading to the "Halls of Montezuma" was bitterly challenged. Several difficult battles were fought along the way, but Scott continued to advance. After the fall of Chapultepec, the last major line of Mexican defense, American troops entered Mexico City as conquerors on September 14, 1847. For all practical purposes, the Mexican War had come to an end.

Map of US 1848
The map of the United States in 1848, following Mexican War. The pink to the left is the region ceded by Mexico. The blue in the upper left is the Oregon Country. The middle green is the state of Texas, while large yellow area is remainder of Louisiana Purchase yet to be organized into states. Image courtesy of Humanities-Interactive.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, formally ended the war. Mexico was forced to give up California, the New Mexico territory, and recognize the Rio Grande as the border between Texas and Mexico.

In return, the United States paid Mexico $15 million and agreed to assume debts totaling over $3 million that Mexico owed to American citizens. From the "Mexican Cession" ultimately shaped the states of California, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.

In 1853, Congress approved a payment of $10 million to Mexico for the purchase of some 50,000 square miles of desolation along the southern tip of what is today Arizona and New Mexico. The Gadsden Purchase, as it was called, was thought to be suitable for a southern transcontinental railroad being contemplated. Except for Alaska, the Gadsden Purchase filled out the present continental boundaries of the United States.

The dreams of all Americans who had believed in their nation's Manifest Destiny had materialized. The boundaries of the United States now reached from sea to shining sea.

The California Gold Rush and the San Francisco Mint
49er Gold Rush Handbill
Some gold hunters bound for California took a ship to Central America, crossed land over the Isthmus of Panama, then onto another ship on the Pacific side. Public domain image.

By 1848, only a few hundred Americans had settled in California. One of them was a man named John Sutter, a European immigrant who set up a successful sawmill in the Sacramento Valley.

On January 24, 1848, ten days prior to the acquisition of California by the United States from Mexico, as specified by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, one of Sutter's employees, James W. Marshall, noticed a shiny substance in a stream where he was building a sawmill. Tests later proved it was gold!

Word of the discovery spread around the world like wildfire. Within a year, many thousands of "49ers" were attracted to California in search of gold, greatly accelerating the settlement of the California and the West.

By the end of 1849, California's population had grown more than enough to apply for statehood. When California's application to enter the Union as a free state reached Washington, a crisis erupted. If California entered the Union as a free state, the existing balance of 15 slave and 15 free states would be upset in favor of the North. Under the terms of the Compromise of 1850, California was eventually admitted as a free state (see more about this in the next chapter).

1848 CAL. Quarter Eagle
The 1848 "CAL." quarter eagle, minted in Philadelphia from California gold. A great rarity of historical significance, the specimen above is valued in excess of $50,000. Photo courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles, Inc., Beverly Hills, CA.

Some of the gold from the fabulous strike was sent in a special shipment to Philadelphia. The letters "CAL." were counterstamped by mint officials on the reverse side of 1,389 quarter eagles bearing the 1848 date to show that they were coined out of gold originating from the California gold fields. These "CAL." quarter eagles are unmistakable links to one of the most significant events in American history, are quite rare and have been highly valued by generations of coin collectors.

The impact of the California Gold Rush cannot be overstated. The massive influx of gold bullion upset the old ratio between gold and silver, triggering a monetary instability that would last until until gold and silver were finally removed from coinage, gold in 1933 and silver in 1965.

As we saw a couple of paragraphs above, and shall see in more detail in the next chapter, the gold discovery also renewed the rivalry between the North and South. Indeed, it can be argued that the California Gold Rush was one of the events leading to the American Civil War.

First San Francisco Mint
One of the very few images of the original San Francisco Mint, seeing service from 1854 to 1873. Public domain image.

By 1852, the California gold fields had yielded millions in gold, yet there was a severe shortage of coins to serve the Wild West population. The deficiency of circulating coinage, the availability of a bullion supply, and California statehood encouraged Congress to authorize a branch mint at San Francisco, with the doors first opening in 1854. After getting off to a slow start due to the lack of chemicals needed for refining gold, the new San Francisco Mint started converting the miners' gold into adequate coin supplies about three years after its debut.

Prior to the start-up of the new mint, and then for a while thereafter, the coinage needs of the population were partially being met by private, state, and territorial minters. Today, quite a few collectors are fascinated by these "pre-mint" California gold issues, and actively collect them. Moffat & Company, Templeton Reid, and Norris, Greig & Norris were some of the private companies issuing coins from 49er gold. Moffat & Company in particular manufactured enough coins to at least make a dent in the miners' need for coins.

49er gold panner
A 49er pans for gold in the American River. Fortune seekers quickly swelled California's population, bringing statehood in 1850, and a new mint to San Francisco in 1854. Public domain photo.

The California Gold Rush was a rare, astonishing event, dividing American history into a "Before" and "After". It was one of the biggest mass movements of humanity since the beginning of time, and played a large role in shaping the future of the United States.

An excellent portrayal of the gold migration is The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H.W. Brands. Even if you're not a student of history, you will enjoy this book. Brands describes the hardships, at times horrifying, that many people faced as they traveled westward in search of riches.

The narrative is cast in a delightful story-telling mode, backed up by intelligent analysis and historical fact. Most of the 49ers realized they would not become wealthy in their quest, but the "Dream" and the entrepreneurial spirit prevailed, setting the success template for a long time to come.

Furthermore, Brands chronicles numerous accounts of the people who lived the experience, from John Fremont and Leland Stanford, to those much less famous. He concludes by describing why these stories have a national and international significance.

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream is a glittering epic, having great appeal to fans of American history, or simply anyone looking for an entertaining read.

New American Coin Denominations

Two additional regular gold denominations were issued beginning in 1849: the gold dollar and the double eagle (face value = $20.00). The 1849 double eagle is a one of a kind specimen, on display in the numismatic collection of the Smithsonian Institute. Starting in 1850, double eagles were minted in quantities large enough for general circulation.

3 cent silver coin
The silver three cent piece, also known as the "trime". Image courtesy of Jake's Marketplace..

In 1851, responding to the new three cent postage rate, the three cent silver "trime" was authorized. Notably, the trime had a silver bullion value worth only 86% of its face value, a measure designed to discourage coin melting. This was the first incident where a minted coin's face value was greater than its intrinsic metallic value.

Silver three cent pieces were not widely accepted by the public. Mintage totals dwindled rapidly after the first three years, finally discontinued beyond 1873. Equally disliked was the three cent copper-nickel coin, minted from 1865-1889.

U.S. Coins and History Chapters
Colonial Times
The American Revolution
We the People
The Mint Survives Political Strife
A Rising Spirit of Nationalism
The Mint Branches Out
The Nation Drifts Toward War
The Money of the Civil War
The Reconstruction Era
More Chapters to Come ....

1 Allen, Jack, and John L. Betts. History: USA.
New York, NY: American Book Company, 1967.
2 Brinkley, Douglas. History of the United States.
New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1998.
3 Schwarz, Ted. A History of United States Coinage.
London, England: A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc. 1980.
4 Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage.
New York, NY: Arco Publishing Company, 1966.
5 Jordan, Winthrop D., Miriam Greenblatt, & John S. Bowes. The Americans.
Evanstan, IL: McDougall, Littell & Company, 1988.

Coins & History Chapters