Article by Alexander Noran
For those unfamiliar, or only somewhat acquainted with United States coinage, it is likely that when confronted with a coin bearing a ‘D’ mint mark, the assumption will be made that the piece originates from the Denver mint. This is not necessarily so, as long before operations began in the now famous Colorado branch of the US Mint, the distinctive ‘D’ was used in Dahlonega, Georgia.
To understand why the federal government saw fit to open a mint in a place as seemingly obscure as Dahlonega, it is necessary to go back to 1828. In this year, prospectors discovered gold on what used to be land belonging to the Cherokee Nation, and it did not take long for news to spread. A gold rush took hold, and within a couple of years, over 300 ounces per day were being churned out by a patchwork of mining operations, ranging from very small to quite large.
Seeking to monetize their finds, miners turned to a hodgepodge of refiners to first refine and then cast or strike the new gold, leading private minters such as Templeton Reid and the Bechtler family to in turn produce a multitude of coins and ingots. Seeking to standardize the output, congress made a provision in the Mint Act of 1835 for the establishment of a mint “branch at or near Dahlonega, in Lumpkin County, in the state of Georgia, […] for the coinage of gold only.”
In August of 1835, Ignatius Alphonso Few was appointed commissioner and quickly bought ten acres south of Dahlonega for $1,050. He hired the lowest bidding architect, Benjamin Towns to design and construct the edifice for $33,450 within eighteen months, a budget and deadline which were both met. In 1837, machinery, including “cutting presses, a fly wheel, a drawing frame, a crank shaft, a coining press, and eighteen annealing pans” were installed, providing a potential output of “fifty to sixty gold coins per minute.”
Following its opening in February 1838, around 1 000 ounces of gold were deposited within 7 days, and Superintendent Dr. Joseph Singleton oversaw the striking of 80, $5.00 gold pieces in April of that year. Known for poor quality of strike, the mint would go on to produce $1.00, $2.50, $3.00 and $5.00 coins in small numbers before being seized by confederate forces in 1861. The occupying forces would strike a further 1 597 1861-D half eagles before the reserves were exhausted and the mint shut. All in all, the Dahlonega mint churned out a little over $6 million in gold coin through its 23 years of operation.
Following the war, the federal government decided not to reopen the Dahlonega mint, and the ‘D’ mint mark would go unused for 45 years, that is until the opening of the Denver mint in 1906. Today, Dahlonega minted coins are scarce and sought after despite their general poor quality and frequent lack of eye appeal. This just goes to show that numismatics is about a lot more than some shiny baubles.
Alexander Noran is chief numismatist at PCGM and foreign markets consultant for IAP Capital Group.