Posted by John Dale
The United States Mint experienced dramatic changes in the 1860s, with three of five Mints (Charlotte, North Carolina; Dahlonega, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana) leaving the fold after the states they were in seceded. Only the main Mint in Philadelphia and the branch in San Francisco remained open, and Philadelphia produced all coinage dies, sending dies to San Francisco as needed. With wide swaths of the American West still unsettled, communication between Philadelphia and San Francisco lagged, and two distinctive S-mint $20 gold coins (or double eagles) resulted from that lag, both of which make an appearance at our upcoming Long Beach Auction.
The first issue had its origin in a short-lived design change for the double eagle denomination. In the waning months of 1860, Anthony C. Paquet, an assistant Mint engraver known more for his medals than his coinage-work, prepared a modified reverse die for the double eagle distinguished by tall, thin lettering that was one of the engraver’s signatures. The design received approval, and Paquet reverse dies were sent to New Orleans and San Francisco for use with obverses dated 1861. Philadelphia discovered an apparent problem with the rims of the Paquet design, spurring the then-Mint Director, James Ross Snowden, to halt use of the Paquet reverse and send the same orders to New Orleans and San Francisco.
While Snowden’s early January telegraph reached New Orleans promptly, there was not an extensive telegraph network west of the Mississippi river, and the Mint Director’s message had to be carried overland from Missouri to California. By the time Snowden’s instructions arrived at San Francisco, 19,250 double eagles had already been struck with the Paquet dies and released into circulation. While most of the 1861-S Paquet double eagles are now lost, around 200 survivors, including this AU53 example, remain. Collectors who view the Paquet double eagle as a distinct subtype (myself included) have made it one of the most in-demand San Francisco double eagles.
Similarly, the time and distance between the East Coast and West Coast Mints created another prized variety, the 1866-S No Motto double eagle. In 1866, the various larger-size coinage designs were modified to incorporate the motto “In God We Trust,” an inclusion said to reflect a nation that had increasingly turned to prayer for comfort during the trials of the Civil War. As was customary, Philadelphia shipped the next year’s obverse coinage dies to San Francisco in advance, and the 1866-dated obverse dies arrived at the California facility in November 1865, but no new reverse dies were included. Though Philadelphia refrained from coinage until the various With Motto dies were ready, San Francisco went forward with production using old reverses, and several 1866-dated San Francisco issues are split between No Motto and With Motto pieces, including the half dollar, $5, $10 and $20 denominations.
Communication between Philadelphia and San Francisco improved and in 1877, when the Mint made the next significant change to the double eagle design, there was no laggard San Francisco issue. Still, double eagles such as the 1861-S Paquet and the 1866-S No Motto survive as reminders that even after the most dangerous Gold Rush days were done, there was considerable separation between the Western states (first California, later Oregon and Nevada) and the rest of the states in the Union, a distance measurable in both weeks and hundreds of miles that the Mint and many others had to overcome.
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-John Dale Beety