The Saddle Ridge Hoard: Window Into the Gilded Age

March 12th, 2014 by

It’s been stated many times, in a variety of ways, but sometimes the best fiction is that which reflects the real world.

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The small portion of the “Saddle Ridge Hoard” that appeared at the recent ANA National Money Show in Atlanta is our first taste of this unbelievable discovery. It’s a staggering notion to happen upon over a thousand gold coins from the nineteenth century, neatly stacked in rusted-over tin cans stowed beneath the ground.

It’s like something taken straight out of a fantastic Wild West myth.

Thankfully, gold doesn’t rot, rust or tarnish while under all that dirt!

Once carefully restored, these exceptional quality blazers featured at the ANA convention shone like a dozen tiny suns.

Valuated at $10 million, this hoard promises to revitalize the numismatic market for rare U.S. gold coins. It’s the signpost of a twofold jubilee—a time of rejoice and renewal of interest, not only for Liberty gold coins, but also the enriching Gold Rush discourse which characterizes these coins and brings the history of nineteenth-century America to life.

“There’s Millions In It!”

Indeed, some of the finest pieces in this collection are expected to garner over $1 million individually. One can almost hear Mark Twain’s inimitable character, Colonel Mulberry Sellers, repeating his favorite line: “There’s millions in it!”

While discussing what makes this Saddle Ridge collection novel, PCGS founder David Hall opined:

“What is really special about this discovery is the incredible quality of many of these coins. This group of coins will definitely change the PCGS Population numbers for many issues. It’s a remarkable feeling to hold these coins in your hands. I’ve always called rare coins ‘history in your hands’ and the Saddle Ridge Hoard is a historical time capsule of immense numismatic importance.” [emphasis mine]

To his first point, the hoard contains more than a dozen “top pops,” a term used for coins appearing at the top of population reports, indicating the highest grade example known to exist within the population of a specific variety. This could potentially reshape the landscape for $20 Liberty Double Eagles, and will perhaps stir collector interest in largely neglected common date $20 Libs from the San Francisco Mint.

After the “top pops,” there may be a number of hidden wonders that emerge from the rest of the hoard. There’s already been news of an 1849-D $5 Half Eagle graded VF30, providing the opportunity to own a nice example of an exceptional rarity from the Dahlonega Mint. Although the vast majority of the collection comes from the San Francisco Mint, there’s also word of a pair of Carson City issues: an 1875-CC Double Eagle in AU50 and an 1890-CC in MS63.

 As to Mr. Hall’s latter comment about how these historic coins serve as a time capsule, I vehemently agree. There’s no doubt that these gold coins are emblematic of the Gold Rush era and America’s “Gilded Age.”

Making Historical Connections

Twain maintained that Col. Sellers was hardly his own creation. He was a character comprised of artfully arranged facts more than of fiction; the author “merely put him on paper as he was; he was not a person who could be exaggerated.”

As it turns out, the Colonel’s oft-exclaimed quote, “There’s millions in it!” can actually be attributed to Dr. Matthew Stephenson, an assayer (and real-life person) who worked at the Dahlonega Mint in Georgia. You see, the Georgia Gold Rush came about two decades before its counterpart in California. There were already eager “29ers” in search of Appalachian gold before the “49ers” began their western flock. (As an aside: Dahlonega is the Cherokee word for, aptly enough, “yellow money.”)

As the Georgia gold quickly began to dry up relative to the untapped reserves in the West, Dr. Stephenson implored the Dahlonega miners not to leave for California, referencing the remaining gold in the nearby Findley Ridge: “In that ridge lies more gold than man ever dreamt of. There’s millions in it.”

Despite the good assayer’s optimism, the mint at Dahlonega (the first branch of the U.S. Mint, headquartered in Philadelphia) did not survive beyond the Civil War. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Mint flourished as the outflow point for much of America’s newly discovered gold. Hence, gold coins from the former are exceedingly rare, while those from the latter are more commonplace. The divergent histories of these two mints have had a profound effect on the current state of American numismatics, bridging the past and present of U.S. coinage.man sitting on gold bars

Pre-1933 U.S. Gold: The Era of Commodity Money

Designed by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, the Liberty Double Eagle became the first coin in American history with a $20 denomination when it debuted in 1850. The design ran for the next 57 years, finally replaced by the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle in 1907. These $20 Liberty gold coins inspired awe by their impressive size and golden luster. In many ways, they embody the growing strength of America as she pushed headlong into the Industrial Age.

Gold specie served as markers of change in the nineteenth-century American economy. Prior to the California Gold Rush, and the attendant introduction of the Liberty Double Eagle, there was not much gold in the country. In fact, a significant amount of the gold that was there was in European coins brought by immigrants. All of that changed with the realization that, “Thar’s gold in them thar hills!”

Evidently, $20 Libs simply didn’t circulate much on the East coast; they mostly migrated between banks and Customs Houses, and very often ended up idling in vaults in Europe as payment for America’s foreign debts. It was far less common for average people to carry around and spend gold specie. Consequently, many of the examples of these coins that escaped being melted down are in Mint State, or close to it. (Because gold is so soft, it doesn’t take much circulation at all for gold coins to develop contact marks and scratches.)

However, the commercial environment was different in the Western United States. Particularly after the Gold Rush began, gold coins were used as legal tender quite frequently in the West, as the farther away you ventured from Eastern banks, the less likely a bank note could be redeemed for its full value (or, oftentimes, anything at all). Western settlers were so distrustful of notes from “wildcat” banks, or any other bank, that until 1870, paper money was actually illegal as a form of tender in California.

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The greater commercial use of gold coins in the West necessitated many coins to be struck, not to mention that incredible amounts of gold were coming through the San Francisco facility for refining and minting. As a result, $20 Libs with an S mintmark are fairly abundant compared to their counterparts from other branch mints.

Reaniminating “The Gilded Age”

The rich—and frequently embellished—Gold Rush discourse of the nineteenth century is inextricably intertwined with reality. These impressive Liberty gold coins ironically placed Miss Liberty’s elegant face into a milieu of uncouth speech and rowdy saloons on the Western frontier; into lonely, neglected bank vaults on the East coast and across the Atlantic; and even into century-old caches hidden beneath the ground. No matter how humble their fate, all of these gold coins have something to tell us about the uniquely American identity that Lady Liberty symbolizes, and much more. It makes for a rather compelling narrative about Pre-1933 U.S. gold coins and the sordid era they characterize.

The coins in the Saddle Ridge lot lend themselves to Mark Twain’s indelible delineation of the late-nineteenth century as the “Gilded Age.” This was a sardonic label, relating to the greed, graft and corruption that lay beneath America’s gilt exterior. How these glimmering coins came to be buried, and where the story of the find turns from here, is shrouded in speculation (and, understandably, a tinge of envy).

Yet, isn’t this sort of ignominy precisely what imbues coins struck at the short-lived branch mints in Dahlonega, New Orleans and Carson City with such intrigue? Shouldn’t their inauspicious tales of conflict, ineptitude, underfunding, and mismanagement accompany and edify discussions of how coins from these mints became scarce? I hardly believe the San Francisco facility has no such historical anecdotes to share with us.

This newfound hoard is a great story from virtually every angle. I imagine it will only continue to be talked about as research into the origin of the Saddle Ridge collection unfurls. Twain himself would see it as fitting felicitously within his notion of the “Gilded Age.”

Visit our website for more information on buying gold and silver or pre-1933 US gold coins.

by Everett Millman

Copyright 2014 Gainesville Coins.