A short time ago my father-in-law, now eighty-five years old, moved into a nice retirement center. As my wife and I were trying to dispose of the many things he had accumulated over the past forty years we found a small box full of old coins. Having no idea of the value of a 1906-dime, an 1892 silver dollar, an 1854-quarter, an 1865 50-cent piece, plus many others, we took them to Monarch Investments, a rare coin dealer in Salt Lake City for an appraisal. As the appraiser was eying each coin with his glass, I noticed two shiny golden coins under the glass in the counter. Out of curiosity I asked if, by any chance, those coins might be Deseret coins. The appraiser said they were and asked if I would be interested in buying them. He said he could give me a special price--each coin he would sell for $10,000!
I knew about Deseret coins, one of the earliest forms of money in the Salt Lake Valley. But I had never seen a real Deseret coin, only pictures. As I was preparing this article I returned to the Monarch Rare Coin Investment Company to photograph the two coins, but they had been sold! Those coins had been minted at the Deseret Mint in Great Salt Lake City, along with many others, from 1848 to 1851 and from 1859 to 1861. Although many golden coins were minted very few are in existence today, making them very rare and extremely valuable.
Deseret was the name given to the vast empire founded by the Mormons, who adopted the constitution of the State of Deseret on March 10, 1849. Deseret included all the present states of Utah and Nevada; most of the state of Arizona and parts of the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and California. The seaport of San Diego was intended to give the state an outlet to the sea, and a point at which emigration to the Great Basin by way of the Isthmus of Panama might converge. Deseret was the official name given the new state and the seat of government was located at Great Salt Lake City.
The Mormons arrived in the Great Basin of present day Salt Lake City on July 21, 1847, when Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow first rode into the Salt Lake Valley. Pratt describes the experience, "a...broad open valley...lay stretched out before us...the Great Salt Lake glistened in the sunbeams, containing high mountainous islands...
"After issuing from the mountains among which we had been shut up for many days, and beholding in a moment such an extensive scenery open up before us, we could not refrain from a shout of joy--which almost voluntarily escaped from our lips the moment this grand and lovely scenery was within our view."
The advance parties of Mormon pioneers, following two days behind the two scouts, were bone weary, and many were sick, some had died. Their dead were buried on the prairies over which they had just crossed. Even their leader, Brigham Young, lay ill in a wagon, too sick to walk.
They were in a wild, desolate savage land, over twelve hundred miles from American civilization. But they were free, high in the Rocky Mountains, their Zion, where Brother Brigham had prophesied, "that not even the devil himself could dig them out!" Their incredible journey from Nauvoo, Illinois, was over.
Shelters had to be built and thoughts of survival entered their conversations. It was late in the season to begin plowing and the harsh Utah winter was not far off. Survival for the 147 pioneers would be extremely difficult that first winter of 1847-48.
When they arrived in their new land of Deseret, they were nearly penniless. When they had been driven from their homes by religious hatred and mob violence they were forced to sell their homes, their goods, and animals at tremendous losses. A two-story brick house, occupied only three months by the Franklin D. Richards family was sold for two yoke of half-broken oxen and a wagon. Sara Sturdevant Leavitt related that she and her husband were forced to sell their forty-acre farm for a pair of unbroken steers. Wagons, horses, cattle, cloth and other provisions for the westward trek were purchased at great sacrifices in exchange for personal property.
The journey to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake was one of hardship and privation. Most of the meager savings any of the Mormons had were soon spent for much needed supplies. It is estimated that among the entire company of Mormons who entered the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, there was less than $1 per person among them, and Brigham had $50. This was the entire money supply of the Mormon Church in Utah. All of this cash was desperately needed for trading purposes outside the valley, and the pioneer settlers soon found themselves isolated without adequate means with which to carry on local exchange. The ancient system of barter was reverted to and business was carried on without money. Brigham Young while on a trip east obtained a small supply of United States coins to the Missouri River in 1847. Upon his return, in 1848, he placed about eighty-five dollars in circulation. Releasing these coins has been described as being like"...spilling a cup of precious water upon the desert sands." The relief was only temporary; the small change soon disappeared.
Members of the Mormon Battalion, returning from the war with Mexico, came to Utah via the California gold fields. They brought gold with them, and this somewhat relieved the cash situation. But the gold was difficult to weigh and exchange, causing waste and inconvenience. Church leaders decided to convert the gold dust into coin by building a mint. While they waited for the necessary dies and crucibles to be made, some of the gold dust and granules were weighed, wrapped in tissue paper, and put in brown envelopes, which were marked with the date and value and sealed with wax. The brown paper packages of gold varied in value from $1 to $20. As you can imagine, this form of money was very difficult to use. Proper change couldn't be made, it was difficult to carry, the packages deteriorated--but it was better than no money at all.
The Deseret Mint began operations in November 1848.
Mormon mint, 1848
John Kay, was commissioned mintmaster. The $10 denomination was the first coin struck, and only twenty-five were minted on the first day. They sold at a premium of 50 cents each; no reason was given for the premium. The author can only guess that the extra charge could have been because the coin was a novelty or to offset the cost of minting. The first $10 coin was paid to William T. Follett on 12 December 1848. He received five $10 gold pieces.
The second minting took place just one week after the first issue, with only twenty-one pieces of the $10 denomination coined. At this time the crucibles cracked and operations ceased until September 1849 when new crucibles were obtained. The new mint began with the striking of all four proposed denominations dated 1849--$2 1/2; $5; $10; and $20. Each coin was engraved with a symbol of friendship in the form of clasped hands and also the all-seeing eye encircled with the phrase, "Holiness to the Lord." The date and denomination accompanied by the initials, G.S.L.C.P.G., which represented the words, "Great Salt Lake City Pure Gold."
No attempt was made to refine the gold before coinage; therefore the actual worth of the coins was slightly below the stated value. They were minted without alloy. Because gold is a soft metal, these coins wore rapidly. In the next coins a small percentage of silver was added to increase the hardness. The Mormon $20 gold coins varied in intrinsic value from $16.90 to $17.53. The $10 gold piece had an intrinsic value of only $7.86. The Mormon gold coins were of excellent quality, taking into account the poor equipment the Church had available for minting. Every effort was made to give full assay and finess, with no intention of fraud.
The local mint was known as the Deseret Mint: however it was commonly referred to as a "money mill." It was a small adobe building which stood on the north side of South Temple Street in Salt Lake City, approximately where the Hotel Utah Garage is now located. (Recent renovations of the old Hotel Utah did away with the garage. See photo.) The October 5, 1850 issue of the Deseret News reported, "We stepped into the mint the other day and saw two or three men rolling the golden bars like wagon tires ready for the dies. This is what makes trade brisk." John Kay often carried the bars home at night for safekeeping. At home his older girls used them for building log cabin playhouses on the hearth.
The most significant purpose for minting gold coins was to buy goods from large cities in the eastern United States. The Mormon leaders wanted to coin gold of recognized finess and weight to be used as a medium of exchange. The non-Mormon traders in the Great Salt Lake Valley, such as Thomas L. "Pegleg" Smith, also accepted the coins as payment for their goods. It should be noted that a non-Mormon firm, Livingston and Kinkead, bought a great deal of gold that came into the valley. They did not coin it, but shipped gold and silver east by wagon train.
Leonard J. Arrington, a noted Mormon historian, indicates a possible $70,000 in gold was coined from 1849 to 1851 at a value of $16 an ounce that would be 4375 ounces of gold, or 273 pounds. At today's gold prices ($383 an ounce) that would be $1,675,625.00. We do not know how many coins of each denomination were minted. On June 19, 1851, the mint closed and no more coins were minted until mintage began again on 27 May 1859.
Between July 27 and December 12, 1859 202 $5 gold pieces were minted, although each coin bears the date "1860." From January 14, 1860 through March 8, 1861, 587 $5 gold coins were minted. They also bear the date of 1860 on each coin. Workmanship was excellent on these "1860" $5 gold pieces. No other gold coins of this era are more impressive, including those made at the United States Mint. Of this 789 gold coins 55 are known to exist today.
As communications improved, the coins and currency of the United States gradually became more plentiful throughout the Utah Territory. The need for a locally produced medium of exchange gradually diminished. On February 26, 1862, the official papers of the mint, together with some gold dust were placed in the custody of Brigham Young. The mint was closed, and the pioneer coinage of gold in the Salt Lake Valley was officially concluded.
The only gold Deseret coins known to exist today are shown below:
Coin Date Coin Denomination Number of Coins
1849 $2 1/2 43
1849 $5 71
1849 $10 10
1849 $20 21
1850 $5 54
1860 $5 55