It produced ‘Great Salt Lake City Pure Gold’ coins.
The Mormon pioneers ended their 1,300-mile exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, when they entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. They had been driven from New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois because of their religious beliefs, and now they had finally found religious freedom in the Utah wilderness. But the tough, resilient Utah settlers had to adapt to the hardships of building a new civilization completely from scratch in land that was under Mexican rule but was occupied by the Utes, Shoshones, Paiutes, Goshutes and Navajos.
Isolated from any nearby population centers, the western Mormons had to rely on their own devices. They had to construct their own houses, grow their own food and make their own furniture, clothes, candles and soap. Things they didn’t know how to do, they had to learn quickly. The first settlers lived in cramped covered wagons until they could get crude log cabins built before Utah’s bitter winter set in. There were no government or church welfare systems, no insurance, no hospitals or medical facilities and no stores of any kind. The settlers had no one to depend on but themselves and their neighbors; and the possibility of starvation through loss of crops to insects or weather always lurked in the shadows. Survival in an inhospitable desert environment was, obviously, the settlers’ chief concern. Once survival was assured, however, the next problem for them was how to achieve economic development in their new home.
The Pioneer Company, the first organized group of Mormons (or Latter-Day Saints) entering the Salt Lake Valley, led by the prophet Brigham Young, consisted of 143 hand-picked men, three women and two children. Leonard J. Arrington, noted Mormon historian, estimated that there was less than $1 per person in the entire company, and Brigham Young himself only had $50. That was the entire monetary supply of the Mormon Church, and money was desperately needed for trading within and outside the valley. The Pioneer Company and some 20,000 Mormons who later followed in their footsteps to what would later become Utah Territory, soon found themselves isolated and without adequate means with which to carry on local exchange. Having no choice but to conduct their business without money, the pioneers reverted to the ancient system of barter.
Brigham Young obtained a small supply of U.S. coins on a trip to the Missouri River area in 1847. Upon his return to Salt Lake City in 1848, he placed about $85 worth of those coins into circulation. A noted Mormon writer, Earl Hansen, compared releasing those coins to “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, who marched from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego during the Mexican War (1846- 48), returned to the Salt Lake Valley via the California gold fields. The gold they brought home somewhat relieved the cash situation, but it was difficult to weigh and exchange, causing waste and inconvenience. Church leaders decided to convert the gold dust into coins, and built a Salt Lake City mint.
While waiting for the mint’s dies and crucibles to be made, some of the gold dust and granules were weighed, wrapped in tissue paper and put in brown paper envelopes that were marked with the date and value and sealed with wax. The brown paper packages of gold varied in value from $1 to $20. That form of money was extremely cumbersome to use. It was difficult to carry, the packages deteriorated and traders could not make proper change. But it was better than no money at all in the state of Deseret, which included virtually all of modern Utah and Nevada and portions of neighboring states.
The Deseret Mint began operations in November 1848, with John Kay commissioned mint master. The $10 denomination was the first coin struck; only 25 were minted the first day. They sold at $10.50 each. No reason was given for the 50- cent premium; perhaps it was charged because of the coin’s novelty or to offset the cost of minting.
The second minting occurred just one week later, with only 21 pieces of the $10 denomination coined. Then the crucibles cracked and all operations ceased until September 1849, when the mint obtained new crucibles. Coins of four denominations—$2.50, $5, $10 and $20—were struck and dated 1849. Each coin was engraved with a symbol of friendship in the form of clasped hands and with the all-seeing eye, encircled by the phrase, “Holiness to the Lord.” The date and denomination accompanied the initials “GSLCPG,” abbreviating the words “Great Salt Lake City Pure Gold.”
Because the mint made no attempt to refine the gold before coinage, a coin’s actual worth was slightly below its stated value. Minted without alloy, the soft gold coins deteriorated rapidly. The mint added a small percentage of silver to increase the hardness of the next coins. The $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. These golden coins were of very high quality, especially considering the primitive minting equipment of the LDS Church. An 1849 $10 gold coin, no matter the condition, would probably fetch at least $80,000 today.
The Deseret Mint was commonly referred to as “the money mill.” It was a small adobe building on the north side of South Temple Street, just across the street from where the Salt Lake Temple now stands. The federal government created Utah Territory (about half the size of the state of Deseret) on September 9, 1850, but that did not mean the end of minting operations. 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, mint master, often carried the bars of gold home for safekeeping. There, his older daughters used them for building log cabin playhouses on the hearth.
Brigham Young’s most significant need met by minting gold coins was purchase of goods from large cities in the eastern United States. He wanted to coin gold of sufficient fineness and weight to qualify as a medium of exchange. Non-Mormon traders in the Salt Lake Valley such as Thomas L. “Peg-Leg” Smith also accepted the coins as payment for their various goods.
Historian Arrington said that the mint produced a possible $70,000 worth of gold coins from 1849 to 1851. It is not certain how many coins that included, possibly as many as 1,200 in all four denominations. The private mint was closed from June 19, 1851, to May 27, 1859, mainly because of the poor quality of gold. 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 are also dated 1860. Workmanship was excellent.
No other gold coins of the era were more impressive, not even those made at branches of the U.S. Mint. Of those 789 $5 gold coins, 55 are known to exist today. An 1860 $5 gold coin in any condition would bring about $5,000 today, while the same coin in good condition would bring about $20,000.
As communications improved and more settlers arrived in Utah, the coins and currency of the United States spread throughout the territory, and the need for a locally produced medium of exchange gradually diminished. On February 26, 1862, the official papers of the mint, together with some of the gold dust, were placed in Brigham Young’s custody. The mint was closed, and the pioneer coinage of gold in the Salt Lake Valley was officially concluded.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.