The First U.S. Commemorative?  A Gold Rush Treasure Story

Image courtesy of Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS)

While the 1892 Columbian Half Dollar is officially published as America’s first commemorative coin, there is another legendary issue that many argue is the true heir to this prestigious title:  The 1848 “CAL.” Gold Quarter Eagle

The reason for this claim? The 1848 Gold piece was minted from the very first gold sent east from the famous California Gold Rush, and each coin bears a special “CAL.” Stamp above the eagle as recognition of the pedigree and source of the gold.

Born in the Gold Fields of California

On January 28, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill near Coloma, California – and this single event ignited one of the most exciting times in the young nation’s history. People from all over the country, and indeed, the world, flooded into the gold fields of California and surrounding areas armed with rustic tools, a strong back, and the dream of striking it rich.  

Between 1848 and 1855 an estimated 300,000 people arrived in the California territory.  Settlements quickly sprung up, many of which would become cities which thrive to this very day. San Francisco became a boom town – eventually getting its own branch mint to strike coins from all the gold being mined from the surrounding countryside. Transportation also rapidly improved – including advancements in railroads and steamships – and this all fueled the further development of California.

All these changes ultimately led to the admission of California into the Union as a state in 1850 – only two years after the Sutter’s Mill discovery!

Gold Rush Gold Travels East

Less than a week after the original discovery at Sutter’s Mill, California’s military governor, Col. Richard B. Mason, ordered Lt. Lucien Loeser to immediately depart for Washington, D.C. carrying samples of the newly found California gold.  This first gold, packed in a tea caddy, made the long overland journey to the East coast, where it ultimately ended up at the Philadelphia Mint to be assayed (tested for purity.)  

After it was assayed, the Philadelphia Mint struck an estimated 1,389 gold Quarter Eagles ($2.50 denomination) made exclusively from this California gold.  To commemorate this event, the abbreviation “CAL.” was counter stamped into the surface of each coin – directly above the head of the eagle.   

A Legend Is Born

Because of this incredible pedigree and the commemorative nature of the CAL. designation, many argue that the 1848 CAL Gold Quarter Eagle truly deserves the honor of being called the First US Commemorative Coin.  

Only 1,389 coins were ever stuck, and only a fraction of that mintage have survived to this day.  The coin’s romantic story, great historical significance and scarce numbers have all served to make it incredibly popular and justifiably valuable.  

A review of the major grading services reveals that this gold treasure has been submitted for grading around 127 times, and they have achieved grades from Good 6 to MS68.  These days, an 1848 CAL Quarter Eagle in Mint State 60 grade is valued at around $130,000 – while the same coin in highest grade can be expected to bring $475,000 – $800,000 at auction. 

Buyer Beware!

Of course, as one might suspect, the nature of the CAL counter stamp and the high value of these rarities have led to many forgeries of this historically significant rarity over the decades.