While the 1892 Columbian Half Dollar is officially published as the nation'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 our 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 still thrive to this very day. San Francisco in particular, 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 - this all fueled the further development of California. All of these changes ultimately led to the admission of California into the Union as a state in 1850.
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 U.S. Commemorative Coin.” Only 1,389 coins were ever stuck, and only fractions 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 just over 100 times, and they have achieved grades from Good 6 to MS68. These days, an 1848 CAL Quarter Eagle in About Uncirculated 50 grade can be expected to bring around $40,000 at auction, with higher grade specimens easily exceeding six figures. One of the finest known examples graded MS-68 by NGC and was sold for $345,000 in January 2008. 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 these remarkable releases. If an 1848 CAL is on your wish list, it's best to focus on certified and graded coins only.