Augustus Humbert and the United States Assay Office1
Humbert as a Watch Case Manufacturer.
Augustus Humbert (AH2) was the son of a watch maker. Born in 1817 in Germany, Humbert and other family members emigrated to the United states in 1840 when the threat of war and political upheaval in the German States caused many to flee. The Humberts relocated from the German States to America, in this case New York City. Several Germanic jewelers and watch case makers also relocated to the United States, such as western assayers Harvey Harris and August Hemme.
Humbert was one of two close relatives with the same name born within approximately four years of each other. The other (AH1) became an Exchange Broker in New York, whose brother Pierre was an auctioneer for the Exchange. They were so close that the other’s mother came to live with the assayer’s son Augustus (AH3) in later years. Her name was Augustina.2 Importantly, the other Augustus Humbert (AH1, b1813, Switzerland) was the same man who later gave his coin collection to his brother Pierre (born 1814), whose mother was Augustina.3
By 1850, Humbert’s watch case manufacturing business in New York was successful. His wife Madlane4 (born in Switzerland) bore him four children, who in 1850 were Clara (age 10), Augustus (9), Alfred (8), and Henry (2). His son Augustus went on to fight in the Civil War.5 None of the family accompanied him on his trip West, nor came West later.6
The United States Assay Office is Born
The job of US Assayer was proposed in 1849-50, as were potential Branch Mints in Sacramento and San Francisco. California, however, had no legal status – it was neither a Territory nor a State – thus there was no specific political entity in charge.7 Californians organized anyway, in anticipation and preparation for Territorial status, but instead Congress and the Senate brought them in as the first Western state, without ever having gone through Territorial status.8 With the proposals for a mint and assay office in the West, Eastern politicians, green and ridiculously naive in the affairs of the West, immediately began posturing for new facilities in their districts. New York, always the heart of the American business system, felt that if a Mint or Assay Office was to be built, and if one was to be placed in California, there should be one in New York. There was a point to this. With so much gold coming in from California, a stepping stone in New York receiving gold from California would be a big help to the mother mint in Philadelphia.
US Mint Versus Privately Issued Gold Coins – The Copper Versus Silver Alloy Problem
Mint director Patterson had been acutely aware of the gold production of California, and was a believer in its continued production. He fully understood the implications of the huge amount of native gold coming into the Mint system and even more important, the “Big Picture” – which was that California gold was a natural mixture of gold and silver, alloyed at an average of about 887 fine gold to 113 fine of silver, with no copper. American gold coins were made of a constructed alloy of 90% gold, ten percent copper, after 1837. The exact weight of each denomination of gold coin contained exactly the weight of gold necessary to equate to the intrinsic value of gold in the coin compared to the face value, hence the weights of the coins were measured in grains, often to the tenth of a grain (480 grains to the troy ounce). By using copper as an alloy, the coins were hardened, allowing slower wear, and there was no added intrinsic value, since the amount of copper was minimal. Native California gold however, contained silver as a natural alloy. As an example, a one ounce coin contained 0.113 fine silver which was an added 13.6 cents, an amount ignored by all of the news media and complainers, who argued that California privately minted coins contained too little gold. A standard Mint US gold coin, with a constructed alloy of 900 fine gold and 100 fine copper, such as a $10 gold piece, contained 0.48375 troy ounces of gold, and at $20.67/ troy ounce9, each standard issue US gold $10 coin thus contained $10 in gold.
California private gold coin issues, however, such as the Moffat and USAO coins contained both gold and silver in that same specific ratio, thus the total gold and silver combined was important, a fact lost on the unknowledgeable public. Moffat did add copper to his alloy, thus it was not exactly natural as many maintained, but it was minimal. Moffat understood the difference, as did Mint Director Patterson, but the public just couldn’t grasp the concept and the difference between a constructed alloy with the intrinsic value strictly in the gold, versus the natural alloy from California which contained intrinsic value in both parts of the natural alloy. Moffat and Mint Director Patterson had told the public all along that it was nearly impossible to make the same exact alloy as the US standard gold coins because of the lack of acids and the ability to produce specific constructed alloys, as well as refined gold and silver in the West, where there were no facilities, hence the need for a Mint. While the science of constructed alloys was old, the public’s understanding of it was virtually nil, as evidenced by so many articles in the California and national press refuting California private gold coins as being “not worth their face value”, when in fact, they often exceeded face value when both the gold and silver content were taken into account.
Eckfeldt’s own account of the Moffat $10 coins included assays of four specimens – one in New Orleans and one at Philadelphia. Three of the four weighed 258 grains, and the fourth 259. Eckfeldt carefully reported the assays of the coins, but only calculated the value of the gold, not the real and actual intrinsic value of the coins. With calculations for the silver added, the value of the four Moffat coins assayed by the Mints was: $10.01, $9.99, $9.86 and $9.83. Eckfeldt offered no direct comparison of four independently assayed standard post-1837 US $10 gold coins.10 In Eckfeldt and Dubois’ own words:
The result was at first so surprising, that only a decided confirmation could satisfy us. It proves, what was not to be expected, that the establishment has gone to the pains and expense of partly refining out the silver from the native gold in order to the substitution of the other alloying metal.11
Plan Emerges for USAO in California
T. Butler King and Thomas Corwin, senator from California, had been fighting diligently in Congress for the Mint or Assay Office. Working with Mint Director Patterson, Mint Director since 1835 through multiple administrations, a well thought out plan was in place.12 But in the arena of Washington politics, all best laid plans are subject to destruction, and that’s exactly what happened. President Taylor died unexpectedly of cholera in 1850, and vice President Fillmore cleaned house when he took over, inclusive of the Mint Director, which effectively forced the California group start over. In many ways, it caused a two-year delay.13 This confusion led the new California Territorial Legislature to form the California State Assay Office, headed by O. P. Sutton as Director with F. D. Kohler as State Assayer. This entity was specifically formed in the absence of a Federal coining or assaying facility, and was slated to be dissolved as soon as one was created.14
After long and serious discussions in Congress, all laid out plainly in the Congressional Globe, Augustus Humbert was appointed as the US Assayer in California. T. Butler King and Moffat went to New York to escort Humbert to California. No correspondence has yet been located regarding the hiring of Humbert, or his views on the subject.15 The decision by Humbert to take the California job was costly. His wife and family did not come with him to California. This was perhaps not unexpected, since California was a complete unknown to those who were used to living in a metropolitan area, and California was the exact opposite – a land of unknowns with a difficult life ahead.16
An Assayer is Chosen
Humbert was perhaps the third choice for the new post of United States Assayer. The first choice was the first Dahlonega Mint Assayer, Joseph Farnum. Farnum appears to have been the first assayer to make it to California in 1848, and the first to open shop in San Francisco, though he didn’t last long there. He was quickly appointed by the British Mint to oversee parts of their operations, and took that job with vigor.17 Farnum recommended Moffat to Mint Director Patterson as the head of the USAO. Farnum knew John Little Moffat from his Dahlonega days. Moffat was an important gold merchant and miner involved with New York bankers (and jewelers) Wm. Wilmarth and Joseph Curtis. This partnership, formed in the mid 1830’s, proved pivotal in the future development of the US Assay Office and the California gold trading business in general, which Moffat and Curtis were clearly at the helm in the overall developmental process.18
Moffat, however, had little lust for a political appointment, and had even less gumption to put up with the political antics of Washington, of which he was well experienced. A younger man needed to fill the position. Moffat was already at the top of the game in California, had no long-term ambitions to a political career or a career with the US Mint. The Washington political system that controlled the Mint was far too slow moving for Moffat, and it was already he who was directing all the gold traffic in California. The tough job was keeping up with Moffat, and the Mint followed him, his recommendations, and ultimately purchased Moffat’s entire assaying and pioneer coinage operation. The USAO refitted it and opened the first Mint west of the Mississippi in San Francisco in 1854.
Humbert Arrives in California
Humbert left New York for California in the fall of 1850 accompanied by T. Butler King and John Moffat. The trio must have spent the time well in the discussion of the duties and all aspects of the business. Moffat was incredibly experienced, and Humbert’s attention to Moffat’s discussions of procedures as well as the political scene must have been exhilarating. They crossed the isthmus at Panama in relative ease, loaded on board the SS Tennessee in the evening of December 12, 1850, arriving at the Port of San Francisco on January 8, 1851, as reported January 11 in the Daily Alta California. Humbert, Moffat and King “experienced pleasant weather during the voyage”, according to the Alta California. Little did the trio know, that luck was with them. Built in October, 1848 for the Savannah Steam Navigation Company, the 1275 ton steamer originally was used for transport between New York and Savannah. But with the gold rush at hand, she was purchased by Howland and Aspinwall of the Pacific Mail Steam Ship Co. and became the first steam ship whose service was interrupted to run the Panama-San Francisco route. She set to sea for Panama December 23, 1849 from New York, never to return again. She reached Panama on March 12, 1850, only to encounter a crowd of a reported 3000 people desperate for the trip to San Francisco. Humbert et al may have been about the third trip from Panama to San Francisco, but just 2.5 years later, after perhaps ten trips between SF and Panama, the SS Tennessee sank in the fog near the headlands of San Francisco Bay at a place now known as Tennessee Cove. All the passengers were saved.The only known view of the USAO in San Francisco, found as an illustrated lettersheet used by Humbert in his correspondence to the Treasury and Mint Director. NARA.
Production of the $50 Ingots Begins
Humbert, Moffat, Kellogg, Curtis, Perry and Ward hit the ground running. John G. Kellogg, educated as a lawyer, had acquired the contract for the US Assay Office for the company, and Humbert spent the next week in complete immersion in the business.19 It was speculated by Edgar Adams in 191320 that the dies for the USAO $50 slugs were made in New York by C.C. Wright based upon the occurrence of his name on one of the lettered edge pattern $50 coins, which unfortunately has no solid pedigree back to 1851, but does date back to the sale of the Bushnell Collection in 1882.21 Moffat used his in-house, and later contract engraver Albrecht Kuner to make the dies for his $5 and $10 gold coins. Adams had access to Kuner’s personal copy of Eckfeldt’s epic work with illustrations of many of the California private coins with hand written pencil notations next to the coins that he designed, and he reported no notations next to the $50 slug.22 Kuner’s own handwritten autobiography also does not mention him designing the $50 slug, thus the conclusion of Adams is probably correct.
Within ten days of Humbert’s arrival in San Francisco in 1851, Moffat announced as early as January 22 that they (USAO) would be open for business on or before February 1. Humbert’s two week intense training session matched those given at the US Mint given to newly appointed Branch Mint assayers. Moffat and his staff must have felt the session was a success. The dies were made before January 31, 1851, since their existence was reported in the Pacific News on Feb. 1st.23 Undoubtedly, Moffat & Co. had prepared for the striking of the $50 slugs and made the planchets well in advance. It is equally probable that about this time, the company began striking the $50 slugs, which were released on February 20, 1851, when it was reported that “about 300 coins” had been made.24 The advance striking of the slugs is certain because of the appearance of a detailed line drawing of a slug in the San Francisco Prices Current of Feb. 14, 1851, a full week before their public release.
Moffat & Co. normally would have sent at least two of the first coins to Mint Director Patterson, ostensibly for assay and inspection. At the present time, research at the Smithsonian in the National Collection has not shown that one of these original coins still exists, and if it still retains the pedigree. The reason this is important is because the physical description of the first coins struck as printed in the Alta California on Feb. 21, 1851 differs slightly, yet importantly, from the pictured example published Feb. 14th in San Francisco’s Prices Current lettersheet. The pictured example from Feb. 14, 1851 is of an octagonal slug bearing “887 fine” in the flag, with an eagle underlain by a punched “50” followed by the letters “D C.” (note the placement of the period.) The Feb. 21, 1851 Alta California description differs in the denomination setting only, including the punching of a “50” in the middle on the reverse. Here the description of the obverse calls for “50 Dolls”, as opposed to “50 D C.” This is a substantial difference because that specific denominational wording was later used on the non-lettered edge slugs where the dates of the coins were placed on the obverse, instead of hand punched on the edges as in the case of the lettered edge coins placed in circulation in February, 1851. No coins are known today, inclusive of patterns, that meet the description of the written example in the Daily Alta of Feb. 21, 1851. The possibility does exist that a pattern of this nature was the coin shown to the Alta reporter, while in fact the production of the 300 coins was entirely of the kind shown in Prices Current, Feb. 14th.25 Certainly these are the coins that survive today.
These coins are thus the first produced for regular use out of the USAO in San Francisco. Only recently have we begun to compare examples of the surviving population, and research today now shows that these coins were not completely uniform in how their edges were character and gang punched. For starters, it might be surmised that the “D C.” stood for dollars and cents, and that it was anticipated that the planchets might not be equal in size and weight, hence the placement of “C” so that the uneven dollar increment could be formally recorded if the weight was off. There are no known examples with any cents recorded, so it must be assumed Moffat & Co. had tight control over the planchets.
The hand lettering of the edges was another issue. This was no simple task. The coins had to be placed in a vice of sorts, with an even pressure applied to the punches, inclusive of gang punches, and emplaced in such a manner as to not alter the flat surface of the coin overall by pounding the punches too hard. The necessity of preparing these in abundance in anticipation of their release on Feb. 21 caused a hurried schedule, and mistakes were made. An example of this was in a recent Stacks-Bowers New York sale, lot 7546.26 Since these early produced slugs were handmade, it makes sense that the mistakes are inconsistent, and through time, it is expected that other mistakes will be known such that a larger study group may emerge. Kagin’s Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States also notes two other mistakes.27 A list of the known errors in edge lettering can be found at the end of this article with attendant notes.
More research is needed to ascertain when the dies were made to reflect the necessary changes. That study is beyond the scope of this paper.
Adams incorrectly reported that “there are no records to show the number of pieces of coin issued by the USAO.” This comment was made in response to his efforts to research the Assay Office, which were monumental at the time. But it became clear during the course of research for this paper, that the physical reports of production sent to the Mint by Moffat and Humbert were split from the cover letters at the time of filing, such that the letters remained in the files of the Treasury Department and the production reports were physically separated at the time of receipt, and sent to the Mint Director in Philadelphia. This is a major new discovery, as were the many letters from Humbert found in NARA, College Park that Adams did not see or quote.28
Acceptability of the USAO $50 Ingots
Moffat’s $5 and $10 coins were so well received by the public that no one questioned the purity of the new $50 ingot (coin). The written illustration about the purity of the Moffat coins given earlier in this paper shows why the $50s were so well accepted immediately. But, contrary to what the Government wanted in a circulating currency that could be used to pay Duties, the populace still wanted, needed and demanded smaller denominations of gold coins for average daily transactions. Not everyone had to pay Duties at the Port of San Francisco, and a circulating currency for daily business commerce was mandatory. The $50 became a burdensome currency for the average man. In a letter from merchant W. E. L. Foote dated 31 October 1851, whose business was on California Street in San Francisco, to F. L. Foote in New York, the stress on the average merchant is easily explained:
Gold dust is very scarce now and difficult to buy on account of the scarcity of small gold coin, and miners not being willing to take the $50 pieces of the US Assay Office. Said pieces are 2% discount now on account of the scarcity of gold coin.29
Changing the $50 ingots into spendable amounts was costly. Many reports of discounts up to 4% were published in San Francisco newspapers. Thus is often cost a merchant, miner or businessman $2 to change a $50 gold ingot.
Humbert and the USAO Turn Over the Business to the Mint
Humbert left the USAO when the office closed upon the sale of the USAO building and equipment to the US Mint December 14, 1853. Five days later, Kellogg announced a partnership with Richter in the new firm of Kellogg & Co. and immediately began production of a reported $6 million in Kellogg & Co. $20 gold coins.30
After Richter retired from the firm a year later, Kellogg partnered with Humbert. The pair became the most prolific gold bullion producers in California, often out producing the Mint. Many of these gold ingots survive today because of the recovery of the wreck of the SS Central America. They also made a number of private gold coins for circulation in California, since the Mint was unable to meet public demand for smaller coinage.
Humbert retired from the Kellogg-Humbert partnership in April, 1860. On June 5th, another Augustus Humbert left California for New York onboard the Golden Age, arriving in New York on June 27. The reported age for this Augustus was 27, which does not correlate to any of the three historically identifiable Augustus Humbert’s, thus the conclusion the age was misinterpreted, or it was a different person altogether. Assayer Humbert’s son lived in New York after 1860, and enlisted in the Union Army sometime later.31
The $50 USAO Ingot – A US Coin or Not?
A critical political issue in 1851 and 1852 was whether or not the USAO $50 coin was an official US issued coin. It was originally considered legal tender, as it was accepted at the US Customs office in San Francisco in the payment of Duties. Politicians, however, changed its status over time, rejecting the official status, thus demonetizing the coin, which in turn threw the western financial market into crisis. This key issue may be the most important reason Moffat left the USAO and retired from the entire coining and assayer business. Research for this paper, however, sheds new light on exactly what the Government thought about the coin, and hence how they classified it in reality, outside of the political maelstrom created when President Taylor died and President Fillmore took office. The evidence is clear in the manner in which the records for the USAO were filed, which took place at the time on an up to date, annual basis. The records for the USAO were filed with the records of the Mint director along with and adjacent to the reports of the Branch Mints. Thus the Government itself considered the USAO $50 gold coin a regular issue gold coin. If it were not a regular issue coin, the records would have been placed away and apart from the US Branch Mint records in a separate Treasury file, and they were not.
The US Assay office $50 is thus, and must have been considered a regular issue coin by the Federal Government in 1851. Numismatists have also questioned whether the coin is a “regular issue.” This question is more complicated because the pieces issued by the USAO are unique in the span of the entire Federal coinage series, and are not part of “regular” issues from the US Mint or Branch Mints. The USAO coins were, however, a replacement for this exact regular coinage series – indeed an inventive interim coinage series – made as useful circulating currency (specie) until such time that the US Mint could construct and issue their own coins. It was a unique time in the history of the US Mint system, and calculated steps were taken by the Federal Government to provide a circulating currency in California at a time when it was desperately needed.
The older Augustus (AH1), Pierre’s brother, died in Paris in 1873. He went back and forth from New York to Europe at least three times after 1860, as evidenced by passport records. He collected coins, undoubtedly some of which came from his close relative (first cousin?), assayer Humbert (AH2). These coins, minus a few sold privately previously, came up for sale in a May, 1902 sale for SH & H Chapman in New York.
No further records of assayer Augustus Humbert have been located, and more research is necessary. He may have returned to Germany and met his family there, taking a different route than through New York.
Chart of Known Errors in Lettered Edge Slugs
The following chart of error slugs has been kindly provided by Dr. Don Kagin, and is from his upcoming revised Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States. The notes and observations found after the chart are my own independent observations (FH).
Note 1. The flat edge of the coin is convex, not allowing the application of the outside two letters of the gang punch . The outwardly curved surface of the edge created from the over-pressure of die-striking of the central obverse and reverse patterns did not allow for the uniform striking of the edge from a lengthy gang punch.
Note 2. The zero is missing possibly because of a convex edge, or was an uneven strike by the person (ostensibly Humbert) striking the gang punch onto the edge.
Note 3. “Gradeflation” has caused many coins to be regraded and reholdered by the two primary independent grading services. Additionally, many coins have had their surfaces cleaned, curated, or had the application of modern substances to the surface of the coins to enhance their eye appeal. This could result in a coin being regraded as many as three times or more, which would adversely affect the population study by reporting the same coin as three different pieces, when in fact, it is one single piece. It is unknown if this chart reflects these anomalies.
Note 4. A legitimate mistake by the person striking the gang punch (Humbert). It might be argued this mistake is from some of the first coins produced before there was a level of comfort in the edge striking process.