The Bechtler Legacy In American Numismatics
October 29, 2020
By Patrick A. Heller
In 1829, Christopher Bechtler and his son August left Baden, Germany, and emigrated to Philadelphia, where they opened a business as a goldsmith and watchmaker. In 1830, the family moved to Rutherfordton, in western North Carolina. At the time, Rutherfordton was the heart of the largest gold-producing area in the United States.
The U.S. Mint’s circulating coinage in that area was not sufficient to meet the needs of the local economy. Consequently, most transactions with western North Carolina merchants were paid with gold dust. The problem for the gold miners, to exchange gold dust for gold coins, was that the U.S. Mint was in Philadelphia. Miners would have to devote at least a week to travel there, deliver their dust to the U.S. Mint, wait for it to be assayed and converted into coins, then travel home. Obviously, while they traveled to and from Philadelphia, they would not be able to work their mines and earn income. Consequently, it was more practical for miners and the public to use gold dust as a medium of exchange in commerce.
In 1831, Christopher Bechtler expanded his local jewelry, watchmaking, and gunsmithing business by opening a private coining operation. He advertised in the North Carolina and Western Advertiser that he was prepared to coin $2.50 and $5 gold pieces for a fee. They also struck $1 gold pieces, 18 years before the first gold dollars were struck by the U.S. Mint.
The Bechtler private coinage proved so popular that within nine years Christopher and his son had minted nearly $2-1/4 million of gold pieces. The obvious benefit to miners was that they were located much closer than Philadelphia, meaning miners lost less production time to exchange their gold dust. The Bechtlers also had two other factors working in their favor—they were scrupulously honest and they undersold the Mint! Because Bechtler’s seigniorage fee was only 2.5 percent, their coins contained more gold in them than the U.S. Mint gold coins of the same face value!
Robert Maskell Patterson was U.S. Mint Director from 1835 to 1851. In one of his reports to a U.S. president he served, he commented that it must “be more advantageous to the miner to carry his bullion to the private rather than the public mint.”
In 1831, North Carolina merchants petitioned Congress for a branch U.S. mint to be established at Charlotte, N.C. It took three years for the Treasury Department to begin to study the issue. On March 3, 1835, Congress approved an act allocating $50,000 to purchase the land, erect a building, and acquire the machinery and equipment to establish the Charlotte Mint as the first branch Mint. The law also authorized mints to be established at Dahlonega, Ga., and New Orleans, La.
The U.S. Mint in Charlotte opened for business on July 27, 1837. At first, it only purchased and refined raw gold. It finally struck its first gold coins (this branch Mint only produced gold coins over its entire history) on March 28, 1838. It closed in 1861 after the start of the Civil War.
Even then, the Bechtlers continued to thrive, despite the competition from the nearby U.S. Mint. But, after Christopher Bechtler died in 1843, ownership of the coining operation passed to his nephew, also named Christopher Bechtler. Unfortunately, the new owner had less passion for the business. In addition, the discovery of gold in California in 1848 drew gold miners out west. The final Bechtler coins were struck in 1851.
However, because Bechtler gold coins were of reliable high-value gold content, they continued to trade readily in commerce in western North Carolina. They continued to be received at North Carolina banks at par with U.S. coinage up into the 1920s.
By the way, similar private gold coin production in America would not be legal today. When the Bechtlers were in operation, it was only illegal to “counterfeit” copper coins (though the prevalence of copper Hard Times tokens in the late 1830s and Civil War tokens in the early 1860s showed that government officials used common sense to facilitate commerce rather than crack down on these technically illegal issues). Private gold and silver coinage were not prohibited until the Coinage Act of April 22, 1864, though this law was not strictly enforced until 1883.